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The Nature/Nurture debate, a conversational staple with parents of young children, nearly always unfolds in a predictable, almost platitudinous, fashion. Admissions are made concerning the surprising obdurateness of traditional markers of gender identity, but coextensive with this is a hope for the possibility of enlightened socialization which can blunt its least desirable effects. In short, almost no layperson is willing to place all his bets on either side of the ideological divide.
It is remarkable, therefore, that only a few years ago experts on gender could blithely assure the desperate parents of a baby with an amputated penis that nurture could trump nature, and that their son (with surgical and hormonal assistance) could become a daughter. The suffering which resulted from that assurance is the subject of this low key, but unshrinking account of the life of David Reimer. This is the young man who made medical history as the foundation (albeit a shaky one) for former Johns Hopkins researcher John Money's pioneering research into gender identity, research which, it turns out, was far more experimental than either the rest of the professional community, or the unfortunate child's parents, were given to believe. Indeed, Colapinto's book matters because it exposes the abysmal failure behind the public success story. It is both a corrective to the wishful thinking which can grow out of the cult of expertise, and a tribute to the courage of a child who managed to fashion a fairly robust sense of self despite the extraordinary pressures to surrender to a role for which he was ill-suited.
This book is commendable for its clarity. It simplifies a complex narrative which features a protagonist who undergoes changes in name (Bruce, Brenda, David), as well as in gender, and offers a surprisingly lucid account of the theoretical commitments of the many and varied therapists who became involved with his treatment. Most importantly, however, Colapinto is extraordinarily even-handed, and refuses to stoop to sensationalism even when reporting on egregious violations of professional conduct. His lack of editorial embellishment and stylistic austerity lends dignity to what could too easily have become an occasion for preachiness or maudlin indulgence.
As Nature Made Him only briefly touches on the enormous, and often contradictory, literature concerning gender formation or identification, but what it does contain seems adequate for its intended readership. It has the feel of an intelligent magazine article, and indeed began as a piece for Rolling Stone. It contains few surprises for those who have followed the story in the popular media in recent years, and, as the author himself allows, we can draw no firm inferences pertaining to the gender debate based on David's story. (Although we may want to draw some with respect to a number of profound ethical issues implicated in the case including, but not necessarily limited to, issues related to informed consent, the treatment of sexually ambiguous individuals, and the grounds invoked in support of neonatal circumcision.) Indeed, an eagerness to overgeneralize from this unique case has been the source of great suffering. Still, the book is a largely successful effort to document, and to pay tribute to, an extraordinary life, and for those reasons alone is worthy of the considerable attention it has already attracted .
Ann Iverson is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy programme at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Although she specialises in legal theory, she also works in political philosophy and applied ethics (including most especially biomedical ethics, and business and professional ethics). She is currently teaching a course on the philosophy of sex, love, and friendship.
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