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

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

4.6 25
by John Colapinto, Howard McGillin (Read by)

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Nature vs. Nurture

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.

—Emily Nussbaum

Deirdre Donahue
Beautifully read by Howard McGillin, As Nature Made Him contains a powerful lesson about the importance of questioning the big authorities and of listening to small children.
USA Today
Natalie Angier
As John Colapinto makes achingly clear in this riveting, cleanly written and brilliantly researched account of a world-famous case, Money's effort to prove the plasticity of human sexual identity by transforming Bruce into Brenda was a cataclysmic failure.
New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
We've all heard the famous case of the boy raised as a girl after his circumcision was botched, supposedly a triumph for nurturists. Now he's an adult, living as a man with a family. Based on an award-winning Rolling Stone article, this book recounts the ordeal of "John/Joan," whose full identify will be revealed here. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-A sorrowful account of a healthy male baby who, after suffering from a botched circumcision, was surgically altered and raised as a girl. Beyond that, it is the story of a psychologist from Johns Hopkins who would not see that the transsexual "remedy" was a grievous error since that admission meant the loss of the fame, power, and acceptance gained from his theories on gender identity. The book is in actuality a reporting of the facts of the case: the medical diagnosis; the surgery; the results; and the terrible effects the gender switch had on Bruce Reimer (soon to be Brenda), her twin, and their parents. By adolescence, despite hormone treatments, Brenda's misery was so complete that a switch back to the gender of birth was inescapable. Thus was David born. The tragedy of this family was compounded by the details of the famous Dr. Money's refusal to accept the failure of this treatment. One is forced to wonder how many other children who are afflicted with genital anomalies, whether from physician error or from a congenital defect, have suffered due to the ongoing nature versus nurture debate of scientists. This is a compelling story that will educate teens about some serious physical, psychological, and scientific issues. Because of interviews on television recently, David Reimer's story may already be familiar to many of them.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

Product Details

Simon & Schuster Audio
Publication date:
Edition description:
Abridged, 4 cassettes, 5 hrs.
Product dimensions:
4.13(w) x 7.16(h) x 1.18(d)

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.

Meet 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.

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As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 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.
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Oh the pain this poor boy was put through! And what a fascinating story! The subject matter of this book reminded me of something like 'Very Special People' or some other flashy, barely believable tale.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have spent the last 3 nights reading until my eyes begin to cross. I have not wanted to put this book down. I cannot believe what 'Brenda' was put through just for a doctor to make headlines. I have not finished it yet...I would stay up and finish it, but I do have to come to work. I am going to loan my book to everyone I know with a remote interest. To me, the research done is a piece of evidence that homosexuality is linked more with biology than with the way a person is raised. It is a great book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As Nature Made Him reminds us of the, at best, provisional nature of scientific knowledge when science is well practiced, and of the horrible consequences of science practiced poorly. The tale also demonstrates the unimaginable damage done to society and individuals by just one charismatically persuasive, self-serving individual. Yet at the same time, Colapinto¿s book is also the very human story of one person¿s ability to overcome adversity. The book itself is well written. The story flows smoothly, in spite of the requisite explanations of technical procedures, esoteric theories and complicated medical issues. Sidestepping what could easily have been sensationalized, the writer shares the sometimes ugly facts with an economy of words and objectivity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am 17, and had to read a nonfiction book for contemporary literture in school. I picked As Nature Made Him because the story of a baby boy raised as a girl fascinated me. Many parts of the book were really interested, but overall I thought the book had to much information on the technical mumbo-jumbo, and not enough information on 'David'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing! I haven't finished it yet but so far I love it. I had chosen it for a biography project for school, when I had seen the story summerized on Extra. Then when I got it, I could never put it down. This book it actually great for all ages. And I'm glad for the life that I am living now that I am one sex and not both. I feel his pain and I think he has alot of courage.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My heart goes out to the young man who suffered so horribly because of one doctor's ego. If that man didn't have all the titles after his name he would have been arrested and convicted of unspeakable crimes against a child. He still should be. That David survived and has become the man he was destined to be can only be described as a miracle. God Bless him and his family. Ann Holland
Guest More than 1 year ago
I stayed up until 3:00AM reading this book, I couldn't put it down. For me the most disturbing part of the story is how the doctors (one in particular) continued to report that all was well and that the child was a happy, well adjusted little girl long after it became apparent (especially to the child's school teachers) that things were not going well at all. What a shame no one had the guts to stand up and speak the truth for so long!