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Why doesn’t Cal’s journey to San Francisco liberate him from his shame of his intersex body?
Cal doesn’t find complete liberation in San Francisco because his experience there teaches him that he is special or erotically taboo, but not normal, which he deeply desires to be. In Chapter 14, Cal observes that he doesn’t join the intersex movement out of fear of “becoming one of them,” someone visibly and proudly intersex. To be open about his intersexness would require Cal to embrace the fact that society considers him abnormal. Although Cal finds community in San Francisco, this community thrives on embracing difference, which Cal does not wish to do. Cal’s primary interaction with another intersex person is with Zora, who encourages him to see himself as superior to those with binary bodies. Whereas Cal doesn’t relate to this belief, he does find her message that intersex people have always existed comforting because it promises that he’s not an aberration.
Although Cal finds working at Octopussy’s Garden therapeutic, it does not erase his shame because the show fetishizes Cal’s body. Octopussy’s Garden profits by displaying bodies that Presto emphasizes are unusual, which he highlights by having the performers portray mythical creatures. The fantastical nature of the show separates the performers from real life. Cal’s stage name, Hermaphroditus, ties directly to the word “hermaphrodite,” which the dictionary lists as a synonym for monster. What Cal experiences as Hermaphroditus is a different kind of monstrosity, akin to the vaudeville production about the minotaur, which relies on the taboo sexuality in the minotaur myth to create desire both erotic and seedy. Cal does see people accept his body in San Francisco, but this acceptance depends the acknowledgement that attraction to him is a kind of fetish.
Cal chooses to call his teenage crush “the Obscure Object” after the “mysterious, unexplained burden or weight” the main character of a Luis Buñuel film carries. Why?
Cal carries the Object as an emotional weight because she is both foundational to his identity and potentially irreplaceable. Although Cal also has an early sexual experience with Clementine, the Object weighs heavier on him because of the depth of his feelings for her and due to the choices he makes because of her. Before Callie’s accident, the Object says that she wishes Callie were a boy, presumably because she sees herself as heterosexual. This statement prefigures Cal implying that the Object played a role in his decision to live as a man in Chapter 26 when he says that desire caused him to exercise free will. Essentially, Cal is driven to embrace maleness partly due to an overwhelming need to be with the Object.
In an attempt to assure her return to the Object, Callie hid their love from Dr. Luce out of fear of him deeming her abnormal. Thus, Cal lives with the understanding that his attempt to keep his relationship with Object safe partially caused Dr. Luce’s diagnosis and Cal’s run to San Francisco. Furthermore, as Cal observes in Chapter 1, the Object found Cal attractive “not knowing what [he] was,” without fetishization or labels. The Object doesn’t need to define Cal to want him. Though the Object only sleeps with Callie under cover of darkness and is not comfortable with what she perceives as a lesbian relationship, she does care for Callie as a person, as a trusted loved one. In this sense, Cal carries with him the loss of the Object because he fears he will never find anyone who loves him as intensely, without qualification, again.
Why does Cal need to trace his family history to accept himself?
By tracing his family history, Cal brings all the family’s secrets to light, which finally allows him to pursue intimacy. Throughout the novel, deep-rooted and closely-guarded secrets keep characters from establishing strong, healthy relationships with one another. However, as we see in the final chapter, when Desdemona reveals the secret of her incest to Cal, healing occurs. Despite her increasing senility, Desdemona conducts the conversation with Cal lucidly. Although Cal still wrestles with his future, in that moment, he promises Desdemona he’ll have a good life, momentarily at peace with himself.
In seeing the damage caused by secrecy laid bare in his family history, Cal finds the courage to come out to Julie Kikuchi. In addition, Cal gains new understanding of himself through family secrets, seeing himself as the fated product of all that came before him, both genetically and in terms of temperament, but not without personal agency. Like Desdemona and Tessie, he has a strong sense of propriety. Like Milton and Lefty, he makes bold, willful choices. Like Sourmelina and Zizmo, he is a misfit who has lived in secrecy. By seeing how he fits into the grand scheme of his family, Cal finally understands that he is a part of them, a true Stephanides, and he finds peace and belonging in this revelation.