“Boy”, the off-broadway play about nature vs. nurture: a review


Remember that really crappy Love-Ologist I ranted about? Well one good thing came out of that: we got a discount code that gave us over 50% off box office prices for the play Boy! So last night we went.

The play is a dramatized telling of the case of of David Reimer, born a boy, who at eight months old suffered a circumcision accident (eeeeekkkkk!!) that ended up functionally destroying his penis. As a result, his parents, desperate to allow their child to grow up happy and healthy, turned to psychologist/sexologist John Money. Money’s belief was that our nature is to begin life as tabula rasa, but nurture creates for us genders and identities that are all socially constructed. Taking this belief to the extreme, he decided to take on the family’s case, and urged them to get David surgery to construct a vagina, and raise him as a girl. “Brenda” saw him for years, but maybe around age 12 or so stopped seeing him. Despite his best efforts, he never fit in, felt lonely and isolated and couldn’t be comfortable with himself. Around age 14, David decided he couldn’t live as “Brenda” anymore, rejected his female identity, and a different sexologist Milton Diamond later convinced him to go public with his story to caution other parents against attempting similar experiments. His story was important, but his life was essentially ruined by the trauma he suffered under the care of Money. Tragically, he committed suicide years later.

The case is important because it was definitive proof (because nobody can just take someone at their word!) that gender is innate rather than acquired. It was the first case of attempted gender reassignment on someone not born with an intersex condition. It’s probably the most easily relatable, albeit extreme and not representative, cases for people unfamiliar with gender theory. (Ugh, here I am talking as if I’m familiar with gender theory.)

The play uses different names, and dramatizes the story a bit. At one part my friend almost started laughing because the drama was so heightened that the scene got muddy and ridiculous. And it was told through the lens of a love story, which I generally am averse to because I am cynical. But overall the play was really beautifully written and acted. It was a fairly minimalistic play: no intricate sets, no elaborate costumes. The main character (in the play he was named Adam) wears the same Levis 501s and black work boots and navy crew-neck shirt in every scene, even as he plays himself in flashbacks to childhood sessions with his therapist (Dr. Wendell Barnes in the play), who tries to convince him he’s a girl and tells him what his behavior should be. He switches from playing an angry frustrated 8 year old to a 20 year old man with little pause between scenes.

The play might have humanized Dr. Barnes a little too much: Barnes cared more about proving himself right than he did about Adam’s well-being, and the real-life Dr. Money used often traumatizing techniques which I can’t even bring myself to write about (see wiki for more details) to push David into behaving like this mythical “Brenda”. On the other hand, Money pushed for the de-stigmatization of sexual orientation. On the other other hand, he thought that 10 year olds could have consensual relationships with adults. And apparently he’d done similar experiments with intersex individuals, with unsurprisingly disastrous results. He’s a controversial fellow.

They also humanize the parents to a pretty touching degree. They stumbled, they fumbled, they did everything for their son. In the play they protected Adam, even as their relationship with Adam suffered over time. In the end it shows just how far some parents are willing to go to make their kid happy, and how easy it is for them to put their trust in the wrong doctor. And just how wrong that wrong doctor can be, in his pursuit of proving himself right. The play did an excellent job in conveying just how much trauma the character Adam underwent, all for the sake of others’ careers and lives.

Final rant about the doctor: this is what I was trying to get across regarding that Love-ologist lady: that in the name of science she was saying all these things, but that when it comes to society, science has a big impact, and what we scientists say to the public is not harmless. A theory is not just a theory, and we should all perform our duty by letting ourselves be proven wrong.

Anyways, David Reimer did not ask for his life to be turned into a political issue. But I hope he’d understand how his case needs to be talked about, how talking about it might be able to save other lives.


3 thoughts on ““Boy”, the off-broadway play about nature vs. nurture: a review

    • I am just really grateful we know better than this now. Countless lives were ruined through this way of thinking, and through compulsory binary gendered society. What the play was trying to convey was how the parents really thought they had their son’s best interests in mind, but were misled by the doctor, and then subsequently having to live with the guilt. Dunno if that was the reality but it seems reasonable to assume so. I wonder if they were aware of the doctor’s methods though; no child should have to go through that.


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