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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* Money's own 1952 Ph.D. thesis challenged the necessity of early intervention to correct unusual genitalia. It reviewed over two hundred and fifty cases of hermaphrodites who received no surgical intervention as babies. It concluded, to its author's amazement, that the majority made an "adequate adjustment" to life, manifesting neither psychosis nor neurosis. In-depth interviews with ten of the subjects "only strengthened the investigator's impression that the condition of the genitalia plays a strikingly insignificant part in the way a person develops a stable and healthy gender identity, not to mention a secure and confident self-image."

* Money started touting the success of his work in the "twins case" when Brenda was seven. The case was the headline-grabbing centerpiece of Money's address to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 and was prominent in his book published the same day, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl. He made no mention, however, of Brenda's severe academic, social, and emotional difficulties, although he himself had intervened to dissuade her school from making her repeat kindergarten, and she had later repeated first grade. Money stopped bringing up the case after 1980 and deflected inquiries about its outcome, but he continued to promote surgical sex reassignment for injured or deformed baby boys.

As depressing as Money's mendacity is the ease with which he got away with it. Money's account of the twins case could not be verified since the patient's identity remained confidential, yet the lay press lapped it up. Time magazine called the case "strong support" for the view that "conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behavior can be altered." The authors of textbooks in pediatrics, endocrinology, and the social sciences were just as gullible. The 1979 Textbook of Sexual Medicine, for example, by Robert Kolodny and sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, maintained: "The childhood development of this (genetically male) girl has been remarkably feminine and is very different from the behavior exhibited by her identical twin brother. The normality of her development can be viewed as a substantial indication of the plasticity of human gender identity and the relative importance of social learning and conditioning in this process."

Money's work lent an aura of science to the radical feminism then politically correct. And in that heyday of radical chic, his reputation was only enhanced in some quarters by his personal outlandishness. He insisted on peppering his speech with the bluntest four-letter words. He publicly advocated open marriage, recreational sex, pornography (he was an expert witness defending the 1973 film Deep Throat), and the various perversions he preferred to call "paraphilias." Even in the squarer 1980s, Money deplored the "moralistic ignorance" of those who reject pedophilia. In his collected writings Venuses Penuses (1985), he called himself a "missionary of sex."

But just as David's story culminates in his triumph over the past, so Money's wends its way to his downfall. In 1975, his protector at Johns Hopkins was replaced as chairman of the psychiatry department by Dr. Paul McHugh, a fearless scourge of corruption in modern psychiatry. Two years later, a Hopkins psychiatrist produced a longterm follow-up study of fifty adult transsexuals treated at Hopkins since 1966. It found that none of them showed measurable improvement in his life, and McHugh had the Gender Identity Clinic summarily shut down. Soon Money's course in human sexology was dropped, and when he turned sixty-five, he was expelled from the campus.

Incredibly, however, it was only in 1997 that the complete failure of David Reimer's sex change was reported in the scientific literature. This was the doing of Milton Diamond, who had been a junior member of the University of Kansas team, back in the 1950s, that had discovered the effect on adult guinea pigs' sexual behavior of exposure to hormones in utero. In the 1960s, Diamond had challenged Money's theories head on. But more than two decades passed before he was able to track down David Reimer in Winnipeg.

It was from Diamond that David learned, to his amazement, that his case was famous -- and, to his horror, that its alleged success had been cited to justify thousands of surgical sex reassignments over thirty years. This stunning information persuaded David to cooperate with Diamond and his coauthor, psychiatrist Keith Sigmundson. Their 1997 article in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine recounted the child's ordeal and pleaded for an end to the practice of surgical sex reassignment of babies.

In their article, Diamond and Sigmundson continued to preserve David's privacy, calling the patient "Joan," then "John." But with As Nature Made Him, the Reimers have at last stepped from behind the veil of anonymity and fully shared their story. It is their good fortune and ours that John Colapinto could present this account. A magazine journalist, Colapinto has made the most of a wealth of medical records, including transcripts and notes from psychological sessions, as well as interviews with a wide range of participants. He never stoops to invent dialogue or otherwise presume to get inside his subject's head.

Meanwhile, John Money drips with disdain for his critics, whom he sees as "lacking in the special talent for original thinking." And why shouldn't he? His diehard supporters include the National Institutes of Health. As of the summer of 1999, Colapinto reports, the latest installment in Money's thirtyfive-year series of taxpayer-funded grants came to $ 135,956. It will be interesting to see whether the stipend survives the publication of this book.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.