Honoring David Reimer

Eight years ago today, on May 5, 2004, David Reimer took his own life. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a twin son of working class Canadian parents, David became famous as the subject of John Colapinto’s book, As Nature Made Him—the story of a boy forced to live as a girl until, upon finding out the truth about his history, he heroically emerged as… well, as himself.

John Colapinto’s book about David is a must-read for anybody interested in gender, identity, the runaway abuses of the medical and research establishment, and the boundlessness of the human spirit. The event that shaped the Reimer family’s life was a botched circumcision that caused David to lose his penis. But this story is not exactly about circumcision. Rather, it is about the abuse of power, about malevolence masquerading as rationality, and about the failed theory that “nurture” (whether through the shaping of children’s genitals or the denial of gender identity itself) can overcome nature. It is also about the power of self, and about how the truth will always emerge—sometimes too late, and helpless to stave off the tragic consequences of lies, hypocrisy and adults’ self-serving secrecy invoked as a front for “privacy.”

David Reimer told Colapinto that his parents felt horribly guilty about his life. Of course. But Ron and Janet Reimer were victims, too. Victims of the doctor who convinced them that their boys needed to be circumcised (David went first, but after the machine burned off his penis, the necessity for circumcising Brian suddenly evaporated). Victims of Johns Hopkins psychologist and researcher John Money (who not only abused both twins in the name of  “therapy” and “research,” but lied for the rest of his life to the scientific establishment and the public about the results of his “natural experiment”). Victims of their own passivity and lack of knowledge. Victims of their desperate desire to make things right, as their family’s life was shattered, and then re-shattered over the years—Brian also killed himself, years before David’s death.

Let us remember David Reimer for the lessons that his life—and death—can teach us.

Georganne Chapin