Years later, in 1984, I read Michel Foucault's Herculine Barbin: Memoir of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite.
Foucault discovered the memoir in the French Department of Public Hygiene. On the face of it, Herculine's life story was an amazing one. A teenager at a French convent school, Herculine fell in love with her best friend. They began a love affair, which was eventually discovered by the school authorities. Doctors examined Herculine and declared her to be a man. It was the love story at the center of this memoir—a love story between two girls where one girl isn't exactly a girl—that most intrigued me. I expected the memoir to be fascinating, wildly dramatic, as well as revelatory about experiences I myself had no clue about. Unfortunately, Herculine Barbin wrote very much like the convent schoolgirl she was. Her prose is melodramatic, sentimental. She's evasive about her anatomical details and unable—or unwilling—to describe her emotional states without resorting to platitudes or histrionics. The memoir frustrated my readerly expectations. I thought to myself, rather hubristically, that I'd like to write the story myself.
It was another 10 years before I gave it a try. Originally, I planned to write a short, fictional autobiography of a hermaphrodite
. Hermaphrodites in literature have tended to be mythological or fanciful creations. Tiresias has the power to tell the future. Virginia Woolf's Orlando changes sex over the course of a tricky paragraph or two. I didn't want to write about a myth. I wanted to write about a real person. I wanted to be as accurate as I could be about the biological and medical facts. And so I spent a lot of time those first months in the medical library at Columbia. It was there that I came across the condition I use in Middlesex
, 5-alpha-reducatse deficiency syndrome. The salient fact about this condition is that it's caused by a recessive genetic mutation. Populations who have the mutation tend to be isolated, often inbred. When I learned that, I began to think about the book in a different way. I no longer wanted to write merely a fictional autobiography of a hermaphrodite but a longer book—a comic epic—that would trace the transmigrations of a genetic mutation down though the bloodlines of a single family. The book would be told by the final inheritor of this gene, but it would encompass many things aside from this sexual metamorphosis. It would concern all kinds of transformations, national, racial, emotional, intellectual—you name it.