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Boys Will Be Boys

What happened when an ambitious researcher tried to fool Mother Nature.



When the Greeks were gathering forces for their expedition against Troy, Achilles, their greatest warrior, failed to answer the call, so Odysseus was sent off to Thessaly to fetch him. When he arrived, Achilles was nowhere to be found: his mother, afraid for her son's life, had disguised him as a girl and hid him away among the royal women. She was a goddess, so this trick was no sweat, but Odysseus knew a few tricks of his own. He would leave them in peace, he said, but first he wished to offer some gifts to the ladies. He went into their chamber with a chest full of jewelry, fragrances, and fine clothing, and as soon as he opened the top the women gathered around, elbowing each other as they picked out their treasures. Amid this squabbling one of them noticed a glint deep in the chest, reached in, pulled out a silver-studded sword, and slashed through the air with a confident hand. Odysseus had found his man.

What makes this tale seem so hopelessly antique? The idea that men act one way and women another is no longer a topic for polite conversation, though it's still accepted as an unspoken truth. The rub lies in the question, where do these differences come from? Are they innate, like those of anatomy, or are they like hairstyles and clothing, mere artifacts of culture? In this myth the difference between the sexes is something deep and essential: after a makeover that was truly divine, he still couldn't suppress his own maleness. Not even a god can undo what nature has done. This is a moral that reeks of ancient fatalism, of archaic, oppressive, stay-in-your-place tyranny. It smells especially bad in this country, where the right Americans cherish above all is the right to be whatever they want. To suggest that this quest has any limits offends them, and nothing offends more than the idea that limits are set by nature.

Do boys really have to prefer weapons? Imagine a place where they choose baubles instead, where they don't fight pitched battles for king of the hill, but form little groups to tell secrets and gossip. It's the girls who are knocking each other down and building forts and hauling gravel in Tonka trucks all over the house. When they're ordered outside they don't hug their dollies and tell them their troubles; instead they console themselves by scorching some ants with a magnifying glass--assuming they can't put their hands on any matches.

This vision approximates a feminist utopia circa 1975. Like every utopia it's based on the premise that people think and act the way they do because that's how society has trained them to think and act; bring them up in another, better society and you will have better people--more peace loving and just, less acquisitive and status seeking, and so on. There could hardly be a more pleasant view of mankind, in which the whole range of human behavior, including sexual differences, is opened up for reform. If men are domineering, emotionally distant, analytical, and aggressive, while women are submissive, sympathetic, intuitive, and shy, nature isn't to blame--it's just the way they were raised.

The theory sounds nice, but is it true? To test it properly you'd have to raise a child uncontaminated by the usual cultural pressures, which would be next to impossible. Suppose, however, you were able to surgically alter a child and then raise it as a member of the opposite sex. Now you have the pervasiveness of the culture working for you instead. A boy raised as a girl would receive all the same messages society sends to biological girls, and according to the theory these signals ought to affect him in the same way.

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, by John Colapinto, tells the story of David Reimer, a Canadian who came to the attention of medical science as the result of a bungled circumcision and who was subjected to exactly this sort of gender swapping. Comparisons with Josef Mengele would be unfair, however, in that these doctors, including the most prestigious and respected names in the fields of psychology and sexual identity, believed they were treating Reimer, not experimenting on him. They were already convinced that male and female are social categories, not biological essences. And Colapinto shows how they used this single case, one of the most famous in sex research, to offer definitive proof to mainstream medicine that gender identity really is an open matter at birth.

David Reimer was born in Winnipeg in 1965. Bruce, as he was called then, was a perfectly healthy baby until his mother noticed he was having trouble urinating. Her pediatrician recommended circumcision, which the surgeon then botched. Using an electrocautery device rather than a scalpel, he effectively burned Bruce's penis to a crisp. Over the next few days the entire organ, in Colapinto's words, "dried and broke away in pieces." Bruce was eight months old.

The first experts to evaluate the boy's prospects were not encouraging. "He will have to recognize," said one of the Winnipeg doctors, "that he is incomplete, physically defective, and that he must live apart." Bruce's parents took him to the Mayo Clinic. There doctors recommended an artificial penis, which would mean multiple surgeries through childhood. But, they cautioned, the resulting organ wouldn't look normal, and would function only for urination. Sexual intercourse would be out of the question.

Ron and Janet Reimer were in despair. For ten months after the accident they isolated themselves and their family as much as they could. Then, by sheer coincidence, they happened to see a television interview with John Money, head of the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, then the world's only sex-change clinic. Money was supremely confident, persuasive, and charismatic. Here at last was someone who offered real hope to the Reimers, and they latched on to it for dear life.

Money was not a medical doctor, but a psychologist specializing in psychohormonal research. In the 1950s his studies of intersexual babies--those born with ambiguous genitals--convinced him that sexual identity was malleable until the second or third year, a view perfectly suited to the behaviorism that then ruled the social sciences. People were ready to hear that gender identity (a term coined by Money) was an open matter, just as sexual orientation would be seen in the following decades. Money was celebrated as the pioneer in this field, and he enjoyed a reputation that was practically unassailable. So when he generalized his findings from hermaphrodites to all human beings, claiming that "sexual behavior and orientation as male or female does not have an innate, instinctive basis," few seriously questioned him.

The Reimers were certainly in no position to raise questions. When they first came under Money's influence Ron was 21, Janet was 20, and neither had gotten past the ninth grade. "I looked up to him like a god," said Janet. "I accepted whatever he said." What he said was that Bruce, 19 months old, was still well within the window for changing his gender identity. This meant castration as soon as possible, plus excavation (the medical term) of a rudimentary vagina. More extensive surgeries to fashion female genitals would be started at age seven or eight, followed by a regime of hormone therapy at puberty. Obviously their daughter would never bear children, but Money assured the Reimers that she would otherwise develop as a woman: she would be attracted to men, she would enjoy sexual relations, including orgasm, and she would be able to marry. She would probably want to adopt children. But the success of this demanded that the Reimers never express the slightest doubt about the treatment, and that the child never be told the truth. They thought about it for a few months, and then agreed. At the age of 22 months Bruce was castrated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and Brenda Reimer was born.

What Money didn't tell the Reimers was that he had no evidence that gender identity was malleable in normal babies, as opposed to the intersexual ones he had studied. In fact a year and a half earlier a young and unknown scientist had published a paper showing how the hormones that naturally bathe guinea pigs in the womb have a profound effect on sexual differentiation after birth. This seemed to provide a biological basis for male and female behavior, calling Money's entire approach into question. Colapinto implies that Money saw in Brenda Reimer an opportunity to cut the legs out from under this opposition. And there was something else about the Reimer case that made it attractive to Money: Brenda had an identical twin brother, Brian. Identical twins raised in the same family, one as a boy and the other as a girl--there could be no better way to show that rearing trumps biology, and so silence the critics. The twin angle was so significant to the case that it was known in scientific circles simply as the "twins case." The results, as reported by Money in a steady stream of books and articles through the 1970s and beyond, seemed clear: Brenda was growing up as a healthy, happy little girl. She played with dolls, Brian liked cars and tools; she was clean, he was dirty; she liked to help her mother in the kitchen, her brother refused. True, there were some small problems, like Brenda's habit of standing up to pee, but in such cases Money believed she was merely copying her brother. And while he admitted she was the dominant twin, in this she was only acting the role of "a mother hen." Money's account was so unambiguous that the twins case quickly became a fixture in psychology and sociology textbooks as hard evidence for the power of nurture over nature. The topic was also ripe for the popular press. The New York Times Book Review, for example, praised Money to the skies and boiled down his findings to this: "If you tell a boy he is a girl, and raise him as one, he will want to do feminine things."

The problem, as Colapinto explains in harrowing detail, is that none of it was true. Before she was even two years old Brenda tried to tear off the first dress her mother put her into, and from that moment on she never stopped doing the wrong thing. She didn't want to have tea parties, she wanted to play army with her brother and his friends. She had no use for dolls. Her parents gave her a jump rope, and she used it as a whip. A sewing machine sat idle until she swiped a screwdriver from her father and took it apart. She sat with her legs spread open, she tried to practice shaving like her dad, and, when she was still little, she kept trying to organize the girls to do things her way, which they never wanted to do. She even threw like a boy. Brian says now, "I recognized Brenda as my sister, but she never, ever acted the part."

Perhaps, like most people, you can remember a few moments in childhood that weren't all milk and cookies; maybe the other kids taunted you, even despised you at times. All that is nothing to the special hell Brenda lived through. She was never at peace, and she had no way to understand why. She was shunned by girls, loathed by boys, and mocked by nearly everyone. ("Cavewoman" and "gorilla" were just two of the epithets directed at her.) At the start of the eighth grade, desperate to fit in, she came to school wearing a checkered pantsuit and carrying a purse, with her hair brushed and lipstick, mascara, and circles of rouge on her face. It was a brave try, but to the girls she looked more like a clown than one of them. The war with her family was constant, and the family itself spiraled down: Ron took to drink, Janet had an affair, then fell into a severe depression. They even moved to a trailer in the woods in a vain attempt to escape. But through it all Brenda's parents remained devoted to Money and his program. They simply refused to give up--what choice did they have?--and grasped at any hint, no matter how faint, that their daughter was acting like a girl.

A key part of the program was the family's annual visit to Baltimore, when Money would interview the twins and direct the treatment. Brenda, with the sure instinct of childhood, soon came to see this man as her mortal enemy, and for years she fought him in a titanic struggle over the vaginal surgery he told her she needed to become completely female. The more he pushed, the more sullen and combative she became. From his first mention of the surgery when she was just seven (her response: "I wouldn't do that") to his final attempt to persuade her five years later, she budged not an inch. On this last occasion he brought in a female transsexual--one of his success stories--to explain the benefits of the surgery, but all Brenda could see was a man wearing makeup and a dress. Believing that the two of them were about to drag her off to the operating room she ran screaming out of the building. She later told her parents that if they ever took her back to Money she would kill herself.

They never went back, but even this didn't stop Brenda's doctors in Winnipeg from pressuring her to submit. "This was the case," said the psychiatrist in charge. "The idea was that we were going to try to make this work." When she was 14 they put her in a vocational school--she'd said she wanted to be an auto mechanic--which she attended in a torn denim jacket, frayed pants, and work boots. Her hair was matted. She was forced to pee in the alley behind the school after being banned from the girls' rest room for refusing to sit down. The doctors started to doubt, but the nightmare lifted only when Brenda refused even to disrobe for the doctor responsible for giving her hormones--and breasts. This man, who had academic connections with Johns Hopkins, was the last holdout for surgery, but faced with her utter defiance he had to throw in the towel.

When Brenda's parents finally told her the truth she wanted to be changed back immediately. ("I was relieved. Suddenly it all made sense why I felt the way I did. I wasn't some sort of weirdo. I wasn't crazy.") There were many more surgeries, hormones, and at least one suicide attempt, but David, as he now called himself, found a measure of peace in the end. When he was 25 he got married, struggled to put his past behind him, and eventually went to work--in a slaughterhouse.

David Reimer makes a compelling character, but As Nature Made Him pays at least as much attention to the evil John Money as it does to his tragic patient. As a psychologist he cooked up theories based on what he wished to be true; as a therapist he refused to admit the failure of his treatment of Reimer, with disastrous results; as a member of the scientific community he misled his colleagues when he didn't lie to them outright. He also emerges from these pages as a heedless and sinister preacher of free love. He once contributed a forward to a Danish book about the joys of sex between young boys and older men, and he believed that parents should have sex in front of their children, so the kids might have a model for their own sex play. This was one of the few prescriptions Ron and Janet Reimer refused to fill, but that didn't stop Money from forcing Brenda and Brian to mimic adult sexual activities in his office when they were only six years old.

How does a man like this maintain his position decade after decade? Colapinto doesn't answer this question directly, but it seems that Money built on his early success by using his reputation both as a tool to accumulate more and more influence and as a weapon to bully anyone who threatened to cross him. The eminence of Johns Hopkins and his own increasing prestige served to protect him. This is why it took more than 15 years for anyone to check into Money's claim that the epochal twins case had been "lost to follow-up." (In fact Janet Reimer had written to him directly about Brenda's transformation into David.) In the middle of the 1990s a lone researcher in Hawaii decided to look into it. With some difficulty he managed to gain the confidence of one of Brenda's psychiatrists in Canada--"I was shit-scared of John Money," the psychiatrist says now--and a few years later they published a paper on the case. Meanwhile Money kept piling up honors, including a special award as one of only four scientists to be funded continuously for a quarter of a century by grants from the National Institutes of Health. In the academy, even more than elsewhere, nothing succeeds like success.

But success of any kind, at least in this country, depends on the market. If Money had put his considerable talents behind a theory that repelled his funders and colleagues he would have had his head shot off the instant he stuck it above the grass. His audience--academics, feminists, progressives--wanted to hear that sexual identity and behavior are not defined only by biology, as indeed they still do. In 1999, Colapinto reports, Money was being funded by the NIH to the tune of $135,956. Meanwhile defenders have emerged from his large academic fief to say that the Reimers themselves ruined Brenda's treatment by failing to follow through adequately. Children born with defective genitals and those who have been injured accidentally are still being treated according to Money's protocols today.

David Reimer had to battle not only a medical establishment personified in John Money, but also an idea--one his whole world wanted to be true. This is what gives his story such poignance. To his credit Colapinto doesn't really push the triumph-of-the-human-spirit angle, but it's impossible to read his book without wondering at the courage and inner strength of the boy who was told he was a girl. He was clearly the dominant twin; as Brenda he was notorious in junior high for knocking anyone who taunted him, boy or girl, straight into the lockers, and as a child he stood his ground against all the adults in his world who were telling him to submit to a surgery that was supposed to make his troubled life better. He fought them with everything he had. If he hadn't been so unbending, so combative, so sure of himself--in a word, so "male"--he never would have survived.

But not only did he survive, he also acquired a large and generous view of life. Of the doctors, he says this: "They implied that you're nothing if your penis is gone. The second you lose that, you're nothing, and they've got to do surgery and hormones to turn you into something. Like you're a zero. It's like your whole personality, everything about you is all directed, all pinpointed toward what's between the legs. And to me, that's ignorant." So he parts company not only with Money but Freud too. On women: "I feel sorry for women. I've been there. 'You're a little lady--go into the kitchen.' Or 'We don't want you to chop wood--you might hurt yourself.' I remember when I was a kid and women were fighting like hell to get equal rights. I said, 'Good for them.'"

Sympathy like that might come naturally to David Reimer, but even as a child he was saying to himself, "Good for them." One of the most remarkable things about this case is just how little of his onetime female identity has adhered to his personality. His own estimate would be precisely zero. And this brings us back to the difference between culture and nature. Suppose you had spent a dozen of your most formative years living in another society, one entirely alien to your own: could you possibly avoid being changed by the experience in many ways big and small, and wouldn't you claim, with justice, some understanding of this culture unavailable to other people? David Reimer spent 13 years behind enemy lines, so deep undercover he was incognito even to himself, yet when asked if all this left him with any special insight into the feminine mind--a common male fantasy, though not the most common--he let out a big belly laugh and said, "I don't have a clue ... I wish I did. I don't--I'm lost."

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, by John Colapinto, HarperCollins, $26.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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