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As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl
by John Colapinto
New York: HarperCollins, 2000
(277 pages; $26.00, cloth)
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
John Colapinto’s well-documented, lucid book is mainly an account of the devastating consequences of raising a boy as a girl. Unfortunately it deals with an actual case. It is a horror story of malpractice, incompetence, and evil among doctors, sex researchers, psychologists, and social activists. Colapinto reveals how the exploitation, manipulation, and mutilation of one unfortunate child was allowed to stand for years as a textbook case of progressive thinking and therapy, and lead to untold grief for many other children. Like a cutaway picture of a mineshaft, the book also lays bare down to the core one of the subterraneous structures on which the dark side of the culture wars is based.
The sad story at the center of the book concerns a man who now calls himself David Reimer, born Bruce Reimer. Bruce was the son of working-class parents who have lived most of their lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, or its rural environs. Shortly after birth, Bruce and his twin brother Brian developed a condition called phimosis, for which circumcision was a recommended treatment. Their parents brought them to St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg on April 27, 1965, for the routine operation. That was the day, however, when routine departed forever from their lives.
An inexperienced general practitioner botched the operation, burning Bruce’s penis so badly that it had to be amputated. (Concerning this and one later operation Colapinto goes into gruesome details that tested this reader’s endurance.) Naturally the parents refused to let Brian suffer the same fate, and, as it happened, the intact brother, Brian, soon recovered from the condition that had initially brought the twins to the hospital. The nightmare that Bruce Reimer’s life subsequently became thus began casually, as might some ancient tragedy, with a needless medical intervention.
After the bungled operation Bruce and his anguished parents plodded through a discouraging sequence of appointments with pediatricians and urologists, none of whom could promise a normal life for the little boy. The first word of hope came from a sex researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Dr. John Money, who just a couple of years earlier had persuaded the university to open under his leadership a “Gender Identity Clinic.” If such a clinic responded to a real need, Money was certainly the man to head it. “Gender identity” is so much a part of his life’s work that he is actually credited with having invented the term. And Money told the Reimers that young Bruce could indeed live a fulfilled and normal life, but only if he lived it as a girl!
Author of more than twenty influential books in the sphere of sexology, Money was most famous for his bold answer to the question: Why are men and women so different? Money answers this by denying that the differences are so deep. Men and women act differently mainly because they are socialized to do so. In the jargon of political correctness this is the view that “gender” (i.e., sex roles) is a “social construct” (i.e., an effect of social conditioning).
Money quickly became a leading guru for feminist writers, and his idea that gender roles were acquired, rather than natural, became their holy dogma. In his professional life Money became a militant supporter of several aspects of the sexual revolution, including its endorsement of sexual perversions and its rejection of the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West. Like a stream in spate these new attitudes were bursting through the porous walls of universities and sweeping away many of the most venerable beliefs and customs of Western society. The so-called “twins case” became one of the fundamental weapons feminists used for demolishing what they regarded as outdated views concerning the sexes. The simple Reimer family had the misfortune of getting caught like flotsam in an irresistible wave.
The sex theorist was very keen on his new patient, Bruce, largely because of his intact brother, Brian. Chance appeared to have furnished Money with the perfect control case for his hypothesis. What better way to prove that gender was socially constructed than by having one biological male raised as a female and the other as a male in precisely the same family environment? Thus Bruce became Brenda, and Money prepared to see his theories vindicated. No, he went further. He treated them henceforward as if they had been vindicated and always reported on the “twins case” in the most favorable terms.
Reality was much different. Both boys lost their childhood to the attempt to make Bruce into Brenda. For Bruce/Brenda himself, childhood was hell. Most hateful of all were the yearly visits to Baltimore, when Money would hector him, try to stimulate him with degrading pornography (allegedly for the purpose of determining his “orientation”), force hormonal treatments upon him, and try to make him consent to the vaginal surgery that would be necessary to turn this macabre farce into something more realistic.
The parents also suffered almost to death. The mother went from a loss of faith through mindless infidelity to an attempt at suicide; the father escaped through alcohol.
The story had the possibility of the classic tragic ending in which death sweeps all the major actors from the scene. Only by chance was such a fate averted. In the course of preparing a documentary program to be called “The First Question” (referring to the question, “Is it a boy or a girl?”), a British Broadcasting Corporation production crew visited the Reimers in order to get a firsthand look at the famous “twins” success. Discovering the matter to be very different from the success that had been reported, however, their documentary veered sharply into the mode of investigative journalism.
That television program began a chain of events that have pushed the scholarly and the medical professions toward a slow reevaluation of the idea of the social construction of gender. Apparently belief in this once unquestioned dogma is now declining.
One happy result of that shift in attitudes was that Bruce/Brenda was finally told the secret of his unhappiness. Immediately he elected to become a male again, stopping his hormone treatment and enduring, among other painful procedures, an excruciating double mastectomy to be rid of the breasts that Money’s hormonal treatment had caused to grow. It has taken more than twenty hospitalizations to accomplish all that medical science can do to rectify its past mistakes. And the result is still woefully insufficient.
There is much food for thought in the academic aspect of Colapinto’s account. Has there ever been a mother or father who believed for an instant that gender was a social construct? And yet most of those who are called “learned” believed it (or at least pretended to believe it) just a couple of decades ago. And the copious fountain of learned folly still flows unabated. Money has never recanted and still receives generous financial support for his research.
As Nature Made Him is a well-crafted book in which the facts are allowed to speak for themselves. It will be of interest to Christians who want to understand their adversaries in the culture wars generally and in the gender war in particular. Anyone who has been stirred by the book of Job will also desire to ponder this contemporary essay in unmerited suffering.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.