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What was shaping up for medicine to be a highly public scandal involving some of the biggest names in the world of sex research was for David Reimer a purely private catastrophe. Apart from two television interviews that he granted in the summer of 1997 (his face obscured, his voice disguised), he had never told his story in full to a journalist. He had agreed to speak to me, for an article I was preparing on the case for Rolling Stone magazine, on the condition that I withhold crucial details of his identity. Accordingly, in the article I did not reveal where he was born, raised, and continued to live, and I invented pseudonyms for his parents, Ron and Janet, and for his identical twin brother, Brian. The physicians who treated him in Winnipeg, I identified by initials. David himself I called, variously, “John” and “Joan,” the pseudonyms given to him by Diamond and Sigmundson in their journal article describing the macabre double life he had been obliged to lead. So careful was I to provide not even the most oblique clue to David’s geographic whereabouts that I omitted even to mention the historic blizzard that paralyzed Winnipeg on the morning of his circumcision accident—a freak late April snowfall eerily evocative of those reversed natural wonders that always presage horror in Shakespearean and Greek tragedies.

My Rolling Stone article appeared in December 1997. At nearly twenty thousand words, it was as thorough a job as could be managed under the space constraints and deadline pressures of magazine journalism. But even as the piece went to press, it was clear that David’s life and the scientific machinations that played such a decisive part in shaping it were of sufficient complexity, scientific import, and human drama to require, for their fullest telling, a book. David, it transpired, had been thinking along the same lines and wanted me to be the book’s author. At which point I was obliged to reveal to him an important condition for my taking on the project: that he abandon the mask of John/Joan.

Quite apart from the fact that I could not imagine writing a book in which the central character, his family, friends, physicians, and others exist as pseudonyms moving against the indeterminate background of a “city somewhere in the North American Midwest,” I also knew that a knowledge of his specific geographic location and the people who inhabited it were considered vital to a proper understanding of the case. In a tale at the very heart of which lies the debate surrounding nature versus nurture, genetics versus environment, biology versus rearing, it was imperative that I be permitted to describe in detail the sociocultural milieu in which David was raised. Finally, as a writer, I knew how many of the story’s peculiarly poetic resonances would be lost should David insist upon anonymity. To stick to pseudonyms would mean forfeiting the story of how David, when beginning his laborious switch back to boyhood at age fourteen, had rechristened himself with a male name different from his original birth name of Bruce—one that not only had the kind of down-to-earth masculine directness he favored, but also evoked for him his accomplishment in triumphing over the array of forces that had conspired, for the first fourteen years of his life, to convince him that he was someone other than the person he felt himself inwardly to be. It was owing to this unlikely victory that he had decided to name himself after the child in the Bible story who slew the seemingly invincible giant Goliath. Here, and in myriad other instances, to retain pseudonyms was to sacrifice a fact that reflected not only on the saga as a whole, but on David’s own understanding of it.

Beginning with the interviews he had first granted to Diamond and Sigmundson in early 1993 for their journal article and continuing with the interviews he gave to me for Rolling Stone, David had been moving by degrees out of the shadows of shame and secrecy in which he had been living. By the time I spoke to him about abandoning the mask of John/Joan, he had already come a long way in that journey. After discussing it with his wife, parents, and brother, and sleeping on it for one night, David told me that he was ready to step forward as his true self.

For the purposes of my reconstructing his past, David closed no doors, shut down no avenue of inquiry. He granted me over one hundred hours of interviews spread over twelve months, and he signed confidentiality waivers giving me access to an array of private legal papers, therapy notes, Child Guidance Clinic reports, IQ tests, medical records, and psychological workups that had accumulated over the course of his remarkable childhood. He assisted me in finding the schoolteachers and classmates who had known him in childhood—a difficult task of sleuthing since he had kept no school yearbooks, remembered few of his peers’ last names, and had spent the previous decade and a half trying to forget and avoid anyone who had known him in his previous incarnation as a girl. Most crucially, David helped me obtain interviews with all of his family members, including his father, who because of the painfulness of these events had not spoken of them to anyone in more than twenty years. It is only through the Reimer family’s rare candor that the full story of John/Joan can finally be told. Although that story is primarily about David Reimer and his experience of living on both sides of the gender divide, it is also about the young couple who, barely out of their teens, made the momentous decision to submit one of their twin baby boys to this unprecedented, and ultimately doomed, experiment in psychosexual engineering.

“My parents feel very guilty, as if the whole thing was their fault,” David explained to me during my first visit to Winnipeg. “But it wasn’t like that. They did what they did out of kindness and love and desperation. When you’re desperate, you don’t necessarily do all the right things.”

PART ONE:

A Game of Science Fiction

1

THE IRONY WAS that Ron and Janet Reimer’s life together had begun with such special promise. That it would survive its trials is attributable perhaps in part to their shared heritage in an ethnic and religious background virtually defined by the hardiness of its people in the face of suffering.

Both Ron Reimer and Janet Schultz were descended from families who were Mennonite, the Anabaptist sect founded in sixteenth-century Holland. Like the Amish, Ron’s and Janet’s Mennonite ancestors were pacifists who followed a simple, nonworldly life based directly on Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. During the Inquisition, Mennonites were tortured and slaughtered in the thousands, the survivors escaping to begin a three-hundred-year search for a country that would allow them to live as a culture and religion apart. The majority went to Russia and farmed, but in the late 1800s, large numbers began to migrate to the New World, some settling in Nebraska and Kansas. The densest concentrations, however, settled in Canada, where the federal government, eager to populate its empty western plains, offered to the Mennonites complete religious freedom, their own schools, and exemption from military service. The first Mennonites arrived in southern Manitoba in 1874. Within five years, over ten thousand had followed, transplanting entire Russian villages to the Canadian prairie. It was in this wave of immigrants that both Ron’s and Janet’s great-grandparents, who were Dutch Mennonites directly descended from the earliest followers of the sect, came to Manitoba.

     

 

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