For an astounding real-life tale of medical cruelty, it’s hard to beat the sad sordid story of David Reimer, as related in John Colapinto’s biography, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl.
Born as Bruce Reimer, he was re-named “Brenda” after a botched circumcision with an electrocautery needle that literally burned off his penis. “Brenda” became the unwitting subject of a megalomaniacal doctor’s attempt to prove his crackpot theories of gender identity formation. He was surgically castrated, raised as a girl, and systematically lied to about who he was by everyone around him, including his own mother and father. As a child he ostracized and tormented by his peers, subjected to humiliating interrogations and worse under the guise of “follow-up,” and forced to take female hormones. Finally at the age of 14 he demanded to know the truth about who he was and re-asserted his identity as a boy.
When Bruce Reimer and his twin brother Brian were born on 22 August 1965, there was every reason to believe that their lives would be as ordinary as the background from which they came. Their parents, Ron and Janet, were farm kids who while still in their mid-teens had fled the boondocks for the bright lights of the big city of Winnipeg. But fate was soon to deal the Reimers a cruel blow.
The twins developed a condition known as phimosis, in which the foreskin fuses and seals the opening of the urethra, making urination painful or, in extreme cases, impossible. Doctors recommended circumcision, which was scheduled for 27 April 1966. The usual attending physician was absent, and the task fell to a general practitioner, Dr. Jean-Marie Huot.
Dr. Huot applied the electrocautery needle to the baby’s foreskin, but it failed to cut. He turned up the current and tried again, and again the needle failed to cut. He turned up the current all the way and tried once more.
The room was filled with the scent of burned flesh, as if someone had been grilling a steak.
It was decided not to circumcise Bruce’s twin brother. His phimosis cleared up on its own soon afterwards.
The prognosis was grim. The art of phalloplasty, or reconstruction of the penis, was still in its infancy. Surgeons could use the patient’s own tissue to make a replacement penis, but it would serve only as a conduit for urine. Ron and Janet Reimer were told their son would never be able to have normal sexual relations. They were despondent.
Not long after that, a smooth-talking stranger they saw on television seemed to offer hope.
Born in New Zealand in 1921, John Money was raised by fundamentalist religious parents he remembered as stern and repressive. More than six decades later, his anger was still barely contained as he recalled an “abusive interrogation and whipping” he was subjected to at the age of four as a result of a broken window. The incident left Money with a lifelong determination to reject what he called “the brutality of manhood.” Another key incident came when he was five, when he was pursued by bullies and sought refuge in a “girls-only” playshed – the one place he knew the bullies never would dare to tread.
John Money’s father died when he was eight years old, long before his young son could have had the chance to understand or forgive him. John was raised by his mother and a collection of spinster aunts, whose anti-male tirades had a lasting effect. “I wondered if the world might really be a better place for women if not only farm animals but human males were gelded at birth.”
Money, who earned his PhD in psychology from Harvard, had a long-standing fascination with pedophilia. In an interview with Padaika, a Dutch pedophile magazine, he averred, “If I were to see the case of a boy aged ten or twelve who’s intensely attracted to a man in his twenties or thirties, and the relationship is totally mutual, and the bonding is genuinely totally mutual, then I would not call it pathological in any way.” He composed a enthusiastic foreword to a volume entitled Boys and Their Contacts With Men, which contained allegedly verbatim interviews with boys as young as eleven joyfully recalling their sexual contacts with men as old as sixty. “It is a very important book, and a very positive one,” Dr. Money proclaimed.
But his most important work was in the field of “gender identity,” a term coined by Money himself. After completing his PhD, he joined the newly formed Psychohormonal Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University, where he carried out what was considered groundbreaking research in the field.
At JHU, Dr. Money studied intersexes, or individuals who are born with some admixture of male and female characters. The term “intersex” encompasses a variety of conditions, from true hermaphrodites, who possess both testicular and ovarian tissue; to a slight masculinization of the genitalia in baby girls or a slight feminization of the genitalia in baby boys.
Dr. Money decided that individuals with seemingly identical clinical presentations could fare equally well whether they were raised as boys or as girls, and he concluded that gender identity is learned, rather than inborn. He also imagined that there was a critical period for the development of gender identity, which ended before an individual reached the age of three, and that it was essential that every intersex child be permanently assigned to one gender or another before then, to avoid confusion in that child’s mind.
Dr. Money’s theories became the philosophical basis for medical protocols in which babies born with ambiguous genitalia were assigned a gender by medical fiat, and any deviation from the norm was corrected surgically. Baby girls with genital abnormalities had their clitorises reduced surgically, while baby boys with genital abnormalities underwent surgical castration and hormone therapy and were raised as girls.
Money’s work earned him and his colleagues the 1955 Hofheimer Prize from the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Money himself was made the Director of the Psychohormonal Research Unit, and later of the Gender Identity Clinic at Hopkins, which performed sex reassignment surgery on transgendered adults. His work was lauded in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, and Esquire.
Not everybody jumped on the bandwagon. Milton “Mickey” Diamond was a young graduate student in biology at the University of Kansas, part of a team studying the role of in utero sex hormone titers in shaping adult sexual behavior in guinea pigs. In a review article on the development of human sexual behavior, Diamond pointed out a fundamental flaw in Dr. Money’s reasoning which rendered his conclusions at best premature.
All of Dr. Money’s work on “matched pairs” concerned intersexes, or individuals in some way intermediate between male and female. If these individuals could, indeed, fare equally well as boys or as girls, this might be due to their brains having characteristics intermediate between male and female brains, rather than to any plasticity in the process by which gender identity supposedly is learned. Neither Dr. Money nor anyone else had studied what happens when an individual who was born a normal male is raised as a girl.
Eight months later, Dr. Money received a letter from a desperate young mother from Winnipeg.
Here was the ideal matched pair test case – identical twin boys, both developmentally completely normal, one of whom had lost his penis due to a botched circumcision. At the age of 22 months, Bruce Reimer underwent surgical castration to remove his testicles. The scrotal skin was used to construct a pairs of tissue flaps resembling labia. Bruce was renamed “Brenda,” and his parents were instructed to raise him as a girl and never to reveal the truth about his origins. At the age when puberty normally takes place, “Brenda” was to be given female hormones. Further surgery was planned to construct a concavity between his legs resembling a vagina, although that surgery never took place.
The Reimers brought “Brenda” and his twin brother Brian back to Baltimore periodically for sessions with Dr. Money. In his book Man and Woman, Boy and Girl, Dr. Money referred to “Brenda” as John/Joan, and described John/Joan’s transition to girlhood as an unqualified success. The case of John/Joan became one of the most famous in the medical literature, and thousands of infant boys were subjected to similar procedures – sometimes for no better reason than having been born with an abnormally small penis. Dr. Money’s tome was the subject of a laudatory piece in the New York Times Book Review, which gushed, “[I]f you tell a boy he is a girl, and raise him as one, he will want to do feminine things.”
Others involved felt differently.
From the beginning “Brenda” rejected being a girl. The very first time his mother put him in a dress (which she lovingly sewed herself, using fabric from her old bridal gown) he angrily tried to tear it off.
“Brenda” disdained the dolls his parents bought for him to play with, preferring his brother Brian’s toy trucks and tinkertoys. He joined his brother in playing soldiers or cops and robbers with the other neighborhood boys.
His brother Brian later recalled, “When I say there was nothing feminine about Brenda, I mean there was nothing feminine. She walked like a guy. Sat with her legs apart. She talked about guy things, didn’t give a crap about cleaning house, getting married, wearing makeup.”
When the time came to begin school, the kindergarten teacher was nonplussed by “Brenda’s” insistence on urinating standing up. The other kids knew right away there was something wrong with “Brenda,” who was ostracized and harassed. “Brenda” did not submit to his tormentors meekly; instead, he responded by beating them up.
“Brenda’s” personal problems led to difficulties with school. The school authorities wanted him to repeat kindergarten, and only a letter from the eminent Dr. Money made them reconsider. He did have to repeat the first grade; after that, he continued to fall behind his peers academically, and never caught up.
“Brenda,” along his brother Brian, were periodically brought to Baltimore for “follow-up” visits with Dr. Money. Both boys found the visits traumatizing. Dr. Money would ask the boys sexually explicit questions and show them pornographic pictures, explaining, “I want to show you pictures of the things that moms and dads do.” He would order the boys to undress, inspect each other’s genitalia, and even engage in mock copulation.
It is a measure of the Reimers slavish devotion to Dr. Money that they would allow him to use Brian as a laboratory rat for his investigations, without even a fig leaf of an excuse (Brian, whose genitalia were perfectly normal, had never been a patient of the Psychohormonal Research Unit). Dr. Money also instructed Janet to walk around naked at home in front of “Brenda,” and she dutifully complied.
The family began to disintegrate. Ron Reimer sank into alcoholism, his wife into despair. They became almost completely estranged from one another. Feeling neglected and forgotten, Brian began acting up in school and later was arrested for shoplifting. Janet felt as if she was losing her mind. She consulted a woman doctor, who assured her, “Oh, all you need to do is have another baby to keep you busy!” At the end of her rope, Janet swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. Ron found her and rushed her to the hospital, and they decided to stay together.
On the eve of her twelfth birthday, “Brenda” was put on a course of estrogen treatment. At first, he flushed the pills down the toilet; after his parents discovered this ruse, they insisted on making him swallow the pills in front of them.
The last straw for “Brenda” came at the age of fourteen, during what turned out to be his last visit to the Psychohormonal Research Unit. Dr. Money, who had been pressing his young charge to undergo surgery to “fix it up down there,” had arranged for a male-to-female transsexual to meet with them. “Brenda” took one look at his would-be role model and recoiled in horror. He thought to himself, I’m going to end up like that? The session ended when “Brenda” fled the room. He told his mother he would kill himself if she ever made him go to see Dr. Money again.
Soon after, Ron Reimer told his son the truth.
The boy who was once known as Bruce and later as “Brenda” now went by the name of David. It was a long hard road back for him. He underwent a painful double mastectomy and spent weeks recovering. Next he underwent a procedure called phalloplasty to create a penis for him. Over the course of the next year, David was hospitalized eighteen times for infections and blockages of his urethra. He continued to be hospitalized on a regular basis for the next three years.
At the age of 22 David underwent a second phalloplasty which gave him a penis which could actually be used for copulation (although he would never be able to father a child). He married Jane Fontane, a young single mother with three children (by three different men) and adopted the children as his own. He found work cleaning up a slaughterhouse – a hard, dirty, dangerous occupation, but one he claimed to love.
Meanwhile, Janet had written to Dr. Money and informed him about David’s reassertion of his identity as a boy. Dr. Money wrote back to her, saying he would like to speak to Ron and David about the matter, but she informed him, not unkindly, that Ron and David had no interest in seeing him ever again. Dr. Money quietly dropped all references to the John/Joan case after that, stating that the case was “lost to follow-up” – an odd claim, given that the Reimers continued to live at the same address in Winnipeg, with the same telephone number. Dr. Money continued to sing the praises of sex reassignment surgery for infant boys, even after an alternate protocol was developed to enable babies born with so-called “micropenises” to attain a more normal size by means of testosterone injections.
Meanwhile, Milton Diamond, who by then was a professor at the University of Hawaii, tracked down David and asked him to tell his story to the world. At first David resisted. Understandably enough, he had no desire to re-live the horrors of his troubled childhood, but when he learned that thousands of infant boys had been subjected, and continued to be subjected, to similar procedures, he agreed to do what he could to help.
David appeared on two television newsmagazine programs – ABC’s Primetime Live and a Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary, His story was the subject of a 1997 feature article in the Rolling Stone by author John Colapinto, which was later expanded into a book, from which David received fifty percent of the royalties.
Sorry, no sappy feel-good made-for-TV-movie happy ending here. David struggled mightily against the demons which beset him, but in the end the pain of betrayal, of this violation of the essence of who he was, when he was small and defenseless, was too much.
What may have been the final blow came in the Spring of 2002, when David’s brother Brian died from an overdose of alcohol and anti-depressants. The death was ruled accidental, although Brian had attempted to commit suicide before. The two brothers had had their quarrels, even their estrangements, but they also shared a special bond as survivors of the same childhood horror show. Two years later David ended his life with a shotgun blast.
John Money never recanted, and never apologized, either to David or to his surviving family. In a 1997 telephone conversation with John Colapinto regarding media coverage of the case, Dr. Money sneered, “It’s part of the antifeminist movement. They say masculinity and femininity are built into the genes, so women should get back to the mattress and the kitchen.”Photo via Wikimedia Commons