Nenia ♥ The Armchair Librarian ♥'s Reviews > As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto
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Mar 06, 14

bookshelves: lgbtqia
Read from August 20 to 21, 2012


After a botched circumcision with an electric medical implement, the Riemers were horrified to find that their baby boy's penis was completely burned off . Doctors, being under the impression that the child would "be unable to live a normal sexual life from the time of adolescence [and] unable to consummate marriage or have normal hetereosexual relationships," decide that it would be most humane to reassign the baby's sex and surgically castrate him , and then have the parents raise him as a girl without telling him.

The baby, formerly known as Bruce, then became Brenda, and was the source of much interest in the medical field because he was a twin. Twin studies are ideal for research, because they're a completely natural experiment: one twin (the afflicted twin) is the experimental condition, and the other ("normal") twin is the control. During the 1960s and 70s, the burgeoning and popular theory regarding sexuality was that it was a purely socially-driven phenomenon, with children adopting their "sex" based on reinforcement patterns. Which, as anyone who has ever taken a GBLT/Gender Studies class would know, is complete and utter bullshit. Now, sex and gender are recognized as separate and not necessarily mutually inclusive constructs , with gender being the psychological identification with a particular set of gender norms, and sex being physical and determined by the genitals.

But science is driven by trial and error a lot of the time, and boy, do we sometimes make errors. Unfortunately, the Johns Hopkins doctor put in charge of Brenda's case, named John Money, was not as clinically indifferent as might be ideal. For starters, he had his own sack of issues, with an abusive father and a mother and spinster aunts who ruthlessly condemned the male sex. He is quoted as saying, "I wondered if the world might really be a better place for women if not only farm animals but human males also were gelded at birth."

Real impartial, right?

His medical practices bordered on abusive as he imposed a strict and cruel regimen upon Brenda Riemer. He forced them to disrobe in front of him to examine their genitals, and "made Brenda assume a position on all fours on his sofa and make Brian come up behind her on his knees and place his crotch against her buttocks," forcing the children to play-act sexual behaviors as young as six . According to Brian, Dr. Money took some pictures of them engaging in this behavior. Dr. Money relentlessly interrogated Brenda about her sexual thoughts, her gender constructs, and occasionally showed her pornography. He would shout at Brenda and her brother, Brian, if they refused to comply with his demands. While he did not reveal this side to the twins' parents, he did request that they expose themselves to the twins (naked) to familiarized Brian and Brenda with male and female genitalia. He even requested that the parents have sex in front of their children , which they didn't do - thank God.

I was so sickened by Dr. Money because not only does he act like a pervert and a pedophile, but he also apparently falsified a lot of his data on Brenda Riemer. The doctors he referred her to for vaginal constructive surgery received a glowing, sunny portrait of a well-adjusted family and a girl who was the epitome of feminine behavior, when actually Mrs. Riemer was suicidally depressive, Mr. Riemer was an alcoholic, Brian was acting out behaviorally, and Brenda was completely opposed to surgery, traumatized by anything even pertaining to sexuality, and completely adamant that she was a boy.

The fact that he would attempt to force surgery on an unwilling child - particularly such an invasive, irreversible, and unwanted surgery, was just revolting. Few things piss me off as much as child abuse and gender typing, and John Money happens to be partial to both. Following Riemer's release of his story, several other patients came forward. One patient had his confidentiality breached, with Money (wrongly) condemning him as a pedophile and a pervert, taking things he said during follow-up therapy following hormonal thyroid treatments out of context. Others were intersex individuals, either with ambiguous genitalia or being true hermaphrodites with genitals composed of tissues particular to both genders, who had achieved physical strife (infections, discomfort, the inability to achieve orgasm) and psychological trauma (merciless teasing, identity crises, depression), and resented being assigned a sex that did not correspond to their own notions of sexuality and/or gender identity.

What really steamed my broccoli, though, was the fact that Money blatantly lied about his so-called groundbreaking case. His master's thesis was, ironically, on the subject of how well-situated ambiguously sexed children were following the conclusion of the longitudinal study. Boys who were born with tiny penises/damaged penises were happier if they were raised as boys than if they had been forced to undergo reassignment surgery and raised as girls , and suffered no intense psychological problems. This is in direct contrast to his later insistence that children with ambiguous genitals would never be whole.

I think he knew what he did was wrong. He must have. Why else would he have an aide try to forcibly drag Brenda into a hospital room, where she feared she would be operated on against her will? Why would he panic when the BBC did an expose documentary, warning the parents that someone had stolen data from his office and managed to track down Brenda , not knowing that the parents had actually agreed to the video for their daughter's sake? And then, when the video went out, why would he do his best to say that the documentary was borne of harassment and stalking of his patients, and do his utmost to crush any research that opposed his study as vindictive personal attacks , without valid basis? Isn't the entire point of science supposed to be a quest for truth?

The girl in this study was not happy as a girl. She was absolutely terrified of her doctor. She was averse to gender reassignment. She played with boy toys, rough-housed, and had interest in girls. The thought of sex, and the very mention of sexual organs, made her uncomfortable and filled her with self-disgust. Even now, Brenda - who is now David, who is married with three children - says he wakes up after sex sometimes and undergoes panic attacks that make him run to the bathroom to throw up. David underwent ridicule for his nonfunctioning penis, when it posed as an impediment to sexual relations in his youth. He tried to kill himself several times, and showed up at one of his previous doctor's offices with a gun, fully intending to "blow his brains out."

This was painful to read, sad and distressing and uncomfortable and awful and WRONG, but I appreciate Colapinto for doing such a well-researched and compassionate story of this unfortunate man's double-life. It just goes to show how simplified our ideas of "boy" and "girl" actually are. And while some might use this argument to advocate outmoded beliefs regarding patriarchal and machismo sentiments, it really doesn't work. Because, Colapinto points out, gender and sex and sexuality all appear to be biologically driven . You can't condition a boy to be a girl any more than you can condition a homosexual to be straight (which one of Money's compatriots actually attempted, unsurprisingly enough).

It's always unfortunate when such lessons must be obtained at such high cost.

4.5 stars.
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Reading Progress

08/20/2012 page 129
40.0% "I haven't read a nonfiction book that outraged me this much since The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Time to fetch the tape from the cupboard, my heart is breaking - again. ;_;" 2 comments

Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by Belle (new) - added it

Belle Wow. How incredibly disturbing. That Money sounds like a piece of work. Thanks for the brilliant review, I'm interested to read this now but it sounds like a tough story.

Nenia  ♥ The Armchair Librarian  ♥ It's a really tough story. The book doesn't mention it, but David Riemer actually ended up committing suicide.

message 3: by Skittles (Skyla) (last edited Aug 21, 2012 12:59PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Skittles (Skyla) You do know that Brian committed suicide and then David committed suicide not to long after. I think it was about a year afterwards.

I watched a documentary on this a few years ago. I think David died in 2005/2006.

I just checked David took his own life in 2004, at the age of 38. He shot himself in the head. He left behind his wife and 3 step-children.

Brian died in 2002 from an overdose of prescription antidepressant drugs.

Skittles (Skyla) Great review sweetie you did a great job of tackling this info =)

Nenia  ♥ The Armchair Librarian  ♥ I didn't know about Brian's suicide, but I did know about David's. That poor family. I feel like their case was managed quite badly, not just in terms of the reassignment, but also the family's overall psychological health.

I can't help but wonder if this book helped spur things along. David's interview just came across as so tormented. Everything he said made me want to wince in sympathy.

Nenia  ♥ The Armchair Librarian  ♥ I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I didn't feel reaction gifs would be appropriate in a subject matter so grave, so it was difficult trying to gather up all my thoughts and feelings and translate them into coherent non-expletive words.

Skittles (Skyla) Pikachu wrote: "I didn't know about Brian's suicide, but I did know about David's. That poor family. I feel like their case was managed quite badly, not just in terms of the reassignment, but also the family's ove..."

The TV documentary I watched was agonizing to watch. Part of the reason Brian committed suicide is because he could never quite rectify the "girl" who was his "sister" to the brother he became.

And that Doctor just fucked the family up beyond what anyone could handle.

It was very hard to watch but it is worth the viewing.

What made me really sad was the other day I was actually talking to my friend about this very book and he mentioned the set of identical twins in the States who did an interview about how one of them is an M to F and how without her brother's support she doesn't think she could have even begun to think about transitioning and how her brother just turned to their Dad one day and said "Just face it Dad you have a handsome son, that would be me, and a beautiful daughter, aka Nicole. Seriously Dad she is still your kid she is just more girly then you thought she would be when you and Mum had her. (Or something like that). They are so cute.

message 8: by Merary (new)

Merary . . . Wow.

Nenia  ♥ The Armchair Librarian  ♥ That sounds so incredibly sweet, Skyla. What a wonderful, accepting brother. I imagine that David's and Brian's story might have been different if their parents didn't drive that wedge between them.

Skittles (Skyla) Pikachu wrote: "That sounds so incredibly sweet, Skyla. What a wonderful, accepting brother. I imagine that David's and Brian's story might have been different if their parents didn't drive that wedge between them."

They are so cute. I watched them on the news a few months back and Nicole is like cuddle up to her brother's side and he is doing the typical adolescent boy thing you know moving away and she is all like "Hold my hand." And he's all like "Fine!"

Their parents have been very accepting of it, it was more the Dad took a little longer to fully accept the fact. But Nicole showed signs of being female starting from 18 months to a year when she would cry when they made her wear blue and when they would go on playdates and she would grab the dollies instead of the trucks.

In the interview he says he loves going shopping with them because his son will run off and do whatever while Nicole will hold his hand and you know drag him into Claire's Accessories and do the typical girly-girl thing you know the whole grabbing lots of dresses and going "I need to try these on." And according to the interview pretty much everyone at school and the like has been very accepting too, so I am really glad that Nicole has a supportive family and that she lives in a supportive environment.

Skittles (Skyla) And I agree Brian and David may have been closer if their parents hadn't of done what they did.

message 12: by Belle (new) - added it

Belle I found a doco here:
Just started watching it. Chilling stuff.

Nenia  ♥ The Armchair Librarian  ♥ At the risk of sounding stereotypical, Dr. Money looks like a total pedorapist.

message 14: by Belle (new) - added it

Belle Pikachu wrote: "At the risk of sounding stereotypical, Dr. Money looks like a total pedorapist."

Sounds like one too, judging from some of those descriptions.

Skittles (Skyla) Belle wrote: "I found a doco here:
Just started watching it. Chilling stuff."

That is the BBC one. They did two on David I think. The one I watched was a Canadian show but the info is the same.

message 17: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Henry I saw the documentary on this poor boy, and was so very, very angry and upset. Particularly after finding out, as Skyla noted, the tragic outcome for both twins. And their parents as well...because we trust doctors, don't we?

And the doctor...why the hell was he still a free man? The sort of shit he did...research, really? Anyone with half a brain can see it was abuse.

So I'm sure this is a fantastic book, but I don't want to read it and revisit those feelings again. Just a tragic, tragic story.

Nenia  ♥ The Armchair Librarian  ♥ Lisa wrote: "I saw the documentary on this poor boy, and was so very, very angry and upset. Particularly after finding out, as Skyla noted, the tragic outcome for both twins. And their parents as well...because..."


I was pissed off by how the doctor got off pretty scot-free. But then again, back then they didn't have the kinds of curtailing ethics that we have today to ensure a safeguard against the cruelty that can be a byproduct of excessive "scientific curiosity."

message 19: by Amelia (new)

Amelia I've just seen a kind of summary of the case as part of a course (in Behavioural Genetics) and I'm kind of bemused that lecturer said it's unclear why David committed suicide because although his life had been hard, he had the opportunity to help others through that hardship.

Just what you always wanted - to have a fucked up childhood so that you could help others, right? Totally makes up for the years of trauma. And as if that wasn't enough, his brother killed himself, he lost his job and his wife broke up with him.

What is so unclear about that I have no idea.

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