As Nature Made Him
, John Colapinto
Finished this a little while ago, but am trying to get back in the posting habit.
I liked this more than a little. I didn't love it, but it was superior to the overpadded magazine articles (which it started its life as) that are most of its fellows on the nonfiction shelf. Still, it's only a little better than that. The style's nothing to write home about and as reportage it's not really ... enough
, I guess is the word I'd plug in here, there is something else wanted.
The basic story: in Canada, identical twin boys go into the hospital for circumcisions. The doctor inexplicably does not employ the small knife he should, but a needlessly powerful electrocauterizing wand that is never normally used for that purpose. As he goes to circumcise the first child, Bruce Reimer, he destroys the boy's penis utterly. Understandably vexed, he ceases the procedure and does not attempt the circumcision of the second child. The parents, reasonably well meaning blue collar dunderheads, struggle with what the loss of a penis means for their son, and, partially through the convincing of prominent sexologist John Money
, are persuaded to clinically castrate their son and raise him as a girl, renamed Brenda, thereby creating a sexological experiment with an in-built control (the genitally untouched twin) that would have academics drooling for decades.
In that time, the case becomes a sort of academic battleground between Money, a nurture-over-nature guy who for years continues to report the sex reassignment to be an unqualified success, and Milton Diamond
, professor of reproductive biology, who thinks Money is full of shit. Brenda's childhood and adolescent life are an unrelieved misery as she is massively aware that something
had happened to her, something that made her different, even if she had no idea what it was. Literally everyone in her life is aware that there is nothing girlish about Brenda, and everyone treats her as if this is Something Wrong. In her teenage years, her parents finally tell her about the accident that started the whole thing. Brenda, relieved that there actually is
A Thing, and she is not crazy, reassigns herself as a male and takes a new name: she doesn't go back to Bruce, but becomes David Reimer. He grows to adulthood, gets married, settles down quietly (except for 15 minutes in the daytime-talkshow spotlight after Colapinto publicized his case). In the end Diamond largely defeats Money, in that it totally comes out that nope, that sex-reassigned little boy was full of anger and loathing and it was not working out in any way. The end.
The book irritated me at first for a number of reasons, one being that there is very little mention of the existence of trans people, and sexual politics are kept to a surprising minimum given the subject. To be fair, much of the book is from David Reimer's perspective, and there were no visible trans people in the back woods of rural shitkicking Canada. But David's story seems to me an essentially trans narrative, a life of alienation from one's own sexual body, followed by a conscious decision that one was going to actively choose the gender one truly felt for oneself, despite the opposite hopes and desires for your gender stasis that the people in your life have for you and try to enforce on you. That at least sounds like a trans narrative to me; I will however offer that I have never read a single actual trans narrative. I should look into that.
While the book ends on a reasonably hopeful note, with David Reimer having fully reclaimed the gender he felt himself to be, lived to become an adult, started to mend his personal relationships with his family, and gotten married, the unwritten real world postscript is far more somber. David Reimer's twin OD'ed in 2002, and not terribly long afterward David found himself unemployed and single after his wife had left him. In 2004, at age 38, he blew his brains out with a shotgun.