In As Nature Made Him, author John Colapinto offers a powerful true story that may shake beliefs you take for granted -- not least that doctors can be trusted to work in their patients' best interests. In lucid, impassioned prose, Colapinto, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, traces the life of David Thiessen, a boy sex-changed to female during infancy as part of a cruel experiment. In 1965, David (then named Bruce) was one of a pair of male twins. After a catastrophic circumcision accident, Bruce's penis was destroyed, while his brother Brian remained intact. Devastated, the twins' parents turned for help to Dr. John Money, a world-famous Johns Hopkins psychologist. They were searching for a solution. Instead, they found themselves pawns in a test designed to confirm Money's pet theory -- that gender is a purely social phenomenon, a matter of nurture, not nature.
Indeed, for 20 years, the doctor touted the success of the so-called "John/Joan" case. The surgically created girl, he claimed, had grown up contentedly feminine, in contrast to her rough-and-tumble brother. She fulfilled numerous stereotypes: shy, neat, and pretty, she loved babies and cooking. Most importantly, she considered herself a girl and seemed female to others. Gender, Money announced, was malleable. This finding was hugely influential, seized upon by everyone from feminist academics to pediatricians. And Money, already extremely powerful, rose to the top of his field, wielding enormous influence over surgeons and psychologists alike.
The real story did not emerge until many years later. For in fact, "Brenda" (the name the infant was given after surgery) had never felt female -- and was not perceived as a girl by others. Tormented by her peers, she was nicknamed "cavewoman" and sneered at for her mannish gait. She regularly got into brawls and was failing academically. Even the few bonds the unhappy child formed with tomboys were fragile, since she was perceived not as a tough girl but as a boy in a dress. In her teens, Brenda became suicidally depressed. She refused to go back to see Dr. Money, with whom she'd had annual visits until the age of 14. And she began to dress as a boy. Finally, her parents broke down and told her the truth. "More than anything else," David recalls of this revelation. "I was relieved. Suddenly it all made sense why I felt the way I did."
"Brenda" reverted to male. He had surgery to create a cosmetic penis and therapy to deal with his rage and depression. He changed his name to David, a reference, in part, to the biblical figure who slew a giant. Eventually, he married a loving woman with three children by other fathers. But all the while, the scientific theory supposedly based on his experience continued to guide medical protocols. Money claimed that the family had been "lost to follow-up" -- despite the fact that they never moved or changed their phone number. The case had special influence on the treatment of intersexed (that is, hermaphroditic) infants, who were increasingly "normalized" to female, despite evidence that, like Thiessen, many such children feel traumatized by the surgery and grow up to reject their gender. Finally, in 1996, biologist Milton Diamond, a longtime professional enemy of Money, tracked Thiessen down and revealed the truth to his colleagues, setting off a bomb that effectively destroyed Money's reputation.
Despite its wrenching subject matter, As Nature Made Him is an inspiring read. Colapinto has done a thorough job researching not only Thiessen's medical treatment but the social context in which it took place. And as with the best journalistic nonfiction, the author uses vivid and suspenseful storytelling to make complex ideas accessible. Colapinto builds an especially strong case against Dr. Money -- revealing horrific details about the doctor's treatment of the twins, to whom he showed pornography and even pressured to act out sexual acts, all in an attempt to "cement" their gender identities. Most of all, though, this is the story of one person: David Thiessen. With compassion and insight, Colapinto illuminates the courage of a remarkable individual who triumphed over the miserable treatment he received to become -- in the most literal sense -- a self-made man.