Skip to main content

"The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl.”

David Reimer was born a boy in 1967, but after a botched circumcision, and on the advise of doctors, his sex was surgically altered and he was raised as a girl. He also had an identical twin brother. Told of his surgery at the age of 14, Reimer decided to live as a male. Reimer’s case became a landmark because of its value to the study of nature vs. nurture. He’s the subject of the new book, “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl” (HarperCollins) by John Colapinto. We’ll hear from Reimer and Colapinto.



Date: FEBRUARY 16, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021601np.217
Head: Interview With David Reimer and John Colapinto
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're about to hear the story of a now-famous case in the annals of gender surgery and gender identity, a case that offers clues about the extent to which our sense of self as male or female is biological or learned through socialization.

Before I tell you more, I should also tell you this is a story that you may not think is appropriate for children to hear.

In 1965, an 8-month-old baby named David Reimer was circumcised in an attempt to fix a urinary problem. Instead of using a scalpel, the doctor used an electrocautery cutting device intended to seal blood vessels as it cuts.

But the heat destroyed the baby's penis. Doctors said there was no way of reconstructing it as a functional organ. At the recommendation of a pioneer in gender surgery, David was surgically altered to be a girl.

After the surgery, Reimer was raised a girl. But the gender change never took hold psychologically, and as a teenager Reimer insisted on surgery to remake him as a male.

David Reimer is now in his mid-30s and married to a woman. Although Reimer's story is famous in medical circles, his identity had been kept a secret to respect his privacy. But recently he decided to go public. He's the subject of the new book "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl," by John Colapinto, who is also with us.

I asked Colapinto the doctors' prognosis after the botched circumcision.

JOHN COLAPINTO, "AS NATURE MADE HIM": The prognosis was as grim as imaginable. You know, the penis was lost 100 percent. And doctors said that it was unreconstructable as a functioning organ for sex, and even for urination, it was going to be dubious.

But perhaps more frightening was the opinion of a psychiatrist, who kind of assessed the emotional future of this person, and they said that David really would have to live apart, really could not live a normal life, and really between the lines of this doctors' letter that the parents had to read was the notion that this child would not live. I mean, this really was kind of a death sentence.

GROSS: David's parents heard Dr. John Money on television. He's a pioneer of transsexual surgery, and they decided to consult him on the issue of their son. Why did Dr. Money think it would be easier for David to be raised as a girl and to undergo surgery to reconstruct his genitals into female genitals?

COLAPINTO: John Money had really been fascinated by this -- the question of how we do develop a sense of ourselves as male or female, for years prior to David's accident. And in the mid-1950s had published award-winning papers on a condition called hermaphroditism, which -- or intersexuality, where children are born with ambiguous genitalia.

And through experiments and study that Money did, he seemed to see that children with that condition could be raised comfortably as either male or female, that, in effect, doctors could decide a sexuality for children.

Now, un -- you know, Money generalized that to include all children, in other words, developmentally normal children. And David really, through unfortunate, fateful circumstances, became the guinea pig in that experiment. I mean, here was David, a genetically normal male, born normal, and incredibly enough, in really a -- what I call in my book a stunning statistical long shot, an identical twin.

And to anyone that knows anything about scientific experiments, that's the ideal human experimental setup. You have a genetic clone of David. And really, you know, the -- and the genetic clone was intact as a male, did not lose his penis.

So if you could then raise one of them as a girl and one of them as a boy, you were going to find out whether or not the sexuality that both of them would express as adults or growing up, you were going to find out if it was something encoded in that single cell from which they both sprung, or whether or not it was something that was taught to them by the society in which they were reared.

GROSS: So you're suggesting that Dr. Money had research reasons to suggest that David should be raised as a girl. What about...

COLAPINTO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the clinic in which this was done was called the Psychohormonal Research Unit, quite an important distinction.

GROSS: Did he think it would also be easier to construct female genitals than to reconstruct the male genital for David?

COLAPINTO: Yes. The state of surgical technology even today is such that penises are virtually impossible to, you know, 100 percent restore. But vaginas, on the other hand, as we know from transsexuals that we hear about so much in the media, they're actually not that difficult to make. I mean, they're not real vaginas, but they're a lot easier to make than penises.

GROSS: So Dr. Money proposed this surgery to transform David's genitals into female genitals. How did his parents respond to this?

COLAPINTO: Well, I should first just point out, because I know that this is something that David does like the public to understand, his genitalia were not completely feminized. The first stages were performed, his testicles were removed, and some sort of rudimentary, you know, shaping of the remaining skin was done.

But David was really scheduled later in life to have surgeries that would create an actual vagina with a vaginal canal. And it was really that issue around which at the ages of 6 through 13 had a titanic struggle with Dr. Money in which she -- then she -- refused to have this operation under any circumstances.

Now, you asked about David's parents and their decision to have this done. They really had heard from local physicians in Canada about the drawbacks to an artificial penis. They then went to the Mayo Clinic and heard again about those drawbacks.

And when they went to see Dr. Money, the world's leading expert in gender transformation -- who was making headlines, incidentally, around the world for the transsexual surgeries that he was authorizing on adult patients -- well, I mean, you know, this couple, barely out of their 20s, not highly educated in these matters, they, you know -- and in fact, it was not even that they readily agreed. They had to take some several months to mull it over.

But eventually they thought, you know, the world-famous expert from Johns Hopkins is the person who they should listen to.

GROSS: David, do you have any memory of being a boy before you were surgically -- before the surgical attempt to transform you into a girl?


GROSS: None at all.

REIMER: Well, I -- not really any kind of memories, other than I liked to play with -- as a girl, the only thing that was really -- that made me a girl was my birth certificate was changed, my name was changed, my hair wound up having to grow, and I wore different clothes. But the way I walked, the way I talked, the type of toys I liked to play with, the type of people I liked to play with, the activities I liked to do, that was no different than any other boy.

GROSS: When did you start feeling like you just didn't fit being a girl? When did you actually become conscious of that?

REIMER: It was either kindergarten or grade one. I got constantly stared at, like I did not belong. You have a skating rink where you got the girls at one end and the boys at the other end, and here's me in the middle. I'll just take off to the side off a bit, and there's no place for me to belong. I don't really belong anywhere.

So I was pretty well a loner.

GROSS: What -- for instance, in the skating rink, why couldn't you go to the girls' side? You thought you were a girl at that time, right?

REIMER: No, I didn't know what I was. I didn't feel like a girl. I mean, girls play with skipping rope, they like dolls, they liked girls' clothing. I didn't like any of that. I liked my GI Joes that my brother had, I liked his trucks, I liked wrestling. I wanted to pretend to shave. You know, just things that -- you know, I don't know, I just -- maybe somebody else can explain it better. But that's the best way I can explain it.

GROSS: Did you parents try to prevent you from seeing anyone else's genitals, either photographs or in life, so that you wouldn't be able to compare your surgically altered genitals with anybody else's?

REIMER: It wasn't so much my parents, it was more me. I didn't -- I wouldn't let anyone go near me. You know, I just -- I thought -- at very young, I took my own baths. I dressed myself. You know, I wouldn't let anyone go near me or -- very private, very personal. I was always picked on and belittled, so I kept to myself.

GROSS: Did you know that you had had surgery?

REIMER: I was aware that I was different, but I wasn't sure why.

GROSS: Right.

John, did you want to say something?

COLAPINTO: Yes, I was going to jump in, actually. It's interesting, because many of the questions you're asking I had also asked David about his genitalia growing up and what his understanding of them was. And what's been remarkable is -- what I was struck by was the kind of blind spot that he had about that most important -- seemingly most important part of our bodies.

And really the only conclusion I've been able to come to, and I can't speak for David fully, but this is what I was -- I've been able to kind of glean from him, is that it was so -- he was so traumatized around that whole area psychologically that he just couldn't look at it.

I mean, I think, if I remember correctly, David, you described situations at Johns Hopkins where you were asked by Dr. Money to look directly at your genitalia, and you really couldn't do it. I remember you said that you -- you know, he said, "Look between your legs," and you deliberately looked between your knees, hoping that that would be good enough. You didn't want to look at the (inaudible). Do you recall you were talking about that?

REIMER: I was playing -- yes, I was trying to play head games with him, basically. But I didn't care too much for the man. And that was, like -- dealing with him was like dealing with a famous chess player. You always felt you had to be one step ahead of the game. And for some reason, you had to watch your front as well as your back, and if you didn't, you would wind up getting carted off for surgery for whatever reason. And I was just terrified of John Money getting the upper hand.

GROSS: We'll talk more about David Reimer's story after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is David Reimer, who, after a botched circumcision during his infancy, was surgically altered from male to female. As a teenager, at his request, he was surgically changed back to male.

Also with us is John Colapinto, the author of a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him."

David, you have a twin brother, and I'm wondering if you were growing up, if he did things that you weren't allowed to do because you were supposed to be a girl, and you were supposed to be trained to be a girl?

REIMER: He went to Cub Scouts. I never had that opportunity. Wish I did. Sounded like fun.

GROSS: If you wanted to play with toy soldiers instead of toy dolls, were you allowed to?

REIMER: I did whatever I wanted.

GROSS: You were, so...

REIMER: It wasn't -- it was never accepted, but I did what I wanted.

GROSS: So your parents didn't say, You can't do that because you're a girl?

REIMER: Oh, yes. But, you know, if they're going to give me a hard time, fine. I just seen an Army show, so what I'm going to do is, I'm going to dig up my mother's spoon, dig a little hole underneath the fence, and we'll play Army. You know, I mean, I'd run -- (laughs) -- I mean, you know -- (laughs)

COLAPINTO: There is something that should be understood about David. He's very strong-willed and very hard-headed. And very early on in life, David learned that, you know, his parents' disapprobation about him playing with toys, or John Money's, you know, admonitions that he have surgery on his genitalia, or teachers telling him to behave more like a girl, or psychiatrists telling him to, you know, accept himself merely as a tomboy.

Those things David was disinclined to do. There was something inside David, it seems to me, that was speaking a little bit more forcefully. And he had a tendency, I think, for his own survival to listen to his own inner voice and to express it to people.

GROSS: David, maybe you could tell us a little bit about the visits that you made to Dr. Money's office, the follow-up visits after the surgery. What kind of things would he have you do to see how you were developing as a "girl," in quotes?

REIMER: It's a little touchy. You want to answer that, John?

COLAPINTO: Yes, it's interesting. I know David has trouble discussing these things. I mean, David, you can jump in and illuminate on anything that I do say here. But the records that John Money did surrender to David's local physician showed that the follow-up visits were really based around delving into David's psyche and trying to find out what was going on inside this child, whether or not she was developing psychically as a girl.

And -- but they were also based around helping to shape a feminine identity. And, you know, there was a number of techniques used for that.

GROSS: Like what?

COLAPINTO: Well, the -- in fact, one of the things that Money did do, David has told me, is really force him to look at his own -- or then her own -- genitals, and compare them with her twin brother. And I think -- and I can only guess what the reasoning behind that would have been, which would have been, I guess, to impress upon Brenda, which was David's name then, two things. You know, you don't have a penis, so you're a girl. But then David was -- Brenda was also made to look at pictures of anatomically normal women, and he was told -- she was told, You don't have a 100 percent vagina, so we've got to give you a full vagina.

And so these genital inspections in which Brenda was supposed to understand that she was different than her brother but different from a 100 percent, you know, normal woman, these were meant to impress upon her the necessity for the genital surgery.

But what also was uncovered in my research was that Money had evidently other techniques for shaping a female identity, and these were quite unusual. And they go back to research that Money purports to have done back in the early '70s, when he visited an aboriginal Australian tribe where he said that there was no gender disorders, no homosexuality, no transsexualism, and -- amongst the adults.

And he attributed that to one thing and one thing only, and that is that there was no prohibition against children, very young children, 5, 6, exploring each other's genitals, and, in fact, doing something that Money claims is normal in all humans, which is something called sexual rehearsal play, which is the act of children mimicking copulation.

Now, when I interviewed David's twin brother, Brian (ph), for the first time, before I had read much in Money's writings, Brian described to me a very unusual-sounding therapy in which he was made to assume positions with his sister. And these were sexual positions, according to Brian. Now, I can honestly tell you that, you know, as a reporter you have to be a little bit skeptical, especially when something this -- unusual a therapy, you know, is described at an eminent institution like Hopkins.

And I have to frankly admit that I kind of filed it away in the back of my mind as possibly a distorted memory of Brian's. I was a little bit flabbergasted, I have to say, to return to New York and begin real deep reading in Money's research, and to discover that sexual rehearsal play and the mimicking of sexual intercourse between children as young as 6 years old, was not merely something that Money had briefly mentioned once or twice in a piece of writing, it was a crusade. And he had begun that crusade in 1970 in a British journal article, and he proceeded to continue with that campaign and crusade for the next 25 years, repeatedly.

And he described that very act. And I must say, he said that it was the single most important way in which children form their gender identities. David and I have gone over this ground, and David doesn't particularly care to recall it. And there are black spots in David's memories of what happened at Hopkins. He was under a lot of pressure.

But, I mean, David, you can answer for yourself if you feel inclined to talk about that.

GROSS: David, I guess I'm wondering if you have any actual memories of that.

REIMER: Memories of what?

GROSS: Of...

REIMER: Anything -- of the...

GROSS: ... the sex play that John was just describing, sex rehearsal play.

REIMER: I don't remember a lot of parts. There's a lot of things I don't remember. And that's the way I want to keep it.

GROSS: Right.

I think when you were around 12, David, you were also put on estrogen therapy. So what did the estrogen do in terms of changes in your body or in your mood?

REIMER: It altered my body a little bit to the point -- not too -- I can't say that it did too much, because I had it under -- when I was told to take my pills, I was told why I had to take my pills, and then I protested. And I got good and mad and angry. And I was told, It's to make you wear a bra. And that's when I threw a fit. And I said, Over my dead body!

So about, I don't know, three or four times a week out of the whole week I would have it under my tongue, and then if I was inspected, checked to see if I took my medicine, I can open my mouth and make it look like I took my medicine. No one else is looking, you spit it up in the washroom. And then I got so depressed, I just wound up eating and eating and eating and eating.

And I got -- gained so much weight, between the little bit of the chemical residue or whatever from the medicine I was taking, that, and from the weight I was gaining from my food, my -- I had -- my chest was enlarged. But it just looked -- it was very similar to -- if you see a fat guy on the street and he's not wearing a shirt, I mean, he looks like he's got boobs, but it's not that he's got boobs, it's just that he's -- you know, he's overeating, and that's what happens when -- sometimes when you overeat.

So that's it.

GROSS: Were there places that you felt you couldn't go because you would be too exposed, (inaudible), you know, public restrooms, swimming pools, locker rooms, gyms?

REIMER: Everywhere. Everywhere. I never went anywhere.

GROSS: You never went anywhere, you just stayed home as much as you could?

REIMER: Yes. In my basement, watching television. I had a tutor for a little while.

GROSS: What about gym in school?

REIMER: What about gym? I had a tutor.

GROSS: You didn't even go to school?

REIMER: Not for a while. For quite a while, I had a tutor.

COLAPINTO: Yes, things reached a critical point with Brenda where it was simply impossible for her to go to school.

GROSS: David Reimer and John Colapinto will be back in the second half of the show. Colapinto has written a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, finding out the truth about the surgery that changed his gender. We continue our conversation with David Reimer and John Colapinto, author of a book about Reimer's story and what it tells us about gender identity.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, David Reimer, is the subject of a now-famous case study in the annals of gender surgery. As I mentioned earlier, you may consider this story inappropriate for children.

When David Reimer was 8 months old, his penis was destroyed in a botched circumcision. His parents were told by a pioneer of gender surgery, Dr. John Money, that it would be easier to create a vagina than to reconstruct a functioning penis.

So David was surgically altered to be a female, but psychologically it never took. As a teenager, he requested to be surgically changed back to male.

David Reimer is now in his mid-30s and married. My guests are David Reimer and John Colapinto, the author of a new book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him."

The initial gender reassignment surgery when Reimer was an infant was incomplete in its creation of female genitalia.

David Reimer, Dr. John Money wanted you to undergo further vaginal surgery to reposition the urethra and create a fuller vaginal canal. You refused to have that surgery. How old were you, and how did you say no? What exactly did you do to refuse?

REIMER: Well, I was about 7 years old. I just be so horrified to the point where I'd be shaking, and it's where I'd be look -- it would look like I'd be having a nervous breakdown. That's how bad it got. So, you know, they kept saying, Well, we'll wait a little bit, till the child's older, and when the child's older. And kept putting it off. And then I got to the point where I got, you know -- when you're 11 or 12, around there, then you get to the point where, you know, what's the worst they're going to do? Kill you?

That's the worst they can do. If that's the worst they can do, well, then they're going to have to kill me, because I'm not putting up with any more.

COLAPINTO: Yes, it was at that point where David really became very sort of outspokenly defiant to any of the notions of surgery. But it is pretty heartbreaking and fascinating to see that Brenda's very first response ever to being told about surgery at the age of 7, it was a visit of April 1973, I think it was, and her first response was, when Money describes what this surgery would be, she just very politely said, "I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't do that."

And she never, ever shifted that -- from that position ever again.

GROSS: David, how were you told the truth of what happened to you, that you were sort -- you were born a boy, you were circumcised, the circumcision was botched, and after that, you had reconstructive surgery to form female genitals, and you were raised as a girl? How were you told that?

REIMER: I was about 14 years old. My dad took me out for ice cream cone. I was in the basement. He walks in and he says, "Well, let's go for a spin and go for a cone." If you know anything about my dad, usually if he takes you out for a cone, it's usually -- it's bad news, it's either he's going to talk to you about your grades, you got into trouble at school, or, like, you'd (inaudible) beaten somebody up, or you're -- you know, you figure your mother's dying, or -- it's usually bad news.

And that's when I got told. It was in the car, and I had a big jumbo ice cream cone melting all over my lap. And I remember he had told me about my birth, about my circumcision, about then trying to switch me over for my sake. But that's all that I remember. I was in such shock. I don't even remember my ice cream cone melting on my lap. I had a kind of a -- from what I've been told, from my dad, I had a glaze over my eyes, and my cone was all melted all over my lap.

And I don't even remember getting out of the car. But I do remember coming into the house, and the one thing that I had asked was what was my birth name? And that's all that I wanted to know, was my birth name.

GROSS: And was it David?

REIMER: It was Bruce.

GROSS: It was Bruce.

REIMER: It was Bruce.

GROSS: How come you didn't take the name Bruce and you took the name David?

REIMER: First of all, I don't like the name Bruce. It's fine for somebody else, but I don't like it, because then they start calling you, (singsong voice) Brucie, da-da-da -- I don't need any of that business.

Second of all, I wanted something that I can pick for myself. I wanted to make one decision that I always wanted, that I never had that opportunity, in my life have I ever been given the opportunity to do anything for me. But at the same time, I wanted to give my mother an opportunity for her to do -- for her to do something for herself too, because she was just as much a victim as -- in all of this than I was. So I wanted her to have an opportunity.

So what I did is, I picked up two names, Joseph and David, and I gave her -- I just put it in her lap. I says, "Well, these are the names that I like. Would you mind picking a name out for me?" And I wanted to give her that bit of dignity, that one thing that she could do on her own, that nobody else could take away from her. And that was the chance to give me my name, David.

GROSS: I find it really interesting that you felt so much empathy for what she was going through, instead of feeling incredibly angry, you know, that -- She's my mother and she let me go through all this.

REIMER: OK, now suppose you're a young mother, you have a child that's injured, you got nobody that will help you. You're running around looking for a flotation device, because you're in the water. Your child's drowning. And here is a doctor that says, Come here, I can help you. Here's a life preserver. Grab it.

And then you look at the other people that say that they can't help you, and they give you such a bleak diagnosis. It's -- so that's what my mother did, my mother did the best that she could for me, for me, not for herself, because my happiness meant more to her than her own life. I just -- you know, for someone to go through what my mother did, you can't help but admire that. She's been through a lot.

GROSS: When your father, you know, took you out for the ice cream cone and told you the truth about your personal history, was that just, like, a guy-to-guy talk? Was your mother there too?

REIMER: No, my mother was talking to my brother to tell him the news...


REIMER: ... about what had happened to me. And while Dad was out with me, Mother was out with my brother. And so we both would know at the same time.

GROSS: Huh. So what was your emotional reaction to hearing this?

REIMER: Really, that I wasn't going insane.

GROSS: Because you suspected all along that you were a boy.

REIMER: No, I wasn't sure what I was. I mean, you got -- you know, you're -- they paint you in the brush like you're supposed to be this girl or something, and you're nothing like that, you're -- I don't know, to me, I thought I was losing my mind. Now that I knew that what was going on, it was a big relief. Let's move on from now. This is fantastic, now I'm not going insane.

COLAPINTO: That's actually one of the wonderful kind of subtleties of all this, that David -- you know, to this day he's not going to tell you that he knew he was a boy. I mean, you don't -- I mean, as David said to me, you know, you're not going to think in a million years that you were born a normal boy and that they turned you into a girl. I mean, he was -- I mean, I don't know, in a way it would have been a blessing, I think, for Brenda to have somehow known she was a boy.

It was so much worse than that. She didn't know what she was. She was a girl, you know, how could she not be? She was Brenda, she wore dresses, and so on and so forth. And -- but, I mean, but she wasn't a girl, but she wasn't a guy. I mean, I don't think any of us that have, you know, not been through what David was through can even begin to guess what she thought she was.

I mean, you know, so when David says that he was relieved that he wasn't going crazy, I mean, he means really crazy. I mean, you -- this is someone who lived to the age of 14 with no road map. I mean, the fundamental building block of identity is our sexuality. It's the first things anyone says about you when you come out of the womb, Is it a boy? Is it a girl? It's a girl, it's a boy. I mean, you know, he didn't have that. He was steering by internal stars entirely.

And frankly, that -- you know, you can only steer so long. You end up in the dark. And you end up dead, often. And, you know, by your own hand. And that was the terrible fear of the psychiatrists in his home town of Winnipeg, who finally said to the -- David's parents, you know, He -- she's not going to make it, she has to be told. And to David's parents -- I mean, it's a nightmare, but they'd been told by Dr. Money, Don't express doubt, don't feel doubt, don't communicate doubt to your child.

So Ron and Janet Reimer may have gone on forever trying to raise her as Brenda. I mean, and it would have been no fault of theirs. But the local psychiatrist said, Look, you know, you've got to tell her the truth.

So, you know, all of a sudden the universe made sense for Brenda, and that was that she wasn't -- she was not Brenda.

GROSS: My guests are David Reimer and John Colapinto, the author of a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is David Reimer, who, after a botched circumcision during his infancy, was surgically altered from male to female. As a teenager, at his request, he was surgically changed back to male.

Also with us is John Colapinto, the author of a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him."

David, after finding out the truth about your past, and the surgical attempt to transform you from boy into girl, did you decide pretty quickly that from there on in you were going to be a boy?

REIMER: It didn't take much hesitation or much argument from me. I mean, you can paint a zebra to a -- nice black paint job, but that doesn't make it a horse. Don't expect it to gallop, you know, it's still a zebra.

GROSS: Did you have a strategy, you know, when you decided, OK, I understand now, I was born a boy, I want to be a boy, did you have a strategy for switching your gender identity from female to male, and switching your public identity from female to male?

REIMER: It was easier to get everything cosmetically taken care of than it was to deal with the public. I'm still -- I'm not good with the public. I'm a loner, I usually stick to myself. I mean, people can approach me. I'm not an unapproachable type of person. But I don't go out of my way to meet people. I don't go to bowling alleys, I don't go to movie theaters. I'm the type of guy, if you -- if I got a couch, color TV set, an ashtray, and some munchies, I'm in paradise. That's my paradise right there.

GROSS: So...

COLAPINTO: You know what...


COLAPINTO: Well, Terry, you know, you ask such a good question about Brenda's strategy of shifting, you know, and just even dealing with the social difficulty of that. Because, of course, what we're discussing here is a person who at the age of 14 is deciding to switch sex. I mean, you know, we see a lot of transsexuals on television. Most of them are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, even 50s when they switch. We're talking about an adolescent going through the most difficult time of life and making that amazing decision to do that, and do it without moving away from the home town or anything else.

And I just happen to know from having looked at David's psychiatric records, or Brenda's at the time, that I know that she did express concern to her psychiatrist, saying, you know, What will I do? Should I move away to Vancouver for, you know, a few months and then -- or a year and then come back as a boy and then -- It's interesting, because the psychiatrist was taking verbatim notes. And then she said, Well, no, but wait, you know, I look like Brian, people will know.

You know, so she really was -- there's some wonderful psychiatric notes in which Brenda is thinking out loud, you know, How will I do this? And thankfully, the psychiatrist -- an excellent psychiatrist, Mary McKenty (ph) -- took all this down, so there's a really superb record of what this was like for David.

GROSS: David, what kind of surgery did you have to try to reconstruct your identity as a male?

REIMER: I just had some very complex surgery. It's a sensitive...

GROSS: Sensitive subject?

REIMER: Very sensitive.


REIMER: No pun intended.

GROSS: No, I...


GROSS: Right. You were, what, about 16 when you had the surgery?

REIMER: Yes, I was, what, 16? Yes.

COLAPINTO: Yes, your first one.


COLAPINTO: But also mention to Terry about the -- remember, you were taking the estrogens, which did give you some breast material. What happened about that?

REIMER: Oh, they just -- well, I had asked that to my surgeon that was removing the body fat, and I said, Was it because of the medicine I've been taking? And he says, Well, it's because of the diet that you're on. So...

COLAPINTO: And now we're talking now -- I mean, OK, I -- what I'm -- what I did want David to mention, and the audience should know, is that he had to undergo, you know, the removal of this breast tissue, and -- which -- you could notice, David doesn't want to call it breast tissue. I mean, I -- and I respect that, David. I mean, it was...

REIMER: It was a size 34D cup.

COLAPINTO: (laughs) Well, I know it's a -- (laughs) Well, I'm glad you -- OK, I'm glad you're admitting that. No, I mean...


COLAPINTO: ... for David, it's always been -- I mean, I can even sense in David when we had our interviews all along that, you know, to this day he's really not comfortable with saying that those estrogens took effect and gave him breasts that he (inaudible)...

REIMER: Well, I'm telling you what the doctor told me.

COLAPINTO: Which is that it mostly was fat...


COLAPINTO: ... tissue from your...

REIMER: That's what he told me.

COLAPINTO: ... from your diet. Very good.

REIMER: He can write down whatever he wants on that paper. But if I tell you that that's what I know, that's what I've been told, that's it.

COLAPINTO: Absolutely.

GROSS: David, do you remember the first day that you publicly appeared as a boy with a male identity, in boy's clothes?

REIMER: There's one time that really stands out. I went to my uncle's social, and that's a gathering, a party that you have just before you get married. And I went as Brenda. And then at the wedding...

COLAPINTO: A few months later.

REIMER: ... a few months later, I went as David, in a suit. So I was about -- you know, I got, you know, forced into this situation where I wind up front row center. They dragged me, says, OK, you're part of the wedding party, you got to go up to the front. They stick you in the front, and everyone's, you know, Say, he looks familiar, he looks familiar. (inaudible), you know, I look like a little wheelbarrow. I had...

GROSS: (laughs)

REIMER: ... quite a bit of weight there. But, you know, oh, I know, I look pretty darn good and snappy in that suit. But...

GROSS: Did the people at the wedding already know your situation?

REIMER: The majority of them did. And the ones that didn't, didn't say anything out of politeness.

GROSS: Right. Let me update the story a little bit. You are how old now?

REIMER: Thirty-four years young.

GROSS: And for someone who's spent a lot of their childhood, you know, alone in the basement and studying with tutors so that you didn't have to go to school, do you work now, and do you work outside the home?

REIMER: Well, I'm currently unemployed. I'm just -- I'm looking for work right now, so things'll turn up.

GROSS: Have you worked...

REIMER: (inaudible)

GROSS: ... have you had a kind of...

REIMER: Oh, yes. Yes, I worked for Maple Leaf a few years.

GROSS: I'm sorry, say that again?

COLAPINTO: Which is a...

REIMER: Maple Leaf Meats. It's a meat-packing plant.

GROSS: I see.

REIMER: That's where I worked for a little while.

COLAPINTO: Well, actually for quite a while, David, for years.


COLAPINTO: David -- I mean, one of the things that's happened since I did my original writing about David is that the plant closed down in Winnipeg, so he was -- like everybody else, he was thrown out of a job. But one of the things that most impressed me when I met David -- and his brother, for that matter -- is that they were, you know, despite the difficult -- well, difficult is the understatement of the century -- but the -- despite what they'd been through, both of them were, you know, productive working members of society.

David in particular worked an incredibly tough job, you know, there -- hard physical manual labor, and was singlehandedly supporting a family of five. And this is, let's remember, the person that was told by his Winnipeg doctors when the initial accident happened that he would have to live apart and could not be a member of society.

GROSS: My guests are David Reimer and John Colapinto, the author of a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is David Reimer, who, after a botched circumcision during his infancy, was surgically altered from male to female. As a teenager, at his request, he was surgically changed back to male.

Also with us is John Colapinto, the author of a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him."

David, I want to know how familiar you are with the whole, like, intergendered movement that has grown up. And I'm thinking here primarily of people who were born with what's been described as hermaphrodism, you know, where their genitals were neither completely male or female, and so they were surgically altered to be male or female, and some of them were kind of reassigned gender in the process.

And there's been, like, quite a kind of self-help and commiseration process that the people in this movement have gone through with each other. I'm wondering if you're much aware of that movement, if you've participated at all...

REIMER: No, no.

GROSS: ... in that kind of self-help and commiseration.

REIMER: No, no. That's a hold-hands-and-love-one-another. No, that's (laughs) -- I'm sorry, I'm being cynical and sarcastic here, and I shouldn't be. But, no, I'm not into therapy or anything like this. I -- you got to remember, I've had years of the so-called professionals trying to, you know, look out for my so-called best interests, when they had their own interests at heart.

So, you know, I'm the type of person, I deal with things the way I want to deal with them. I don't trust professionals as much as what an average person would, because I had so many people try to pull the wool over my eyes, and then all of a sudden, Oh, well, you got problems, let's go see a therapist.

Well, under the circumstances of what I've been put through, I'm the sanest person on the planet. You know, you go through the exact same experiences as me, you're lucky to be alive.

GROSS: John Colapinto, you've been researching David's story for about three years. I'm wondering if it's changed your views at all about what parts of gender identification are biological and what parts are just what you're taught as you grow up.

COLAPINTO: Really -- it really -- David's story did change me profoundly in that regard. I, like so many people that grew up and came of age in the 1970s, really was just steeped in the sense that our sexual sense of self is largely and primarily learned. I do remember all of the kind of notions of raising children in a nonsexist way, raising boys, you know, giving them dolls to play with and not, you know, overenforcing stereotyped gender roles in people.

All of which I think is perfectly fine, but which I now think is probably quite pointless. I mean, and especially since now those children have grown up to be just, you know, typical, you know, males and females in our society. There's no special gender sensitivity, I think, enjoyed by adults now that were raised that way.

But more specifically to David's case, I mean, you know, this was striking evidence -- the fact that David exists as a man with an unequivocal male sense of self, but grew up with no penis to, you know, learn from, and grew up with the name of Brenda, and the fact that, you know, none of this even remotely took hold in his psyche -- I mean, of course, you know, people that want to argue for John Money's view of things will say, Well, you know, Money did the sex change at 19 months, and then the surgery was done at 22 months, and maybe enough time had passed that a sexuality was learned before David became Brenda.

But even if that were the case -- and there's certain mitigating factors even against that, but even if that were the case, you would expect that some, some degree, some scintilla of feminine psyche would have taken hold, some expression of what we in our society recognize as being feminine would be present. It doesn't exist at all, not even remotely.

And so, you know, for me it was just a wakeup call. It was a -- the first time that I ever really understood that so much of what we can be taught, so much of what is in the air, is sometimes just plain wrong. And I -- you know, my book is not an argument that nature is the sole shaper of our sexuality and sense of self, but it's certainly, I hope, a corrective to the notion that has prevailed since probably mid-century, that environment is -- you know, rules it. I mean, it's -- I hope it's at least a corrective to make people understand that there's an interaction between the two factors, and really that this sort of deepest substrata of sexual identity is in the genes somewhere.

GROSS: We'll say (ph), too, that I don't think you're arguing that since you've reached the conclusion that gender is more biological than you originally thought, you're not making the argument, therefore men, be sexist and macho and keep women in their place. (laughs)

COLAPINTO: Absolutely not, exactly. I -- it was one of the fears, you know, going into this book, because the -- because I didn't want the -- I didn't want feminists to -- or never mind feminists, I just didn't want women generally to feel like I was writing a book that was endorsing, you know, bad attitudes that women are sort of born a certain way and must live -- thus live certain rules -- roles. I mean, the book does not say that.

And I wouldn't -- I would hate for it to be interpreted that way.

GROSS: David, a question for you. Do you feel that you have, even though you never identified with being a female, do you still feel like you have a special understanding of some women because you did live in that identity for a while?

REIMER: (laughs) I don't have a clue.


REIMER: I'm sorry, I just -- (laughs) No, I'm -- some people might think I got some sort of a secret psyche with women. I wish I did. I'm -- I don't, I'm -- (laughs) I'm lost. (laughs)

COLAPINTO: You know, it's funny, David says that, and he's always said that to me. But, you know, in talking with him about -- for instance, David, your slaughterhouse colleagues, when you were working at the plant, you really do enjoy a sort of broader viewpoint than they do. I mean, you kind of have described them to me in many ways as being, you know, pretty stereotypical, beer-swilling, you know, locker-room-talking guys that have to pretend to be the boss at home and all that.


COLAPINTO: And you've never agreed with that.


COLAPINTO: Now, maybe that's just you. I mean, but...

REIMER: No, no, they -- what they'll do is, they'll try to corner you, they'll try to embarrass you into saying things that you wouldn't normally say, that they'll go over and says, Well, I wear the pants of the family. And then they'll look at me and they'll say, Well, Reimer, who wears the pants in your family? And I'll look them square in the eye and says, This is the '90s, man, wake up and smell the coffee. You know what I mean? They're not -- this is not the Cleaver household.

GROSS: David Reimer and John Colapinto. Colapinto is the author of a book about Reimer called "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl."

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Naomi Person, and Joan Toohey Wesman, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendan Noonam.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: David Reimer, John Colapinto
High: David Reimer was born a boy in 1967, but after a botched circumcision, and on the advise of doctors, his sex was surgically altered and he was raised as a girl. He also had an identical twin brother. Told of his surgery at the age of 14, Reimer decided to live as a male. Reimer's case became a landmark because of its value to the study of nature versus nurture. He's the subject of the new book, "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl," by John Colapinto.
Spec: Sexuality; Lifestyle; Health and Medicine; Science; Media

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With David Reimer and John Colapinto
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue