By the 1990s, John Money's ideas on psychosexual malleability and sex reassignment surgery (inter alia) had become conventional wisdom. His twins case, noted Johns Hopkins child psychologist William Reiner in a 1997 Rolling Stone article, was a "hallmark...the source of his statements—and subsequent statements in any of the pediatric textbooks in endocrinology, urology, surgery, and psychology—that you can reassign the sex of a child because it's the social situation that is most important". In short, according to Reiner, the undisputed success of Money's twins case legitimized the practice of infant sex reassignment globally.
Dr. Mel Grumbach, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco, seconded Reiner's assessment in the same article.
"Doctors were very influenced by the twin experience. John Money stood up at a conference and said, 'I've got these two twins, and one of them is now a girl, and the other is a boy...That's powerful. That's really powerful...This case was used to reinforce the fact that you can really do anything. You can take a normal XY male and convert it into a female in the neonatal period and it won't make any difference. John Money is a major figure, and what he says gets handed down and accepted as gospel...".
But as it happened, there was at least one scientist who didn't take Money's twin experiment as gospel. In fact, he'd doubted Money's announcement from the very beginning. And behind the scenes, for the next twenty plus years, he'd been doing everything he could to locate someone—anyone—with inside knowledge of the case. If he could only track down, say, a psychiatrist who had worked with the subject, or perhaps the subject himself, he believed he'd find proof Money had misrepresented the results of his experiment.
That would be important to know, because if Money had lied, the scientific rationale for the now-standard, Money-recommended practice of performing sex change operations on sexually underdeveloped male and intersexed infants (turning them all, as a matter of routine, into "girls") did not actually exist.
And if no scientific rationale existed...what was everyone even doing? Based ultimately on one single unverifiable (probably false) claim by John Money, doctors around the world, by the 1990s, had removed the sex organs of around 15,000 male infants only because their penises were underdeveloped at birth, and then later flooded them with estrogen and created artificial vaginas to turn them into "girls". Intersexed infants got the same treatment. If Money's "success" was the failure this doubter suspected, there was every reason to suppose this now-routine practice was actually mal-practice—that it had caused untold harm and heartache.
At least, this is what Money's doubter thought. For over twenty years, as Money's influence spread far and wide on the strength of his "scientific breakthrough", he had smelled one gargantuan, pungent rat. He just needed proof.
Who was this scientific doubter?
Why, none other than our old friend, Milton Diamond—the professor who first exposed Money in 1965, and who Money had been maligning ever since he triumphantly announced his "successful twin experiment" in 1972.
Diamond had been trying to find out the specifics of the twin case for two decades. He'd never succeeded. And so, Diamond—who had landed a full-time job at the University of Hawaii in the late 1960s—was relegated to placing a recurring ad in the American Psychiatric Society Journal. The ads always said the same thing: "Will whoever is treating the twins please report. Dr. Milton Diamond, University of Hawaii".
Year after year, the ad appeared. And year after year, a Canadian psychiatrist Milton Diamond had never heard of would see the ad, think about responding...and then, in the end, decide not to.
The reason? Fear. John Money—still at Johns Hopkins—had a long history of obsessive vindictiveness, explosions of rage, career-sabotage, and even physical violence against those he perceived as "enemies". For example, according to one eyewitness, on the one occasion Money had ever been in the same room as Milton Diamond (at a 1973 psychology conference in Dubrovnik), Money started screaming at Diamond in front of everyone, then tried to punch him. (Diamond's offense? Writing his 1965 takedown article of Money's absurd claims.)
The Canadian psychiatrist himself explained his reluctance to speak to Diamond about the case this way: "I was sh*t-scared of John Money. He was the big guy. The guru. I didn't know what it would do to my career".
Fortunately for the cause of truth, the psychiatrist's dreams of remaining anonymous finally evaporated one day in 1994. That was the day he picked up his ringing phone only to discover Milton Diamond on the other end. It had taken Diamond over twenty years, but he'd finally found someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone else, who gave him the name of the Canadian psychiatrist who could fill him in: Keith Sigmundson, then (as now) living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
The sheepish Sigmundson's first words were: "I was wondering how long it would take for you to get here".
Sigmundson knew full well what had happened to Bruce Reimer: he had started seeing the struggling "girl" in 1978 after school teachers referred the eleven year old "Brenda" to Winnipeg's Child Guidance Clinic. Sigmundson's involvement had lasted a number of years. And sure enough, the story he told was just what Diamond had suspected: one of the most famous scientific success stories of the past two decades—one serving as the basis of life-changing male-to-female infant sex-change surgeries—was no success at all. It was a catastrophic failure. Money had committed an outrageous fraud with devastating consequences for thousands.
Diamond had first blown the whistle on Money almost three decades earlier. Nevertheless, Money had lied and bullied his way out of that ignominy and into a position of unchallengeable pre-eminence. Now, it looked like Diamond would have to blow the whistle again. Maybe this time, it would make a difference. Maybe this time, Money wouldn't be able to lie and bully his way out again. Maybe this time, the scientific community would do the right thing in response. Maybe this time, Diamond's efforts would stop the harm inflicted by Money's ideas once and for all.
The key, thought Diamond, was "Brenda" Reimer himself. In the end, this was his story, and in the end, only he could really tell it. Diamond could write up the science, but Reimer would at least have to attest to it. And so, on Diamond's behalf, Sigmundson called the then 29 year old Reimer to ask if he would consent to a meeting. Eventually, Reimer consented. Diamond boarded an airplane and flew to Winnipeg to meet the test subject he'd been trying to find for the past 23 years.
What Diamond found wasn't a woman, but a man. Actually, a married man. And the man wasn't named Bruce Reimer. His name was David Reimer. And the part of his story which I haven't covered in past installments, in brief, went like this.
At fourteen, "Brenda" Reimer hit the wall. He'd already announced he would no longer see John Money, but Money, from afar, relentlessly pressured Brenda's local medical and counseling team to push "Brenda" into the full sex change operation Money wanted him to have. Reimer consistently refused.
A turning point finally came when one Dr. Winter, trying to follow Money's instructions, invited the fourteen year old Reimer into a room to examine his budding breasts—the result of Money-ordered estrogen pills.
Reimer refused to allow the examination. Dr. Winter tried to persuade him. Reimer still refused. The standoff lasted twenty minutes. Finally, a frustrated Dr. Winter said, "Do you want to be a girl or not?".
In response, "Brenda" bellowed "NO!" directly into Dr. Winter's face.
Something about that moment changed Dr. Winter. He exited the room and spoke to Reimer's psychiatrist. After a chat, Reimer's local team came to a decision that day: it was time to ignore John Money. The experiment was over. It had failed. There was no way to "unfail" it. Money had been wrong. And by continuing to accede to his demands, they would only be participating in abuse, not therapy. It was time to stop, and it was time for "Brenda"'s parents to tell Bruce the truth—the truth John Money had demanded, over and over, they never tell his test subject. Ron and Janet Reimer agreed.
As Ron shared the truth with his fourteen year old son shortly thereafter (March 14, 1980), he began to cry. It was the first time "Brenda" had ever seen his dad tear up. It was also the first time the fourteen year old had ever felt not crazy. As he listened, everything about his life which had never made sense, all started to make sense for the first time.
As a tearful Ron finished speaking, "Brenda" did have one question.
"What was my name?"
"Bruce", said Ron.
But Bruce was no more, thought the boy. Brenda was no more, too. He was something new now.
He was someone who had battled against monstrous forces he could barely understand—and in some sense, he had won. He had finally stood his ground against John Money—now Money was out of his life forever. He had resisted incredible pressure to submit to a sex change operation—now that was off the table. He had resisted invasive medical examinations, and to the extent possible, estrogen treatment—those would stop now, too. He had asserted to one and all that he was actually a boy—he had told the truth based on his own intuition—when everyone else around him was lying to him and telling him he was born a girl. And now, because of the strength he had shown, he had finally heard the real story of who he was—a story he was never supposed to hear.
He needed a name that represented those victories, and all the victories he would still have to achieve. And that is why the boy originally named Bruce, and then Brenda, announced he would thereafter take the name David. At fourteen, he was, he figured, about the same age as the great Israelite hero when he faced down Goliath of Gath; and like his namesake, he too had slain great foes against all odds.
As David recounted all this and more, Milton Diamond took notes—often tearing up himself. If there was any justice in the world, he must have thought, the research article/exposé he would write with Dr. Sigmundson would end Money's academic fraud for good, along with all the malpractice and suffering it continued to spawn. David Reimer would live a long, fulfilling life. John Money would experience some sort of karmic justice. The truth would prevail, along with decency and goodness.
A man could hope, anyway.
More next week.
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