The Boy Who Lived as a Girl

July 4th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Human beings are wonderfully flexible, adaptive and responsive creatures who can display an amazing range of behaviors, that shift according to the surrounding environment. The malleability of humans beings is so impressive that the belief that there are no inborn traits, only learned traits and adaptations, is understandable.

In the case of David Reimer (born as Bruce Reimer) the belief that there are no behavioral or brain differences between the sexes was taken to its extreme. Bruce was the victim of a circumcision (performed using an unconventional method) that went horribly wrong, leading to his penis being burnt to the extent that it could not be salvaged. His parents, distraught over the incident, were desperately looking for a way forward when an apparent solution revealed itself.

One night, the Reimers see a television profile of an American doctor and his theories on sex and gender. Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore argues that boys – caught early enough – could be raised to be girls. Nurture and not nature determines a child’s gender, the doctor argued.

Janet Reimer thought it was worth exploring. The family went to Baltimore to see Dr. Money, who decided that Bruce Reimer was a perfect candidate.

It was decided the Bruce would become Brenda, and the doctor castrated him (removed his testicles). The parents were told to raise him as a girl, and that would be the end of it. However, problems quickly arose:

Janet Reimer did her best to raise Bruce as a girl. She dressed him in skirts and dresses and showed him how to apply make-up. But the transformation was anything but smooth. Bruce Reimer didn’t like playing with the other girls – and he didn’t move like one either. He got into schoolyard fistfights. The other kids called him names like “caveman,” “freak” and “it.”

Clearly, the other kids-who had no idea that Brenda had been born as Bruce-felt that s/he wasn’t behaving and playing the way young girls do. What’s even more interesting to note, is that Bruce himself had no idea that he was anything but a girl, and his parents were also raising him the way they would raise a girl. Still, he simply would not pass for a girl, according to his brother:

“The only difference between him and I was he had longer hair.” “I tried really, really hard to rear her as a gentle lady,” Janet Reimer said. “But it didn’t happen.”

Dr Money, on the other hand, was still pretending that the experiment had been a success, and claiming so in scientific journals:

He published an article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour pronouncing the experiment a resounding success. It became widely known in medical circles as the Joan/John case.

Money wrote: “The child’s behaviour is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother.”

I guess some people simply don’t know when to quit, and admit that they were wrong…

Things didn’t end well for David Reimer, who committed suicide at the age of 38. Fortunately, science has finally been able to put an end to the “sex-is-nothing-but-a-social-construction” belief.

Around the same time, research was sounding the death knell for the nurture vs. nature theory. Two studies – released by the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center – concluded that it’s prenatal exposure to male hormones that turns normal male babies into boys. The studies “seriously question the current practice of sex-reassigning some of these infants as females…”

Since then, researchers have shown that it’s not only prenatal testosterone that turns the brain into a male brain, the Y chromosome also plays an important part.

Nurture vs nature has been resolved: it’s not either/or, it’s both, and they also interact throughout life.


5 Responses to “The Boy Who Lived as a Girl”

  1. Christophe Says:

    Urrgh! A Circumsicion accident burnt his penis away? They raised him as a girl? What a freudian nightmare is this?!

    Poor David Reimer’s story reminds me of Cal Stephanides, a fictional character in the novel “Middlesex” by american writer Jeffrey Eugenides (2002). It’s possible that Reimer’s case was an inspiration for the novelist.

    However, “Middlesex” is a great read for anyone interested in prenatal hormonal programming of the human brain, 5-Alpha-Reductase-Hermaphroditis, the many troubles of adolescent first love, and eventually, the liberation of gender and human dignity.

  2. Danny Says:

    Adding this to how transsexual people often say how the gender they were raised as didn’t match the gender they really are (and change to) would lean to the conclusion that nature and nurture must be the same when it comes to gender identity. When nature and nurture are at odds with each other and the person suffering this struggle does not get to resolve the conflict it seems to lead to problems. But I don’t pretend to be an expert on these things.

  3. David Says:

    A gruesome story.

    I think it’s an important thing to shed light on, Pelle. People are in kind of automatic pilot about this or swayed by some conditioned, aesthetic preference, unaware of the risks.

    I read earlier that the risk of something like this is about one in a million. Long ago I read there were something like a handful of such cases in the United States each year. It’s not worth the risk.

    More frequently it leads to complications. It’s just some ancient practice that continues because people don’t think deeply enough about it, don’t you think? I think it is changing slowly, though.

  4. Pelle Billing Says:

    When nature and nurture are at odds with each other and the person suffering this struggle does not get to resolve the conflict it seems to lead to problems.

    Nicely summarized, I agree.

  5. Pelle Billing Says:

    Christophe and David,

    Yes, circumcision in itself is a very questionable practice in post-traditional societies. I’ll probably write about circumcision in my next post.