As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

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In 1967, after a baby boy suffered a botched circumcision, his family agreed to a radical treatment. On the advice of a renowned expert in gender identity and sexual reassignment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the boy was surgically altered to live as a girl. This landmark case, initially reported to be a complete success, seemed all the more remarkable since the child had been born an identical twin: his uninjured brother, raised as a boy, provided to the experiment the perfect matched control.

The so-called twins case would become one of the most famous in modern medicine and the social sciences; cited repeatedly over the past thirty years as living proof that our sense of being male or female is not inborn but primarily the result of how we are raised. A touchstone for the feminist movement, the case also set the precedent for sex reassignment as standard treatment for thousands of newborns with similarly injured, or irregular, genitals.

But the case was a failure from the outset. From the start the famous twin had, in fact, struggled against his imposed girlhood. Since age fourteen, when finally informed of his medical history, he made the decision to live as a male. John Colapinto sets the historical and medical context for the case, exposing the thirty-year-long scientific feud between Dr. John Money and his fellow sex researcher, Dr. Milton Diamond - a rivalry over the nature/nurture debate whose very bitterness finally brought the truth to light.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671047924
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Publication date: 03/01/2000
Edition description: Abridged, 4 cassettes, 5 hrs.
Product dimensions: 4.13(w) x 7.16(h) x 1.18(d)

About the Author

John Colapinto has written for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Esquire, Mademoiselle, Us Weekly, and Rolling Stone, where the landmark National Magazine Award-winning article that was the basis for As Nature Made Him first appeared. He is also the author of the novel About the Author. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Game of Science Fiction

The irony was that Ron and Janet Reimer's life together had begun with such special promise. That it would survive its trials is attributable perhaps in part to their shared heritage in an ethnic and religious background virtually defined by the hardiness of its people in the face of suffering.

Both Ron Reimer and Janet Schultz were descended from families who were Mennonite, the Anabaptist sect founded in sixteenth-century Holland. Like the Amish, Ron's and Janet's Mennonite ancestors were pacifists who followed a simple, nonworldly life based directly on Christ's teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. During the Inquisition, Mennonites were tortured and slaughtered in the thousands, the survivors escaping to begin a three-hundred-year search for a country that would allow them to live as a culture and religion apart. The majority went to Russia and farmed, but in the late 1800s, large numbers began to migrate to the New World, some settling in Nebraska and Kansas. The densest concentrations, however, settled in Canada, where the federal government, eager to populate its empty western plains, offered to the Mennonites complete religious freedom, their own schools, and exemption from military service. The first Mennonites arrived in southern Manitoba in 1874. Within five years, over ten thousand had followed, transplanting entire Russian villages to the Canadian prairie. It was in this wave of immigrants that both Ron's and Janet's great-grandparents, who were Dutch Mennonites directly descended from the earliest followers of the sect, came to Manitoba.

Their arrivalcoincided with that moment when the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Winnipeg, and transformed the once tiny and isolated fur-trapping settlement and Hudson's Bay trading post. Within three decades the settlement had become a major grain capital of the North American middle west. "All roads lead to Winnipeg," the Chicago Record Herald reported in 1911. "It is destined to become one of the greatest distributing commercial centers of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance."

Though the city failed to live up to those grand predictions, Winnipeg did grow rapidly in size, sophistication, and importance over the first half of the twentieth century, establishing the country's first national ballet company and symphony orchestra. Today its population is over 600,000, and the city's downtown core, built around the meandering curves of the Red River, boasts an impressive stand of modern high-rises to complement its fine Victorian buildings.

The Mennonites on the surrounding prairies had long felt the lure of Winnipeg's affluence, and after World War II the more assimilated families began to move into the city to take jobs in manufacturing, trucking, and construction. Among them were Ron Reimer's parents, Peter and Helen, who in 1949 sold their farm in nearby Deloraine and moved to the Winnipeg neighborhood of St. Boniface, where Peter took a job in a slaughterhouse and Helen raised their four young children, of whom Ron was the eldest.

Even as a small child, he was dutiful and hardworking, a boy whose combination of personal privacy and dogged industry often amazed his own mother. "He was always so shy and quiet," Helen Reimer recalls, "but he was also such a busy little boy. I had to think up ways to keep him out of trouble. I would show him how to cook. He always wanted to be doing something with food and cooking." It was a passion that would stay with Ron. As an adult he would eventually support his wife and two children by running his own business as the operator of a coffee truck, supplying sandwiches and other prepared foods to construction sites around Winnipeg.

By 1957, when Ron was in his early teens, the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard had reached Winnipeg. Cars, girls, beer, and rock 'n' roll music soon had strong claims on his attention. For Mennonites of Ron's parents' generation, the swift cultural changes of the late 1950s were threatening. Though not themselves especially devout, they had only a decade earlier moved from an almost exclusively Mennonite farm community where some of the day-to-day values and assumptions were still closer to those of nineteenth-century rural Russia than late-twentieth-century urban North America. In what would prove to be a kind of reverse migration, the Reimers were among many Mennonite families who, in an effort to resist the seismic cultural shifts taking place in the city, returned their families to their roots on the prairie. In 1959, Ron's father bought a farm some sixty miles from the city, near the town of Kleefeld, in Mennonite country, and moved his family there.

Ron, fifteen years old at the time, hated the move. Kleefeld itself was little more than a ramshackle scattering of stores along a few hundred yards of gravel highway (grain store, post office, grocery), with nowhere for Ron to channel his formidable work ethic. He would pick two hundred pounds of saskatoons and sell them for twenty-five cents a pound--grueling labor for little pay; nothing like the money he was able to make in the city. And his father insisted on taking even those paltry sums from Ron for upkeep of the old clapboard farmhouse on its patch of scrubby land.

It was in this state of boredom, penury, and growing friction with his strict and authoritarian father that Ron, at seventeen, accepted the invitation of his friend Rudy Hildebrandt to visit Rudy's girlfriend in the nearby town of Steinbach. Rudy's girlfriend had a nice-looking roommate, a girl named Janet, whom Ron might like.

Like Ron, Janet Schultz was raised in Winnipeg, the eldest child of Mennonite parents who had....

As Nature Made Him. Copyright © by John Colapinto. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Deborah Tannen

From the moment I read about the baby boy whom doctors changed into a girl, I yearned to know the story from the child's point of view: What did he think? What did he feel? How did his life turn out? As Nature Made Him tells that story--heartbreaking, infuriating, but also fascinating--an object lesson in medical hubris and close-the-ranks collusion, and in the tragic results when ideology trumps common sense in thinking about sex and gender. Above all, it's a deeply moving human drama and a testament to the inner strength and courage of the child who never lost touch with who he really was.

Reading Group Guide

About the Book
It is hard to believe that As Nature Made Him isn't fiction. The story John Colapinto presents here is thick with human drama and fateful coincidences. There's a freak snowstorm in April, a freak medical accident that resulted in an infant losing his penis, and a seemingly villainous doctor angling to prove his own gender theories. Readers meet a young couple agonizing over their son's injury while struggling to mend their fractured family. Most importantly, there is the child who -- against all odds -- breaks through his tragic past to become a man whose courage will not soon be forgotten. That man is David Reimer -- baptized as Bruce. After losing his penis in a botched circumcision he was raised until the age of 14 as a girl named Brenda. The doctor is John Money -- the high profile sex researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital who, when approached by Ron and Janet Reimer for a second opinion about their son's injury, rushed to their side with a controversial course of action.

For years, Dr. Money had been asserting that an individual's gender identity is determined not by the hormones that bath a developing fetus' brain and nervous system, but by socialization. David Reimer's tragedy presented him with the perfect opportunity to prove his theory. There were two reasons for this: David was born with intact male genitalia (as opposed to hermaphrodites), and he had a twin brother against whom Dr. Money could measure his development as a girl. At the time of Bruce's accident, phalloplasty (penile reconstruction) was not a viable medical option, nor was, to Ron and Janet, the prospect of raising a son with testicles, but no penis. And so the decisionwas made, Bruce became "Brenda."

For fourteen years David Reimer's family, along with Dr. Money and several other physicians, struggled to convince David that -- in body, mind, and soul -- he was girl. It is through the lens of this extraordinarily painful experience that John Colapinto tells two important stories. The first examines John Money, his motives, and the medical establishment that failed to confirm that the ethics surrounding David Reimer's treatment were sound. The second story is David Reimer's. It is a heartrending account of living with an unwanted sex role, of loneliness, of stigmatization, of soul-searching, and finally, of astounding courage. In the end, it is that story that should not be forgotten. As Nature Made Him should spur each reader to remember and accept who they are, and to challenge those individuals who might tell them otherwise.

Topics for Discussion

  • The "nature versus nurture" issue is one of the most hotly debated topics today. Other than being of interest to the scientific and medical community, why is it so important to society at large? How could the outcome of this debate affect public policy?

  • Before reading As Nature Made Him, did you have an opinion about the role of hormones in the formation of our gender identities? What was it? Did this book change your point of view? How and why?

  • John Colapinto included explicit details not only about the actual circumcision, but also about "Brenda's" painful coming-of-age. What effect did this have on you? Do you think he could have included less detail without diluting the impact of the book?

  • What narrative techniques did the author use that you found particularly effective in setting the tone of the book and in making the account powerful?

  • How did you feel about John Colapinto's depiction of John Money and the medical community? Was it fair? Why or why not?

  • Did reading As Nature Made Him change your opinion about sexual reassignment? Were you even aware of it as a medical issue before reading the book? If so, where had you read or heard about it?

  • Consider the formation of your own sexual identity. Discuss what makes you feel like a man or a woman, and how society has played a role in building gender identity, both in general and in your own life.

    About the Author: John Colapinto's articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Esquire, Mademoiselle, US, and Rolling Stone. As Nature Made Him is based on a landmark article published by Rolling Stone that won the National Magazine Award. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.

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    As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I was born with ambiguous genitalia and Mosaic Turners Syndrome, so I have a slightly different perspective than most of the other reviewers here. I too was assigned a sex that did not fit who I am, and I was born to be. I later as an adult changed my sex to heal that discrepancy imposed upon me. Genetically I am not clearly either male or female, and biologically I am neither a man or a woman, but my gender identity is clearly female, and has always been, despite the best efforts of my parents and the many medical consultants involved, to make me into a boy beginning at age three in 1955. John Colapinto's stunning book documents a life history that is so similar to my own, that I put off reading it until very recently. I had feared it would open up old wounds. I was surprised to discover that instead of what I feared might happen, I was deeply comforted to know that what I endured was not unique. My feelings during the abuse I suffered as a child are more than similar to David's, and the way David's ordeal affected his family closely parallels the way my family was affected. There are many whose gender politic, and social constructionist ideology, wont allow them to accept the facts of common sense this book makes clear. I desperately hope that the scientific data gleaned from the life experience of so many of us, who have endured what David has, .....all of our anguish and our collective agony, .....will not be disvalued by the medical community, the public, and those who still cling to the false belief that gender identity, sexual identity, gender and sexual orientation are cultural constructs, the mere result of nurture. .....I can tell you from personal experience of blood and torment, ..... that they are not.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I read this book whilst on vacation in Canada a few weeks. I was visiting from the UK and was intrigued by this book which I picked up in a branch of Indigo in Toronto. I had visited St. Jacob and encountered the Mennonite society. The parents having come from such a religious upbringing must have found the issues of sexuality and rejection,profoundly difficult to face. their love for each other was evident despite the randomness of the wife's infidelity. This is a book of courage and strength beyond the human spirit. Granted we may not have encountered anything so traumatic but we must realise the randomness of the 'act of nature.' We all sympathise with cancer and it's ruthlessness, yet taboo and social awkwardness mean this couple must have felt so isolated and without any network of support. The scientific implications were fascinating, but the supposed psycho-therapy offered to the children boils down to mental, emotional and sexual abuse. We need to accept children for who they are, not despair of girls climbing trees and cutting their knees; boys playing with Barbie's. Children need to experiment and explore and discover. We need to read this book and at least try to empathise, this could happen to anyone.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    What Dr Money did to this family was just plain evil. As a Dr. not even sure of his own sexuality he sure did dish out his unprecedented opinion on David. tragic the loss of life here and the loss of family and all at the hands of a megalomaniac that still wouldnt admit he was wrong. This is a great book made me very introspective and sad at atimes. Im glad it was written and written so wonderfully.
    EmScape on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    John Colapinto, a writer for Rolling Stone has been given the exclusive right to author the tale of David Reimer, who, a victim of a botched circumcision, had his sex reassigned at age two and lived the next twelve years as a girl. David is the victim of several doctors: the one who originally performed poorly at his circumcision; Dr. John Money, who used his considerable influence to convince David's parents to agree to the gender reassignment (and still to this day insists his treatment was a success); and later psychiatrists who, cowed by Money's prestige and influence, persisted in pushing him towards femininity. However, David has overcome. He is a happily married man, a father and a provider who, although still haunted by his unusual past, has come to terms with it and speaks out against the practice of gender reassignment to infants with damaged penises. Unfortunately, it has only been recently that other victims of this practice, members of ISNA (Intersex Society of North America) have been heard by the physicians and psychiatrists responsible for its continuation even today. I was also impressed with the depth of research done by the author, who, as an entertainment writer, was probably unprepared for the difficulty he would face in addressing this rather sensitive subject both with David's friends and family members and with members of the Sex Research community who still insist David's reassignment as Brenda was successful and that the author and his subject sensationalized this book for the money and film rights. This is an important book for any medical, psychiatry, or psychology student to read.Edit: I was not aware of David Reimer's eventual suicide until after I wrote this review, and wish to alter my assertion that David is 'happy' and has 'overcome.' Although the book ends on this note, several years later the situation is different.
    coolmama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Heart wrenching biography of David Reimer, born Bruce - after a botched castration his parents -- with the advice of "expert" sexologist Dr John Money who had his own priorities-- decided to raise Bruce as a girl named Brenda. After reading an interview with the author, the real question is how did David live for so long (he committed suicide in 2004). What a sad story, and so intreguing for us all -- who are we really?
    dihiba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    John Colapinto is a good writer - both fiction and nonfiction. This is a very good book, told with senstivity but not sentimentality.
    swl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Incredible story, and a true model of research and reporting. I was not familiar with JC (I don't read Rolling Stone) but had come across his name in conjunction with the book which followed this one, a novel. Couldn't resist the buzz on this one though.Top marks for sensitivity. Truly admirable determination to examine history, turning up tidbits that could only come from dogged sleuthing. And while the story is sensational, by the end you realize you've learned a great deal about a subject that deserves thoughtful attention, but has been buried beneath layers of shame forever.
    jeaneva on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    While I was reading this book, I kept sharing with others what I was reading. That's a sure sign for me when I'm reading nonfiction that it is exceptional. As a result of an unbelievably inept circumcision, this young man was turned into a physical "girl" and raised thus. I was appalled at the inequity of the financial settlement and the "doctor" who USED this situation to promulgate his gender theories, falsifying results to shore up his ideas.I recently read that the young man had committed suicide. If true, a tragic end to a tragic life.
    ireed110 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book made me sad, and it made me angry. What happened to this person and his family is tragic -- what's horrifying is that it was (is?) a standard treatment for kids born with "ambiguous genitals." At the time the book was written (2000), the controversy over whether or not this was okay was just beginning to brew. As far as the book itself goes, I think this amazing story could have been handled better. The book dragged in some parts, and was told out of order. The author is a journalist, and this read like one long article, or a series of them. The subject matter saved it - I think anyone could have written this book and it would be interesting. It's a tragic story that you will tell your friends and family about, and they will want to read about it when you are done.
    Crowyhead on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A moving and disturbing account of what happened when the medical establishment tried to "play god" with an infant boy's life. This is all the more poignant due to the fact that David Reimer (the boy in question) recently committed suicide.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Goddess_Beth More than 1 year ago
    I was so very, very affected by this one that I wanted to share it with you. As Nature Made Him follows the true story of a boy who, after a circumcision accident, underwent a sex reassignment surgery and was consequently raised as a girl. That thought alone is pretty horrifying to me- to have society force you to be the opposite gender role than what you brain and chromosomes are wired to be- but the author does an excellent job of setting context. This was the 60's and 70s', when the Nature vs Nurture debate was huge. The concept of transsexual, or gender identity, or even expanded gender roles, was not a common thought among the populace. This book is approachable, which is an achievement when you consider how many scientists and researchers had a hand in the true history of this child-turned-case-study. It's also deeply disturbing, when you consider the moral implications of the actions taken, especially repugnant for the self-righteousness of many of those involved...then as well as now. And chillingly, I can see this happening today. I was not well-versed in the issues facing intersex folk, and only just expanding my horizons in terms of gender identity and transsexuals (the issues facing them, not the existence of them). As a fairly typical young American woman, I assume this means most folks have the general blindness to these complex concerns that I had. That's one of the reasons I strongly recommend this book. The other reason is that it's a horizon-opening question about what makes us female, male, and bits of both. It's a question everyone should consider, whether or not you identify strongly with a gender type. This is a relatively quick read, because it's so engaging, but it can be at times disturbing as well (not graphic, at all, though). Check it out- it's worth the read.
    LivieBelle More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    tommygrrl723 More than 1 year ago
    This book tells the true story of a very young couple who gives birth to a set of male twins. After a circumcision gone wrong, the young couple must make the heartwrenching decision to raise one of the boys as a girl. What happens is insightful yet heartwrenching. A must read for anyone entering the medical field, studying psychology, or curious about the debate of nurture vs nature.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This book is a stunning, intensely absorbing chronicle of a profound tragedy - not only incisive, always delicate and tasteful in its delivery, but also expertly crafted. I couldn't put it down and was deeply affected by the conclusion of the 'story', and even more so by the update. I plan to read more of Colapinto.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This book tells the fascinating, horrible, and ultimately brave tale of David Reimer. A wonderful book for anyone interested in gender, psychology, or what it means to be human.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The book As Nature Made Him is a compelling story about a boy at a very young age undergoing an operation that would change his world do to a misshape that had happened while in surgery to help ¿correct¿ an infection caused when he was little. I had to choose a non-fiction book to read for my 12th grade English class, when looking through a bunch of other non-fictions books I could have easily read this one stuck out to me. It is a very intriguing topic. It is hard to imagine what any of this would be like for him, his family, his parents, anyone. It seemed to be that for the doctors though it was a load of success, which it is all up to human beans to determine what gender we are, which I couldn¿t disagree with more. The book was very useful in information and background on everything. I would recommend this book to many people. It is very, very interesting it is riveting. This book was a very well written piece of literature. Overall I enjoyed As Nature Made Him.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This is a great read. . . I don't know why more people have not read it. It is the sad story of a very ordinary family and what could have happened to anyone's child. I found it very interesting and read it quite quickly.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    It's high time a book like this came out on the market: one that reveals the long-term effects of perilously bad 'therapy' as practiced on helpless children. The fact that the psychiatrist in question in this book was making the twins strip naked and play sex-role games behind the (conveniently for the 'doctor') closed door of his office when they were SIX YEARS OLD is just plain sick, ridiculous and disgusting! Yet it is also quite common among the so-called psychological 'experts' to put a sexual spin on absolutely EVERY facet of life, even a child's life, even the lives of children who are far too young to be thinking of sex. This book should serve as a cautionary tale for any parent who thinks it's 'okay' to hand their parental power and their child over to a so-called 'expert' and let the child be 'treated' by mindless - and scientifically unproven - psychological theories, not to mention the sort of people who gravitate to them and become practicioners of them. Think about it for a moment: what kind of person needs to pick children's minds, hearts and souls APART by using unproven theories as a CAREER CHOICE? That David remained sane at all is a miracle and a testament to what a wonderful human being David obviously is, because the shrink he was dragged to basically raped the poor little child's mind, and not once, but over and over and over. I wish all the best in all the world to David...and I also wish that some legislation could be enacted to prevent shrinks like the one who abused David from imposing their repugnant views on any more children!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This story is just simply amazing.A must read book!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This story made me angry that ONE person in the medical community could have that much control and power over a situtation like this. I also found it scary that medical decisions like this are made, seemingly, without regard to what is really better for the patient in the long run. These parents didn't seem to have much choice in the matter with an overpowering, 'God-like' doctor in the picture. I hope this family is able to get over all the mistakes that were made to live happy and redeeming lives. I also think that any kind of life-altering decisions need at least 3 opinions to decide what is really best.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Yes, this particular story is full of medical and technical wording. But it is also written from a very sensitive point of view. I feel the psychology and research background as well as the difficult-to-understand terminology is needed to convey the full impact of this young man's experience. Without it, I feel the strength of the story would be lost. This young man has shown not only the resilient strength of the human spirit, but courage and the in-born sense of what's right and what's wrong. If only we as adults have the same courage and insight to listen to the little children. I wish only happiness, peace and love for this family.