Special Report

Nurtured to Death

Sex change guinea pig David Reimer killed himself earlier this month.

By 5.19.04

Send to Kindle

David Reimer committed suicide on May 4. He was a blue-collar worker in Winnipeg, the Canadian city where East meets West. David lived a quiet life: fishing with his father, backyard barbecues with his wife and kids, tinkering with cars. If this were all there was to the story, his death would be sad but not tragic. Except that David Reimer -- born Bruce, later known as Brenda -- was sacrificed to the strange god of post-modern sexuality.

Bruce Reimer and his twin brother Brian were born August 22, 1965. At eight months, the boys developed urination problems, and doctors recommended they be circumcised. An April snowstorm kept the regular physician from making it to the hospital the day of the operation. The electric cauterizing machine the substitute used burned David's penis so badly that most of it was destroyed. (After the accident, Brian's penis healed without surgery.) Back then, reconstructive genital surgery was in its infancy. The Reimers were told Bruce could never live a normal life.

That was before the Reimers saw a CBC interview of John Money. A psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, Money was one of the world's top "sexologists" -- he coined the term "gender identity." He spoke of the successful surgeries he had performed on hermaphrodites, children born with male and female sex organs, and those born with underdeveloped sex organs. His contention that "gender" was a "social construct," that a male baby could easily be raised as a female, seemed the answer to the Reimers' prayers.

They flew to Baltimore. Money persuaded them to raise Bruce as a girl, and he was castrated in July 1967. The Reimers were young, barely out of their teens. They had been raised on farms, and neither had even begun high school. Money did not tell them Bruce was a guinea pig -- no child born with normal sex organs had ever been given a new "gender."

But there was much John Money didn't tell the Reimers. The CBC interview didn't mention that Money was a self-described "missionary" of sex who celebrated nudism, open marriage, bisexual orgies, and pedophilia. The Reimers had no idea to whom they had entrusted their son's future.

Money grew up hating his father, a relationship that seems to have twisted his mind. It is no surprise he made his living in part recommending that every child with ambiguous sexual organs be carved into females. "I wore the mark of man's vile sexuality," he once claimed of his genitals. "I wondered if the world might really be a better place for women if not only farm animals but human males also were gelded at birth."

GELDED-AT-BIRTH Bruce, now Brenda, grew up twisted as well. She rejected her re-assigned sex wholeheartedly. She hated dresses and refused to play with dolls, preferring her brother's trucks. Things got worse after she started school. There was simply nothing feminine about her: She walked like a boy and fought like a boy, enduring endless bullying. She later said she felt she must be insane to feel as she did. Thoughts of suicide possessed her even before puberty.

To the outside world, however, the John/Joan case, as it became known, was a triumph. Money, who examined Brenda and Brian annually, rarely gave a speech without extolling his experiment as proof that nurture trumped nature. Brenda had completely accepted herself as a girl, he claimed. And her twin brother, physically identical in every respect save one, served as the perfect control subject.

The world was more than willing to believe it. The theory of behaviorism, popularized by B.F. Skinner, was in the ascendant. In short, behaviorism posits that people do what they do based on how well their actions are received by others -- the ultimate "nurture" argument.

Of course there was a political agenda at work. As Time claimed in contemporary article, "This dramatic case provides strong support for a major contention of women's liberationists: that conventional patterns on masculine and feminine behavior can be altered." Feminists heralded the case as proof there were no significant differences between men and women.

The Reimers finally told Brenda the truth when she was 14. Her social construct disappeared, and she became a boy again. He rechristened himself David, after the giant killer and king. David underwent surgery to remove the breasts that estrogen treatments had produced and to replace the penis he had been robbed of.

The physical reconstruction made David happier, but his mind remained mutilated. He took a gun with him when he tracked down the doctor who had performed the botched circumcision. He left without harming him, but made his first suicide attempt after a girlfriend broadcast his bizarre history. On finding him unconscious, his parents considered leaving him to die as an act of mercy.

The other Reimers were mutilated as well. Brian, enraged by the continuous attention given to his twin, turned to petty crime in adolescence and was later treated for mental illness. Ron drank heavily, and Janet was plunged into depression.

BUT THEN THINGS GOT better for a time. David married a woman with three children of her own, providing him with the family he could never have himself. Brian made peace with David and his parents. David forgave his parents.

The truth about David was revealed to the world with the publication in 2000 of John Colapinto's excellent, engrossing book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. David was inspired to tell his story after discovering that his case had inspired a sexual mutilation industry. Colapinto's book estimates the number of infant sex re-assignments at over 100 annually in the U.S., and perhaps 1,000 globally.

Colapinto shared his profits with David, and that and the sale of movie rights allowed him to quit his job at a slaughterhouse. But leisure was no blessing. "David was the last person in the world that needed to be sitting around thinking," Colapinto told National Public Radio after David's death. "His past was so horrific that when that seeped up into consciousness, only bad things could happen." David himself told Colapinto, "I'd give just about anything to go to a hypnotist to black out my whole past. Because it's torture."

A torture that was more than his mutilated mind could bear. David's wife left him; he lost thousands in a failed investment; and couldn't find new work. Brother Brian took his own life in 2002, overdosing on his schizophrenia medication. Two years later, in a supermarket parking lot, David blew his brains out.

And what of John Money? His brother Donald told the New Zealand Herald that John Money never expressed any regret for an operation that managed to leave two corpses. According to the Guardian, he has "no comment to make." Money remains an emeritus professor at Johns Hopkins, and no one has rushed forward to retract some of the honors he was showered with.

It is some small consolation that the John/Joan case proved that sexual identity is more than a "social construct." It is a pity that David and Brian Reimer had to die to prove what all sane people know already.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash.