The Boy Who Was Brought Up As A Girl: David Reimer


When Bruce Reimer was 8 months old, he and his twin brother were diagnosed with phimosis. The were both referred for circumcision. Unfortunately for Bruce, the electric equipment doctors were using for his surgery malfunctioned. The distraught parents took their son to Dr. John Money, a pioneer in the field of sexual development at the time. At Dr. Money’s recommendation, Bruce started sex reassignment, and he became Brenda. It was unsuccessful. Despite the many hormone treatments and surgeries he went through, and the “John/Joan case” papers Dr. Money’s published claiming otherwise, Brenda never identified as female. In later interviews, he would say he never felt female and was even teased in school. By the time he reached 13, Brenda was threatening his parents with suicide if they ever made him see Dr. Money again.

At age 14, Brenda decided to assume a male gender identity and he became David Reimer. In 1997, in a move which would cause Dr. Money’s studies to come under intense criticism from the scientific community, he decided to go public with his story.

In 2002, David’s twin brother, Brian, died from an overdose on drugs used to treat his schizophrenia- apparently Dr. Money’s therapy sessions with both boys had left him psychologically scarred as well. Two years later, David Reimer himself committed suicide.

In my opinion, David Reimer’s case provides crucial and controversial implications for nature vs. nurture dilemma, ethics as well as post-traumatic stress disorders.

First of all, from the ethical perspective, I think, what Dr. Money did was immoral and based on the desire to fulfill personal and professional. Besides, although he did get an informed consent from the Reimer family, it is arguable weather the consent was actually “informed”. When contacting Dr. Money, The Reimer family was too shocked and traumatized to make a well-pondered and rational decision: they were desperate to find a solution for their problem as rapidly as possible. As a psychologist, Money should have considered their tense psychological condition before suggesting such a risky experiment. On the other hand, while implementing the experiment he should have been more objective about the development of events and noticing that David’s response to changes was not as planned and both the boy and the family were suffering, he should not have continued it.

As for the nature vs. nurture conflict, I think the experiment showed the superiority of nature in this case. However, the implications are not absolute. Although the masculine nature of David has come out instead of being brought up as a girl, David’s nurture had actually affected both his and his family’s life. His suicide proved that even when nature beats nurture, nurture plays a crucial role in one’s life. Though for a short period, David managed to live as a male and even got married, he admitted that he never felt complete and never felt a part of the society. Thus, it can be implied that nature, nurture and the harmony between these are equally important for one’s normal development and mental health. Within this context, I also thought of Freud’s psychosexual development theory. In this case David failed to go through stages defined by Freud, did not overcome the Oedipus/Electra complex and did not have a chance to identify with the same sex parent but after learning the truth he easily took the masculine identity. I think, this might challenge Freudian psychosexual development theory to some extent.

Another factor that caught my attention was the effect of this experiment on the other family member of the Reimer family. David’s father became an alcoholic and died, his twin brother committed a suicide even prior to David. For me, the reaction of David’s mother seemed particularly interesting. In the documentary about the case, I noticed that Mrs. Reimer was talking about David really passionately all the time and could not even stop crying while talking of her and his sufferings and his suicide. However, when talking of his other son, David’s twin brother who committed a suicide as well she was rather calm and did not show particular emotions. I think in this case too much concentration on his problematic son had lessened her compassion towards the other son, which was one of the reasons David’s brother led a bad life, had a lot of problems and ended up committing a suicide. David’s problem affected all his family members and people surrounding him not less than himself.

David’s case was particularly thought-provoking and gave insights about various psychological issues about which one can think and write endlessly and those were just a few aspects that caught my attention immediately.


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