From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.
My parents had at first refused to believe the emergency room doctor’s wild claim about my anatomy. The diagnosis, delivered over the phone to a largely uncomprehending Milton and then bowdlerized by him for Tessie’s benefit, amounted to a vague concern about the formation of my urinary tract along with a possible hormonal deficiency. The doctor in Petoskey hadn’t performed a karyotype. His job was to treat my concussion and contusions, and when he was done with that, he let me go.
My parents wanted a second opinion. At Milton’s insistence I had been taken one last time to see Dr. Phil.
In 1974, Dr. Nishan Philobosian was eighty-eight years old. He still wore a bow tie, but his neck no longer filled out the collar of his shirt. He was reduced in all his parts, freeze-dried. Nevertheless, green golf slacks extended from the hem of his white coat and a pair of tinted aviator-style glasses gripped his hairless head.
“Hello, Callie, how are you?”
“Fine, Dr. Phil.”
“Starting school again? What grade are you in now?”
“I’ll be in ninth this year. High school.”
“High school? Already? I must be getting old.”
His courtly manner was no different than it had ever been. The foreign sounds he still made, the evidence of the Old World in his teeth, put me somewhat at ease. All my life dignified foreigners had petted and pampered me. I was a sucker for the soft-handed Levantine affections. As a little girl I had sat on Dr. Philobosian’s knee while his fingers climbed my spinal column, counting off the vertebrae. Now I was taller than he was, gangly, freak-haired, a Tiny Tim of a girl, sitting in gown, bra, and underpants on the edge of an old-fashioned medical table with step-drawers of vulcanized rubber. He listened to my heart and lungs, his bald head dipping on the long neck like that of a brontosaurus, sampling leaves.
“How’s your father, Callie?”
“How’s the hot dog business?”
“How many hot dog places your dad has now?”
“Like fifty or something.”
“There’s one not too far from where Nurse Rosalee and I go in the winter. Pompano Beach.”
He examined my eyes and ears and then politely asked me to stand and lower my underpants. Fifty years earlier, Dr. Philobosian had made his living treating Ottoman ladies in Smyrna. Propriety was an old habit with him.
My mind was not fuzzy, as it had been up in Petoskey. I was fully aware of what was happening and where the focus of medical scrutiny lay. After I had pulled my panties down to my knees, a hot wave of embarrassment swept through me and by reflex I covered myself with my hand. Dr. Philobosian, not entirely gently, moved this aside. There was something of the impatience of the old in this. He forgot himself momentarily, and behind his aviator lenses his eyes glared. Still, he didn’t look down at me. He gazed gallantly off at the far wall while feeling for information with his hands. We were as close as dancing. Dr. Phil’s breathing was noisy; his hands shook. I glanced down myself only once. My embarrassment had retracted me. From my angle I was a girl again, white belly, dark triangle, foreshortened legs shaved smooth. My brassiere was bandoliered across my chest.
It took only a minute. The old Armenian, crouching, lizard-backed, ran his yellowed fingers over my parts. It was no surprise that Dr. Philobosian had never noticed anything. Even now, alerted to the possibility, he didn’t seem to want to know.
“You can get dressed now,” was all he said. He turned and walked very carefully to the sink. He turned on the water and thrust his hands into the stream. They seemed to be trembling more than ever. Liberally he squirted out the antibacterial soap. “Say hello to your dad,” he said before I left the room.
Dr. Phil referred me to an endocrinologist at Henry Ford Hospital. The endocrinologist tapped a vein in my arm, filling an alarming number of vials with my blood. Why all this blood was needed he didn’t say. I was too frightened to ask. That night, however, I put my ear to my bedroom wall in hopes of finding out what was going on. “So what did the doctor say?” Milton was asking. “He said Dr. Phil should have noticed when Callie was born,” Tessie answered. “This whole thing could have been fixed back then.” And then Milton again: “I can’t believe he’d miss something like that.” (“Like what?” I silently asked the wall, but it didn’t specify.)
Three days later we arrived in New York.
Milton had booked us into a hotel called the Lochmoor in the East Thirties. He had stayed there twenty-three years earlier as a navy ensign. Always a thrifty traveler, Milton was also encouraged by the room rates. Our stay in New York was open-ended. The doctor Milton had spoken to—the specialist—refused to discuss details before he’d had a chance to examine me. “You’ll like it,” Milton assured us. “It’s pretty swank, as I remember.”
It was not. We arrived from La Guardia in a taxi to find the Lochmoor fallen from its former glory. The desk clerk and cashier worked behind bulletproof glass. The Viennese carpeting was wet beneath the dripping radiators and the mirrors had been removed, leaving ghostly rectangles of plaster and ornamental screws. The elevator was prewar, with gilded, curving bars like a birdcage. Once upon a time, there had been an operator; no longer. We crammed our suitcases into the small space and I slid the gate closed. It kept coming off its track. I had to do it three times before the electrical current would flow. Finally the contraption rose and through the spray-painted bars we watched the floors pass by, each dim and identical except for the variation of a maid in uniform, or a room service tray outside a door, or a pair of shoes. Still, there was a feeling of ascension in that old box, of rising up out of a pit, and it was a letdown to get to our floor, number eight, and find it just as drab as the lobby.
Our room had been carved out of a once-bigger suite. Now the angles of the walls were skewed. Even Tessie, pint-sized, felt constricted. For some reason the bathroom was nearly as large as the bedroom. The toilet stood stranded on loose tiles and ran continuously. The tub had a skid mark where the water drained out.
There was a queen-size bed for my parents and, in the corner, a cot set up for me. I hauled my suitcase up onto it. My suitcase was a bone of contention between Tessie and me. She had picked it out for me before our trip to Turkey. It had a floral pattern of turquoise and green blossoms which I found hideous. Since going off to private school—and hanging around the Object—my tastes had been changing, becoming refined, I thought. Poor Tessie no longer knew what to buy me. Anything she chose was greeted by wails of horror. I was adamantly opposed to anything synthetic or with visible stitching. My parents found my new urge for purity amusing. Often my father would rub my shirt between his thumb and fingers and ask, “Is this preppy?”
With the suitcase Tessie had had no time to consult me, and so there it was, bearing a design like a place mat’s. Unzipping the suitcase and flipping it open, I felt better. Inside were all the clothes I’d chosen myself: the crew neck sweaters in primary colors, the Lacoste shirts, the wide-wale corduroys. My coat was from Papagallo, lime green with horn-shaped buttons made from bone.
“Do we have to unpack or can we leave everything in our suitcases?” I asked.
“We better unpack and put our suitcases in the closet,” Milton answered. “Give us a little more room in here.”
I put my sweaters neatly in the dresser drawers, my socks and underpants, too, and hung my pants up. I took my toiletry case into the bathroom and put it on the shelf. I had brought lip gloss and perfume with me. I wasn’t certain that they were obsolete.
I closed the bathroom door, locked it, and bent close to the mirror to examine my face. Two dark hairs, still short, were visible above my upper lip. I got tweezers out of my case and plucked them. This made my eyes water. My clothes felt tight. The sleeves of my sweater were too short. I combed my hair and, optimistically, desperately, smiled at myself.
I knew that my situation, whatever it was, was a crisis of some kind. I could tell that from my parents’ false, cheery behavior and from our speedy exit from home. Still, no one had said a word to me yet. Milton and Tessie were treating me exactly as they always had—as their daughter, in other words. They acted as though my problem was medical and therefore fixable. So I began to hope so, too. Like a person with a terminal illness, I was eager to ignore the immediate symptoms, hoping for a last-minute cure. I veered back and forth between hope and its opposite, a growing certainty that something terrible was wrong with me. But nothing made me more desperate than looking in the mirror.
I opened the door and stepped back into the room. “I hate this hotel,” I said. “It’s gross.”
“It’s not too nice,” Tessie agreed.
“It used to be nicer,” said Milton. “I don’t understand what happened.”
“The carpet smells.”
“Let’s open a window.”
“Maybe we won’t have to be here that long,” Tessie said, hopefully, wearily.
In the evening we ventured outside, looking for something to eat, and then returned to the room to watch TV. Later, after we switched off the lights, I asked from my cot, “What are we doing tomorrow?”
“After that we have to see about some Broadway tickets,” said Milton. “What do you want to see, Cal?”
“I don’t care,” I said gloomily.
“I think we should see a musical,” said Tessie.
“I saw Ethel Merman inMame once,” Milton recalled. “She came down this big, long staircase, singing. When she finished, the place went wild. She stopped the show. So she just went right back up the staircase and sang the song over again.”
“Would you like to see a musical, Callie?”
“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” said Milton. “That Ethel Merman can really belt it out.”
No one spoke after that. We lay in the dark, in our strange beds, until we fell asleep.
The next morning after breakfast we set off to see the specialist. My parents tried to seem excited as we left the hotel, pointing out sights from the taxi window. Milton exuded the boisterousness he reserved for all difficult situations. “This is some place,” he said as we drove up to New York Hospital. “River view! I might just check myself in.”
Like any teenager, I was largely oblivious to the clumsy figure I cut. My stork movements, my flapping arms, my long legs kicking out my undersized feet in their fawn-colored Wallabees—all that machinery clanked beneath the observation tower of my head, and I was too close to see it. My parents did. It pained them to watch me advance across the sidewalk toward the hospital entrance. It was terrifying to see your child in the grip of unknown forces. For a year now they had been denying how I was changing, putting it down to the awkward age. “She’ll grow out of it,” Milton was always telling my mother. But now they were seized with a fear that I was growing out of control.
We found the elevator and rode up to the fourth floor, then followed the arrows to something called the Psychohormonal Unit. Milton had the office number written out on a card. Finally we found the right room. The gray door was unmarked except for an extremely small, unobtrusive sign halfway down that read:
Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic
If my parents saw the sign, they pretended not to. Milton lowered his head, bull-like, and pushed the door open.
The receptionist welcomed us and told us to have a seat. The waiting room was unexceptional. Chairs lined the walls, divided evenly by magazine tables, and there was the usual rubber tree expiring in the corner. The carpeting was institutional, with a hectic, stain-camouflaging pattern. There was even a reassuringly medicinal smell in the air. After my mother filled out the insurance forms, we were shown into the doctor’s office. This, too, inspired confidence. An Eames chair stood behind the desk. By the window was a Le Corbusier chaise, made of chrome and cowhide. The bookshelves were filled with medical books and journals and the walls tastefully hung with art. Big-city sophistication attuned to a European sensibility. The surround of a triumphant psychoanalytic world-view. Not to mention the East River view out the windows. We were a long way from Dr. Phil’s office with its amateur oils and Medicaid cases.
It was two or three minutes before we noticed anything out of the ordinary. At first the curios and etchings had blended in with the scholarly clutter of the office. But as we sat waiting for the doctor, we became aware of a silent commotion all around us. It was like staring at the ground and realizing, suddenly, that it is swarming with ants. The restful doctor’s office was churning with activity. The paperweight on his desk, for instance, was not a simple, inert rock but a tiny priapus carved from stone. The miniatures on the walls revealed their subject matter under closer observation. Beneath yellow silk tents, on paisley pillows, Mughal princes acrobatically copulated with multiple partners, keeping their turbans in place. Tessie blushed, looking; while Milton squinted; and I hid inside my hair as usual. We tried to look someplace else and so looked at the bookshelves. But here it wasn’t safe either. Amid a dulling surround of issues ofJAMA andThe New England Journal of Medicine were some eye-popping titles. One, with entwining snakes on the spine, was calledErotosexual Pair Bonding.There was a purple, pamphlety thing entitledRitualized Homosexuality: Three Field Studies. On the desk itself, with a bookmark in it, was a manual calledHap-Penis: Surgical Techniques in Female-to-Male Sex Reassignment. If the sign on the front door hadn’t already, Luce’s office made it clear just what kind of specialist my parents had brought me to see. (And, worse, to see me.) There were sculptures, too. Reproductions from the temple at Kujaraho occupied corners of the room along with huge jade plants. Against the waxy green foliage, melon-breasted Hindu women bent over double, offering up orifices like prayers to the well-endowed men who answered them. An overloaded switchboard, a dirty game of Twister everywhere you turned.
“Will you look at this place?” Tessie whispered.
“Sort of unusual decor,” said Milton.
And I: “What are we doing here?”
It was right then that the door opened and Dr. Luce presented himself.
At that stage, I didn’t know about his glamour status in the field. I had no idea of the frequency with which Luce’s name appeared in the relevant journals and papers. But I saw right away that Luce wasn’t your normal-looking doctor. Instead of a medical coat he wore a suede vest with fringe. Silver hair touched the collar of his beige turtleneck. His pants were flared and on his feet were a pair of ankle boots with zippers on the sides. He had eyeglasses, too, silver wire-rims, and a gray mustache.
“Welcome to New York,” he said. “I’m Dr. Luce.” He shook my father’s hand, then my mother’s, and finally came to me. “You must be Calliope.” He was smiling, relaxed. “Let’s see if I can remember my mythology. Calliope was one of the Muses, right?”
“In charge of what?”
“You can’t beat that,” said Luce. He was trying to act casual, but I could see he was excited. I was an extraordinary case, after all. He was taking his time, savoring me. To a scientist like Luce I was nothing less than a sexual or genetic Kaspar Hauser. There he was, a famous sexologist, a guest onDick Cavett , a regular contributor toPlayboy , and suddenly on his doorstep, arriving out of the woods of Detroit like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, was me, Calliope Stephanides, age fourteen. I was a living experiment dressed in white corduroys and a Fair Isle sweater. This sweater, pale yellow, with a floral wreath at the neck, told Luce that I refuted nature in just the way his theory predicted. He must have hardly been able to contain himself, meeting me. He was a brilliant, charming, work-obsessed man, and watched me from behind his desk with keen eyes. While he chatted, speaking primarily to my parents, gaining their confidence, Luce was nevertheless making mental notes. He registered my tenor voice. He noted that I sat with one leg tucked under me. He watched how I examined my nails, curling my fingers into my palm. He paid attention to the way I coughed, laughed, scratched my head, spoke; in sum, all the external manifestations of what he called my gender identity.
He kept up the calm manner, as if I had come to the Clinic with nothing more than a sprained ankle. “The first thing I’d like to do is give Calliope a short examination. If you’d care to wait here in my office, Mr. and Mrs. Stephanides.” He stood up. “Would you come with me please, Calliope?”
I got up from my chair. Luce watched as the various segments, like those of a collapsible ruler, unfolded themselves, and I attained my full height, an inch taller than he was himself.
“We’ll be right here, honey,” Tessie said.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Milton.
Peter Luce was considered the world’s leading authority on human hermaphroditism. The Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic, which he founded in 1968, had become the foremost facility in the world for the study and treatment of conditions of ambiguous gender. He was the author of a major sexological work,The Oracular Vulva, which was standard in a variety of disciplines ranging from genetics and pediatrics to psychology. He had written a column by the same name forPlayboy from August 1972 to December 1973 in which the conceit was that a personified and all-knowing female pudendum answered the queries of male readers with witty and sometimes sibylline responses. Hugh Hefner had come across Peter Luce’s name in the papers in connection with a demonstration for sexual freedom. Six Columbia students had staged an orgy in a tent on the main green, which the cops broke up, and when asked what he thought about such activity on campus, Prof. Peter Luce, 46, had been quoted as saying, “I’m in favor of orgies wherever they happen.” That caught Hef’s eye. Not wanting to replicate Xaviera Hollander’s “Call Me Madam” column inPenthouse , Hefner saw Luce’s contribution as being devoted to the scientific and historical side of sex. Thus, in her first three issues, the Oracular Vulva delivered disquisitions on the erotic art of the Japanese painter Hiroshi Yamamoto, the epidemiology of syphilis, and the sex life of St. Augustine. The column proved popular, though intelligent queries were always hard to come by, the readership being more interested in the “Playboy Advisor” ‘s cunnilingus tips or remedies for premature ejaculation. Finally, Hefner told Luce to write his own questions, which he was only too glad to do.
Peter Luce had appeared onPhil Donahue along with two hermaphrodites and a transsexual to discuss both the medical and psychological aspects of these conditions. On that program, Phil Donahue said, “Lynn Harris was born and raised a girl. You won the Miss Newport Beach Contest in 1964 in good old Orange County, California? Boy, wait till they hear this. You lived as a woman to the age of twenty-nine and then you switched to living as a man. He has the anatomical characteristics of both a man and a woman. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.”
He also said, “Here’s what’s not so funny. These live, irreplaceable sons and daughters of God, human beings all, want you to know, among other things, that that’s exactly what they are, human beings.”
Because of certain genetic and hormonal conditions, it was sometimes very difficult to determine the sex of a newborn baby. Confronted with such a child, the Spartans had left the infant on a rocky hillside to die. Luce’s own forebears, the English, didn’t even like to mention the subject, and might never have done so had the nuisance of mysterious genitalia not thrown a wrench into the smooth workings of inheritance law. Lord Coke, the great British jurist of the seventeenth century, tried to clear up the matter of who would get the landed estates by declaring that a person should “be either male or female, and it shall succeed according to the kind of sex which doth prevail.” Of course, he didn’t specify any precise method for determining which sexdid prevail. For most of the twentieth century, medicine had been using the same primitive diagnostic criterion of sex formulated by Klebs way back in 1876. Klebs had maintained that a person’s gonads determined sex. In cases of ambiguous gender, you looked at the gonadal tissue under the microscope. If it was testicular, the person was male; if ovarian, female. The hunch here was that a person’s gonads would orchestrate sexual development, especially at puberty. But it turned out to be more complicated than that. Klebs had begun the task, but the world had to wait another hundred years for Peter Luce to come along and finish it.
In 1955, Luce published an article called “Many Roads Lead to Rome: Sexual Concepts of Human Hermaphroditism.” In twenty-five pages of forthright, high-toned prose, Luce argued that gender is determined by a variety of influences: chromosomal sex; gonadal sex; hormones; internal genital structures; external genitals; and, most important, the sex of rearing. Drawing on studies of patients at the pediatric endocrine clinic at New York Hospital, Luce was able to compile charts demonstrating how these various factors came into play, and showing that a patient’s gonadal sex often didn’t determine his or her gender identity. The article made a big splash. Within months, pretty much everyone had given up Klebs’s criterion for Luce’s criteria.
On the strength of this success, Luce was given the opportunity to open the Psychohormonal Unit at New York Hospital. In those days he saw mostly kids with adrenogenital syndrome, the most common form of female hermaphroditism. The hormone cortisol, recently synthesized in the lab, had been found to arrest the virilization these girls normally underwent, allowing them to develop as normal females. The endocrinologists administered the cortisol and Luce oversaw the girls’ psychosexual development. He learned a lot. In a decade of solid, original research, Luce made his second great discovery: that gender identity is established very early on in life, about the age of two. Gender was like a native tongue; it didn’t exist before birth but was imprinted in the brain during childhood, never disappearing. Children learn to speak Male or Female the way they learn to speak English or French.
He published this theory in 1967, in an article in theThe New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Early Establishment of Gender Identity: The Terminal Twos.” After that, his reputation reached the stratosphere. The funding flowed in, from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the N.I.S. It was a great time to be a sexologist. The Sexual Revolution provided new opportunities for the enterprising sex researcher. It was a matter of national interest, for a few years there, to examine the mechanics of the female orgasm. Or to plumb the psychological reasons why certain men exhibited themselves on the street. In 1968, Dr. Luce opened the Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic. Luce treated everybody: the webbed-necked girl teens with Turner’s syndrome, who had only one sex chromosome, a lonely X; the leggy beauties with Androgen Insensitivity; or the XYY boys, who tended to be dreamers and loners. When babies with ambiguous genitalia were born at the hospital, Dr. Luce was called in to discuss the matter with the bewildered parents. Luce got the transsexuals, too. Everyone came to the Clinic, with the result that Luce had at his disposal a body of research material—of living, breathing specimens—no scientist had ever had before.
And now Luce had me. In the examination room, he told me to get undressed and put on a paper gown. After taking some blood (only one vial, thankfully), he had me lie down on a table with my legs up in stirrups. There was a pale green curtain, the same color as my gown, that could be pulled across the table, dividing my upper and lower halves. Luce didn’t close it that first day. Only later, when there was an audience.
“This shouldn’t hurt but it might feel a little funny.”
I stared up at the ring light on the ceiling. Luce had another light on a stand, which he angled to suit his purposes. I could feel its heat between my legs as he pressed and prodded me.
For the first few minutes I concentrated on the circular light, but finally, drawing in my chin, I looked down to see that Luce was holding the crocus between his thumb and forefinger. He was stretching it out with one hand while measuring it with the other. Then he let go of the ruler and made notes. He didn’t look shocked or appalled. In fact he examined me with great curiosity, almost connoisseurship. There was an element of awe or appreciation in his face. He took notes as he proceeded but made no small talk. His concentration was intense.
After a while, still crouching between my legs, Luce turned his head to search for another instrument. Between the sight lines of my raised knees his ear appeared, an amazing organ all its own, whorled and flanged, translucent in the bright lights. His ear was very close to me. It seemed for a moment as though Luce were listening at my source. As though some riddle were being imparted to him from between my legs. But then he found what he had been looking for and turned back.
He began to probe inside.
“Relax,” he said.
He applied a lubricant, huddled in closer.
There was a hint of annoyance, of command in his voice. I took a deep breath and did the best I could. Luce poked inside. For a moment it felt merely strange, as he’d suggested. But then a sharp pain shot through me. I jerked back, crying out.
Nevertheless, he kept on. He placed one hand on my pelvis to steady me. He probed in farther, though he avoided the painful area. My eyes were welling with tears.
“Almost finished,” he said.
But he was only getting started.
The chief imperative in cases like mine was to show no doubt as to the gender of the child in question. You did not tell the parents of a newborn, “Your baby is a hermaphrodite.” Instead, you said, “Your daughter was born with a clitoris that is a little larger than a normal girl’s. We’ll need to do surgery to make it the right size.” Luce felt that parents weren’t able to cope with an ambiguous gender assignment. You had to tell them if they had a boy or a girl. Which meant that, before you said anything, you had to be sure what the prevailing gender was.
Luce could not do this with me yet. He had received the results of the endocrinological tests performed at Henry Ford Hospital, and so knew of my XY karyotype, my high plasma testosterone levels, and the absence in my blood of dihydrotestosterone. In other words, before even seeing me, Luce was able to make an educated guess that I was a male pseudohermaphrodite—genetically male but appearing otherwise, with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. But that, according to Luce’s thinking, did not mean that I had a male gender identity.
My being a teenager complicated things. In addition to chromosomal and hormonal factors, Luce had to consider my sex of rearing, which had beenfemale . He suspected that the tissue mass he had palpated inside me was testicular. Still, he couldn’t be sure until he had looked at a sample under a microscope.
All this must have been going through Luce’s mind as he brought me back to the waiting room. He told me he wanted to speak to my parents and that he would send them out when he was finished. His intensity had lessened and he was friendly again, smiling and patting me on the back.
In his office Luce sat down in his Eames chair, looked up at Milton and Tessie, and adjusted his glasses.
“Mr. Stephanides, Mrs. Stephanides, I’ll be frank. This is a complicated case. By complicated I don’t mean irremediable. We have a range of effective treatments for cases of this kind. But before I’m ready to begin treatment there are a number of questions I have to answer.”
My mother and father were sitting only a foot apart during this speech, but each heard something different. Milton heard the words that were there. He heard “treatment” and “effective.” Tessie, on the other hand, heard the words that weren’t there. The doctor hadn’t said my name, for instance. He hadn’t said “Calliope” or “Callie.” He hadn’t said “daughter,” either. He didn’t use any pronouns at all.
“I’ll need to run further tests,” Luce was continuing. “I’ll need to perform a complete psychological assessment. Once I have the necessary information, then we can discuss in detail the proper course of treatment.”
Milton was already nodding. “What kind of time line are we talking about, Doctor?”
Luce jutted out a thoughtful lower lip. “I want to redo the lab tests, just to be sure. Those results will be back tomorrow. The psychological evaluation will take longer. I’ll need to see your child every day for at least a week, maybe two. Also it would be helpful if you could give me any childhood photographs or family movies you might have.”
Milton turned to Tessie. “When does Callie start school?”
Tessie didn’t hear him. She was distracted by Luce’s phrase: “your child.”
“What kind of information are you trying to get, Doctor?” Tessie asked.
“The blood tests will tell us hormone levels. The psychological assessment is routine in cases like this.”
“You think it’s some kind of hormone thing?” Milton asked. “A hormone imbalance?”
“We’ll know after I’ve had time to do what I need to do,” said Luce.
Milton stood up and shook hands with the doctor. The consultation was over.
Keep in mind: neither Milton nor Tessie had seen me undressed for years. How were they to know? And not knowing, how could they imagine? The information available to them was all secondary stuff—my husky voice, my flat chest—but these things were far from persuasive. A hormonal thing. It could have been no more serious than that. So my father believed, or wanted to believe, and so he tried to convince Tessie.
I had my own resistance. “Why does he have to do a psychological evaluation?” I asked. “It’s not like I’m crazy.”
“The doctor said it was routine.”
With this question I had hit upon the crux of the matter. My mother has since told me that she intuited the real reason for the psychological assessment, but chose not to dwell on it. Or, rather, didn’t choose. Let Milton choose for her. Milton preferred to treat the problem pragmatically. There was no sense in worrying about a psychological assessment that could only confirm what was obvious: that I was a normal, well-adjusted girl. “He probably bills the insurance extra for the psychological stuff,” Milton said. “Sorry, Cal, but you’ll have to put up with it. Maybe he can cure your neuroses. Got any neuroses? Now’s your time to let ’em out.” He put his arms around me, squeezed hard, and roughly kissed the side of my head.
Milton was so convinced that everything was going to be okay that on Tuesday morning he flew down to Florida on business. “No sense cooling my heels in this hotel,” he told us.
“You just want to get out of this pit,” I said.
“I’ll make it up to you. Why don’t you and your mother go out for a fancy dinner tonight. Anyplace you want. We’re saving a couple bucks on this room, so you gals can splurge. Why don’t you take Callie to Delmonico’s, Tess.”
“What’s Delmonico’s?” I asked.
“It’s a steak joint.”
“I want lobster. And baked Alaska,” I said.
“Baked Alaska! Maybe they have that, too.”
Milton left, and my mother and I tried to spend his money. We went shopping at Bloomingdale’s. We had high tea at the Plaza. We never made it to Delmonico’s, preferring a moderately priced Italian restaurant near the Lochmoor, where we felt more comfortable. We ate there every night, doing our best to pretend we were on a real trip, a vacation. Tessie drank more wine than usual and got tipsy, and when she went to the bathroom I drank her wine myself.
Normally the most expressive thing about my mother’s face was the gap between her front teeth. When she was listening to me, Tessie’s tongue often pressed against that divot, that gate. This was the signal of her attention. My mother always paid great attention to whatever I said. And if I told her something funny, then her tongue dropped away, her head fell back, her mouth opened wide, and there were her front teeth, riven and ascendant.
Every night at the Italian restaurant I tried to make this happen.
In the mornings, Tessie took me to the Clinic for my appointments.
“What are your hobbies, Callie?”
“Is there anything you especially like to do?”
“I’m not really a hobby-type person.”
“What about sports? Do you like any sports?”
“Does Ping-Pong count?”
“I’ll put it down.” Luce smiled from behind his desk. I was on the Le Corbusier daybed across the room, lounging on the cowhide.
“What about boys?”
“What about them?”
“Is there a boy at school you like?”
“I guess you’ve never been to my school, Doctor.”
He checked his file. “Oh, it’s a girls’ school, isn’t it?”
“Are you sexually attracted to girls?” Luce said this quickly. It was like a tap from a rubber hammer. But I stifled my reflex.
He put down his pen and knit his fingers together. He leaned forward and spoke softly. “I want you to know that this is all between us, Callie. I’m not going to tell your parents anything that you tell me here.”
I was torn. Luce in his leather chair, with his longish hair and ankle boots, was the kind of adult a kid might open up to. He was as old as my father but in league with the younger generation. I longed to tell him about the Object. I longed to tell somebody, anybody. My feelings for her were still so strong they rushed up my throat. But I held them back, wary. I didn’t believe this was all private.
“Your mother says you have a close relationship with a friend of yours,” Luce began again. He said the Object’s name. “Do you feel sexually attracted to her? Or have you had sexual relations with her?”
“We’re just friends,” I insisted, a little too loudly. I tried again in a quieter voice. “She’s my best friend.” In response Luce’s right eyebrow rose from behind his glasses. It came out of hiding as though it, too, wanted to get a good look at me. And then I found a way out:
“I had sex with her brother,” I confessed. “He’s a junior.”
Again Luce showed neither surprise, disapproval, or interest. He made a note on his pad, nodding once. “And did you enjoy it?”
Here I could tell the truth. “It hurt,” I said. “Plus I was scared about getting pregnant.”
Luce smiled to himself, jotting in his notebook. “Not to worry,” he said.
That was how it went. Every day for an hour I sat in Luce’s office and talked about my life, my feelings, my likes and dislikes. Luce asked all kinds of questions. The answers I gave were sometimes not as important as the way I answered them. He watched my facial expressions; he noted my style of argument. Females tend to smile at their interlocutors more than males do. Females pause and look for signs of agreement before continuing. Males just look into the middle distance and hold forth. Women prefer the anecdotal, men the deductive. It was impossible to be in Luce’s line of work without falling back on such stereotypes. He knew their limitations. But they were clinically useful.
When I wasn’t being questioned about my life and feelings, I was writing about them. Most days I sat typing up what Luce called my “Psychological Narrative.” That early autobiography didn’t begin: “I was born twice.” Flashy, rhetorical openings were something I had to get the hang of. It started simply, with the words “My name is Calliope Stephanides. I am fourteen years old. Going on fifteen.” I began with the facts and followed them as long as I could.
Sing, Muse, how cunning Calliope wrote on that battered Smith Corona! Sing how the typewriter hummed and trembled at her psychiatric revelations! Sing of its two cartridges, one for typing and one for correcting, that so eloquently represented her predicament, poised between the print of genetics and the Wite-Out of surgery. Sing of the weird smell the typewriter gave off, like WD-40 and salami, and of the Day-Glo flower decal the last person who’d used it had applied, and of the broken F key, which stuck. On that newfangled but soon-to-be obsolete machine I wrote not so much like a kid from the Midwest as a minister’s daughter from Shropshire. I still have a copy of my psychological narrative somewhere. Luce published it in his collected works, omitting my name. “I would like to tell of my life,” it runs at one point, “and of the experiences that make myriad my joys and sorrows upon this planet we call Earth.” In describing my mother, I say, “Her beauty is the kind which seems to be thrown into relief by grief.” A few pages on there comes the subheading “Calumnies Caustic and Catty by Callie.” Half the time I wrote like bad George Eliot, the other half like bad Salinger. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s television.” Not true: I loved television! But on that Smith Corona I quickly discovered that telling the truth wasn’t nearly as much fun as making things up. I also knew that I was writing for an audience—Dr. Luce—and that if I seemed normal enough, he might send me back home. This explains the passages about my love of cats (“feline affection”), the pie recipes, and my deep feelings for nature.
Luce ate it all up. It’s true; I have to give credit where credit’s due. Luce was the first person to encourage my writing. Every night he read through what I had typed up during the day. He didn’t know, of course, that I was making up most of what I wrote, pretending to be the all-American daughter my parents wanted me to be. I fictionalized early “sex play” and later crushes on boys; I transferred my feeling for the Object onto Jerome and it was amazing how it worked: the tiniest bit of truth made credible the greatest lies.
Luce was interested in the gender giveaways of my prose, of course. He measured myjouissance against my linearity. He picked up on my Victorian flourishes, my antique diction, my girls’ school propriety. These all weighed heavily in his final assessment.
There was also the diagnostic tool of pornography. One afternoon when I arrived for my session with Dr. Luce, there was a movie projector in his office. A screen had been set up before the bookcase, and the blinds drawn. In syrupy light Luce was feeding the celluloid through the sprocket wheel.
“Are you going to show me my dad’s movie again? From when I was little?”
“Today I’ve got something a little different,” said Luce.
I took up my customary position on the chaise, my arms folded behind me on the cowhide. Dr. Luce switched off the lights and soon the movie began.
It was about a pizza delivery girl. The title was, in fact,Annie Delivers to Your Door. In the first scene, Annie, wearing cutoffs and a midriff-revealing, Ellie-May blouse, gets out of her car before an oceanside house. She rings the bell. No one is at home. Not wanting the pizza to go to waste, she sits down next to the pool and begins to eat.
The production values were low. The pool boy, when he arrived, was badly lit. It was hard to hear what he was saying. But soon enough he was no longer saying anything. Annie had begun to remove her clothes. She was down on her knees. The pool boy was naked, too, and then they were on the steps, in the pool, on the diving board, pumping, writhing. I closed my eyes. I didn’t like the raw meat colors of the film. It wasn’t at all beautiful like the tiny paintings in Luce’s office.
In a straightforward voice Luce asked from the darkness, “Which one turns you on?”
“Which one turns you on? The woman or the man?”
The true answer was neither. But truth would not do.
Sticking to my cover story, I managed to get out, very quietly, “The boy.”
“The pool boy? That’s good. I dig the pizza girl myself. She’s got a great bod.” A sheltered child once, from a reserved Presbyterian home, Luce was now liberated, free of antisexualism. “She’s got incredible tits,” he said. “You like her tits? Do they turn you on?”
“The guy’s cock turns you on?”
I nodded, barely, wishing it would be over. But it was not over for a while yet. Annie had other pizzas to deliver. Luce wanted to watch each one.
Sometimes he brought other doctors to see me. A typical unveiling went as follows. I was summoned from my writing studio in the back of the Clinic. In Luce’s office two men in business suits were waiting. They stood when I came in. Luce made introductions. “Callie, I want to you meet Dr. Craig and Dr. Winters.”
The doctors shook my hand. It was their first bit of data: my handshake. Dr. Craig squeezed hard, Winters less so. They were careful about not seeming too eager. Like men meeting a fashion model, they trained their eyes away from my body and pretended to be interested in me as a person. Luce said, “Callie’s been here at the Clinic for just about a week now.”
“How do you like New York?” asked Dr. Craig.
“I’ve hardly seen it.”
The doctors gave me sightseeing suggestions. The atmosphere was light, friendly. Luce put his hand on the small of my back. Men have an annoying way of doing that. They touch your back as though there’s a handle there, and direct you where they want you to go. Or they place their hand on top of your head, paternally. Men and their hands. You’ve got to watch them every minute. Luce’s hand was now proclaiming: Here she is. My star attraction. The terrible thing was that I responded to it; I liked the feel of Luce’s hand on my back. I liked the attention. Here were all these people who wanted to meet me.
Pretty soon Luce’s hand was escorting me down the hall into the examination room. I knew the drill. Behind the screen I undressed while the doctors waited. The green paper gown was folded on the chair.
“The family comes from where, Peter?”
“I’m only acquainted with the Papua New Guinea study,” said Craig.
“Among the Sambia, right?” asked Winters.
“Yes, that’s right,” Luce answered. “There’s a high incidence of the mutation there as well. The Sambia are interesting from a sexological point of view, too. They practice ritualized homosexuality. Sambia males consider contact with females highly polluting. So they’ve organized social structures to limit exposure as much as possible. The men and boys sleep on one side of the village, the women and girls on the other side. The men go into the women’s longhouse only to procreate. In and out. In fact, the Sambia word for ‘vagina’ translates literally as ‘that thing which is truly no good.’ ”
Soft chuckling came from the other side of the screen.
I came out, feeling awkward. I was taller than everyone else in the room, though I weighed much less. The floor felt cold against my bare feet as I crossed to the exam table and jumped up.
I lay back. Without having to be told, I lifted my legs and fit my heels in the gynecological stirrups. The room had gone ominously silent. The three doctors came forward, staring down. Their heads formed a trinity above me. Luce pulled the curtain across the table.
They bent over me, studying my parts, while Luce led a guided tour. I didn’t know what most of the words meant but after the third or fourth time I could recite the list by heart. “Muscular habitus . . . no gynecomastia . . . hypospadias . . . urogenital sinus . . . blind vaginal pouch . . .” These were my claim to fame. I didn’t feel famous, however. In fact, behind the curtain, I no longer felt as if I were in the room.
“How old is she?” Dr. Winters asked.
“Fourteen,” Luce answered. “She’ll be fifteen in January.”
“So your position is that chromosomal status has been completely overridden by rearing?”
“I think that’s pretty clear.”
As I lay there, letting Luce, in rubber gloves, do what he had to do, I got a sense of things. Luce wanted to impress the men with the importance of his work. He needed funding to keep the clinic running. The surgery he performed on transsexuals wasn’t a selling point over at the March of Dimes. To get them interested you had to pull at the heartstrings. You had to put a face on suffering. Luce was trying to do that with me. I was perfect, so polite, so midwestern. No unseemliness attached itself to me, no hint of cross-dresser bars or ads in the back of louche magazines.
Dr. Craig wasn’t convinced. “Fascinating case, Peter. No question. But my people will want to know the applications.”
“It’s a very rare condition,” Luce admitted. “Exceedingly rare. But in terms of research, its importance can’t be overstated. For the reasons I outlined in my office.” Luce remained vague for my benefit, but still persuasive enough for theirs. He hadn’t gotten where he was without certain lobbyist gifts. Meanwhile I was there and not there, cringing at Luce’s touch, sprouting goose bumps, and worrying that I hadn’t washed properly.
I remember this, too. A long narrow room on a different floor of the hospital. A riser set up at one end before a butterfly light. The photographer putting film in his camera.
“Okay, I’m ready,” he said.
I dropped my robe. Almost used to it now, I climbed up on the riser before the measuring chart.
“Hold your arms out a little.”
“That’s good. I don’t want a shadow.”
He didn’t tell me to smile. The textbook publishers would make sure to cover my face. The black box: a fig leaf in reverse, concealing identity while leaving shame exposed.
Every night Milton called us in our room. Tessie put on a bright voice for him. Milton tried to sound happy when I got on the line. But I took the opportunity to whine and complain.
“I’m sick of this hotel. When can we go home?”
“Soon as you’re better,” Milton said.
When it was time for sleep, we drew the window curtains and turned off the lights.
“Good night, honey. See you in the morning.”
But I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about that word: “better.” What did my father mean? What were they going to do to me? Street sounds made it up to the room, curiously distinct, echoing off the stone building opposite. I listened to the police sirens, the angry horns. My pillow was thin. It smelled like a smoker. Across the strip of carpet my mother was already asleep. Before my conception, she had agreed to my father’s outlandish plan to determine my sex. She had done this so that she wouldn’t be alone, so that she would have a girlfriend in the house. And I had been that friend. I had always been close to my mother. Our temperaments were alike. We liked nothing better than to sit on park benches and watch the faces go by. Now the face I was watching was Tessie’s in the other bed. It looked white, blank, as if her cold cream had removed not only her makeup but her personality. Tessie’s eyes were moving, though; under the lids they skated back and forth. Callie couldn’t imagine the things Tessie was seeing in her dreams back then. But I can. Tessie was dreaming a family dream. A version of the nightmares Desdemona had after listening to Fard’s sermons.Dreams of the germs of infants bubbling, dividing. Of hideous creatures growing up from pale foam. Tessie didn’t allow herself to think about such things during the day, so they came to her at night. Was it her fault? Should she have resisted Milton when he tried to bend nature to his will? Was there really a God after all, and did He punish people on Earth? These Old World superstitions had been banished from my mother’s conscious mind, but they still operated in her dreams. From the other bed I watched the play of these dark forces on my mother’s sleeping face.