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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Bit by bit, Colapinto evokes the nightmare that engulfed Brenda Reimer's childhood. Unable to fit in at school with either the boys or the girls, taunted by both, she fell behind socially and academically. And the annual visits to Dr. Money made things worse. Starting with her very first follow-up consultation after the castration, Brenda, then four years old, reacted with dread. Wrote Money in his notes at the time, "There was something almost maniacal about her refusals [to be tested] and the way she hit, kicked and otherwise attacked people."

Both twins were confused and repelled by Dr. Money's questioning, which, as they got older, increasingly dwelt on sex. One of Money's theories was that children need to engage in "sexual rehearsal play," mimicking copulation, as part of their normal development, and he insisted that Brenda and Brian undress and do this on their visits to him. (The twins never mentioned this to their parents; they assumed their parents knew.) Starting in 1973 when Brenda was seven, he tried to prepare her for further surgery, to excavate a vagina. She firmly refused.

Part of what makes this story so moving is the desperate vehemence with which this innately male child, though always dressed and treated as a girl from before the age of two, refused to consent to her sex reassignment. When, on what would be the Reimers' last trip to Baltimore, Dr. Money confronted the thirteen-year-old Brenda with an adult male-to-female transsexual in an effort to make the idea of surgery more appealing, Brenda bolted from the room and fled the hospital grounds. She told her mother that if she were ever forced to see Money again, she would kill herself.

Less than a year after this, Brenda, now an adolescent and increasingly alienated, started therapy with a new psychiatrist in Winnipeg, a warm and grandmotherly veteran of the profession who was able to win her patient's trust. It proved to be a turning point. Although tensions within the Reimer family were extreme, with Ron drinking and Janet battling depression, Brenda began growing psychologically stronger. Eventually, her treatment team in Winnipeg advised her parents to tell her the facts of her birth.

They did, in March 1980, and from that point on, the story becomes the inspiring one of the arduous reclamation of a life. Brenda chose a new name, David. "It reminded me of the guy with the odds stacked against him," Reimer later told Colapinto, "the guy who was facing up to a giant eight feet tall. It reminded me of courage."

Even after the embarrassing transition from Brenda to David, he suffered periods of despair, including two suicide attempts and months of voluntary isolation in a cabin in the woods. But he made a friend, in whom he managed to confide. And he had successful reconstructive surgery. One night when he was twenty-two, in his loneliness, he prayed to God for the first time in his life. His prayer, he told Colapinto, was: "You know, I've had such a terrible life. I'm not going to complain to You, because You must have some idea of why You're putting me through this. But I could be a good husband if I was given the chance: I think I could be a good father, if I was given a chance." Two months later he met Jane, a mother of three, who would become his wife.

Colapinto remarks on the almost "oracular" eloquence of David Reimer, an unassuming man who works in a slaughterhouse, likes fishing and listening to Elvis, and takes pride in the role of sole breadwinner for his family David's style is as far as possible from the cosmopolitan polish, flaunted sexual amorality, and professional hubris of his long antagonist, John Money.

A notable strength of this book is the restraint with which Colapinto presents Money's activities and their acceptance by the medical community and the mainstream press. While the reader seethes in indignation, Colapinto calmly and relentlessly piles up facts. Consider:

* At the time he had Bruce Reimer castrated, Money knew very well of evidence contradicting his theory about the primacy of learning over biology in psychosexual development. He knew this from research on hormones done at the University of Kansas -- but also from his own work. He had just co-authored, with one of his graduate students, a study of ten girls, aged three to fourteen, who had been subjected to excesses of testosterone in utero when their mothers had taken a synthetic steroid. Nine of the ten girls had been born with masculinized genitals, and all nine demonstrated "tomboyishness," marked masculine preferences in clothing, toys, and play, and a "minimal concern for feminine frills, doll play, baby care, and household chores."