Synopses & Reviews
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 tells this extraordinary story for the first time in As Nature Made Him. Writing with uncommon intelligence, insight, and compassion, he also 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. A macabre tale of medical arrogance, As Nature Made Him is first and foremost a human drama of one man's-and one family's--amazing survival in the face of terrible odds. The human intimacy of the story is all the greater for the subject's courageous decision to step out from behind the pseudonym that has shrouded his identity for the past thirty years.
In 1967, after a twin baby boy suffered a botched circumcision, his family agreed to a radical treatment that would alter his gender. The case would become one of the most famous in modern medicine and a total failure. As Nature Made Him tells the extraordinary story of David Reimer, who, when finally informed of his medical history, made the decision to live as a male. A macabre tale of medical arrogance, it is first and foremost a human drama of one man's and one family's amazing survival in the face of terrible odds.
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 in Rolling Stone that won the National Magazine Award. John Colapinto lives in New York City with his wife and son. He is at work on a novel.
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 decision was 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.