Over the course of the novel, Cal wrestles between his desire to be “normal” and his intersex body, which society deems abnormal. As a teenager who believes she is a girl, Callie’s confusion about her body and sexuality comes to a head with her first crush, the Obscure Object, who is attracted to Callie without understanding why because the Object sees herself as heterosexual. Callie’s short sexual relationship with the Object leads to a road accident and the discovery in the hospital of Callie’s intersex condition, which society deems abnormal, or even monstrous. Still trying to conform, Callie lies about her sexuality to Dr. Luce. Only when Callie discovers the truth about her biology under the threat of surgery does she face what she knows in her heart and become Cal. Cal then runs away when he realizes that his wish to be a “normal” girl comes at the price of his sexual desire for the Object and what he believes is the truth of his body. San Francisco teaches Cal that some people find his body desirable and that he is not alone in being intersex, challenging his belief in his own monstrosity. After his self-discoveries in San Francisco, Cal responds to Desdemona’s regret about his genes by assuring her that he will live a good life because he has received confirmation that he is not alone and early signs of acceptance from his family.
As a narrator, Cal often skirts around his own feelings because of a family pattern of secrecy and shame. He uses humor even during tense scenes, as if distancing himself from powerful emotions. Chapter 18 marks a turning point, when Cal laments that he doesn’t feel any freer because of writing and wants to share his full story with the reader. Up to this point in the novel, Cal has focused on exploring the history of secrecy in his family. But Chapter 18 introduces the Obscure Object, whose relationship with Callie served as a trigger for self-discovery. Present-day Cal follows a similar pattern to his parents and grandparents of deep sexual attraction without open communication, and Cal fears that he has inherited not only an intersex body but destructive emotional patterns. This chapter begins a long section following the “second birth” of Callie as Cal, and we do not hear much from present-day Cal again until he reconnects with Julie at an art show in Berlin. Thus, through these chapters, Cal recognizes that he survived the loss of the Object, Dr. Luce’s prodding and the exploitations of San Francisco and found acceptance and honesty from himself and his family, particularly Desdemona. Desdemona confesses her incest to Cal, a powerful moment of emotional intimacy. These later chapters show Cal, and therefore the reader, that patterns of secrecy can be broken with honesty, resulting in stronger, healthier relationships and giving Cal the confidence to be honest with Julie.