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The Boston Phoenix Boy, Girl, Boy

Dr. Money's gender games

By Julia Hanna

MARCH 6, 2000: 

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto (HarperCollins), 288 pages, $26.

In 1973, a psychologist named John Money published Man & Woman, Boy & Girl, a book the New York Times lauded as "the most important volume to appear in social sciences since the Kinsey reports." The book's argument for the primacy of nurture over nature in establishing gender identity referred again and again to an unusual pair of identical twins that proved the point perfectly -- or so it seemed. John Colapinto's As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl tells a different story. Colapinto's account, developed from a December 1997 article in Rolling Stone, raises fascinating scientific, philosophical, and ethical questions -- and also packs an irresistible narrative force from start to finish.

Born in Winnipeg in 1967, Bruce and Brian Reimer were healthy boys. But when the twins were taken to the hospital for the routine circumcision, Bruce's penis, through a combination of human error and mechanical malfunction, was burned off. The distraught parents, Ron and Janet, consulted Winnipeg specialists and even made a trip to the Mayo Clinic to determine what could be done to help their son. They weren't given much hope; phallic reconstruction was still in its beginnings. Even after multiple operations, an artificial penis constructed for Bruce would function as little more than a conduit for urine: "One can predict," wrote a doctor consulting on the case, "that he will be unable to live a normal sexual life from the time of adolescence . . . that he will have to recognize that he is incomplete, physically defective, and that he must live apart."

Ten months after the botched procedure, the Reimers saw Money on television with Diane -- formerly Richard -- Baransky. Money's smooth talk and his transsexual patient's convincingly feminine appearance immediately caught their attention, especially when the discussion turned to Money's work with hermaphroditic babies born with "unfinished genitals." Money explained "that he and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins could, through surgery and hormone treatments, make such children into whichever sex seemed best, and that the child could be raised happily in that sex." Janet Reimer wrote to the doctor that night, and the couple was on its way to Baltimore shortly thereafter. At 22 months, Bruce underwent surgical castration and became Brenda. The scrotal skin that remained was fashioned into labia and the opening for a vagina, which was to be fully constructed after the child reached puberty.

Family snapshots included in As Nature Made Him clearly show a mischievous little boy and a sweet, curly-haired girl, the ideal poster children to support Money's theory that environment, not biology, plays the more significant role in developing sexual identity. Research grants from the National Institutes of Health poured in, and with the blessings of this established medical institution, Money reveled in his role as "agent provocateur of the sexual revolution," as the New York Times dubbed him in 1975.

When Brenda began school, however, it became clear that she was different. If a boy teased her, she rolled up her frilly sleeves and beat him up. "She played with my toys," her brother Brian remembers. "Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat," until, he says, she sneaked a screwdriver from her father's tool kit and dismantled it. Unable to fit in, Brenda began a long retreat into the anger and withdrawal she would use to survive years of confusion and guilt. Despite Brenda's developmental problems, Money continued to trumpet the results of his famous "twins case."

The pressure that Brenda experienced to play the part of a girl made her adamant refusal to do so all the more remarkable. She spat her estrogen pills into the toilet and ran from the room at any mention of the surgery that would make her a "complete" woman. At the age of 11, after a particularly disturbing session with Money, she threatened suicide. It was the family's last trip to Baltimore. Several years later, with the help of a more sympathetic therapist, Brenda renamed herself David and began the painful process (including reconstructive surgery) of returning to her original gender.

Piece by piece, Colapinto puts together the fascinating puzzle that resulted from Ron and Janet Reimer's decision to raise Bruce as Brenda. Transcripts and notes from psychological sessions, as well as excerpts from the hundreds of hours of interviews Colapinto conducted with the Reimer family and those who knew them during Bruce/Brenda's childhood, create a sense of immediacy; reading of the torturous emotional stress endured by all involved, it is impossible not to empathize. And, most important, we hear from David Reimer: the man who was born a boy and spent 14 years of his life as a girl before returning to his original gender.

"If I had lost my arms and my legs and wound up in a wheelchair . . . would that make me less of a person?" David asks. "It just seems that they implied that you're nothing if your penis is gone. The second you lose that, you're nothing, and they've got to do surgery and hormones to turn you into something." Now married, Reimer lives a quiet life with his wife, Jane, and her three children. "Mom and Dad wanted this to work so I'd be happy," he says of the experiment. "But I couldn't be happy for my parents . . . You can't be something you're not. You have to be you."


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