The opening line is shocking. “This is the story of a boy whose penis was burnt off.” What happened next imbues the nature-nurture debate with personal and tragic significance.
Dr Money and the Boy with No Penis, a British documentary to screen on SBS, tracks the players in one of psychiatry’s most famous cases: the baby boy who was turned into a girl then a boy again, his twin brother and the scientist determined to prove his gender theories through them.
The story of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer and his brother Brian – often called the John/Joan case – has been told many times. At first, research papers hailed it a success. Later examinations revealed the pain behind it. Following the sad end to the brothers’ story, this documentary, made 18 months ago for the BBC’s Horizon science program, is the final chapter and a cautionary tale.
Producer Sanjida O’Connell says the program’s aim is to tell the family’s story and explore the science of conjecture. “Science is supposed to put forward a theory that’s proved or disproved, then people move on,” she says. “Whereas, of course, scientists are humans too. They have their own biases.”
Louise Newman, chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent faculty, says the case remains controversial.
“It’s one of the biggest questions in developmental theory: How much of our personality and sense of identity, including sexual or gender identity, is under biological control as opposed to social and cultural.”
In 1966 Canadian twins, Bruce and Brian Reimer, aged seven months, went to a hospital to be circumcised. During the procedure electrical equipment malfunctioned and burnt off Bruce’s entire penis.
“It was like a little burnt piece of string, right up to the crotch,” remembers their mother Janet in the documentary. “I said, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do now?’”
Without modern plastic surgery options, the Reimers remained uncertain until they saw a television interview with Dr John Money , a sexologist from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The family were desperate for guidance. He had a theory to prove; that a baby’s gender was neutral for the first two years and dependent on whether it was raised as a male or female. In the Reimer twins, he had a ready-made subject in Bruce and a control subject in Brian. Bruce had surgery and Dr Money instructed his parents to raise him as a girl, never revealing his original gender.
In the years that followed Dr Money quizzed the twins, now called Brenda and Brian, on their differences. By 1972, Dr Money declared the transition a success, trumpeting his theory of gender neutrality in his book Man and Boy, Woman and Girl.
“Dr Money can’t be blamed for coming up with a theory that many scientists now believe was wrong,” says producer Sanjida O’Connell of the now retired doctor who declined to be interviewed for the program.
Back at the Reimers’, young Brenda was displaying “masculine” and aggressive behaviour, eschewing dolls in favour of cars and trucks.
The program’s dramatic reconstructions show that Dr Money’s interviews with the twins grew more explicit and distressing. As adults, the twins alleged that the doctor bullied them into stripping naked and adopting sexual positions.
“If that happened then it’s obviously a terrible thing to do to a child,” O’Connell says. “But I don’t think he was a monster. He was trying to do the best he could but wasn’t flexible enough to realise that his theory wasn’t working.”
Aged 12, with Dr Money pushing her to have surgery to construct a vagina, Brenda threatened to kill herself. Her parents finally resolved to tell her and Brian the truth. Brenda decided to live as a boy, adopting the new name of David. He would later have more surgeries, marry and become a stepfather. But both twins remained traumatised.
With hindsight, says Louise Newman, it’s clear that the experiment was doomed to fail. “This was a trauma that (David) never got over. He was embittered, had no help, rejected help. Then he had the permanent effects of having taken hormones.”
In 2000, John Colapinto’s book, As Nature Made Him, revealed the painful extent of the experiment’s failure. The Horizon program includes interviews with David conducted in 2000 for a film about intersex babies. By 2004, both brothers were dead.
Scientists are still trying to determine what makes us male or female. Associate Professor Vincent Harley, head of human molecular genetics at Melbourne’s Prince Henry’s Institute of Medical Research is at the forefront of research into the genetics of sex. “We’re tackling (the question) at a number of levels. It depends on what kind of sex you mean, whether you’re talking about their brains, their gonads or their role in the world,” he says.
Some genes have already been identified as involved in controlling the development of testes or ovaries. Genes expressed differently in male and female brains, well before birth and before hormones come into play, are “a starting point to look for differences in gender identity”.
Forty years after Brian became Brenda, Professor Harley says that “the search continues”, adding that “people’s gender identity is unlikely to be as malleable as was thought then”.
A case like Brian Reimer’s would be handled very differently today, says Louise Newman. “It’s a terribly outmoded assumption, that being a castrated male means being a female,” she says.
Gender identification would also be measured against different yardsticks. “What we have now are less rigid definitions of what’s gender-appropriate behaviour,” Newman says. “It wouldn’t be a matter of ‘You like Barbies, therefore you’re a girl. You like trucks therefore you’re a boy.’ Children aren’t like that. But in Money’s day that wouldn’t have been acknowledged.”
David Reimer had his own theory about masculinity.
“What makes you a man is you treat your wife well, you put a roof over your family’s head, you’re a good father. Things like that add up much more to being a man than just ‘Bang! Bang! Bang! Sex!’,” he told author John Colapinto. “I guess John Money would consider my children’s biological fathers to be real men. But they didn’t stick around to take care of the children. I did. That, to me, is a man.”
Dr Money and the Boy with No Penis airs Sunday, April 16, at 8.30pm on SBS.