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Graeme Hunter on Tragedy & the Life of David Reimer
In May 2004 the sad life of David Reimer ended where it began, in Winnipeg. He was not quite 40. In his earliest infancy, an unpracticed doctor botched the attempt to circumcise him, destroying his penis. His bewildered parents, not knowing where to turn, fell prey to an ego-driven sex researcher named John Money, employed at the Gender Identity Clinic of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Money persuaded the Reimers to do something almost inconceivable at that time: to press on with what the doctor had inadvertently begun and make David into a girl.
The Reimers were ordinary working people. They could not have grasped what a windfall their son represented for Money if they followed his advice. He was looking for some way to demonstrate his far-fetched theory that masculinity and femininity are not natural characteristics but acquired ones. If he was right, children could be raised to play either male or female roles in society, provided they were consistently reinforced in whichever role was selected for them.
Disaster & Escape
To John Money, the Reimer family’s mischance was a serendipitous gift, a test-case more perfect than he could have invented: Here were unsuspecting, ordinary parents with no theoretical axes of their own to grind, a perfectly bland background against which to display what he felt sure would be the successful and attention-grabbing transformation of David. Best of all, David Reimer had an intact twin brother who could function as a built-in case for comparison.
Taking advantage of the Reimers’ simplicity and cultivating their trust, Money persuaded them to become his guinea pigs. On their misery he built the case that would secure his reputation as what we quaintly name a “sexologist” and that for long after would be held up as proof that gender really is “socially constructed.” For years, Money would go on declaring in his lectures that David Reimer had successfully become a girl. That claim became a cornerstone dogma of the “gender identity” and “gender construction” industry. It helped justify teaching gender fluidity to our children in school and acting upon the assumption of its truth in what concerns gender politics in our society.
David became Brenda, but his transformation was a disaster. After enduring more than a decade as a girl, Reimer at last managed to escape the female identity that Money and pseudo-science had imposed upon him. In courageous independence of all the adult forces arrayed against him, the teen-aged David Reimer reclaimed his young manhood. He knew he could never lead a sexually normal life, but he refused to let that dark fact eclipse his hope for love and a proper family. Eventually he married and with his wife adopted three children.
Just after it was published, I reviewed in these pages As Nature Made Him, the well-written, hard-hitting study of Reimer’s case by John Colapinto. For the most part, it was gruesome reading, but Colapinto was at least able to leave the reader with a cautious word of hope. He ended by pointing to the fulfillment Reimer had found in those aspects of being a man that transcend the merely sexual—in providing food and strength and permanence for a family.
It was a thrilling conclusion because, amid so much that was dysfunctional, it revealed an unconquered human spirit. Deep called to deep in those final pages. In spite of everything, it seemed that David Reimer had become a man at a level John Money and his admirers would never understand.
Stalin & Rousseau
Colapinto did a great service in exposing Money’s account as the self-serving fiction it was. He also supplied a new ending to the Reimer story that was consistent with the facts as they were then known. It looked as if the real Reimer was going to live happily after all, and would do it “as nature made him,” that is, as a man.
Unfortunately, Colapinto’s ending proved to be no less a fiction. The harm done by sex researchers worked on, indifferent to what was said about it. David could no more live with himself as a man than he could as a woman. No happy ending could be pinned on his story for long. Reimer’s recent suicide was its real conclusion.
That sad event puts both of the outcomes invented for David’s life in perspective. We can now see them to have been expressions of competing ideologies, rather than independent or purely imaginative accounts of the facts.
Money’s is the conceit of what Stalin called “engineers of human souls.” It reflects their Promethean refusal to submit to the natural order. Boys can be girls if these master planners wish it so, just as homosexuals can be parents and mothers can be made childless again. The facts must always be kept subordinate to the will.
Colapinto’s happy ending derived from a more liberal notion: the romantic optimism we owe originally to Rousseau. According to this picture, still popular in Hollywood and academia, victims always get second chances. Nature can be counted on to heal or restore what human art may mar. Boys who are made into girls need only be given a second chance and they will do what comes naturally again.
In the real world, in which David Reimer led his unhappy life, neither picture is true. He was a child wounded in infancy, destroyed by a mixture of incompetence, expediency, stupidity, and ideology. His own valiant attempts to compensate were in vain. Fight as he would, his past proved to be an indomitable adversary. But if Stalinist-style social engineering and Hollywood liberalism offer us no way of understanding this case, where can we turn?
Ancient tragedy, with its recognition of implacable fate, can at least supply a more credible framework for the facts. The natural order of things was disturbed by a doctor’s incompetence, and thereafter neither the fantasies of sex researchers nor the nostrums of counselors, nor even the courage of the victim could turn aside nature’s revenge. Nature made him. Art marred him. Therefore nature destroyed him. Reimer’s life was ill-starred, which is to say that the natural order, symbolized by the power of the all-governing stars, was against him.
Christians, of course, reject this tragic restatement of the Reimer story, though we may admire its unsentimental depiction of the facts. Against it we place the significance of that eccentric star which led the magi to Bethlehem and announced to the ancient world the birth of a Savior whom even the stars obeyed. The despotism of astrology was over; the tragic era had come to a close. An important part of the glad tidings of Christianity to a hopeless world was its news of a loving providence that governed tenderly in even the most desperate human lives.
But Christianity has for the most part lost its hold on the contemporary imagination, and a growing number of thinkers today are looking back to ancient tragedy for guidance in understanding the human condition. Their nostalgia for it is limited, however. What they seem to want is a tragic vision without the fatalism that accompanied it in the ancient world.
Thus, in an essay called “Victims and Agents: What Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us about Sympathy and Responsibility,” the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum defends her own concoction of tragedy without tears.
If people think themselves exempt from misfortune, they can easily harden themselves to the cry of the afflicted. But if they truly see their own vulnerability, they will move close in thought to the victims they see, and this very movement will lead them to want structures that provide support for people against life’s ungovernable disasters.
The final phrase (which I have put in italics) reveals what is wrong with Professor Nussbaum’s appeal to tragedy. It is self-contradictory. One is only driven to the tragic view of life by those occasions in which there are no supporting structures when disaster strikes. Conversely, where structures hold, there is no disaster and no tragedy. Nussbaum’s cheery picture has nothing to say to cases like those of David Reimer, where the structures are bogus and therefore do not hold.
Another way of recommending the tragic vision conjoins it with a Nietzschean exhortation: We who have killed the gods should make ourselves worthy of that deed by becoming gods ourselves. We must rise at least to the dignity of tragic heroes. Let the fell winds of fortune blow against us! We shall face into them with superb indifference.
The British philosopher Bernard Williams writes along these lines. He ends his book Shame and Necessity with a moving exhortation from Pindar, which Williams strongly endorses:
Take to heart what may be learned from Oedipus:
If someone with a sharp axe
hacks off the boughs of a great oak tree,
and spoils its handsome shape;
although its fruit has failed, yet it can give an
account of itself
if it comes later to a winter fire,
or if it rests on the pillars of some palace
and does a sad task among foreign walls,
when there is nothing left in the place it comes from.
Beautiful words, high-flown thoughts. But apply them to David Reimer and you will see how vain they are in practice. His branch was cut off, his handsome shape spoiled, his fruit failed. But he did not give any good account of himself. Didn’t because he couldn’t. Couldn’t, by the very suppositions of Williams’s tragic naturalism, because of what happened to him.
The ancient world understood, as we do not, that tragedy means impotence. It is incompatible with both Nussbaum’s helping structures and Williams’s heroic gestures. The tragic vision teaches the inevitability of our misery. Marcus Manilius, the ancient astrologer, expressed it succinctly in the aphorism, “Your birth is your death.”
The ancient tragic outlook makes sense of shattered lives, not by explaining them, but by providing a context of (very low) expectations into which they fit. The tragic drama permits us, as Aristotle said, to refine our emotions of pity and fear by showing us what Nussbaum calls “our own vulnerability.”
Nussbaum’s and Williams’s timid facsimiles of tragic consciousness offer not even those austere intellectual rewards. Reimer’s life is a scandal to their most fundamental assumptions. The ideologies of Money and Colapinto, of course, fare even worse.
So, is the solution to swallow the ancient tragic vision at full strength, including its underlying fatalism? That would at least help us understand unmerited suffering. Unfortunately, we would no more be able to take this radical step than Nussbaum or Williams was. The obstacle we all face, even those of us who are resolutely secular, is that at a very deep level we do not believe in fate. Disenchanted and postmodern we may be, but the star of Bethlehem twinkles above us, however studiously we ignore it.
A more promising response would be to stop pretending that the Christian episode never happened, to discontinue that destructive Enlightenment parlor game in which we take such childish pleasure. How would we then tell the tale of Reimer’s life, if we were permitted to see it as part of the overarching Christian story?
The good news of the Christian gospel is that lives like Reimer’s are sad, but not tragic. Suffering is recognized as ubiquitous, without being accepted as fate. A Savior has come, whose sovereign way leads not around unhappiness but through it. The God who created nature could also restrain and mend it. He has suffered the worst that nature could do to him and triumphed. Having once walked among us, he now walks beside us, no matter how terrifying our destination.
Reimer’s life fits into the Christian story as a tale of unrealized potential. He did not find, or else did not accept, the faith that might have saved him. But it was available.
Christianity also gives to Pindar’s words a sense that the tragic vision denies them. The significance of the severed branch, of which Pindar speaks, lies not in the ornamental uses to which it may subsequently be put, when life has gone from it, but in the true vine from which it was separated, and which longed for its return. Reimer might have been engrafted once again and borne much fruit. His story refines our emotions of pity and fear, but it does not leave us destitute of hope.
The author’s review of John Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him appeared in the February 2001 issue.
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.