It’s 1965 in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, and twins Bruce and Brian Reimer are checked in for a routine operation. But something goes wrong, kick-starting decades of struggle and confusion for one of the unlucky brothers. Almost four decades later, he takes his own life, the victim of medical malpractice on a terrifying scale.
The story began in December 1964, when Ron and Janet Reimer tied the knot. Apparently, Janet had always wanted to be the mother of twin boys, and just eight months later she got her wish. On August 22, 1965, two healthy sons, Bruce and Brian, were born to the Reimers in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
When Bruce and Brian were just six months old, however, they began having problems passing water. As a result, medics recommended that the twins undergo circumcision. Believing the operation to be relatively risk free, Janet took her sons to the hospital – unaware that their lives were about to change for good.
For some reason, the doctor performing the operation chose an unconventional approach, using equipment powered by electricity to burn the skin. Something went wrong, however, and during the surgery Bruce suffered horrific injuries. Shockingly, he ended up losing most of his penis in the terrifying medical bungle.
With surgeons unable to rebuild Bruce’s genitals, the Reimers knew that their young son was facing a difficult future. Then, some months after the botched operation, they saw Dr. John Money, a psychologist from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, talking on the television.
Apparently, Money had experience of working with intersex children – those whose bodies don’t conform to traditional notions of female or male. Considered a pioneer in his field, he believed that gender is a social construct, and that a child born male can grow up to identify as female if they are simply raised in a certain way.
With few alternatives seemingly available to them, the Reimers reached out to Money in Baltimore. And soon, he invited them to visit and discuss Bruce’s case. Apparently, he believed that it was impossible to reconstruct the boy’s penis – but that doctors could give him a working vagina, offering what Money claimed was the child’s best chance of a normal life.
Eventually, Money was able to convince the Reimers that gender realignment surgery was the most suitable treatment for Bruce. So when he was just 22 months old, he underwent an operation to have his testicles cut off. At the same time, doctors created a basic vulva. Now, Brian was known as Brenda, and Ron and Janet committed to bringing up their child as a girl.
For Money, the case was an incredible chance to validate his theories. Previously, he had only worked with intersex children. Now, he had the chance to test his approach on a child who’d been born a boy but who would be brought up as a girl. Moreover, the presence of Brian would act as the perfect control for his controversial experiment.
As “Brenda” grew older, Janet tried to teach her child all the things that she believed were essential to growing up as a girl, dressing him in women’s clothing and teaching him how to wear makeup. And to further aid his transition, he was given female hormones as an adolescent. He rebelled, however, often fighting with other children at school. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he struggled to fit in.
“They wouldn’t let him use the boys’ washroom or the girls’,” Janet told The New York Times in 2004. “He had to go in the back alley.” Meanwhile, Brenda was taken to see Money on a regular basis. At their appointments, the psychologist tried to reinforce the child’s female identity, regularly discussing his genitalia and taking photographs to highlight the difference between the twins’ bodies.
As the experiment continued, Money penned glowing reports about its alleged success. “The child’s behavior is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother,” he wrote. However, Brian disagreed. “The only difference between him and I was he had longer hair,” Brian told CBC.
As puberty approached, though, it became clear to the Reimers that Money’s approach was flawed. Apparently, Brenda began to develop broad shoulders just like one would expect from a maturing boy. But rather than admit his mistakes, Money pressured the adolescent to continue his hormone treatment and to have further surgery on his genitalia.
Eventually, Brenda had had enough. Unwilling to visit Money any longer, Brenda threatened to take his own life. And rather than see his son suicidal, Ron confessed the truth. By this time, Brenda was in his early teens. Sure that he had been losing his mind, the teenager felt relieved – and by the age of 14, he had decided to reclaim his identity as a man.
Now going by the name David, the teenager began wearing masculine clothes and had his long hair cut off. And over the following years, he also had surgery to aid his transition. With the help of the pay-out that he’d received for the initial botched operation, he was even able to afford penis reconstruction operations.
David also had a double mastectomy to remove his hormone-induced breasts and received testosterone injections to counter the estrogen that he’d received during his youth. Eventually, he met and married a mother-of-three, Jane Fontane, and became a father to her young children.
Up until 2000, David would only discuss his experiences if his anonymity was protected. Among experts, meanwhile, his story was referred to as the “Joan/John case.” Eventually, however, he decided to go public about his experiences in the hope that it would prevent other children from enduring the same trauma. And that year, Canadian journalist John Colapinto released As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised A Girl.
With the publication of Colapinto’s book, David found himself in the public eye, even featuring on an episode of Oprah. Behind the scenes, however, his life was still a struggle. And while dealing with bouts of unemployment, he suffered another terrible blow: in July 2002 Brian passed away from a drug overdose.
As he struggled to recover from his brother’s death, David’s relationship with Jane began to falter. Eventually, it all became too much, and at 38 years of age he took his own life. Shockingly, Money has never accepted responsibility for this tragic outcome, claiming that Janet and Ron merely waited too long before deciding to raise their child as a girl.
In fact, Money had carried on insisting that his experiment was a success even when Brenda had transitioned back into a man. And for years, his theories carried serious weight within the medical community. However, as David’s story became known, the psychologist’s influence waned. “We don’t think we can ever predict, with absolute certainty, what gender identity a person will grow up to have,” the Intersex Society of North America writes on its website. “What we can predict with a good degree of certainty is that children who are treated with shame, secrecy, and lies will suffer at the hands of medical providers who may think they have the best of intentions.”