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Published 2021-11-19
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Doctor's Destroyed A Boy's Gentials. Parents Raised Him As A Girl & Lead To A Tragedy.

David Reimer was a Canadian man who was raised as a girl for the first 14 years of his life. In doing so he was not only a highly touted medical experiment that seemed to resolve the debate over the cultural and biological determinants of gender but also one of the most famous patients in the annals of medicine. Yet the choice that his parents had made came at a cost. Why exactly was Reimer raised as a girl? How did it happen that the John/Joan case became famous in the field of medicine? And what happened that caused the man to suffer from psychological scars for the rest of his life? Read on to find out the harrowing story of David Reimer.

Reimer Family

On August 22nd, 1965, in Winnipeg, Canada, Janet and Ron Reimer who had only married the previous December, had welcomed twin sons whom they named Bruce (who later changed his name to David) and Brian. The parents were working-class of Mennonite descent. Author John Colapinto, who later would write about a book about David, called them “farm kids barely out of their teens”. However, after birth, both babies were healthy and developed normally. That is until they were seven months old, where they were diagnosed with a condition called phimosis, a defect in the foreskin of the penis which makes urination difficult. However, this diagnosis would be the start of the young boy’s problems.

Botched Procedure

The doctors told the worried parents that the condition their sons were suffering from would easily be fixed by circumcision. However, this is where the issues start to come up as, during the procedure at the hospital, the doctor who did not usually perform such operations was assigned to the Reimer babies. Instead of using a scalpel, the woman chose to use an electric cautery machine with a sharp needle to sever the foreskin. But something went terribly wrong. Whether the error lay in the machine or its user was never determined, but what became clear was that baby Bruce’s penis was burned beyond surgical repair. Seeing what had happened to the 8-month-old, the doctors decided to not try the operation on his brother Brian, who's phimosis later disappeared without treatment.

Distraught Parents Seek Help

After being told that a phallic reconstruction was a crude option that would never result in a fully functioning organ the Reimers were distraught. For the next several weeks after the botched procedure, they were left without any hope until one day, after the twins’ first birthday, they saw an interview on TV with Dr. Money. In it, he was describing his successes at John Hopkins University in changing the sex of babies born with incomplete or ambiguous genitalia. In the interview, he had talked about how through the surgeries and hormone treatments he could turn a child into whichever sex seemed most appropriate, and that such reassignments were resulting in happy healthy children. And so the parents decided to seek his help. But just in what was did this make things worse? Read on to find out.

Dr. John Money Helps

At the time, Money who was a Harvard-educated New Zealand native had already established a reputation as one of the world’s leading sex researchers, known both for his brilliance and his arrogance. He was also the one credited with coining the term “gender identity” to describe a person’s innate sense of maleness or femaleness. And so the Reimers were referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and met with the doctor who with unwavering confidence had told them that raising Bruce as a girl was the best course of action to take and that they should never say a word to the child about ever having been a boy. His parent’s eventually agreed to the radical procedure, believing Dr. Money’s claims that it was their sole hope for raising a child who could have heterosexual intercourse, albeit as a sterile woman with a synthetic vagina and a body feminized with estrogen supplements. For Money, however, David was the ultimate experiment to prove that nurture determines gender identity and sexual orientation. An experiment that was all the more desirable given that the boy had a twin brother.

From Bruce to Brenda

And so, following the doctor's advice, about six weeks before his second birthday Bruce had become Brenda. After bringing the toddler home, the Reimers began dressing her like a girl and giving her dolls. On the surface, she was a normal little girl, with round cheeks, curly locks, and large brown eyes. However, Brenda rebelled at her imposed identity from the start. As the author Colapinto wrote in his book, at age 2, she angrily tore off her dresses, refused to play with dolls, and would beat up her brother and seize toy cars and guns. In school she was relentlessly teased for her masculine gait, tastes and behaviors. Fed up with how she was treated, she complained to her parents and teachers that she felt like a boy but the adults, being under Dr. Money’s strict order of secrecy, insisted that she was just going through a phase. Meanwhile, this all had taken a toll on other members of the family. Brenda’s guilt-ridden mother attempted suicide, her father lapsed into alcoholism and her neglected twin brother Brian eventually descended into drug use, petty crime, and clinical depression.

Success For Dr. Money At David’s Cost

Until she turned 14, Money continued to perform annual checkups on Brenda and despite all the signs that she was rejecting her feminized self, the doctor insisted that continuing on the path to womanhood was the proper course for her. When the girl was 7 in ‘72, John touted his success with her gender conversion in a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in several other conferences and publications such as Time magazine. The Reimer case, which quickly became known as the John/Joan case, was quickly written into textbooks on pediatrics, psychiatry, and sexuality as evidence that anatomy was not destiny, that sexual identity was far more malleable than anyone had thought possible. However, what went unreported until decades later was that Money’s experiment actually proved the opposite, the immutability of one’s inborn sense of gender. A doctor from Hawaii, Dr. Diamond, had long been suspicious of Money’s claims and when he finally was able to locate Brenda through a psychiatrist, in an article, he showed how she had steadily rejected her reassignment from male to female.

No More Brenda

When Brenda was 14, a psychiatrist in Canada she was seeing convinced her parents that their daughter must be told the truth, and this time they listened. From then on Brenda was no more as she decided to live her life as a man, just like she was born, and changed her name to David. As he would later reveal in interviews, “Suddenly it all made sense why I felt the way I did. I wasn’t some sort of weirdo. I wasn’t crazy.” From then on, he embarked on the painful process of converting back to his biological sex which included a double mastectomy to remove the breasts that had grown as a result of estrogen therapy; multiple operations that involved grafts and plastic prosthesis, creation of an artificial penis and testicles. On top of that, regular testosterone injections masculinized his musculature. Yet, David was depressed over what he believed was the impossibility of him ever marrying and he attempted suicide twice. But just how did his life turn out after that? Read on to find out.

A Somewhat Normal Life?

In 2000 John Colapinto released the book about him titled As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as A Girl and in it, it was revealed that during his visits to Dr. Money as a child, the doctor would make David and his twin brother rehearse sexual acts with David playing the bottom role as his brother “pressed his crotch against” his buttocks. It was also revealed that Money also forced them to strip for “genital inspections”, occasionally taking photos. He justified these acts by claiming that “childhood sexual rehearsal play” was important for a “healthy adult gender identity”. But despite the trauma and his worries, when David was 25 he did eventually marry a woman and adopted her three children. According to Dr. Diamond, the two were able to have an intimate relationship, as the phallic reconstruction was only partially successful but it allowed the man to have intercourse and experience orgasms. Though despite adjusting to his life as a man, his dark moods persisted. As it was reported, he was plagued by shaming memories of the frightening annual visits to Dr. Money, who used pictures of naked adults to ‘reinforce’’ Brenda’s gender identity and who pressed her to have further surgery on her ‘vagina’. And it was his cyclic depression as well as anger issues that led to marital problems and after 14 years of marriage, he and Jane had separated ‘for a time’.

It Was Too Much

After some time, David went public with his story, agreeing to interviews and TV appearances in hopes of helping to discourage similar medical practices. Privately for him, things had gotten worse. In the spring of 2002 his brother Brian, with whom he was estranged, had taken his life by overdosing on drugs. It was reported that David would visit his brother’s grave every single day. In the end, he lost his job and allegedly was also in debt after a failed investment. Then in the morning of May 5th, 2004, at the age of 38, David retrieved a shotgun from his home and sawed off the barrel, before he drove to a nearby parking lot of a grocery store and shot himself. While many debated what had actually pushed him to make such a move, John Colapinto had written that it was what the man was inclined to brood about that killed him, stating that his “blighted childhood was never far from his mind”. As for Dr. Money, who the Reimer’s blamed for the deaths of their sons, according to his colleagues, he was mortified by the case and as a rule, never spoke about it.

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