As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl. – Review – book review
When a botched circumcision turns Bruce into Brenda
As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl
John Colapinto (Harper Collins, 2000)
On April 27, 1966, an 8-month-old Canadian boy, Bruce Reimer, underwent a routine circumcision that went terribly wrong, leaving the child bereft of his entire penis. Because there seemed no hope of reconstructing the organ, the parents elected to have the boy surgically transformed into a girl, whom they named Brenda. But their efforts to raise the child as a girl failed miserably. As a teenager he reclaimed his male identity and, after a sequence of reconstructive operations, became the man he was always destined to be. He renamed himself David, after the biblical slayer of Goliath, and eventually married and adopted three children.
So who was the all-powerful ogre that young David faced and overcame? According to journalist John Colapinto, it was the influential sexologist John Money, director of the now-defunct Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical School and author of many popular books about sex. Rarely has a prominent living scientist been portrayed as such a villain as Money is in this book.
Based on his study of various kinds of intersexes during the 1950s, Money asserted that a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation are not laid down before birth but are inculcated by parents, siblings and the world in general. To Money, Bruce Reimer was the ideal test case for his theory–especially because Bruce had an identical twin brother, Brian, whose penis was still intact. Thus Brian was the “control,” whose psychosexual development could reveal how “Brenda” would have ended up if she had remained Bruce.
According to Colapinto, Money encouraged Bruce’s parents to have their son castrated and reassigned as a girl. He assured them that, with appropriate parenting, she would grow up as a feminine, heterosexual woman. He met with Brenda and her family on many occasions during her subsequent childhood, and repeatedly announced in lectures, articles and books that the transformation had been a complete success. Brenda became a poster-child for the idea, seized on by social scientists and feminists, that gender and sexual orientation are culturally imposed.
Yet, Colapinto tells us, Money knew all along that the transformation was not a success. Brenda resisted from the start. She was never accepted by her peers as a normal girl. Her life was one long battle, as her parents and a succession of therapists, goaded by Money, attempted to break her will. Eventually the parents descended into depression and alcoholism, and both twins made suicide attempts.
Money’s extreme ideology comes across in one extraordinary facet of his treatment of the twins. Money believed that “sex rehearsal play” was vital to normal psychosexual development. He claimed to have learned this during a two-week stay with an Australian aborigine group called the Yonglu in which, he said, children are encouraged to engage in sex play. As a consequence, Money claimed, there is no homosexuality or gender confusion among the Yonglu. (All of this has been denied by experts on Yonglu culture.) Therefore, starting when the twins were 6 years old, he allegedly forced them to engage in simulated sex with each other, with Brenda in the receptive role. Money even photographed the sessions, which took place without the parents’ knowledge or consent. Both twins were deeply embarrassed and hurt by this “therapy.”
The truth about Brenda’s childhood and her subsequent decision to become a man was ferreted out by sexologist Milton Diamond at the University of Hawaii. Colapinto, however, has greatly added to our knowledge of the case, thanks to his extensive interviews with David Reimer and his family and his success in getting Reimer to “come out” in public. Because John Money, now in his late 70s, has made little effort to respond to Colapinto’s charges, our view of the case may be one-sided. Money has made many significant contributions to sexology over his long career, but he has also earned a reputation for inappropriate behavior toward patients, students and colleagues.
In the end, what makes As Nature Made Him impossible to put down is not the machinations of a misguided scientist but the suffering, courage and ultimate triumph of a truly unfortunate child.
Neuroscientist Simon LeVay is the author of six books including Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality. He writes a column on the science of sex for Nerve.com.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Sussex Publishers, Inc.
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