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Inspired by true events, a new play explores a controversial case of gender reassignment


Anna Ziegler
The Clurman Theatre, New York, NY
Through 9 April 2016
Directed by Linsay Firman

In 1966, when David Reimer and his twin brother were only 7 months old, they were brought to a local hospital to be circumcised. A piece of equipment malfunctioned, and David emerged from the operation with his penis obliterated. Desperate and devastated, his parents turned to John Money, a well-known clinical psychologist and influential researcher of human sexuality at Johns Hopkins University, often credited with coining the term “gender identity.”

Money had developed a theory on how gender roles emerge, one that emphasized the primacy of nurture over nature. He advised the Reimers to allow doctors to surgically construct female genitalia from David’s remaining tissues and to raise him as a girl, unaware of what had transpired.

Money had previously overseen similar interventions on intersex individuals. It is unclear, however, whether the Reimers understood that David would be the first child unambiguously born a boy to receive the treatment.

In the end, the Reimers followed Money’s recommendations—a decision they would later regret. By his own adult account, David spent a traumatic early childhood feeling like a boy trapped in the body of a girl (1). At the age of 38, he took his own life, having lived as male since age 13.

In her new play, Boy, now on stage at the Clurman Theatre in New York City, playwright Anna Ziegler presents an engrossing, fictionalized account of the Reimer case. In one of the opening scenes, a woman composes a letter to Dr. Wendell Barnes: “You said we are shaped by society and not biology … and for the first time in a long time I felt some…hope,” she writes, after relaying the tragic story of her son’s botched circumcision. “[O]ne should do whatever one can to ease unnecessary suffering, however radical,” Barnes later replies.

The play unfolds through two parallel narratives. One depicts the complex relationship and growing affection between Barnes and Samantha, a young patient struggling with her identity. The other is a story of burgeoning love between Jenny and Adam, a young man with a dark past.

Bobby Steggert (left) and Ted Koch in a scene from Boylbirke

Bobby Steggert (left) and Ted Koch in a scene from Boy

The cast delivers a strong performance of a complex script that, although clear and sometimes moving, occasionally suffers from excessive exposition. Particularly impressive is Bobby Steggert, the actor cast in the story’s central role, who excels at expressing a childlike innocence infused with confusion and bitterness. Steggert is aided by Linsay Firman’s steady direction, which allows the two narratives to seamlessly intermix.

Perhaps the most complex character in the play is Barnes: highly educated, but naive, with a tendency for overabstraction. Discussing literature with Samantha, he remarks about Jane Eyre, “She is such a wonderful symbol, isn’t she …,” which prompts the confused response: “I didn’t think she was a symbol. I thought she was a person.”

Barnes’s pretensions are presented in sharp contrast with Doug, Sam’s working-class father, who serves as a voice of reason throughout the play. Eventually, Doug confronts Barnes, questioning his motivation for taking on the case. “[W]e both know you never really cared about Sam. All you wanted was a doll to play dress-up with. To prove your theories with.”

Similar accusations were leveled at John Money, who, despite evidence that all was not well, declared the David Reimer experiment a success. His work on the case amplified his fame and influenced the thinking of both scientists and doctors until David Reimer went public with his own account in 1997 (2).

Unfortunately, debates over medical and scientific misconduct are hardly a thing of the past. The current scandal surrounding Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini similarly highlights the ethical hazards that exist at the frontiers of biomedicine. Although Macchiarini was originally cleared of misrepresenting the success of a series of experimental trachea implants (3), subsequent revelations have called into question whether his patients, most of whom died, were sufficiently informed about the risks of his procedure.

It is, of course, almost impossible to know with certainty what motivates a doctor or scientist to take unjustifiable risks. Personal ambition, ideological zeal, or an appeal to some greater good might coexist within the same person. With Boy, however, Ziegler has opted for a generous, and perhaps therefore even more tragic, interpretation of the doctor’s motives, depicting Barnes as acting out of misguided benevolence and love for the “daughter” he helped create. Ultimately, he faces his patient and the consequences of his methods in a cathartic exchange of the kind that the real David Reimer was never afforded.


  1. J. Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (Harper Perennial, New York, 2001).

  2. J. Colapinto, The True Story of John/Joan, Rolling Stone (11 Dec. 1997), p. 54.

  3. G. Vogel, Science 351, 546 (2016).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Neural Sciences, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.