As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl. By John Colapinto. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 279 pages. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.
John Colapinto is the Rolling Stone reporter whose original article about David Reimer won him a National Magazine Award and, more importantly, a request from its subject to tell his story at book length. David is better known as “John/Joan,” the boy who lost his penis in a circumcision as an infant and then was “reassigned” as a girl. Remarkably, the perfect control for this unintentional experiment was born along with David in the form of his twin brother, who in the wake of the disaster that struck David, was never circumcised. The supposed success of this endeavor was trumpeted by the famous and now notorious Dr. John Money as one of his premier achievements, by feminists as proof of the malleability of gender identification, and by psychologists as a demonstration of the importance of nurture over nature.
There was only one “slight” problem: “John/Joan” wouldn’t stay Joan. He beat up boys as well as girls, sometimes, ironically enough, when protecting his twin brother. He ripped off the dresses his parents tried to get him to wear, and stubbornly insisted on only playing with male-oriented toys such as trucks and guns. Perhaps most remarkably, well before his parents finally told him the truth about his early life, he often urinated standing up. Contacted twenty-six years later, the twins’ kindergarten teacher remembered the child vividly enough that she emphatically stated she had never seen a girl like her, before or since.
Eventually, David underwent further surgery and different hormonal treatments and returned to life as a male. His entire family suffered in different ways under the impact of his problems, with a number of suicide attempts by David and other family members, serious alcoholism, and equally grave dysfunction that nearly ripped the family apart.
Today David is happily married and although unable to father children of his own is ably stepfathering his wife’s three children. Of course, the money he received on turning eighteen which had accumulated from his family’s out-of-court settlement of his case can never give him back a normal childhood or even the ability to be a biological father.
The story of David Reimer inevitably becomes also the story of Dr. John Money. World-renowned as a premier expert on gender reassignment, the man is both remarkably unstable and breathtakingly unethical. Throwing tantrums at the slightest provocation, manipulating David’s naive parents into keeping their child under his care, fabricating data for publication including outright lies about David’s progress, disclosing intimate details of his clients’ lives in published books without obtaining prior permission, forcing David and his brother to view pornography and mime sex acts with each other behind closed doors while not telling their parents what he was doing, and blaming everyone but himself for problems that were created by no one but himself. Given Money’s reputation, his claims of the success of David’s sex reassignment were widely reproduced and quickly accepted as gospel by most serious researchers. Motivated by the quest for truth rather than any personal animus, Dr. Milton Diamond did dare to confront and eventually debunk Money’s frauds.
The human touches to this story are poignant: David’s confrontation with his circumciser. After resuming life as a male, David’s awkward claim to be the “cousin” of his twin brother when he met a friend who knew him as a girl. The touching wedding vows he and his wife created for each other.
Ultimately, the story of David Reimer is the story of how credulous we can be toward authority, and how we owe it to ourselves and our society to retain a healthy skepticism no matter how trustworthy those in power may seem. And, of course, it is also the story of how we carry our own inherent nature deep inside us and how we cannot be flipped from male to female and back again as if we were so many light switches.