Last week I reviewed Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. In my review I mentioned that while reading that book, I spent a lot of time Googling things and buying related books. This is one of those books: As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl
Bruce Reimer was born in August 1965. At six months of age, he and his twin brother Brian were taken to hospital to have circumcisions because of a medical condition. Bruce’s circumcision went horribly wrong though, and most of his penis was lost. I know, right. That part of the book makes for pretty gruesome reading.
After a lot of worrying over what to do for the best, Bruce’s parents took him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to see a famous professor, John Money. He had been working on gender reassignment surgery in cases where children had been born hermaphrodite or with ambiguous gender. Bruce underwent gender reassignment surgery, and became Brenda. His parents were sent home with strict instruction to treat Brenda as a girl wholeheartedly and to never tell her the truth of the first months of her life.
They went back to Johns Hopkins once a year with both twins to see Money. He was very excited to have a case where he could monitor the progress of a boy reassigned as a girl, with his identical twin brother alongside him as a control case. He was a strong believer that gender was a learned identity and that if an infant underwent reassignment at a young enough age, their gender identity could be changed. Nurture, rather than nature.
This book is the story of Bruce/Brenda Reimer, and how his/her life unfolded. The “twins case” as it became known, was massively famous in academic circles and was used to inform the treatment of children all over the world. Reimer’s reassignment surgery was hailed as a massive success and Money oversaw similar surgeries and treatments on numerous other infants. It was widely reported that Brenda Reimer was living entirely as a girl, with no problems at all.
The reality though was very different. Brenda had terrible trouble growing up, especially socialising with other children. Although unaware that she was genetically a boy, she felt that she didn’t fit in as either a girl or a boy. When he was a teenager, having struggled her entire time at school, her parents finally told her the truth and she took the name David.
In 1997 the truth of the twins case was finally revealed to the academic community, and off the back of a paper published in a journal, David agreed to an interview in Rolling Stone magazine on the condition that he remained entirely anonymous. Soon after that he got together with the journalist who had written that article, John Colapinto, to write a book. Colapinto agreed to write the book on the condition that he was allowed to publish Reimer’s true identity and geographical location.
This book is an amazing read; the story is the stuff of science fiction and it’s terrifying to think this actually happened. The stories of what went on when Brenda and Brian were taken to see Money at Johns Hopkins are the sort of thing that just plain boggles the mind.
There are lots of those “tragic life story” books on the market these days, but this is not one of those. Colapinto goes to great lengths to explain the background of the story – both of Reimer’s parents, and Money and the study of gender identity. He goes into detail about studies before and since the “twins case” and looks into Money’s career as a whole
Despite already knowing the ending before I started it, this book had me gripped from start to finish. I would recommend it to anyone. It’s well written and obviously well-researched.
The sad ending to this story is that David Reimer killed himself in 2004, aged 38. Colapinto has written an epilogue to the book where he discusses why he is not surprised by Reimer’s suicide. It is horrifying that a story such as this could have happened within living memory; even more so that even after finding out the truth and living as a man for twenty years, Reimer still could not find peace. Perhaps the worst part is that Money was never held accountable for his actions. He died in 2006 and although his office had been moved from the main campus, he was still a professor at Johns Hopkins at the time of his death. Reimer’s story is one of thousands; several more people have come forward in the light of David’s story being so widely publicised, but the very nature of the work he did means that so many more are too embarrassed to come forward.
I’ve read a lot of human interest stories like this, and often the story itself is let down by poor telling of it. In this case, that’s not true. Colapinto writes extremely well in my opinion, and his background as a journalist means he doesn’t indulge in long, impenetrable paragraphs of unintelligible data and names. The facts are clearly laid out so that everything is easy to understand and follow. His writing is not so overly sympathetic of Reimer’s situation as to make the story schmaltzy or sacharrine. The book is not just from David Reimer’s point of view, either; he spoke to as many people as he could in order to give a true picture. This meant numerous interviews with Reimer’s close family, but also tracing the few friends Reimer had at school, his teachers, his doctors, his psychiatrists. The book is a thorough investigation into what went on, and although there is no direct input from Money, his notes are quoted extensively – and he was invited to give his own account of events.
This is a fairly harrowing story, but it’s not one of those books that leaves you feeling miserable. I found myself desperate to pick it up at every available opportunity so that I could find out what happened next (despite ultimately knowing the ending already), but it wasn’t the sort of thing that had me obsessing over how terrible the world is. It took me only a couple of days to read it, and my lasting reaction was not that it was a terrible story, so much as the feeling that more people should know about David Reimer. More babies than you would expect are born with ambiguous genitalia each year – and there have been circumcision accidents since Reimer’s too. The question of how the medical profession deals with these situations is an important issue.