Nature v Nurture: David Reimer Case

David Reimer

David Reimer

‘Gender is a different sort of identity, and it’s relation to anatomy complex’ (Undoing Gender by Judith Butler p.63)

The main issues within my research is whether gender and identity or rather gender identity is defined by nature or nurture. For me, I believe for the most part nurture impacts a persons’ gender and identity more so than their genetics, hormones and genitalia alone. I believe conditioning; the environment and upbringing are crucial elements to the development of gender. In the case of David Reimer, however, I’m forced to re-think whether biology truly is destiny and that nurture really cannot change a person’s gender identity.

Identical twin boys, Bruce and Brian Reimer were born 22nd August 1965 in Winnipeg, Canada to the proud doting parents Janet and Ron Reimer. They were healthy strong baby boys but were to lead tragic lives due to one scientists’ radical theory. When the twins were several months of age, they went to a local hospital for a routine and recommended circumcision. Unawares to the parents, the Doctor operating was using electrical equipment to perform the surgery, “I thought they were going to use a knife. I didn’t know there was electricity involved.” (Janet Reimer, Horizon, 2000)

Bruce was operated before Brian. During Bruce’s circumcision the equipment malfunctioned and the operation went disastrously wrong, causing to severely burn Bruce’s penis. As a result, the organ, a physical element which is key to gender identity was rendered unrecoverable. Brian, Bruce’s identical twin, was never operated on. Janet and Ron were hysterical: at a lost as to what to do for their little boy without a penis. At the time of the incident reconstructive genital surgery was still undeveloped and not advanced enough, leaving the Reimer’s and medical experts alike pessimistic for the little boy.

Dr. John Money

Dr. John Money

A few months later, highly renowned sexologist, Dr. John Money, was featured on a television programme, which instantly caught Janet and Ron’s attention. Money spoke confidently and intelligible about his theories regarding gender formation.  In the debate of sex change operations, Money brought on a female transsexual, who looked convincingly female and feminine. This successful example was enough to convince Janet that this could be an option for her son Bruce and saw Money’s theories as a lifeline, “The transsexual certainly made an impact.” (Janet Reimer, Horizon, 2000)

Janet wrote to Dr. Money immediately and he replied promptly. He invited them to visit him in Baltimore, Maryland and assured the Reimer’s that they could raise Bruce as a little girl. The fraught nature-versus-nurture debate, was once and fall, to be settled: to prove that gender was so fluid that by a mere change in childrearing and upbringing and some surgical interventions, a boy could be turned into a girl, whilst his twin brother developed as a male. The Reimer’s regarded Dr. Money as their salvation in reality the Reimer twins were merely the perfect guinea pigs for him to exploit his theories. They were the answer to each other’s prayers.

Dr. Money developed a fundamental new theory about nature v nurture and how these forces impact the way we recognize ourselves as either a girl or a boy.  Dr. Money suggested that all humans are neutral for the first two years of life, regardless of their genes and physical traits. This theory was based on his case studies of intersex individuals, who are physically both male and female. During this critical two-year period, a ‘gender gate’ as Dr. Money described is opened, if parents choose the sex of the child during this time, the way they bring up the child would determine the child’s gender, not it’s biological or physical characteristics. He offered the view that if a child underwent surgery and started socialization as a gender different from the one assigned at birth they could develop normally and adapt perfectly. Dr. Money believed it is a child’s nurture its upbringing that would determine whether they feel masculine or feminine, not necessarily nature.

However, up until this point he had never applied this controversial theory to a non-intersex child. Intersex children are not necessarily the same as regular children as they receive different amounts of hormones in the womb. As a result, some argued that Dr. Money’s hypothesis that gender was purely the outcome of nurture would not be applicable for all children. But with the unexpected arrival of the Reimer twins, Dr. Money was faced with most perfect opportunity to exercise and practice his theory. The fact he could track the development of both boys, one being still raised, as a male, the other female, would evidence that his theories on gender formation a renowned success. It would also bring hope to those who aren’t born intersex, but through whatever circumstances their sex becomes different, just like Bruce Reimer.

Bruce Reimer started to become Brenda on July 3, 1967. Bruce was surgically castrated at John Hopkins medical hospital. This meant he would no longer produce the male hormone testosterone while the remaining skin was used to form a rudimentary vulva. “I thought if it was a matter of nurture, I could nurture my child into being feminine” (Janet Reimer, Horizon, 2000) Dr. Money gave the Reimer parents very strict instruction that in order for the sex reassignment to be a success they must never tell Brenda that she was ever a boy. The Reimer’s obliged and raised Bruce as Brenda, a little girl and kept the truth hidden throughout his childhood.

Janet dressed Bruce, now Brenda, in the most feminine dresses and encouraged her to follow what are often considered feminine pursuits such as baking, playing with dolls, wearing make-up and cleaning. Janet would write to Dr. Money of Brenda’s progress and the whole family would go and visit him once a year. At first Brenda’s transition from little boy to little girl seemed to be moving in the right direction as some early interviews reveal.  Dr. Money would speak with both Brenda and twin brother Brian to track the progress of their gender development and understanding of being male and female. The following is taken from a BBC documentary, which is based on a transcript of interviews between the twins and scientist:

Dr. Money: “Tell me which one of you is the boss?”

Brenda: “Brian’s the boss because he’s a boy”

Dr. Money: “Brian are you the boss?”

Brian: “I don’t know.”

Dr. Money: “If boys start to fight do you fight back? Or do you run away?”

Brian: “I fight back.”

Dr. Money: “I guess Brenda fights back too sometimes. Do you Brenda?”

Brenda: “No because I’m a girl.”

Dr. Money: “You’re a girl?”

Brenda: “I’m not a boy.  Girls don’t fight back, do they?”

Brian: “Girls can’t hit very hard but boys can.”

This early example, convinced Dr. Money his theory was working and by 1972 he announced to the world how successful his theory was. Dr. Money began publishing the case, disguising the twins’ identities by referring to them as Joan and John in his books. The story and theory became a sensation. It also provided the precise proof many feminists were craving. It was evidence that there was no biological reason that boys were more superior to girls, prompting people to believe in equality for women in terms of pay and gender roles. It meant that women were no different to men.

The case proved that nurture not nature could determine whether we feel masculine or feminine. It showed that a little boy, due to a change in upbringing and nurture, could become and recognize himself as a girl seemingly. He claims how the twins acted distinctively different and were each interested in things, which fit their more adult gender roles. In spite of increasing evidence that hormones both in the womb and throughout life play a crucial part in an individual’s perception of himself or herself as masculine or feminine, the Reimer case became a landmark study for the nature v nurture debate. It seemed nurture truly was the definitive factor and more important than nature in relation to gender identity.

However, back in Canada, unaware of Dr. Money’s publications Brenda’s sex change being a ‘success’, the theory began to show signs of drastic failure for the Reimer family. Janet as well as others began to notice how masculine Brenda behaved, despite her lacking a penis. She hated wearing feminine dresses; “She was ripping at it, trying to tear it off. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, she knows she’s a boy and she doesn’t want girls’ clothing.” Brenda enjoyed playing with her brother’s toys and preferred to follow more masculine pursuits such as running, sports and fighting. Brenda became very lonely, had no friends and didn’t understand why she felt the way she did. Even at this early stage it was clear that the transition was not as effective as Dr. Money had hoped and claimed.

John Money had concealed and misrepresented many facts, refusing to acknowledge the evidence that everything had gone wrong from the start. In 1970, even before Dr. Money publicized the case a success, in transcripts it’s clear even than that he was aware that there were problems. In an attempt to convince Brenda that she was a girl and not a boy, Dr. Money took drastic and arguably horrific measures to do so. To defend his theory as accurate and successful, that a boy can be raised and become female through nurture, he had to assure that Brenda recognized herself as a girl and not as a boy. Brenda had to understand clearly the differences between a woman and a man in order to adapt comfortably in life and her gender.

Dr. Money did this by making both Brenda and Brian strip naked and compare their genitalia as well as talking about male and female genitalia in explicit detail. He took photographs of both children naked to track and compare their bodies. It was to make it clear to Brenda that she was physically different to her brother who was a boy. He also showed Brenda explicit photographs of woman giving birth and tried to convince her to have a vagina constructed. Supporters of Dr. Money claim that he did these things in the best possible interests for his patient. However, these experiences were nothing but traumatic and disturbed both children irrevocably, not able or willing to talk publicly about these experiences until adulthood. Brenda began to despise Dr. Money and his theories and even threatened to commit suicide if she had to see him again. She felt traumatized at the prospect she would only be able to get along in life if she were a girl and underwent vaginal surgery:

“Doctor said: “it’s gonna be tough, you’re gonna be picked on, you’re gonna be very alone, you’re not gonna find anybody” And I thought to myself, you know I wasn’t very old at the time, but it dawned on me that these people gotta be pretty shallow if that’s the only thing they think I’ve got going for me; that the only reason why people get married and have children and have a productive life is because of what they have between their legs…If that’s all they think of me, that they justify my worth by what I have between my legs, then I gotta be a complete loser” (Undoing Gender, p.71) (p.301)

Brenda was subjected to hormonal medication with estrogen until puberty despite serious doubts the Reimer parents about the success of this treatment. By early adolescence, Brenda began to develop a male voice, broad shoulders and neck muscles and a marked male attractive look. She knew she felt male and everyone could see she was masculine despite developing small breasts, which she hated.  Throughout school Brenda was bullied and felt uneasy with the gender identity she was told and raised to be the correct one.

Finally by aged 13, Ron Reimer revealed the truth to both Brenda and Brian. Brenda felt relieved whilst Brian felt angry at the prospect of no longer being the only boy in the family. Meanwhile, Brenda was glad to realise that she was never, ‘insane’ but simply the wrong gender. Soon after the news, Brenda became David and began living as a boy whilst taking hormonal treatment.  David received compensation money for the circumcision and used this to pay for surgery to have a new penis constructed. At last David felt comfortable in his own skin and gender.

David on his wedding day

David on his wedding day

In his early twenties David got married and became a stepfather. He also publicized his story and reached some financial stability and peace with life. However, his relationship with his twin brother declined as well as Brian’s mental health, which deteriorated so badly it developed into schizophrenia. Brian eventually took a drug overdoes which was argued to have been a suicide attempt. With the loss of his twin brother and his marriage on the rocks as well as a loss of a job and a huge financial investment David became extremely depressed.  However, when his wife asked for a separation, David had taken more than he could bear. David Reimer committed suicide on May 4, 2004, at the age of 38 years.

David Reimer’s story forces me to question whether biology really is destiny.

You can watch the full documentary here:

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