How Could All Those Doctors Go Along With It?

Posted by Ed 10 mths ago

The validity of the Milgram experiment has been challenged, but we have a bigger and uglier story about authority and submission.

I want to show you a single moment that was replayed many times, a recurring confrontation between established narrative and observable fact that led to a choice over and over again. It won’t make sense without background, so here goes a story in three parts. It’s one of the ugliest things you’ll ever read, or at least a piece of it, but it illustrates an important point.
Several people have written about this story on Substack, but they tend to focus on a different part than the choice I want to look at today. This post is drawn from John Colapinto’s book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl.

Part One:


Bruce and Brian Reimer were identical twins born in 1965 in Winnipeg. A doctor using an unfamiliar electric cauterizing device to circumcise Bruce burned off his penis when he was eight months old. The parents, high school dropouts who had grown up in isolated Mennonite communities, were at a loss about how to respond, as doctors told them they couldn’t reconstruct a fully functioning penis.

Finally, though, as they made the rounds of doctors, they were advised to contact Dr. John Money, the world’s foremost expert on gender identity. Money ran a prestigious research clinic at Johns Hopkins University that frequently treated intersex babies born with ambiguous genitalia — by picking a gender and assigning it. Vaginas were easier for surgeons to build, so they tended to pick “girl.”

In a longrunning debate between the “nature” and “nurture” wings of gender identity scholarship, Money was an aggressive nurturist. He argued for social construction, full stop: cultural signals make gender identity. So he was exceptionally excited by the appearance in his clinic of a perfect medical experiment, identical twins who were both born as biological “boys,” one who could now be transitioned to female identity through socialization and cultural signaling. He told the Reimers to put Bruce in a dress, give him a girl’s name, and raise him as a girl — assuring them that she would never know the difference. Surgeons removed Bruce’s testicles, and the experiment started.


For years, the Reimer twins traveled to Baltimore for a week of annual therapy and evaluation. Believing that gender identity was socially constructed, Money believed a bunch of other things were purely cultural constructions, too — like pedophilia, which he regarded as a nonsensical hangup from a stodgy culture. Teaching Brenda and Brian about their sexual identity, he showed them hardcore pornography throughout their therapy, and stripped them naked to teach them the sexual positions that boys and girls used together — photographing the sexual positions of the naked six year-olds, for example, for his clinical records. (The journalist John Colapinto, given waivers of confidentiality by the Reimer family, accessed their clinical files many years later and found those pictures, and session notes describing the clinical application of pornographic material.)

Money told the Reimer parents that he was involved in complex clinical work that they wouldn’t understand, and — having been told that they had the good fortune to have their children treated by the most important expert in the world — they didn’t question why they had to wait outside the room. 

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