David Reimer: The Boy Who Was Forced to Be a Girl in a Controversial Nature Vs. Nurture Experiment
The story of David Reimer is a terribly sad one. Born to Janet and Ronald Reimer on August 22, 1965, he had to undergo a transformation that he had no say in when he was just a baby. For fourteen years since his birth, he was brought up as a girl and made to attend traumatic, therapy sessions for sex reassignment. It all came out when, in 1997, Milton Diamond, a sexologist, convinced David to tell his story to discourage doctors from doing the same to other children. After that, he went public about his predicament through Rolling Stone magazine, and later a book named As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl was published. Here is the story of David’s life and how what he had to go through finally drove him to suicide.
When still a baby, David Reimer, born Bruce Reimer, was circumcised on April 27, 1966 to correct a condition called “phimosis”. However, the surgery failed resulting in irreparable damage to his penis.
Bruce Reimer and his identical twin Brian Reimer were taken to a urologist by his parents when they noticed something abnormal when the boys urinated. They were both diagnosed with phimosis and referred for circumcision at the age of just seven months. Phimosis is a condition in which the foreskin of a penis cannot be pulled back resulting in balloon-like swelling during urination and pain during erection but otherwise is harmless. The surgery was first performed on Bruce using the unconventional method of cauterization. Bruce’s penis was badly burnt during the operation and was beyond surgical repair. So, the doctors chose not to operate on his brother Brian whose phimosis corrected itself without any surgery.
In 1967, worried about his future, Bruce’s parents consulted psychologist John Money who claimed that Bruce was more likely to have a successful and functional sexual life as a girl. He persuaded them to let Bruce undergo sex reassignment surgery.
John Money was a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland who was gaining fame as a pioneer in the field of sexual development and gender identity based on his research on intersex patients. Money was a supporter of the “Theory of Gender Neutrality” and believed that gender identity was a result of social learning and could be changed through behavioral intervention. After seeing his interview on TV in February 1967, the Reimers took Bruce to see Money. Money and his team persuaded the Reimers to believe that sex reassignment surgery was the best option for Bruce.
At twenty-two months of age, Bruce underwent surgery in which his testes were removed and a vulva was created. He was renamed “Brenda,” and Money provided psychological support for the reassignment which also served as an opportunity to further his research.
After the reassignment and surgery, Money continued to see Bruce every year for consultations and assessments. For Money, Bruce was the perfect test case for gender identity as a socially learned aspect of a person’s sense of self-identity. His brother Brian Raimer made an ideal control subject as the brothers shared genes, family environment, and womb. Also, Bruce was the first male infant with no prenatal or postnatal sexual abnormalities on whom sex reassignment and reconstruction surgery were performed.
According to Bruce, the twins were forced to enact sexual acts which Money reasoned was all part of healthy childhood sexual exploration that leads to adult gender identity. By the time he was thirteen, Bruce developed suicidal depression which led to discontinuation of therapy.
Bruce said that Money forced him to assume the female role going on all fours while Brian had to make thrusting movements with his crotch against Bruce’s buttocks, or have Bruce spread his legs with Brian on top. They were also made to take their clothes off to explore each other’s genitals. On at least one occasion, Money took a photograph of them during these acts. Though Money wrote that Bruce exhibited clearly female behavior, according to the notes from a former student at his lab, his parents had lied about the success of these experiments.
Since the surgery and until his teenage years, Bruce had to urinate through a hole in his abdomen and was given estrogen to encourage breast development. His parents discontinued follow up visits when Money pressured them for another surgery to construct a vagina. At age thirteen, Bruce developed suicidal depression and threatened to kill himself if there were to be any more visits to Money. On March 14, 1980, his parents told him the truth about his gender after which he decided to reassume his male identity and changed his name to David.
On May 4, 2004, overwhelmed by the problems he was facing, David shot himself in the head with a sawed-off shotgun in a grocery store’s parking lot.
David had undergone numerous surgeries to reconstruct his penis and have his breasts surgically removed by 1987. He also started taking testosterone injections. He married Jane Fontaine on September 22, 1990, and adopted her three children. However, his brother Brian suffered from schizophrenia after the experiments and died due to an overdose of antidepressants on July 1, 2002. Adding the difficult relationship with his family and his brother’s death was his unemployment. On May 2, 2004, his wife told him she wanted to separate, and two days later David committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
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