Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Playing Dr. Mengele: Obituary for David Reimer

Today is the obit of David Reimer. Who was David Reimer?

David Reimer was one of the most famous patients in the annals of medicine. Born in 1965 in Winnipeg, he was 8 months old when a doctor used an electrocautery needle instead of a scalpel during a routine circumcision, burning off the little boy's entire penis. David's, very young, parents were referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and to psychologist Dr. John Money, one of the world's leading expert in "gender identity". Money recommended a surgical sex change, from male to female. David's parents eventually agreed, believing Dr. Money's claims that this was their sole hope for raising a child who could have heterosexual intercourse -- even though as a "woman".

For Dr. Money, David was the ultimate experiment to prove that nurture, not nature, determines "gender" and sexual orientation -- an experiment all the more irresistible, notabene, because David was an identical twin. His brother, Brian, would provide the perfect matched control.

David's infant "sex reassignment" was the first ever conducted on a developmentally normal (not hermaphrodite) child. According to Money's published reports through the 1970s, the experiment was a success. The twins, so Money, were happy in their assigned roles: Brian a rough and tumble boy, his sister Brenda a happy little girl. Money was featured in Time magazine and included a chapter on the twins in his book "Man & Woman, Boy & Girl".

The reality was far more involved and much less happy. At age 2, Brenda angrily tore off her dresses. She refused to play with dolls and would beat up her brother and seize his toy cars and guns. In school, she was relentlessly teased for her masculine traits and behaviour. She let her parents and teachers know that she felt like a boy but was, on Dr. Money's strict orders of secrecy, just told that she was only going "through a phase". Meanwhile, Brenda's guilt-ridden mother attempted suicide, her father lapsed into drinking and the twin, Brian, neglected and problem-ridden as well, descended into drug use, petty crime and depression.

When "Brenda" was 14, a local psychiatrist convinced her parents that she ought to be told the truth. David later said about the revelation: "Suddenly it all made sense why I felt the way I did. I wasn't some sort of weirdo. I wasn't crazy."

He then embarked on the painful process of converting back to his biological sex. A double mastectomy removed the breasts that had grown as a result of estrogen therapy, multiple operations created an artificial penis and testicles. Regular testosterone injections masculinised his musculature. Yet David was depressed over what he believed was the impossibility of his ever marrying. He twice attempted suicide in his early 20s. Eventually, he DID marry, but he remained haunted by memories of the frightening annual visits to Dr. Money, who had used pictures of naked adults to "reinforce" Brenda's gender identity and who had pushed him to have further surgery on his "vagina".

When David was almost 30, he met Dr. Milton Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii and a long-standing rival of Dr. Money. Diamond, a biologist, had always been interested in the fate of the twins, and specifically so because Money had ceased to publish follow-ups on the case in the late Seventies. Through Diamond, David learned that the supposed success of his sex "reassignment" had been used to legitimise the widespread use of infant sex change in cases of hermaphroditism and genital injury. David agreed to participate in a follow-up by Dr. Diamond, whose myth-shattering paper (co-authored by Dr. Keith Sigmundson) was published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in March 1997.

In 2002, David's twin Brian died of an overdose of antidepressants. Genetics may have contributed to his suicide. However, the question how much of David's misery was due to inherited depression and how much to the nightmarish life which he had been forced to live FOR THE SAKE OF A FASHIONABLE CAUSE is futile.

Not futile is the question why a term stinking of politically correct bigotry like "gender reinforcement" was invented when it was all clearly about quite a different thing, namely the castration of an infant boy and that within the larger and highly political context of -- yes -- reinforcement of the male sex as a disposable one. Nobody ever even discussed the possibility that such a "method" might be applied in reverse to a little girl. Or why healthy little boys should be subjected to a stunting, superfluous and potentially dangerous mutilation like circumcision in the first place, for that, and that when protests against genital mutilation of little girls in third-world countries are by no means unknown. (Although by far not strident enough. It is, after all, only about third-world little girls and not about the most complaining and most mollycoddled group the the Western world, middleclass women.)

Money may have stopped publishing about his "historical scientific success" in the late Seventies, but no admittance of error was ever made, let alone an apology for the ruined life of David Reimer. And no, not either by Alice Schwarzer, THE German feminist who had stated in her epochal book "The Little Differerence and Its Big Effects":
The girl is submitted to a permanent hormone treatment, and post puberty she will get an artificial vagina implanted. Then she will be a normal woman -- just without the ability to give birth. And that ability is really the only difference, which remains between man and woman. Everything else is artificially imposed, a question of the nurtured mental identity.
*Emphasis added by me.

On the morning of May 5, 2004, David Reimer took a sawn-off shotgun, drove to the nearby parking lot of a grocery store and ended his sufferings forever.

More information by John Colapinto at Slate and by Bettina Roehl at Cicero.