NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Until recently, he was content to live in blessed obscurity, a blue-collar worker who divided his time between family and his job scrubbing meat grinders at a Winnipeg slaughterhouse. The world didn't have to know that he was the subject of one of the most famous sex studies in modern psychiatry.
Now, thanks to a book about his remarkable childhood, he is anonymous no more. Meet David Reimer, the man who was raised as a girl after a hideous accident in infancy, a girl who adjusted so well that her renowned doctor offered her case as convincing evidence that gender isn't determined by biology, but by the way our parents raise us.
Except for one thing: it wasn't true.
Reimer, now 34, never felt that he was a girl, and spent years in agony. His ordeal is recounted in a new book, "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl," by John Colapinto. Reimer is in New York this week, speaking to reporters and making a television appearance, but he is uncomfortable with his new celebrity.
"It's traumatic, it's embarrassing, it's humiliating," says Reimer, who's been teased on the job and draws stares even when he walks into a bank. "People look at you and point, 'You used to be a girl?' "
But Reimer, a slight man with angular features and the suggestion of a beard, said he had grown tired of the silence of doctors who never acknowledged that things had gone wrong. "People should see that I'm not different from anybody else," he says. "I think the average person can put themselves in my position."
His story goes to the heart of a centuries-old debate over the malleability of gender, a question that is still far from settled. Neither is the legacy of the Johns Hopkins psychologist who helped shape American attitudes toward gender in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the years surrounding Reimer's birth, Dr. John Money was perhaps the nation's preeminent sex researcher. He pioneered the use of hormones to curb the sexual appetites of pedophiles. He made Hopkins the first hospital in the United States to perform sex-change operations for adults.
He was an expert in the problems of children born with genitals that weren't clearly male or female. He believed that children could be assigned to either gender before age 3 and adapt happily, despite the influences of biology. He is also the man who guided David Reimer's conversion from boy to girl -- and declared it a success.
To behavioral scientists, David Reimer's story is well known. Originally named Bruce, he and his identical twin, Brian, were born in April 1966 to Mennonite parents in Winnipeg, Manitoba. When they were 7 months old, their parents took them back to the hospital to be circumcised. No procedure was more routine.
A terrible accident
Taking Bruce first, the doctor chose to use an electric tool that simultaneously cuts and stanches any bleeding. Instead, the procedure ended up burning and destroying the baby's entire penis. The horrified doctor never got to Brian.
There was no clear course for the parents. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic said plastic surgeons could construct a reasonable likeness of a penis, but the cosmetic and functional results were far from assured. Bruce might never really feel he was a boy. In the words of one doctor, he would "live apart."
Ron and Janet Reimer took Bruce to see Money, who proposed another solution. Their child could be successfully raised as a girl if the parents renamed him, dressed him in girl's clothing and regarded him in every way possible as their daughter.
The child would have to be castrated before age 2. At adolescence, she would have to take female hormones to produce breasts and undergo surgery to build a cosmetic vagina. She would never bear children but would identify as a girl, Money said. With any luck, she would become attracted to men, perhaps even marry.
The Reimers agonized over the decision but in the end took Money's advice. By the time they arrived at Hopkins to have the child castrated, they had let his hair grow long and converted his pajamas into frilly nightgowns. They renamed him Brenda and brought the twins back to Hopkins for yearly evaluations.
Throughout their childhood, Money chronicled their progress in scientific journals and books, declaring the sex-reassignment a success. When the twins were 7, Money wrote that the case was "dramatic proof that the gender identity option is open at birth for normal infants." (Following the practice of scientists, he did not identify the family.)
"At five," he wrote in his book "Sexual Signatures," "the girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and loved being her daddy's little sweetheart. Throughout childhood, her stubbornness and the abundant physical energy she shares with her twin brother and expends freely have made her a tomboyish girl, but nonetheless a girl."
The problem is that "Brenda" rebelled against her assigned gender from the start. She grew into an awkward, self-loathing child regarded by peers as an androgynous freak who didn't behave like a girl.
Brenda gave femininity a try. "I tried it and hated it so much," Reimer says now. "I felt I would rather die." Brenda was virtually friendless, failed at school and later became deeply depressed and tried suicide.
She fought Money's relentless questioning, preferred boy's clothing and was stronger and more aggressive than her brother. She was repulsed when a boy, in a supreme act of charity, planted a kiss on her cheek.
Reimer said he and his brother hated their visits to Hopkins but were coaxed along by promises of side trips to Washington, New York and even Disneyland. Ron and Janet Reimer were swayed by the charisma and assurance of John Money, who was regarded even by critics as a brilliant man.
Finally, when they were 12, the twins refused to go to Hopkins ever again, and their exasperated parents gave in. The family never saw Money again, and the famous psychologist never did a follow-up study to see how the twins fared.
When Brenda was 14, her desperate parents revealed the truth. "My parents thought I'd be angry, but I was relieved," Reimer says. "You see, all those years I thought I was going crazy. Now it made sense. I wasn't going mad."
Deciding to reclaim his gender and call himself David was easy, but confronting people who knew him as Brenda was another thing. He stopped going to school and studied with a tutor at home. He hid out in his basement, and when he finally mustered the courage to be seen in public, he initially posed as Brian's cousin. Eventually, he underwent painful surgery to construct a cosmetic penis. At 30, he would marry Jane Anne Fontane and became stepfather to her three children.
Exposing the truth
Despite its failure, the experiment was widely accepted as a success until Dr. Milton Diamond, a sex researcher at the University of Hawaii who had questioned Money's theories, tracked Reimerdown in 1994 and discovered what had actually happened. Three years ago, Diamond and Dr. Keith Sigmundson, a Canadian doctor, disclosed their findings in the Archives of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Diamond had long argued that gender was biologically imprinted -- the result, perhaps, of hormones upon the fetal brain. The article didn't settle the debate but at least demolished what appeared to be the best evidence yet that gender could be reassigned.
The story caused a stir. Free- lance writer John Colapinto saw it on the front page of the New York Times and was riveted.
Colapinto was skilled at getting families in turmoil to open up but figured that this story would be worth pursuing even if Reimer refused to talk. Through Diamond, he arranged to meet Reimer over dinner in New York.
"I was expecting to meet someone who was my stereotype of a eunuch -- someone kind of feminized, plump with a high-pitched voice," Colapinto said. "Instead, what I met was sort of a slender, handsome guy with nothing feminine about his body."
Colapinto said he was shocked by Reimer's deep voice and his blunt style of speech. He was also struck by the shy but combative posture Reimer took when asked about his childhood.
"He'd thrust out his jaw, like someone challenged him to a fistfight. It was this sense of the ultimate injustice done to him. He carries that." But Reimer warmed to Colapinto, and agreed to let the author visit him in Winnipeg. After two nights in a motel, Colapinto moved into the Reimers' basement.
With a local doctor's help, Reimer obtained his medical files, which contained transcripts of recordings made during the yearly visits to Hopkins. "They revealed a combative, angry, frightened 'girl,' thwarting Money at every turn, clearly and transparently and heartbreakingly trying to sound like she was a girl," Colapinto said.
Most horrifying were occasions when Money sought to cement the twins' gender roles by showing them photos of naked adults, ordering them to pose naked and assume sexual positions. The twins said they never told their parents about this because they were sure they already knew.
Money's critics aren't sure whether he ever recognized that the gender switch had failed, or whether he was simply unwilling to acknowledge it. Money refused several requests for an interview, Colapinto said, but unexpectedly came to the phone one day when the author called to check facts for a Rolling Stone article that led to the book. The psychologist denied that he had misperceived what happened in therapy, Colapinto said. He suggested that Reimer might have been coached by others to reclaim his gender.
Also, he charged that the controversy was stirred up by "anti-feminists" intent on showing that masculine and feminine traits are cemented in a person's biology -- and, therefore, less amenable to change.
Money declined The Sun's request for an interview.
Since 1982, Money, now 78, has worked out of a private office on Monument Street, distanced geographically and philosophically from a department that had taken a new turn. Dr. Paul McHugh, who became psychiatry chairman in 1975, denies that he pushed Money off campus but admits to philosophical differences.
It didn't take McHugh long, for instance, to put a stop to transsexual surgery. Adults who were confused over their gender needed to be counseled, he said, not mutilated. A study has shown transsexuals to be just as unhappy after surgery as before. And, surgeons, he found, recoiled every time they had to perform one.
Today, McHugh blanches over Money's reported use of pornography to help shape the twin's gender identity but says he wasn't aware of it at the time. He also felt that Money tended to view sex as the mechanical "rubbing of genitals," ignoring the spiritual mysteries behind the act. Mostly, McHugh says, he feels sorry for everybody involved in a tragic case.
An unusual case
Fortunately, patients like David Reimer don't come along very often. Dr. John Gearhart, a pediatric urologist at Hopkins, has seen three boys with the same injury in the last 14 years. All were raised as boys. This, he said, is due as much to advances in plastic surgery as to changing concepts of gender identity. But attitudes are changing.
Dr. Bill Reiner, pediatric urologist and psychiatrist, has been studying 18 boys who were raised as girls because they were born without penises. Eleven spontaneously decided to become boys, usually by the time they reached puberty. Five kept their female identities but behaved much as boys -- refusing to wear dresses or play with dolls.
"The message is pretty clear," Reiner said. "You better raise these kids as boys. If you raise them as boys and they later decide to be girls, that's fine. You haven't altered their ability to do that."
David Reimer says he felt compassion for his parents who made the best decision they could back then, and, he is sure, suffered as much as he did. He says too many years have passed to feel much anger toward the doctor who made the initial mistake. But, as much as he'd like to, he doubts he will ever get over his anger toward Money, who, he insists, should have seen his error and freed David to be himself.
At night sometimes, Reimer wakes up in a cold sweat. "I have memories that come back, like a soldier who saw his friends get all bloody and die in battle," he says. "How can you forget?"