David Reimer was born in 1965, and over the course of his lifetime, would be the victim of unimaginable pain – from a botched surgery to being the subject of questionable practices and tests, loss, and much more.

Reimer underwent a lifetime of hurt, and eventually took his own life in 2004 – courageously lasting 38 years on this planet. His story is a tragically sad one, which clearly shows that Reimer had misfortune after misfortune.

The Reimer twins in their younger years – Copyright of Colin Davey

Early Life: Botched circumcision

David Reimer was born in Manitoba, Canada in 1965. He was one of two identical twin boys. David’s name was originally Bruce, with his twin named Brian.

Within six months of being born, the twins were diagnosed with phimosis – a condition affecting the penis, and its inability to be retracted. As a result, the twins were due to have a circumcision.

While a circumcision is normally one of the most straightforward surgeries, a urologist attempted to conduct the circumcision using the unorthodox method of electrocauterization – which involves burning bodily parts to induce removal.

But Bruce’s circumcision was botched, and his penis was burned to the extent where it was impossible to repair it. Bruce’s twin Brian did not undergo circumcision in light of Brian’s failed surgery.

While Bruce didn’t know it at the time (being under a year old), this one act of carelessness would essentially ruin his life.

The parents of Bruce were concerned about how Bruce’s life would be hampered due to a lack of penis. This would prohibit Bruce from functioning sexually, and would surely impact future relationships.

As a result, the parents travelled down to the state of Maryland, where they visited John Money – a well-known psychologist. They had seen Money on television, and believed he could help with their situation.

Reimer and Gender

At the time, Money was known for his support of the idea that gender identity is developed through observing others as a young child, and that with certain interventions, that a child’s natural gender identity could be changed.

This theory was known as “gender neutrality”, and supposedly had a window of up until a child was 2 years old to be effective.

Yet Money hadn’t ever tested his theory out on a child not born ‘intersex’. This essentially means any child who was born with atypical characteristics of the usual male or female body.

Essentially, Money believed that as long as a child was nurtured as a female, that regardless of being born as a male, they would feel feminine, rather than masculine. He was a strong proponent of nurture over nature.

Money suggested a vagina could be surgically constructed for Bruce, and that this would lead to Bruce having a more enjoyable life, and that he would mature better sexually as a girl.

The parents agreed with Money’s idea. While Money had been studying the field of sexual development, he hadn’t yet come across a situation where he could test his theories on one twin, and compare the results to the other twin. It was the dream scenario for Money.

Reimer’s gender reassignment

With Bruce still under the age of 2, he underwent gender reassignment surgery. Bruce was given the name Brenda, and would therefore be considered a female.

Money would continue to monitor the development of the twins closely. This case was hugely important for Money, who saw this situation as a ground-breaking moment for his studies.

While this was all rather straightforward, if unfortunate, Brenda’s childhood would be tainted heavily by Money’s follow-up meetings.

In a highly-controversial move, Money forced the twins to engage in “thrusting movements” with one another. The two were put in compromising positions that are only normally seen in sexual relations between two adults.

For the children to be exposed to these positions – especially with one another – was deeply traumatic and confusing.

More details suggest that Money also made the duo take off their clothes, rehearse sexual acts on top of one another – all while photographing the events.

Money defended these experiments as being required for “healthy adult gender identity”. These experiments would last for years, and developed to the point where Money was showing Brenda graphic pictures of birth – in an effort to persuade Brenda to have a constructed vagina.

Follow-up meetings continued throughout the twins’ childhood, and Brenda was given oestrogen supplements – in an effort to induce breast development and other female functions.

Money suggested the experiment was working perfectly – and that Brenda acted in total contrast to her twin Brian’s boyish activities.

But it was later revealed that the twins’ parents had lied about the actual behaviour of their children. In reality, Brenda was not identifying as a girl.

Like most boys that age, Brenda was play-fighting, climbing and engaging in other activities synonymous with boys. Brenda disliked activities that are supposedly ‘female’, such as playing with dolls.

Brenda was also very lonely, and being bullied by other children. This would’ve only added to the trauma. Money was later accused of concealing evidence that suggested Brenda was struggling.

The nature versus nurture debate is one of the most widely-discussed topics in science

Mental health problems

Unsurprisingly, Brenda developed mental health problems during her adolescent years. Brenda threatened suicide if she were to see Money ever again, and was suffering from severe depression.

At the age of 13, Brenda was finally told about her past – including the gender reassignment. Brenda consequently developed a strained relationship with his parents.

Brenda reacted by adopting a male gender – and changed his name to David. In efforts to reverse past treatments, David was given testosterone injections, had his breasts removed, and underwent surgery for a new penis.

All of this took time, and was painful, both the surgeries and the wait for his body to look how it should. His mind too would have had to suffer a lot from all of these changes.

David required regular testosterone injections down the years, and felt depressed due to his belief that he would never be able to marry given his situation. It is believed David attempted suicide twice in his early 20’s.

Family issues

But there was finally a positive development in David’s life – which came in 1990. At the age of 26, David marred a woman named Jane Fontane – and adopted her three children from a previous relationship.

However, he continued to be traumatised by the past – including regular memories of his meetings with Money. So while positive strides had been made, there were still many issues.

But mental health problems within the family were not confined to David – with his twin Brian having to deal with his own traumatic childhood.

Relations between David and Brian worsened in early adulthood. Brian was annoyed at the perceived gulf in attention during childhood between the two twins.

This, coupled with his own traumatic past, led to Brian developing severe mental health problems – culminating in the deeply-debilitating schizophrenia being diagnosed. He developed drug problems and petty crime.

Brian had two failed marriages, and tragically died in 2002 following an antidepressant overdose. This would prove to be another devastating moment for David.

Over the forthcoming years, David would have further problems. Having had his education stunted by his past, David had to rely on low paid semi-skilled work.

After being made redundant, David had to battle against unemployment – and therefore financial problems.

David also turned out to be the victim of a conman who had managed to swindle $65,000 out of him. This clearly would’ve contributed to his anguish.

David Reimer’s death

In early May 2004, David’s wife Jane informed him of her intention to separate following 14 years of marriage.

Just two days later, David took his own life by shooting himself with a shotgun. This was a simply tragic event.

Following 38 years of severe mental health problems, financial issues, grief, betrayal, loss and disappointment, David could no longer cope.

What happened to the Reimer twins’ parents?

The parents of the twins accused Money of being responsible for both deaths. While many reading this case study may think that they were naïve to trust in Money, both parents were in their early 20’s when the twins were born.

They weren’t keen on gender reassignment, but Money claimed that such an idea was David’s only hope – which as young parents with little knowledge of parenthood, would sound legitimate.

After the horrors that their children faced, and the ensuing guilt, the mother attempted suicide, while the father suffered from alcoholism.

The public becomes aware

A terrible area of this case is that the plight of the twins wouldn’t have been public knowledge had it not been for David’s willingness to help distinguished academic Milton Diamond report on the horrors of the case.

Diamond shattered the original findings of Dr. Money – and published a journal article that provided the true reality of what happened [1]. Diamond did this to try and ensure no other physician would follow Money’s lead.

This was a courageous act of David’s, who surely saved many other individuals from a life of pain. Throughout this, David remained anonymous.

But, owing to a Rolling Stone magazine article on the case in 2000, David waived his anonymity. David spoke with Rolling Stone journalist John Colapinto, and made worldwide news.

The article was later extended into a best-selling biography. The biography had far-reaching consequences, helping to help scientists know more about the biology of gender. Subsequently, it led to a steep decline of gender reassignment surgery for those considered ‘intersex’.

Much of this case stems from the gender reassignment and consequent experiments. Money was heavily criticised, and this case has tarnished his reputation significantly. He died in 2006.

His supporters however have claimed this case was pioneering, and that Money wasn’t helped by the parents’ supposed dishonesty, and that some allegations may be a result of false memory syndrome.


This case once again shows the pain that can be caused by this world. David suffered setback after setback – having been the victim of a life of misery.

It is testament to his tenacity and character that he lasted for 38 years despite the pain he had suffered. Unfortunately, David opted to take his own life – but given the circumstances, such a decision can hardly be considered to be surprising.

The plight too of his twin brother Brian shouldn’t be forgotten either. Tragically, the duo hardly stood a chance in life.


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[1] Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 151 (3): p298-304. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.1997.02170400084015.