Wednesday, May 12, 2004

obituary for a disciplinary poster girl/boy

From today's NYT:
"David Reimer, a man who was born a boy but raised as a girl in a famous medical experiment*, only to reassert his male identity in the last 20 years of his life, died on May 4. He was 38. His family says he committed suicide."
I may have more to say about this later (or, rather, I certainly do have more to say, whether I take the time to write a post about it is another matter). I guess I do have at least something to say about it now:

I first learned about the John/Joan case when I was an sociology undergraduate at the University of Iowa, where I was taught (from some textbook) the version where Reimer was raised as a girl and had zero problems with his gender identity but instead was happy and well-adjusted and behaved just like any other little girl. Even at the time, this was known to researchers as being false.**. The last time I taught introductory sociology, like maybe two years ago, it was still possible to select supposedly up-to-date classroom materials that still presented the John/Joan case in the same way I had been taught it as an undergraduate. By this time, Reimer had been the subject of various television shows and John Colapinto's wrenching and harrowing book As Nature Made Him.

The abundant cynic in me wants to attribute this to the willful blindness of sociology textbook authors/publishers to anything that would inconventiently complicate the simple storylines they wish to craft for the fragile and easily-led-astray undergraduate minds. However, the more likely explanation is that whoever was writing and/or editing and/or reviewing these materials didn't know. Everybody makes the standard joke about how social scientists tend often to be social misfits [me, guilty as charged]. But what about the equally apropos joke that social scientists tend to be not-unoften wildly uninformed about politics and other news from our social world if it's outside--and, alas, sometimes inside--their specific area of expertise. When I was looking through available intro soc materials and saw that you could still get materials with the circa 1990 interpretation of the John/Joan case, I imagined some professor assigning the materials and then some poor TA being stuck leading a discussion section based on the book's presentation of the case and having a half dozen students who had seen the Oprah (or Nightline, or PBS, etc.) episode on the case and knew that David Reimer had never fit in as a girl, had gone back to being a man, and had even married a woman.***

* "Experiment," the first sentence says. His penis was cauterized off by a stupid and seemingly-negligent accident during circumcision, and then gender reassignment was raised as an idea of what to do. Is that an experiment? It is a quasi-experiment, I suppose, because of the existence of a twin brother (see **).

** What it means that Reimer ended up rejecting his female identity and going back to living as a female is a different matter. The problem being is that it's not like there aren't successful cases of gender reassignment surgery. What made the John/Joan case especially intriguing is that Reimer was an identical twin, so while he was being raised as a girl there was sort a natural control case of a genetically-identical kid being raised in the same household environment as a boy.

*** Luckily (?), since the textbook materials still used the "Joan" pseudonym and Reimer was appearing then under his real name, the students might not have connected that it was actually the same case.

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