The Magazine

Boy, Interrupted

A tale of sex, lies, and Dr. Money.

Jun 19, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 38 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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Editor's Note: The death of psychologist and sexologist John Money, on July 7, 2006, prompted us to reread this review, published in The Weekly Standard six years ago. We should note also a relevant development since the essay first appeared: Dr. Money's former patient, David Reimer, committed suicide on May 5, 2004.

As Nature Made Him

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

by John Colapinto

HarperCollins, 279 pp., $ 26

Two riveting stories intertwine in John Colapinto's page-turner, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. One is a human drama, the other a cautionary tale of science gone awry. And both display, in the stark outlines of a twentieth-century morality play, the liberating power of truth and the devastation wrought by lies.

The first is the story of David Reimer -- born a healthy boy, injured at eight months in a botched circumcision, and subsequently reared as a girl -- as he struggled to retain his sanity in the midst of what he would later call his "brainwashing." When finally told the facts of his birth at the age of fourteen, he threw off the false identity thrust upon him and set about painfully to become a man.

The second story is the rise and fall of the haughty and renowned sex psychologist John Money, coiner of the term "gender identity," authority on hermaphroditism, and proponent of the view that sexual identity is principally a product of the way a child is reared. It was Money who persuaded two young Canadians, Ron and Janet Reimer, that if they implemented his program of surgery, hormone treatment, and consistent female conditioning, their injured son, Bruce, would grow up into a woman able to adopt children and normal in virtually every other respect. In his professional writings, Money presented Bruce Reimer's "sex reassignment" as an unqualified success -- a lie not fully and finally exposed until the publication of this book.

It all began when two working-class teenagers in Winnipeg, in flight from their strict Mennonite upbringings, fell in love, married, and in August 1965 became the parents of identical twin boys. After the accident in which one of the babies lost his penis, only one expert gave the despondent parents hope.

Early in 1967, Ron and Janet saw a television program featuring the charismatic Dr. Money. No wonder he impressed them. He was suave and confident and came equipped with a Harvard Ph.D., a perch at the famed Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and grants from the National Institutes of Health. In 1967, he was the man of the hour. At his instigation, Johns Hopkins had become the first hospital in America to embrace sex-change surgery. Accounts of his pioneering work in the New York Times and leading magazines were uniformly positive. "Indeed, of all the coverage in late 1966 and early 1967," writes Colapinto, "by far the hardest-edged" was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program the Reimers saw, and even it left a highly favorable impression. At one point, the interviewer asked a beneficiary of Money's ministrations, the attractive Mrs. Diane (nee Richard) Baransky, "And now you feel complete as a woman?" "Oh, yes, definitely," she replied. "Yes. Completely -- body and mind." Soon Ron and Janet were on a plane to Baltimore.

The Reimers' twins were just what John Money had been longing for: a chance to prove that his theory of the primacy of rearing over biology in the formation of gender identity held not just for people born with ambiguous anatomy but also for a normal child. Money's eagerness and conviction were compelling to the Reimers, then age twenty and twenty-one and neither with more than a ninth-grade education. "I thought, with his injury, it would be easier for Bruce to be raised as a girl -- to be raised gently," Janet told Colapinto thirty years later. "He wouldn't have to prove anything, like a man had to." Ron shrank from the thought of the humiliations and frustrations in store for a male maimed in the way his son was.

So the Reimers' trips to Baltimore became annual events. There was surgery, to remove the testicles. And there were regular consultations, for the parents, for the twins together, and for "Brenda," as little Bruce became. Dr. Money impressed on the parents the necessity of never wavering in their inculcation of Brenda's femininity. In particular, the child must not be told about her birth.

But from the start, Brenda resisted feminizing. She tried to tear off her dresses and wanted to shave like Daddy and build forts and have snowball fights with her brother. Recalls her twin, Brian, "She'd get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we'd use that for was to tie people up, whip people with it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat."