The Cost of Knowledge… and Hubris

This article is dedicated to the memory of David Reimer, aka Bruce (and later Brenda), aka John/Joan/John, an unwitting and unwilling hero/victim in a grand experiment that showed great promise but went terribly, terribly wrong.

It began in 1966 when the eight month old twin boys born to rural Manitoba parents Ron and Janet Reimer were taken to Winnipeg to undergo what was thought would be routine circumcisions. (It is ironic that the book later written about this case would be entitled As Nature Made Him, for had baby Bruce been left as nature made him, he would never have become the subject of such interest). The procedure was horribly botched, reducing Bruce’s penis to a charred remnant. In 1966, phalloplasty was unknown.

What transpired next can be explored by listening to the audio posted at the NPR web site. Click here. Suffice it to say that the distraught parents made their way to Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins in the States. There they learned that nurture, and not nature, determined gender identification, and the family, steered by Money, embarked on a course of action that ended thirty-eight years later with the little boy’s despondent suicide.

I believe Dr. Money meant well. I believe he believed he was correct when he stated that gender was malleable before the age of two or three. I believe he thought he was doing the youngster, and the world, an important favour.

But despite young Brenda’s (as she was renamed) protestations and copius evidence that the experiement had failed, Money held fast to his beliefs, his hubris overtaking his scientific responsibility to searching always for the truth. Brenda eventually refused any more visits to the doctor, refused any more hormones, refused to conform to the expectations of her parents and her culture. She led a tortured childhood until a day in her teens when her father, who could witness his child’s despair no longer, took her out for ice cream and told her the truth. Brenda, heartbroken and relieved, reverted to maleness and renamed herself David.

John Colopinto, a journalist, happened upon this story in the late 1990s and, following exemplary research and innumerable interviews, penned the story of this sad little child. As Nature Made Him kicked open all of David’s doors. He became, overnight, a media sensation. Dr. Money, on the other hand, retreated behind his academic walls and refused to make comment.

After his return to his proper gender, David set about making a life for himself. He eventually received some much-delayed phalloplasty and married a woman with three children. It began to look like this tragic story might have a happy ending after all. But earlier this month we learned that David Reimer took his own life. Despondent after losing his wife and children to divorce, his schizophrenic twin brother to suicide, and his fortune to a swindle, he quit fighting and overdosed.

And so we lost a reluctant hero who showed us that gender cannot be decided by anyone but ourselves. We come with gender, and temperament, and eye colour preordained. They are not for us to manipulate.

We need more compassion in how we greet those different from mainstream expectations. We need to listen to our children when they insist a mistake has been made in assigning them to the blue or pink lines. We’ve no right to make one more child suffer needlessly after poor David taught us so well that each of us is the expert on ourselves.

So here’s to you brave baby boy Bruce. We did you wrong, and you paid the extreme sacrifice for our devotion to seeing what we wanted to see. May you be the last that suffers such consequence.


David Reimer’s Obituary as posted on the CBC web site

Man raised as girl dies

WINNIPEG – A Winnipeg man who was the subject of a ground-breaking gender experiment has committed suicide.

David Reimer’s parents were advised to raise their baby boy as a girl after a failed circumcision in 1966. Reimer was castrated and subject to mental, social and hormonal conditioning to help him live his early life as a girl named Brenda.

Medical experts followed his development and socialization closely, comparing him with his twin brother in an experiment that came to be known as the Joan-John case during the 1960s and ’70s.

Reimer was a social outcast as a child and battled depression. He discovered the truth about himself when he was a teenager and decided to live as a male. He underwent testosterone injections, a double mastectomy and a phalloplasty and started a new life as a man.

Reimer eventually married and raised three stepchildren in Winnipeg.

The flawed experiment received worldwide publicity, and Reimer stepped out of anonymity in 2000 to reveal his story in the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl by John Colapinto.

Reimer took his own life last Tuesday. He was 38 years old.