Day 573: From Boy To Girl To Man – The David Reimer Mess

originally published July 26, 2013

Every so often, medical science allows for a horrific story to plop onto the table of discussion, the foul stench of How-Could-They mocking the air while the malodorous sludge of dangerous malpractice seeps off the edge and lands in a tragic little puddle of broken lives and stolen future. For those looking up at the underside of the table, wondering what could have been had their choice of doctor been more fortuitous, we can offer only the solace that their story may prevent a similar misstep upon someone else’s life.

This is the unbelievable tale of David Reimer, a man who was a victim – first of circumstance, then of incompetence, subsequently of aberrance, and lastly of medical truculence. David’s story made international headlines, and sparked debates of philosophy, ethics and the fuzzy lines of medical decency.

Also, for the purposes of this particular re-telling of the tale, I feel the story requires one of these to be laid out up front:

The reason for the giant asterisk is that my research into this sensitive topic stretches not much further than my trusty but sometimes lopsided companion, Wikipedia, and a smattering of other online sources. While the principle events of this tale are no doubt true, not all sides of the story have been equally represented, at least not in the places I’ve been looking. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Bruce and Brian Reimer were identical twins, born in Winnipeg in 1965. For the first six months of their lives, the only trouble they had stacked against them was the fact that they lived in Winnipeg. There was some concern over their urination, and the babies were diagnosed with phimosis, a condition wherein the foreskin is interfering with the normal goings-on of one’s nether regions.

Helpful tip: Don’t look up phimosis at your desk at work, even on Wikipedia. The photo that appears is not easy to explain away to coworkers and/or supervisors.

The solution, doctors told the Reimer parents, is circumcision. For whatever reason, the doctors elected to forego the snipping method that had worked for doctors and moyels for the past couple thousand years, and instead try out cauterization. This was a terrible, terrible idea. Bruce’s penis was burned beyond repair – there was nothing that could be salvaged. The Reimer parents opted to spare Brian’s wiener a similar roasting, and allowed the phimosis to heal on its own, which it totally did.

Enter the Money.

Dr. John Money was a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, specializing in gender identity and working with intersex patients. Doc Money had a theory that gender roles were learned – we all start out gender-neutral, and acquire our identifiably male or female traits and behaviors based on how we were brought up. So his solution to the Reimers’ situation was simple: lop off whatever was left of Bruce’s manhood, remove his testicles, build him a workable vagina and raise him as a girl.

No, seriously. This actually happened, less than fifty years ago. In this country. Or in ‘that’ country if you aren’t reading this from Canada or the US. You get the point.

At the age of 22 months, the surgery was performed and Bruce became Brenda. Over the next decade, the Reimers brought their kids in to see Dr. Money for checkups and consultations. His findings were that the transformation had been very positive, and the gender reassignment a complete success. These were the findings that would best support Doc Money’s big theory of gender neutrality – whether or not they were the truth is another matter.

According to David Reimer’s later recollection – which may be a result of false memory syndrome or may be bang-on accurate… see that giant asterisk up there – Doc Money’s method of coaching Brenda over to young-womanhood was to pair her up with her brother, and have them practice. The kids would assume various positions (missionary, doggie-style), with Brenda in the traditionally female spot, and Brian was instructed to thrust his hips. The kids were also told to remove their clothing and inspect their own and each other’s genitalia.

I feel I need to point out here that Dr. Money’s opinion on pedophilia is on record. He believes ‘affectional pedophilia’, in which the attraction between man and boy is truly mutual, is totally cool. I’m not saying that enters into the Reimer boys’ situation at all, but only to illustrate that this is the kind of doctor we’re dealing with here.

At this point, Brenda didn’t have her vagina. She had a hole the surgeons had left in her abdomen for urinary purposes. By the time Doc Money was ready to finish the job, the Reimers’ parents cut off contact. The children had been freaking out prior to each annual visit with Doc Money – it was clearly traumatic for them. So they stopped. Brenda was given estrogen so she’d grow breasts, and her nether regions were left as-is.

By 13, Brenda Reimer was depressed to the point of threatening suicide. Her parents finally told her the whole story. The following year, the decision was made that Brenda would cease to be, and David Reimer would take the controls, assuming the identity for which he was hard-wired from the start. A double-mastectomy, two phalloplasty operations and a whack-load of hormone injections later, and David was finally the man he was supposed to be.

Well, sort of.

David Reimer was understandably burdened with a heap of emotional scars from all this. So was Brian, his twin, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a relatively young age. David wound up marrying in 1990, and becoming a step-father to his wife’s three children. Ideally, I’d like to just wrap up the story there, but unfortunately there’s a truly rotten denouement to deal with.

Brian Reimer overdosed on antidepressants in 2002. Whether it was suicide or accident was never revealed to the public, and in fact it may not even be known to his family. Less than two years later, three days after his wife told him she wanted to separate, David Reimer took his own life in a grocery store parking lot with a sawed-off shotgun. He was 38.

This is the closest thing I have read to a modern incarnation of a Dr. Frankenstein, mucking about with nature in order to advance his theories that he swears to be true. If anything, this catastrophe proves that gender is not a result of which paint color parents choose for a baby’s room, or whether they’re given a Hardy Boys novel or a Nancy Drew novel for their birthday. It’s wired into our brains along with all the other muck that defines us as individuals. Sure, sometimes the gender wiring doesn’t always match up with the physical flesh-parts hanging off our bodies, but hey – we’re all different, that’s just how it is. Dealing with it by waving a scalpel and trying to tell a kid how he or she is wired ain’t gonna work.

If nothing else, I hope David is at peace.

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