David Reimer, Rest In Peace
David Reimer, Rest In Peace
David Reimer: The boy who lived as a girl
CBC News Online | May 10, 2004
Summer 1965. In a Winnipeg hospital, Janet Reimer’s lifelong dream comes true as she gives birth to twin sons, Bruce and Brian.
But within six months, both boys develop difficulty urinating. The doctors suggest they be circumcised.
On April 27, 1966, Janet drops her boys off for the routine procedure and her dream turns into a nightmare.
The doctors had chosen an unconventional method of circumcision, one in which the skin would be burned. The procedure goes horribly wrong and Bruce’s penis is burned so badly it can’t be repaired surgically.
Over the next few months, the Reimers consult with countless doctors. None can offer any hope. Bruce Reimer would have to live with his non-existent penis.
One night, the Reimers see a television profile of an American doctor and his theories on sex and gender. Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore argues that boys – caught early enough – could be raised to be girls. Nurture and not nature determines a child’s gender, the doctor argued.
Janet Reimer thought it was worth exploring. The family went to Baltimore to see Dr. Money, who decided that Bruce Reimer was a perfect candidate.
At the age of 21 months, Bruce’s testicles were removed. What remained of his penis was left, not to interfere with his urinary tract. When Bruce was released from hospital, his parents were told to raise him as a girl. The family was told not to divulge anything to anyone. They went home with a girl they called Brenda.
“We relatively quickly came to accept that,” Janet Reimer told CBC News in 1997. “He was a beautiful little girl.”
Janet Reimer did her best to raise Bruce as a girl. She dressed him in skirts and dresses and showed him how to apply make-up. But the transformation was anything but smooth. Bruce Reimer didn’t like playing with the other girls – and he didn’t move like one either. He got into schoolyard fistfights. The other kids called him names like “caveman,” “freak” and “it.”
In an interview with the CBC’s The Fifth Estate, Reimer said it got so bad he didn’t want to go to school anymore. He felt picked upon and increasingly lonely.
By the time Bruce turned nine, the Reimer family was having serious doubts. Not John Money. He published an article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour pronouncing the experiment a resounding success. It became widely known in medical circles as the Joan/John case.
Money wrote: “The child’s behaviour is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother.”
The twin brother, Brian, remembered it differently: “The only difference between him and I was he had longer hair.” “I tried really, really hard to rear her as a gentle lady,” Janet Reimer said. “But it didn’t happen.”
By the time Bruce was reaching puberty, it became increasingly clear the experiment was not working. He started developing thick shoulders and a thick neck.
At the same time, the Reimers were under pressure from Money to take the final step: allow surgeons to create a vagina.
But Bruce rebelled. He protested that he didn’t need surgery and threatened to commit suicide if he was forced to make another trip to Baltimore to see Money.
That’s when his father broke down and told him everything.
Bruce Reimer said he had one thought at the time: to go to the hospital and track down and shoot the doctor who had botched his circumcision. In the end, he was unable to exact his revenge, but turned his anger on himself.
He attempted suicide three times. The third – an overdose of pills – left him in a coma. He recovered and began the long climb towards living a normal life – as a man.
Bruce Reimer left his Brenda identity behind. He cut his hair and started wearing male clothing again. He changed his name to David.
Earlier, the Reimer family had sued the hospital where the botched circumcision was performed. They settled for about $60,000, which was held in trust for David until his 18th birthday. By then, the settlement was worth about $100,000.
Initially, David Reimer only told his story from the shadows – he refused to talk about it if his identity were revealed. That changed in 2000, when American author John Colapinto wrote As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.
A whirlwind of media exposure followed, across Canada and the United States.
Around the same time, research was sounding the death knell for the nurture vs. nature theory. Two studies – released by the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center – concluded that it’s prenatal exposure to male hormones that turns normal male babies into boys. The studies “seriously question the current practice of sex-reassigning some of these infants as females…”
Janet Reimer said it was a difficult thing for her son to go public with his story, but he wanted to help other children facing a similar fate.
David Reimer underwent four rounds of reconstructive surgery to physically make him a man again. The surgery enabled him to enjoy a normal sex life, but he was unable to father children.
“I’m not going to cry a river of tears over that, because I’ve got three great kids. I’ve got a wonderful wife. I’ve got a good home,” he told CBC News in the wake of the release of the book.
Recently, David Reimer’s life had taken another turn. He lost his job and was separated from his wife. His mother said he was still grieving the death two years ago of his twin brother.
David Reimer committed suicide on May 4, 2004. He was 38.
[Video conclusion: David Reimer: “I’m living proof and if your not gonna take my word as gospel, because I have lived through it who else you gonna listen too? Who else is there ? Is it gonna take somebody winding up killing themself — shooting themself in the head for people to listen?”]
David Reimer: the boy who was raised as a girl
What does the case of the “boy who was raised as a girl” tell us about innate sex differences?
Except where otherwise noted, all direct quotations in this essay come from John Colapinto’s book, As Nature Made Him: the boy who was raised as a girl, published in 2000 by HarperCollins.
On August 22 1965, Janet Reimer, a young housewife living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, gave birth to identical twins. She named her two healthy baby boys Brian and Bruce. When the boys were seven months old, they both developed phimosis: painful urination due to obstruction of the outlet of the penis. The doctor recommended both boys be circumcised.
Bruce was scheduled to go first. The operation went horribly wrong. Somehow — it’s still not clear exactly how such a thing could happen — somehow, the cautery instrument used to cut away the foreskin was turned up to maximum power, and baby Bruce’s penis was literally fried. The dead tissue smoked, turned black, and fell off like an old scab.
World-famous Johns Hopkins psychologist Dr. John Money urged Janet and Ron Reimer to raise Bruce as a girl. Dr. Money assured the parents that Bruce could become a happy and fulfilled woman, while warning them that Bruce would be miserable as a grown man without a penis. The Reimers were impressed by the confidence of the world-famous Johns Hopkins professor. They gave their consent. On July 3 1967, their son Bruce underwent surgical castration (removal of the testicles). Bruce became Brenda.
In 1972, Dr. Money published the first accounts of the amazing experiment. And it was amazing. Bruce and Brian were, after all, identical twins: they shared precisely the same genes, and they were being raised in the same home by the same parents. Would it be possible to rear one of them successfully as a girl, just by dressing Bruce/Brenda in dresses and giving her dolls to play with? Here are excerpts from Dr. Money’s report in his 1972 book, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl:
The effects of emphasizing feminine clothing became clearly noticeable in the girl’s attitude towards clothes and hairdo a year later, when she was observed to have a clear preference for dresses over slacks and to take pride in her long hair. . . . By four and a half years of age [she] was much neater than her brother, and in contrast with him, disliked to be dirty. The mother reported that her daughter copies her in trying to help her tidying and cleaning up the kitchen, while the boy could not care less about it. The girl wanted and received for Christmas dolls, a doll house, and a doll carriage. The boy wanted and obtained a garage with cars and gas pumps and tools.
Dr. Money’s report was hugely influential, and quite understandably so. If a boy could be transformed into a girl just by having his penis removed, wearing a dress, and letting his hair grow, then sexual identity — and the differences between the sexes — must be primarily cultural in origin. This finding was reaffirmed by Dr. Money in his 1977 book, Sexual Signatures:
Although the girl had been the dominant twin in infancy, by the time the children were four years old there was no mistaking which twin was the girl and which the boy. At five, the little girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and loved being her daddy’s little sweetheart.
Money concluded that Brian’s sex reassignment as a girl was “convincing evidence that the gender identity gate is open at birth for a normal child. . . and that it stays open at least for something over a year after birth.”
Dr. Milton Diamond had been interested in the case since Dr. Money had first reported it, in 1972. However, his requests for further information about the “girl’s” adolescence had gone unanswered. In 1992, Dr. Diamond succeeded in tracking down one of the doctors involved in the case of Brenda/Bruce: Dr. Keith Sigmundson, a psychiatrist in Winnipeg who had been treating “Brenda.” “I was wondering how long it would take for you to find me,” were Dr. Sigmundson’s first words, when Dr. Diamond identified himself and explained why he was calling. Dr. Sigmundson knew that Dr. Money had been distorting the facts of the case, but Dr. Sigmundson had not had the courage to challenge the famous Johns Hopkins psychologist. Dr. Diamond persuaded Dr. Sigmundson to let the truth be known. Finally, in an article published jointly by Diamond and Sigmundson in March 1997 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the facts of the story came to light.
The truth turned out to be very nearly the opposite of what Dr. Money had reported. Far from an effortless transformation from male to female, Brenda/Bruce had fought the assignment to the female gender — even though “she” had not been informed of the truth of “her” sexual identity. As a small child, “Brenda” tore off the frilly dresses her mother made. She insisted on rolling in the mud with the other boys. She stomped on the dolls that relatives gave as presents.
School had been an unending nightmare. Teachers and students alike somehow knew at a glance that something was not right about “Brenda.” Girls avoided her. Boys made fun of her. Teachers anxiously asked the parents for more information about what made “Brenda” so strange, so combative, so un-ladylike. One of “Brenda’s” few friends at school later recalled:
As far as I knew, Brenda was a girl — physically. But from everything that she did and said, she indicated that she didn’t want to be a girl. The other girls in our group were competitive against the boys; we wanted to prove we could do whatever they could do. We might get in arguments with the guys, but we wouldn’t have gone as far as to fight with them physically. I wouldn’t want a bruise on my face, for example. But Brenda fought with the boys. Brenda would take the bruises. I myself was a tomboy, but I never wanted to be a boy. Brenda did.
Injections of female hormones did nothing to change “Brenda’s” boyish ways. “When I say there was nothing feminine about Brenda,” brother Brian Reimer later recalled, “I mean there was nothing feminine:
She walked like a guy. Sat with her legs apart. She talked about guy things, didn’t give a crap about cleaning house, getting married, wearing makeup. We both wanted to play with guys, build forts and have snowball fights and play army. She’d get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we’d use that for was to tie people up, whip people with it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat.
Remember, neither “Brenda,” nor her brother, nor any of her classmates knew the true story about her sexual identity. They all thought she was a girl, albeit a girl who behaved pretty strangely. The other kids at school called her “gorilla,” or “Cavewoman.” One girl who made fun of Brenda must have been surprised when Brenda “grabbed her by the front of her shirt, smashed her against the lockers, and threw her onto the ground. Boys who teased her got similar treatment. “That’s what always impressed me about Brenda,” said a classmate. “She’d actually fight with the boys who teased her. She’d haul off and punch them. I always wished I could do that.”
On March 14, 1980 — when “Brenda” was 15 years old — Ron and Janet Reimer finally told their child the truth: “She” had been a normal boy until a terrible act of medical malpractice had destroyed his penis. “Brenda” was relieved. He wasn’t crazy, after all; his growing sexual interest in girls suddenly made sense; everything made sense. “Brenda” insisted on immediately reassuming a male identity, and he did so with remarkable ease, despite having neither a penis nor testicles. He chose the name David, because he felt that his life so far had been a David-and-Goliath struggle. “Brenda” is now David Reimer, happily married and the adoptive father of three children. He is proficient at automobile mechanics and enjoys watching televised sports.
Reflecting on the case, Dr. Milton Diamond commented that “if all these combined medical, surgical, and social efforts could not succeed in making that child accept a female gender identity, then maybe we really have to think that there is something important in the individual’s biological makeup; that we don’t come to this world neutral; that we come to this world with some degree of maleness and femaleness which will transcend whatever the society wants to put into it.”
David Reimer committed suicide in May, 2004. He was 38 years old.
Ethics in social science research have often been questioned in numerous cases throughout history. However, one of the most significant and remembered cases involved giving a sex change to an unfortunate baby boy who experienced an accidental penis removal during circumcision. David Reimer, a Canadian born in 1965, was brought to a physician’s office at eight months old for this standard and very common procedure. However, instead of using the usual scalpel, physicians decided to use an electrocautery needle, which in turn accidentally burned off David’s penis. Dr. John Money, the psychologist who visited with David’s parents after this horrifying incident, suggested to provide David with a sex change. After deliberation, David’s parents agreed to this idea, while Dr. Money took advantage of this opportunity as a case for research. Without informing the parents, Dr. Money secretly wanted this case to prove his idea that nurturing a child as a male or a female can determine their sexuality, not nature itself.
Dr. Money referred the parents to another doctor in order to surgically construct a vagina on baby David. After the surgery was complete, David’s name was changed to Brenda, and began to receive hormonal supplements for years to come. However, even though Dr. Money labeled this experiment as successful, he chose to ignore and misinform Brenda’s parents of the negative effects, which in turn destroyed the family in the long run. Brenda’s parents never told her about what happened when she was a baby boy, and Brenda remained confused growing up with her desires to act and play like a boy. She was finally told what truly happened to her when she turned fourteen, but her suicidal mother, alcoholic father, and depressed brother led to Brenda remaining in a constant state of pain and confusion. Even after Brenda changed her name back to David, stopped taking hormonal supplements, and went back for another sex change to reconstruct a penis, the pain of life itself never stopped haunting David. At 38 years old, David Reimer committed suicide. Despite all of the complications in this disastrous study, Dr. Money never recorded anything in his research describing the conflicts and downfalls, but remained that the experiment was a complete success. Obviously, in the end, it did not turn out to be successful, but disastrous.
Ethically, who is Dr. Money to decide that the sex of a child should be his choice? He manipulated David’s parents into believing that this would be the best possible decision they could make as a family for their poor baby, and he selfishly used this as an opportunity to put his name in the record books for a possible successful case. His name is definitely in the record books, but not in a favorable way. He is notoriously remembered as the man who destroyed an entire family because of the mere fact that he wanted to create something that would give him intellectual and admirable credit. However, if Dr. Money were still to have suggested this idea to David’s parents, all the while including the possible negative effects that could inflict upon David and their family, it might have given David’s parents the opportunity to find another solution to their son’s problem. Also, if Dr. Money would have recorded the obvious struggles that his case subject David had with his sexuality, it would have at least proven that Dr. Money had at least a little bit of integrity to admit that his experiment was not successful, and should be advised not to perform under these types of circumstances.
If there are any lessons to take away for future researchers, it would be to think about the effects that experiments might have on families if there is any ethical breach that might be present in the study, and to always acknowledge both the positive and negative aspects that occurred or could occur. The research that we are conducting in our Interactive Multimedia Communication class, the Worldplay Research Initiative (WRI), is completely different from this particular case; however, we must remember from this case where we stand as researchers, and to know our ethical limitations when we conduct studies in the gaming industry.