Summary: Chapter 17: Waxing Lyrical

In the fall of 1973, Callie starts growing a mustache, and one of the women at church, salon owner Sophie Sassoon, offers to help her remove it. No one is alarmed because many Greek women grow unwanted hair on their faces.Tessie takes Callie to Sophie’s salon, and from then on, Callie is initiated into the world of hair removal. Even though she can’t wear makeup to school, on the weekends, Callie goes over to a friend’s house and they apply eyeliner.

When Chapter Eleven returns home the summer after his freshman year of college, Callie feels like he has become a different person. Chapter Eleven confides that he’s been taking acid.

Over Christmas 1973, Chapter Eleven, now a sophomore, announces that instead of engineering, he will major in anthropology and conduct “fieldwork” while he’s home. He records everything the family says.Chapter Eleven’s girlfriend, Meg, visits. A Marxist political science major, she grills Milton over how much he pays his workers. She reveals that Chapter Eleven spends his time at college lifting the ceiling panel on dorm elevators and riding up and down in the dark.Meg gives Callie a copy of the classic puberty book, Our Bodies, Ourselves . Chapter Eleven asks her whether she masturbates. Callie feels extremely uncomfortable.

Milton decides to bring the family to Turkey over the summer so he can visit the village Desdemona and Lefty grew up in. Chapter Eleven refuses to go because he says tourism is a form of colonialism. He announces he no longer shares the family’s values.Cal, in retrospect, thinks the change in Chapter Eleven happened when he got his draft number and felt like everything was decided by lottery.

Summary: Chapter 18: The Obscure Object

Cal, looking at what he’s written so far, realizes that he hasn’t found writing to be as liberating as he thought it would be. He worries that maybe he isn’t part of the intersex movement because he’s afraid of it. He feels like the only kind of intimacy he can be comfortable with is that between writer and reader.

After Chapter Eleven leaves, Tessie and Milton fall into an angry silence.During spring semester, Callie takes an advanced English class with Mr. da Silva, who encourages her to embrace her Greek heritage. Callie adores The Iliad even though it’s too bloody for many of her classmates. One day, a new girl interrupts class because the other English teacher wanted her transferred. She has red hair and freckles, and Callie is immediately fascinated by her. The girl slouches through class and refuses to focus.Cal dubs this girl the “Obscure Object,” after a film that came out years after their relationship. He keeps her otherwise anonymous in his memoir for her protection.

One day, Mr. da Silva calls on the Object to read. Because she claims to have forgotten her book, she looks on with Callie. With the Object so close to her, Callie’s hormones go into overdrive.Although it’s common for female friendships to become emotionally intense at an all-girls school, the girls shun anyone suspected of being attracted to girls.

At school, Callie hides in the bathroom. She overheard her parents talking about her, concerned because she hasn’t gotten her period yet. She’s noticed something between her legs that she thinks of like a crocus. She isn’t sure whether it’s normal or not.

The eighth graders put on a classical Greek play every spring, and this year the play is Antigone . Mr. da Silva chooses the Object to play Antigone due to her clear acting talent, while Callie plays the blind prophet Tiresias. Callie offers to go over lines with the Object. The next day, Callie goes over to the Object’s house. Without the social pressures of school, they become friendly and gossip about other people in school. The Object is particularly impressed by the knowledge Callie shares from Our Bodies, Ourselves . The Object, who initially refers to Callie as just “a kid” starts calling her “a cool kid.” She gives Callie pointers on how to play a blind character.

Before the play, Callie goes to wish the Object luck, but she tells Callie to leave her alone, which devastates Callie. Another classmate in the play, Maxine, has an aneurysm onstage and dies. The Object cries, and Callie holds her in her arms.

Analysis: Chapters 17 & 18

Chapter Eleven’s rebellion signifies the family’s nearly complete assimilation into American culture. Although Chapter Eleven claims it’s the family’s values that he no longer shares, his rebellion is less against his family members and more about the American vision of success the family stands for. As a new immigrant and a first-generation American, Lefty and Milton strive to make themselves as American as possible. Lefty initially throws himself whole-heartedly into the Ford English School curriculum, and Milton joins both the Boy Scouts and the Navy. Milton also chases a quintessential mid-century American ideal in his life as an entrepreneur with a house in an affluent suburb. Although he still faces some discrimination, Milton has become firmly established in American culture with American markers of success. Therefore, Chapter Eleven’s attraction to the counterculture movement and to Communism, associated heavily with Russia in the 1960s, signifies that he sees his family as part of the American establishment. However, Chapter Eleven acknowledges his family’s Greek heritage when he wants to conduct field work for his sociology class. Despite his rebellion against American values, this action reveals how assimilated he himself has become because he views his family’s Greekness as exotic enough to study.

Chapter Eleven’s sense that life is random shows the effect masculine socialization has had on him. Although Chapter Eleven acts as if his carefree attitude is rebellious, it actually demonstrates his male privilege. Lefty, with his love of gambling, also treats life as if it’s controlled by luck. Part of the reason why Lefty feels free is gendered because Desdemona must take responsibility for maintaining the family’s patterns: their culture and their futurity. Similarly, Chapter Eleven has a loving, supportive family to pay his tuition while he opts to skip class and indulge his philosophical ideas. However, Chapter Eleven’s experience of the capriciousness of life was traumatizing in ways Lefty’s wasn’t. As Callie notes when she watches Chapter Eleven wait for his draft number, the draft system treats young men’s lives as expendable. Because young men are not responsible for maintaining tradition and futurity, they also aren’t tied to destiny. Chapter Eleven thus embraces the hippie movement as an attempt to put meaning back into his life. He rides on top of elevators because elevators only take a set, linear path. He follows Meg’s lead because her strong Marxist convictions explain the world in a way that makes sense to him. Finally, he takes drugs thought to expand one’s mind, as if searching new planes for meaning.

Callie learns to connect her growing awareness of sexuality to guilt and shame. Her only understanding of sex comes from her parents’ silence and Chapter Eleven’s threatening oversharing. Even more frightening, Callie experiences what she reads as lesbian desire, which she has learned is something worthy of social alienation. These two experiences explain why Cal calls his first crush “the Obscure Object of Desire.” Obscure can mean something vague, referring to Callie’s lack of knowledge about sex, and it can also mean something hidden, tying to Callie’s need to keep the Object secret. Although Cal claims that he keeps the Object’s name private in his memoir to protect her, considering we don’t know who Cal’s intended audience is, this seems at least partially untrue. Another possible explanation is that Cal doesn’t want to name the Object because a part of him still feels that she is something that he must hide. However, not all is hopeless in Callie’s sexual development. Meg’s gift of Our Bodies, Ourselves finally offers Callie some of the knowledge she desperately needs. Accordingly, quoting from the book helps her get closer to the Object.

Cal’s self-reflection at the beginning of Chapter 18 shows how his fear of rejection and lack of role models has left him with a fear of intimacy. Cal notes that writing his family history has not been liberating, perhaps because by gazing back on his history, Cal has seen his family repeat the same patterns of secrecy that he enacts in his own attempts at dating. Cal’s belief that he can only be intimate in the way of a writer with a reader demonstrate a brand of intimacy he has observed in his own family members. A memoir, which Cal writes, feels intimate because it’s confessional: honest and vulnerable. However, because a reader cannot easily respond to an author—at least not in 2001—this intimacy is illusory because it allows no possibility of rejection from the reader. Cal is thus comfortable with this type of intimacy because it mirrors his family’s traditional pattern of keeping a wall of silence between parties and because Cal’s “partner” can give no feedback. Cal worries he can only experience an illusion of closeness, locked into these patterns as he is.