As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto
Reviewed by Ashley Leonardelli, Spring 2012
Despite the plain black cover and binding, I felt compelled to find out more about this book as soon as I read the title. Thankfully, my skepticism quickly turned to intrigue and excitement as I learned that this was an autobiographical account of the life of David Reimer, “the boy who was raised as a girl”.
Originally born Bruce Reimer, with an identical twin named Brian, no one would have guessed that his life was going to be anything out of the ordinary. However, that quickly changed the day he and his brother went in for what should have been a routine circumcision surgery. Instead, tragedy struck and Bruce suffered an accident that would drastically change his life forever. Angry and confused, David’s parents took the advice of renowned sexologist, Dr. John Money, and raised Bruce as a girl whom they renamed Brenda.
In spite of the countless indications Brenda made that she didn’t feel like a girl, and the horrific bullying she experienced because of her unique appearance, Dr. Money and her parents did everything they could to perpetuate her transition to a full-fledged female. After 14 difficult, traumatizing years Brenda’s parents finally told her the truth about her identity at which point she immediately ceased treatment and began her transition back to the boy she had always known she was.
In my opinion, this is an incredibly powerful, inspirational story and I highly recommend it for a number of reasons. First, it offers a unique perspective on sex reassignment surgery because it involves someone who was forced to go through it rather than a transsexual individual who chose the operation for themselves. The importance of this perspective is that it shows readers the negative effects that can result from attempting to force someone to conform to a gender that is different from the one he or she identifies as.
The trauma, confusion, anger, and shame experienced by these men and women is similar to the experience of transgender individuals who try to deny their desire to transition to avoid stark disapproval and rejection. In both cases, the individual attempts to be someone he or she is not in order to maintain positive relationships with family, friends, and peers. But as David’s story shows, this can be extremely damaging to a person’s mental and emotional health. In addition to this valuable insight, David’s story showed how these experiences impact everyone in the person’s life, not just themselves. For example, when David’s mother began realizing the transition wasn’t as successful as she had hoped, she suffered from extreme guilt and depression to the point that she attempted suicide. Similarly, David’s father was very ashamed so he withdrew from his family.
Thankfully for this family, however, once Brenda made her transition to David they were able to grant forgiveness and become closer than ever. From an academic perspective, this story raises important questions about the ethics of performing sex reassignment surgery on infants, who are robbed of a voice in this crucial decision. Most importantly, this story teaches readers an important, and often forgotten, lesson. As David put it, “You can’t be something that you’re not. You have to be you” (256).