Cal Stephanides, our narrator, introduces himself as having been born a girl in Detroit in 1960, and then later reborn as a teenage boy in 1974. Specialists have studied him extensively on account of his genetic condition. Now, at the age of forty-one, Cal has decided to explore the family history that brought his recessive gene to him in order to rediscover himself. He evokes a muse to tell the tale, as did the Greek epic poet Homer.
Three months before Cal’s birth, Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, orders Cal’s brother, Chapter Eleven, to get her silkworm box. The box contains a silver spoon that Desdemona has used for years to divine the sex of unborn babies of friends and family members. The spoon predicts Cal will be a boy. Milton, Cal’s father, argues that according to science, Cal will be a girl
Cal narrates how his conception occurred. Milton and his wife, Tessie, both want a girl. According to Cal’s Uncle Pete, having sex twenty-four hours before ovulation will scientifically assure a girl. The family considers Uncle Pete a scientific authority because he’s a chiropractor and because he subscribes to Scientific American. Tessie, however, believes an embryo can sense the love involved in its conception and therefore doesn’t want a clinical approach to having a child. Milton buys Tessie a special thermometer that can measure temperature sensitively enough to predict when she ovulates, which infuriates Tessie. Their argument causes them not to have sex.
The next Sunday, Tessie goes to church thinking about how Desdemona had advised her not to have more children and how her doctor had told her that the sperm theory was nonsense. At the coffee session after services, Chapter Eleven spills coffee on a young girl. Tessie brings the girl into the bathroom to help clean her up. The girl charms Tessie, making her long for a daughter.
On Greek Orthodox Easter, Tessie tells Milton her temperature has gone up. They conceive Cal.
Despite Desdemona’s spoon, Milton refuses to imagine that Cal could be anything other than a girl. Tessie promises she’ll love “it”—the baby—either way, but Milton insists “it” is a “she.” When Cal is later born a girl, Milton gloats. Desdemona laments this failure of Greek tradition and removes the spoon from her silkworm box.