This is the story of a brutal medical experiment, pitting nature against nurture, in the name of exploring gender, that brought a family to a tragic end.
David Reimer is said to be one of the most famous patients in the history of world medicine but is also a serious victim of the brutality of scientific experimentation. He was the guinea pig for a radical form of medical experimentation that led to the haunting deaths of his family.
The beginning of the tragedy
On August 22nd, 1965, in Winnipeg (Canada), the couple Ron and Janet Reimer were happy to welcome the birth of their twins Brian and Bruce who were both born healthy. But at just seven months old, both children started having difficulty urinating. The parents took the boys to the hospital for treatment which at the time involved circumcision.
The doctor used an electrocautery needle for the procedure instead of the traditional blade. In a horrifying accident, a significant part of Bruce’s genitalia was damaged during the procedure. The Reimers were told that their son would never grow up to have full use of his genitalia.
A glimmer of supposed hope
Months passed by, and the Reimers had no idea what to do with the disfigured genitals of their little boy, Bruce until one evening they happened to see a CBC interview with Dr. John Money, who was a psychologist specializing in gender transitioning and reassignment. Dr. Money held the belief that children, until the age of two, are what he called ‘gender-neutral’.
Soon after, Janet wrote to Dr. Money, and within a few weeks, the Reimer family flew to Baltimore to see him. Dr. Money recommended ‘gender reassignment’ for Bruce, he suggested that he transition from male to female, and convinced the couple that it would be psychologically beneficial for their son to live as a girl. He was motivated by a desire to prove his theory that gender was dependent on how a child was raised rather than what gender the child was born with. He believed that nurture would outweigh nature and he intended to use the family to prove this hypothesis.
However, Money did not tell the family that Bruce was a guinea pig for his research. At the time, no child born with ‘normal’ sex organs had ever succeeded in transitioning to a new gender. For Dr. Money, Bruce was the ideal candidate for his experiment, made more perfect still by the fact that Bruce had a twin brother which would help to make the test more conclusive.
For the devastated Reimers, they felt at the time, that they had no other choice than to accept the suggestion of Dr. Money.
The beginning of the brutal experiment
Four months later, on July 3rd, 1967, the first surgical step was taken for Bruce – castration. At the age of 2 years old, Bruce had a new name, Brenda.
Each year Janet brought her two children to Johns Hopkins University to see Dr. Money who was keeping track of the twins’ progress in what became known as the John/Joan case. Brenda’s identity was kept a secret.
By the time the twins were 9, Dr. Money believed that his experiment had been a total success. He published a paper on his findings, in which he stated, “Her behavior is that of a normal and active little girl, and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish ways of her twin brother, that it offers nothing to stimulate one’s conjectures.”
Up until the age of 12, Brenda underwent many female reassignment surgeries and began injecting Estrogen supplements to stimulate female puberty and prevent male hormonal development to occur.
In one of the yearly meetings with the twins, he also recorded that “The mother stated that her daughter was much neater than her brother and, in contrast with him, disliked to be dirty.”
However, the truth was quite the opposite, and the reality was much more complicated.
Although being repeatedly told by his mother that he was a girl, Brenda never felt that way. “She tried to rip off the first dress that her mother sewed for her. When she saw her father shaving, she wanted a razor, too. She favored toy guns and trucks over sewing machines and Barbies.” (According to The LA Times.)
“I could see that Brenda wasn’t happy as a girl,” Janet recalled.
“She was very rebellious. She was very masculine, and I could not persuade her to do anything feminine. Brenda had almost no friends growing up. Everybody ridiculed her, called her cavewoman.”
Born as a boy, Bruce was raised to become a little girl.
By the time Brenda reached puberty at 13, she was depressed to the point of experiencing suicidal thoughts. She strongly objected to taking Estrogen injections to stimulate breast development as well as undergoing surgery to improve her female genitalia. She also refused to see Dr. John Money.
When Brenda was 15 years old, witnessing her inner and physical pain, Ron Reimer finally revealed the truth to his ‘daughter’.
This news came as a huge relief to Brenda. Within weeks Brenda had chosen to begin the process of reverting back to being a boy, which involved a number of surgical procedures and hormone treatments.
The tragic ends that became the family
Brenda took the name David when returning to his ‘natural’ sex that he was born as.
In 1990, David married a woman named Jane and became the stepfather to three young children, but he still couldn’t escape from the dark feelings that plagued him.
Although married, David still could not escape the darkness that plagued his childhood.
After discovering that the trauma of his life had been caused by the cruel experiment of Dr. John Money, he decided to reveal the truth about his life to the world in John Colapinto’s book, ‘As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl’.
Despite his ceaseless effort, the horrific experiences of his childhood constantly haunted his mind, causing him serious periods of depression. David also had difficulties within his marriage due to his fear of abandonment.
More tragically still, the other members of the Reimer family did not escape the trauma unscathed. David’s twin brother Brian suffered from severe mental illness, his father Ron became a heavy drinker and his mother was plunged into a deep depression. In the spring of 2002, Brian tragically died from a drug overdose.
In the last years of his life, David suffered from depression.
On May 2nd, 2004, David’s wife left, their marriage now in ruin and just 2 days later, in a mood of extreme distress and pain, David chose to take his own life, ending 38 years of suffering.