Society

The Story Of David Reimer: A Medical Experiment Gone Wrong

| by Nik Bonopartis
David Reimer as an adultDavid Reimer as an adult

Following his suicide more than a decade ago, David Reimer's anguished life has long since faded from the headlines.

But thanks to a "Today I Learned" post on Reddit's front page -- which garnered some 6,000 upvotes in just a few hours on July 4 -- the painful and cautionary story of Reimer's life has received new attention.

So who was David Reimer?

He was born Bruce Reimer on Aug. 22, 1965, the identical twin of Brian Reimer, born to "farm kids barely out of their teens," writes John Colapinto, a journalist who would later write a detailed and horrific account of Reimer's life in Rolling Stone magazine.

Bruce and Brian were normal infant boys living normal lives in Manitoba, Canada, until they were about 8 months old. That's when a doctor used an electrocautery needle instead of a scalpel, for reasons unknown, to perform what was supposed to be a routine circumcision.

Bruce went first, and the results were disastrous. The doctor fumbled the routine procedure, "burning off [Bruce's] entire penis as a result," Colapinto writes. The twins' horrified parents did not allow the doctor to perform the procedure on Brian.

The family was referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, home of the celebrated gender identity expert and psychologist Dr. John Money.

With Bruce's parents following Money's advice, he became an unwilling experiment in the world's most notorious case of sex reassignment surgery. According to the Los Angeles Times, the doctor convinced the Reimers that it was in their son's best interests to raise him as a girl, telling them that it was possible to raise him as a happy and healthy child because, in his view, gender was simply a social construct.

"David's parents eventually agreed to the radical procedure, believing Money's claims that this 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," Colapinto wrote in Slate magazine.

A few weeks before Bruce's second birthday, he became "Brenda" -- in addition to the sex reassignment surgery, his parents changed his name, began dressing him like a little girl, and gave him toys traditionally associated with young girls, like dolls. Later, still under the direction of Money, "Brenda" was given estrogen treatments to feminize his appearance and stimulate breast growth.

"But Brenda rebelled at her imposed identity from the start," the Times noted in a 2004 obituary. "She tried to rip off the first dress that her mother sewed for her. When she saw her father shaving, she wanted a razor, too. She favored toy guns and trucks over sewing machines and Barbies. When she fought with her brother, it was clear that she was the stronger of the two."

Brenda's twin Brian served as the perfect "control" for Money's experiment, and before long he published papers on his "successful" work in transforming a biological boy into a girl. Money was lauded in public, hailed as a revolutionary physician in Time magazine, and credited with conquering new frontiers in pediatrics.

He also earned the admiration of radical feminists, according to the Times, with his research providing "proof" that "conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behavior can be altered."

For Money and his supporters, the case proved they were right in the "nature versus nurture" argument.

But, as Colapinto noted, "Money mysteriously stopped publishing follow-ups in the late 1970s."

That piqued the interest of Dr. Milton Diamond, a "longtime rival" of Money's. Years later -- after Brenda rejected her sexual reassignment surgery and her dictated gender, and began transitioning back to a man under the name "David" -- Diamond met the boy, now a man of 30.

When Diamond told David Reimer that Money had used the "success" of David's story "to legitimize the widespread use of infant sex change in cases of hermaphroditism and genital injury," Colapinto writes, an outraged David agreed to work with Diamond on a new "myth-shattering" paper that refuted Money's claims.

The resulting paper was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 1997 and, according to Colapinto, made international headlines.

Not long after that, David met Colapinto and agreed to be interviewed for the Rolling Stone story. That article became the basis of a book about David, 2000's "As Nature Made Him," and David appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to share his story.

"In the course of our interviews, David told me that he could never forget his nightmare childhood," Colapinto wrote, "and he sometimes hinted that he was living on borrowed time."

In public statements about his lifetime ordeal, David said he never got over what was done to him, despite eventually marrying a woman and adopting her three children.

"You can never escape the past," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2000. "I had parts of my body cut away and thrown in a wastepaper basket. I've had my mind ripped away."

David decided to end his own life in 2004, at 38 years old. His twin brother had died a few years earlier, and his own life was in shambles. He was suffering from deep depression, his 14-year marriage was crumbling, and he'd recently lost $65,000 in a bad investment. Years of follow-up visits with Money had also left him psychologically scarred, as the doctor used controversial -- and borderline pedophilic -- methods to reinforce his identity as a girl.

Newspapers at the time pointed to other factors as major contributors to David's suicide, and Colapinto points out that some of the obituaries and articles didn't place any of the blame on Money or the medical decisions that impacted David's life.

Money, who died in 2006, "stopped commenting publicly on the case in 1980 and never acknowledged that the experiment was anything but a glowing success," the Los Angeles Times noted.

But his mother, Janet Reimer, told The New York Times that she believed her son wouldn't have killed himself if not for the downward spiral that started with Money's experiments.

"He managed to have so much courage," Jane said of David. "I think he felt he had no options. It just kept building up and building up."

Sources: Slate, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times / Photo credit: Psicologia y Mente

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