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Analysis of “As Nature Made Him” by John Colapinto

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Intro: The debate over Nature vs. Nurture has been a topic of discussion among the scientific community for as long as science has been around. Questions like “Can you raise a person to act a certain way and become that way even if their genes are telling them to do the exact opposite?” have been central to many research experiments and theories since the advent of Freudian psychology in the 1950s. So it is no surprise that this debate underlies the fundamental question that is at the base of this book, As Nature Made Him; The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl.

Plot Summary: Ron and Janet Reimer were raised in religious Mennonite families. In his late teen years Ron left home to live on his own and through a mutual friend met Janet. The two had much in common and not long after dating they were happily married. Soon after, on August 22, 1965, Janet gave birth to two healthy twin boys, Bruce and Brian Reimer. At about 6 months old, Janet began to notice that they would cry and appear to be in great discomfort when they urinated, and so she took them to the doctor at their local hospital in Winnipeg, Canada. The doctor told them that a simple circumcision procedure would fix the problem so Ron and Janet agreed to the procedure. The night of the boys’ procedure Janet got a call from the hospital saying that there had been a complication during the surgery and that she and Ron needed to come to the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, they were told that their son Brian’s penis had been burnt off and was no longer functional. After consulting with a plethora of urologists and pediatricians Ron and Janet were told that their son could go through phallic reconstruction, a surgery that would generate a makeshift penis that would not resemble, look, or function like a normal penis but would allow Brian to go to the bathroom. Ron and Janet were skeptical and took the children home to consider their options.

A few months later, Janet saw a television interview with Dr. John Money, a renowned psychologist who was working on groundbreaking research in gender reassignment. Janet reached out to Dr. Money and shortly after Ron and Janet brought the children to Dr. Money at the John Hopkins University. Dr. Money explained his theories on gender reassignment and spoke to them about the possibility of having Bruce undergo such a surgery to restore is genitalia as female organs rather than male. Dr. Money believed, “…psychologically, sexuality is undifferentiated at birth and that it becomes differentiated as masculine or feminine in the course of the various experiences of growing up.” (Colapinto 2000). He believed that nurture could override nature when it came to being male or female. ‘Boys and girls are made, not born’ says Dr. Money. So, after much consideration, the Reimers chose to have Bruce undergo the operation and soon Bruce Reimer was Brenda Reimer.

Following the surgery, Brenda was raised like any other normal girl. She was dressed up in frilly dresses, was gifted dolls and girly toys and her mother taught her feminine things such as cooking and sewing. As Brenda got older, it became more and more obvious that she was much more intrigued by her brother Brian’s ‘boyish’ trucks and toys and on multiple occasions Brenda would get in fights with boys at school. When she was younger, her parents dismissed this as Brenda being tomboyish. ”What can you do with a doll?’ David says today, his voice charged with remembered frustration. ‘You look at it. You dress it. You undress it. Comb its hair. It’s boring! With a car, you can drive it somewhere, go places, I wanted cars” (Colapinto 2000). Throughout her school years, Brenda was a social pariah; girls did not want to play with her because she didn’t act like them, and boys didn’t want to play with her because she was a girl. This isolationism reflected in her schoolwork and behavior. She was doing poorly in school, she never got good grades and didn’t get along with her teachers or her fellow students.

Brenda continued to go to annual checkups with Dr. Money where he would ask her questions about her genitalia, her sexual fantasies, and her life at school and other things. David (who was then Brenda) recalls Dr. Money doing unorthodox things during these counseling sessions such as showing her pornographic pictures and making her do sexual things with her brother. Soon Brenda began to dread these trips to visit Dr. Money and would go into a state of panic whenever the she was told she had an appointment with Dr. Money.

As the years went by, Brenda became more and more isolated and withdrawn. The whole ordeal was taking a toll on the entire family. Janet became severely depressed after seeing how upset and distanced her child was, the mounting pressures forced Ron to turn to alcohol and Brian became a rebel child seeking to gain attention from his parents.

After enduring years of abuse under the care of Dr. Money, the Reimers decided to leave Dr. Money and renewed psychiatric care under Dr. Milton Diamond. Brenda had always questioned her gender, but she had kept it mostly to herself. At some point, the questions became too much and at the doctors’ suggestion, Brenda was finally told of the horrible accident that had happened during the surgery and his parents decision to alter his gender. At age fifteen Brenda decided to have surgery to become male and return to her genetic sex. “I’ve changed over,’ David said, ‘but mainly by name. The rest was all cosmetic. I just had repaired what was damaged. That’s all” (Colapinto pg. 216). Under the care of Dr. Diamond and his fellow psychologists, David attempts to settle down in life after becoming a boy after having been raised as a girl for the past fourteen years of his life. David eventually is able to settle into a somewhat routine lifestyle. He meets an older woman, with three children, to whom he gets married. She and the children provide a supporting foundation that enables him to live day to day.

In his later adult years David decides to work with the scientific community to advocate against sexual reassignment. David goes on to tell the story from his perspective including the details of how the treatments and exercises Dr. Money put him through affected him. The story from David’s perspective is referenced often in Dr. Diamond’s publications on related topics and is the inspiration for John Colapinto’s book As Nature Made Him. Despite having lived through all the continuing trauma and psychological abuse of his ordeal, David eventually succumbed to the persisting memories and, that along with other life stressors, led him to eventually take his own life at the age of 38. His twin brother, Brian Reimer, committed suicide by overdosing on antipsychotic drugs after a failed battle with Schizophrenia. His father Ron had become a severe alcoholic and his mother Janet had been in and out of severe depressive episodes for many years.

ANALYSIS: Dr. John Money was a pioneer in groundbreaking research on gender roles and gender identities. He was best known for advocating for sex-change operations for people who had confused notions of their gender identities. And while many of his theories in the sex and gender identity field of research were credited, his theories and experimentation on sex-change operations were discredited on ethical and moral standing, as well as inaccurate experimental design and false or incomplete observational recordings. One of Dr. Money’s harshest critics was Dr. Milton Diamond. Dr. Diamond was a researcher at the University of Hawaii who was conducting a series of experiments to observe the effects of testosterone (when administered to normal and castrated male and female guinea pigs) on pseudodifferentiation behavioral patterns. Dr. Diamond had been following Dr. Money’s research on the Twins Experiment (David and Brian Reimer) and eventually reached out to the twins’ parents to discuss the outcome of Dr. Money’s experimentation.

Dr. Diamond observed both the twins over the course of a few years and he established a set of postulates by which he would determine the success of Dr. Money’s experiment. The first of Dr. Diamond’s postulates was that individuals are psychosexually neutral at birth. Dr. Diamond notes that John/Joan (David/Brenda) had not only shown signs of rejecting effeminate situations and behaviorisms, but also unknowingly demonstrated certain actions that are masculine-attributed, such as standing to urinate and wanting to play more aggressively. Chapter 12 of Schacter’s textbook Psychology provides a good example of defining personality traits by traditional gender roles and gender identity. Sandra Bem’s Global Sex Role Inventory of traits that are generally seen as either masculine or feminine defines feminine characteristics to include sympathy and sensitivity among others, and masculine characteristics to include independence and assertiveness among others. In the Twins Experiment, Dr. John Money presents a very different sex-role characteristics list. He defines successful males as being opinionated and physically violent, and successful females as being ‘motherly’ and wanting to play with dolls and wear dresses. The striking difference between these two characterizations of masculine and feminine identity is that while Sandra Bem’s traits are more based on “nature” and our human biological preparedness to act according to our genetic sex, Dr. Money’s traits are more based on “nurture” and the teachable traits that one develops as they grow. In the Twins Experiment, at every session Dr. Money asked David Reimer a series of checklist questions to determine the child’s progress in expressing feminine traits. Money would record the answers given by David Reimer and eventually Dr. Money concluded that, since David responded positively to most of the character traits on Dr. Money’s checklist that must mean that David was successfully raised as a girl. In my opinion, an experiment that leads to the eventual death of the subjects is not a successful experiment especially when the subjects are human. But analyzing Dr. Money’s definitions of what makes someone male or female, it is easier to understand why he thought he was successful in raising David Reimer to be a female. David (as a female, Brenda) did check off some of the characteristics Dr. Money defined as being feminine including wearing dresses, playing with dolls, and expressing interest in being a homemaker/caregiver thereby allowing Dr. Money to conclude that his experiment was successful.

Dr. Diamond’s second postulate was that healthy psychosexual development is intimately related to the appearance of the genitals. In his aforementioned publication, Dr. Diamond writes “At their yearly visit to The Johns Hopkins Hospital the twins were made to stand naked for inspection by groups of clinicians and to inspect each other’s genitalia. This experience, in itself, was recalled with strong negative emotions. John’s brother, decades later, recalls the experience with tears.” (Diamond 1997)

NOVEL―POSTULATE: Although there is not conclusive evidence related to research on this second postulate, Dr. Diamond’s research observations do show how the activities and tests that the twins were forced to comply with under the direction of Dr. Money had impacted them even years after they had taken place. The twins struggled to reconcile with the ever-changing identity of Bruce/Brenda/David and the trauma they both experienced during their evaluations with Dr. Money led to later mental health diagnoses. Shortly after finding out the truth about David, Brian developed Schizophrenia, and in 2002 committed suicide by drug overdose. David meanwhile, struggling with loss of his twin brother, his marital divorce, and later financial difficulties finally took his own life at age 38 by gunshot to the head.

TEXTBOOK―POSTULATE: Schacter’s textbook Psychology defines 17 Main DSM-IV-TR Categories of Mental Disorders that are relevant to the disorders faced by both David and Brian. Brian showed signs of emotional instability and mental and physical disturbances and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and given antidepressants. “According to the DSM-IV-TR schizophrenia is diagnosed when two or more of the following symptoms emerge during a continuous period of at least one month: delusion, hallucination, disorganized speech, disorganized or catatonic behavior, and negative symptoms such as social and emotional withdrawal.” (Schacter 574) David on the other hand showed definite signs of antisocial behaviors and behaviors related to stressors such as his divorce, the death of his brother, his long term unemployment, his estranged relationship with his parents, and his inability to fully assimilate as a male in society. The DSM-IV-TR defines “problems related to lifelong behavior patterns including antisocial tendencies” (Schacter 553) as personality disorders. In addition, the DSM-IV-TR also defines problems “related to specific stressors such as divorce, family discord, and economic concern” (Schacter 553) as adjustment disorders. Facing life with these mental health issues, David turned to isolating himself in his room and binge eating as coping mechanisms that eventually led to further mental disorders. As defined in the DSM-IV-TR, “problems related to food such as bulimia nervosa” are qualified as eating disorders. (Schacter 553)

Having read both the novel and studied the material in the textbook the one aspect that has stuck out to me consistently has been the original dilemma faced by the twins Bruce and Brian, and how one decision changed their lives so drastically and in such a devastating and tragic way. The novel begins with the twins facing the issue of their inability to urinate, and after a botched circumcision and a series of choices made by both their parents and doctors alike the novel ends with the two boys being diagnosed with mental health disorders and committing suicide. 


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