Avid Reader Bookshop stalwart and author Krissy Kneen at the T & I book launch. Photo L.J. May.




The David Reimer Case: A Cautionary Tale for Clinicians (cont.)



Ron and Janet Reimer first saw Dr Money at Johns Hopkins in early 1967. They were won over by his professionalism, his confidence, his suavity – and the diplomas on the wall. Janet said later that she had looked up to him like a God and accepted whatever he said.

Nevertheless, the parents baulked at the notion of a sex change operation for Bruce and wanted time to think it over. They asked many people for their opinion (including their paediatrician who recommended against such drastic treatment). Janet's mother did not venture an opinion of her own but thought that the couple should trust the specialist from Baltimore.

In the end, the Reimers realised that they were the only ones who could make the decision regarding their son. It seemed to them that Bruce would have no future as a boy. On the other hand, if they took Money's advice to turn him into a girl, it was possible that their child could have a normal life, grow up, get married, and be happy.

They agreed to sex reassignment.

Ron and Janet followed Dr Money's instructions faithfully. They called their new daughter Brenda Lee, allowed her hair to grow, dressed her in girl's clothes, and treated her as a girl in every way. Money also told them to conceal the truth from Brenda and never to tell her that she wasn't born a girl.

At the age of twenty-two months, on Monday, 3 July 1967 Brenda was delivered to Johns Hopkins Hospital for castration and preliminary surgery to facilitate feminisation. The surgery to fashion a full vagina was to wait until she was older.

At the time Bruce/Brenda was castrated, John Money had insisted that he was to see him/her for follow-up consultations once a year in order to resolve any psychological problems Brenda might have. At these visits the Reimers found Money compassionate and polite and they assumed that he treated the twins with the same respect and kindness – but Ron and Janet did not know what was taking place in the sessions with Dr Money.

Over the years, the 'feminising' of Brenda was undertaken in these sessions by methods that were at best equivocal and at worst bizarre – even by the standards of the time. These days we would call those methods child abuse.

In one of the more extraordinary exercises, presumably to show Brenda how to be a real girl, she was encouraged to play at copulation with her twin, Brian, and, with the encouragement of John Money, to assume sexual positions. At least one Polaroid photograph was known to be taken at these sessions and the twins were never able to talk about those encounters without embarrassment. At the time, the children were six years old.

On 28 December 1972 John Money triumphantly presented his 'twins case'. Before an audience of over one thousand scientists, feminists, students and reporters at a symposium held in the Ambassador Ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, he delivered his first speech in a two-day series of lectures on 'Sex Role Learning in Childhood and Adolescence'.

He informed those in attendance that a fuller account of the remarkable case he had presented that morning could be found in his new book (co-authored with Anke Ehrhardt) Man & Woman, Boy & Girl, which, strangely enough, had been published on the day of Money's first appearance at the symposium.

John Money claimed unqualified success for his experiment. He lied!

Brenda's parents, family, and all the professionals associated with her treatment had treated Brenda as a girl in preparation for future vaginal reconstruction surgery and life as a woman. But Brenda was not convinced she was a girl even though she had never been told that she had been born a boy.

The Reimers dressed Brenda as a girl, but she tore off the dresses, wanted to shave with her father, and preferred boys activities and games to dolls, sewing and other traditional girls’ activities. Furthermore she announced to her brother, Brian, that she wanted to be a garbage man because it was an easy job and good pay. In addition, she refused to be a good sport and a Girl Scout and enthusiastically took gadgets apart to see what made them tick. She also refused to sit down to urinate (much to her mother's distress).

Despite the 'sexual revolution' of the 1960s, stereotypes still abounded in the 1970s, and for the sake of peace Brenda soon learned to tell Money and his colleagues exactly what they wanted to hear. When questioned, she assured them that she really did have an affinity for housework and femininity, but every now and again there was a Freudian slip and the mask would drop.

When John Money asked her what kind of partner she would rather have – a boy or a girl – she answered, 'a girl', whereupon Money promptly asked Ron and Janet how they would feel about raising a lesbian.

Somewhere between the ages of nine and eleven Brenda realised that she wasn't a girl. David Reimer said later that he thought he was a freak. He didn't like the clothing he was given, or the toys. He enjoyed hanging around with the guys and climbing trees and thought that girls didn't like doing any of that stuff. He felt that there was nothing feminine about him but didn't want to admit it in case he opened a can of worms that could have devastating consequences.

In the summer of 1977 John Money started to pressure Brenda about having vaginal surgery. He insisted that she would have to take oestrogens in order to become a 'normal girl'.

Brenda had no intention of becoming a normal girl. Money had previously tried to entice her into having the surgery by showing her a book on childbirth. The book consisted of a collection of graphic images showing two hippie women giving birth.  Money told Brenda that she did not as yet have a 'baby hole' but there was a doctor at the hospital who could give her one. Nothing she saw or heard convinced Brenda that having a baby hole was a good idea.

Money told Brenda about sexual intercourse and how the penis went into the vagina.  He then said that a lot of kids didn't know that story because they didn't have a doctor to tell them. He suggested that lucky kids like Brenda who did know should not talk about it too much.

Brenda didn't want to talk about it at all, and she certainly didn't want to grow breasts – so when her father produced a package of pills and told her to start taking them she was highly suspicious.

When she asked her father why she had to take the pills he said that it was to make her wear a bra. Brenda didn't want to wear a bra and said so in no uncertain terms but, to her deep mortification, a pair of breasts sprouted on her chest and she also developed pads of fat around her waist and hips. She went on eating binges to hide the changes but although the extra fat camouflaged her figure nothing could disguise her deepening voice.

Given that Bruce/Brenda had undergone a gonadectomy (testicles being the primary male hormone-secreting endocrine gland) and had also been given oestrogen therapy, her endocrinologist felt that her voice should not have undergone any virilising change at puberty. But Brenda's voice sounded remarkably like Brian's.  Clearly there was something wrong.

The fact that Brenda had spent her entire prenatal life awash in male hormones produced by foetal testicles no doubt accounted for both the deepening voice at puberty and the fact that Brenda's sexual orientation appeared to be towards girls. In a fit of amnesia regarding his discussion with the Reimers about Brenda's probable lesbianism, Money professed himself unable to venture an opinion as to whether her future partner would be male or female.

The David Reimer Case continues - click here for more David Reimer Case P3