Little Boy Lost

After a circumcision went awry, a Hopkins psychologist suggested that David Reimer be raised as a girl. Now 34, Reimer is angry over the experiment that stole his childhood. A new book tells the story.

February 10, 2000|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Until recently, he was content to live in blessed obscurity, a blue-collar worker who divided his time between family and his job scrubbing meat grinders at a Winnipeg slaughterhouse. The world didn't have to know that he was the subject of one of the most famous sex studies in modern psychiatry.

Now, thanks to a book about his remarkable childhood, he is anonymous no more. Meet David Reimer, the man who was raised as a girl after a hideous accident in infancy, a girl who adjusted so well that her renowned doctor offered her case as convincing evidence that gender isn't determined by biology, but by the way our parents raise us.

Except for one thing: it wasn't true.

Reimer, now 34, never felt that he was a girl, and spent years in agony. His ordeal is recounted in a new book, "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl," by John Colapinto. Reimer is in New York this week, speaking to reporters and making a television appearance, but he is uncomfortable with his new celebrity.

"It's traumatic, it's embarrassing, it's humiliating," says Reimer, who's been teased on the job and draws stares even when he walks into a bank. "People look at you and point, `You used to be a girl?' "

But Reimer, a slight man with angular features and the suggestion of a beard, said he had grown tired of the silence of doctors who never acknowledged that things had gone wrong. "People should see that I'm not different from anybody else," he says. "I think the average person can put themselves in my position."

His story goes to the heart of a centuries-old debate over the malleability of gender, a question that is still far from settled. Neither is the legacy of the Johns Hopkins psychologist who helped shape American attitudes toward gender in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the years surrounding Reimer's birth, Dr. John Money was perhaps the nation's preeminent sex researcher. He pioneered the use of hormones to curb the sexual appetites of pedophiles. He made Hopkins the first hospital in the United States to perform sex-change operations for adults.

He was an expert in the problems of children born with genitals that weren't clearly male or female. He believed that children could be assigned to either gender before age 3 and adapt happily, despite the influences of biology. He is also the man who guided David Reimer's conversion from boy to girl -- and declared it a success.

To behavioral scientists, David Reimer's story is well known. Originally named Bruce, he and his identical twin, Brian, were born in April 1966 to Mennonite parents in Winnipeg, Manitoba. When they were 7 months old, their parents took them back to the hospital to be circumcised. No procedure was more routine.

A terrible accident

Taking Bruce first, the doctor chose to use an electric tool that simultaneously cuts and stanches any bleeding. Instead, the procedure ended up burning and destroying the baby's entire penis. The horrified doctor never got to Brian.

There was no clear course for the parents. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic said plastic surgeons could construct a reasonable likeness of a penis, but the cosmetic and functional results were far from assured. Bruce might never really feel he was a boy. In the words of one doctor, he would "live apart."

Ron and Janet Reimer took Bruce to see Money, who proposed another solution. Their child could be successfully raised as a girl if the parents renamed him, dressed him in girl's clothing and regarded him in every way possible as their daughter.

The child would have to be castrated before age 2. At adolescence, she would have to take female hormones to produce breasts and undergo surgery to build a cosmetic vagina. She would never bear children but would identify as a girl, Money said. With any luck, she would become attracted to men, perhaps even marry.

The Reimers agonized over the decision but in the end took Money's advice. By the time they arrived at Hopkins to have the child castrated, they had let his hair grow long and converted his pajamas into frilly nightgowns. They renamed him Brenda and brought the twins back to Hopkins for yearly evaluations.

Throughout their childhood, Money chronicled their progress in scientific journals and books, declaring the sex-reassignment a success. When the twins were 7, Money wrote that the case was "dramatic proof that the gender identity option is open at birth for normal infants." (Following the practice of scientists, he did not identify the family.)

"At five," he wrote in his book "Sexual Signatures," "the girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and loved being her daddy's little sweetheart. Throughout childhood, her stubbornness and the abundant physical energy she shares with her twin brother and expends freely have made her a tomboyish girl, but nonetheless a girl."

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