"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When my son was about 2, he had a beloved doll he called Clozer, one of those basic cheapies whose best trick (hence the name) was opening and closing its eyes. Wondering whether we should have sprung for something more anatomically correct, I asked him one day whether Clozer was a girl or boy.
“A boy,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he explained, obviously surprised that I didn’t already know, “he’s got a penis.”
The “penis” he showed me was the little pee-hole between the doll’s legs. Not much of a penis — it wouldn’t have been much of a vagina either — but it served its signifying purpose admirably, allowing my son to impose a desired meaning on the matter at hand.
Gender is always a meeting of meaning and matter, and sometimes that meeting is fraught. Do we impose meanings on the matter of bodies — or is it, in Judith Butler’s phrase, the bodies that matter? The title “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl” certainly makes the case for the primacy of nature — matter — as, ultimately, the book itself does. But author John Colapinto tells the story with enough richness to ensure that gender remains a complexly meaning-laden issue throughout.
Bruce Reimer lost his penis to a botched circumcision in infancy, in 1966. Phallic reconstruction was primitive at the time; desperate for a solution, his grieving and guilt-stricken young parents visited Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins when Bruce was one-and-a-half years old. Money contended that it was possible to assign a baby a gender and — with the help of surgery, hormones and gender-specific socialization — successfully raise the child as either a girl or a boy.
Money told Ron and Janet Reimer that the baby could develop into a “normal” girl and woman. Surgery could provide her with a functional vagina adequate for intercourse and even orgasm. She wouldn’t be able to bear children, of course, but she would develop psychologically as a female and form erotic attachments toward men.
What Money may not have made entirely clear, according to Colapinto, was that all his experience had been with hermaphroditic or intersexed children. He had never worked with a child whose prenatal genital and sexual development had been entirely within normal limits. Turning baby Bruce into Brenda was — the words don’t seem too harsh — experimentation on a human subject.
In fact it was a researcher’s dream experiment, because Bruce was an identical twin, sharing DNA with his uninjured brother, Brian. If Bruce could be successfully reared as a girl, the case would serve as a dramatic illustration that socialization was the decisive influence in gender identity.
The “twins case” made headlines when Money described it in his 1972 book, “Man and Woman, Boy and Girl,” which the New York Times Book Review called “the most important volume in the social sciences to appear since the Kinsey Reports.” Summing up Money’s findings on sexual reassignment, the Times said, “If you tell a boy he is a girl, and raise him as one, he will want to do feminine things.”
The trouble was, “Brenda” didn’t want to do “feminine things.” The notes from Money’s yearly interviews with the twins do show that the little girl sometimes told him what he wanted to hear (although sometimes she manifestly did not). But in the distressingly univocal testimony of teachers, local therapists and relatives, she was an angry, miserably unhappy child who didn’t make girlfriends and hated dolls and dresses. Brenda was always a tougher, more enthusiastic fighter than Brian: Sometimes she’d defend him, sometimes she’d beat him up. And although her parents never told her that she’d been born a boy, one therapist reported that she repeatedly insisted she was “just a boy with long hair in girls’ clothes.”
“I sort of knew it wasn’t working after Brenda was 7 or something,” Ron Reimer told Colapinto. “But what were we going to do?” Ron sank into alcoholism and workaholism, Janet suffered from depression, Brian shoplifted in order to get attention from his parents. As for Brenda, her confused but consistent resistance to just about everything imposed upon her seems little short of heroic. Meanwhile, back at Johns Hopkins, Money was writing “Sexual Signatures,” a popular account assuring his readers that “the little girl … preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and loved being her daddy’s little sweetheart.”
The Reimers gave up the project when Brenda was 14, persuaded partly by the opinions of local therapists, but mostly by Brenda’s insistence that she’d kill herself if forced to see Money again or to undergo any more surgery. Brenda is now David, a name he chose after he’d learned the truth of his situation: He wanted to be either Joe (as in your average Joe) or David, after the biblical hero who had prevailed against an enormous enemy. In an eloquent and loving gesture, he asked his parents to choose between the names. He’s married to a woman whose three children he’s raising as a father. And you’ll probably want to know that phallic reconstruction has made considerable advances — he’s genitally sexually active.
I read David’s story deep into the night and sometimes through tears, both touched and outraged, and marveling that the Reimers survived as a family. And I also read it with considerable anxiety.
First of all, it’s the sort of story that cries out to be a sound bite. “That’s right, Biff, according to this riveting new book, nature is in and nurture is definitely out.”
And at least some of the sound bites will be aimed against feminists and their foolhardy attempts to challenge “nature.” Actually, the story has already been spun that way, though not by Colapinto. A few months before Colapinto’s prizewinning article, “The True Story of John/Joan,” was publishing in the Dec. 11, 1997, Rolling Stone, columnist John Leo delivered his own account in U.S. News and World Report. Indulging in some muted gloating at the expense of “campus feminists” and their wacky beliefs, Leo interpreted the case as a blow against the feminism of the “flower-power” ’60s and ’70s.
David’s story, moreover, has a fearsome Goliath. Now retired, Money has received numerous honors and published both academic and popular studies throughout his long, successful career. “He’s the guru,” one of David’s local therapists told Colapinto, explaining that he had hesitated to challenge Money publicly because he was “shit-scared” of him: “I didn’t know what he’d do to my career.”
Money’s pedagogical and clinical styles were often provocative, sometimes including sexual slang and pornography. I winced as Colapinto pushed all the panic buttons: pornography! prominently sexed African sculpture in his office! Money emerges from the narrative as an unpleasant avatar of self-regarding sexual permissiveness — the scientist as Playboy Advisor.
But it’s dangerous to infer too much from style, and anyhow, using pornography in a clinical setting is not necessarily a bad thing: Jeff Weinstein and Dorothy Allison, for example, have both written eloquently about how porn helped them understand their sexuality as gay youths. And I think you could make a case for the sexologist as rebel and provocateur in a puritanical society, as long as the provocation is not at his subjects’ expense — and as long as he is also responsive and responsible to his subjects.
How responsible was Money to the Reimers? Given the centrality of their case to his career, I’d think he would have wanted to follow it rather more closely than in yearly interviews. But it looks as if he’d already decided what he’d hear: Although he thanked one of Brenda’s therapists for her input, he never responded directly to its highly negative content. It’s also true that Janet Reimer reported any positive result she could find to Money — as anyone might do who needed to believe in the ultimate success of a scary and radical project. However, when Colapinto suggested to Money that Janet may have been presenting an unduly rosy picture, Money strongly disagreed, as though the assertion were an insult to his acuity as a psychologist (which I suppose it was).
Money seems to have told Colapinto very little of interest or value. And so it’s hard to extrapolate his side of the story, especially since he hasn’t commented publicly on the twins case since 1980, when doubts about its success began to air in the media. I wish it weren’t so easy to cast him as the story’s “destroying angel” (to borrow the title of one of his books); it makes for a gripping read, but it tends to short-circuit the reader’s effort to interpret and evaluate the story.
Money was crudely simplistic and overconfident; perhaps feminists who originally accepted his work should have cast a colder eye on his cooing over “daddy’s little sweetheart.” It’s tempting to swing the pendulum widely in the other direction and to see all of Brenda’s behaviors as responses to chromosomal or prenatal hormonal influences — indeed, you’d hardly want to dismiss these factors. But it would be equally simplistic to ignore the fact that Brenda (or more accurately, Bruce) had been a boy for his first 19 months, in a household whose central event had been the traumatic circumcision. And if we interpret the fact that Brenda was always more of a fighter than Brian as proof of Brenda’s hormonal or chromosomal “maleness,” what does this say about Brian and his “maleness”?
Still, Colapinto cites compelling cases of intersexed or hermaphroditic children who were sexually assigned in infancy — that is, castrated and raised as girls — but who, like Brenda, also always “knew” they were boys. And on a more mundane level, we can all recite stories of well-intentioned nonsexist parents who wound up with a little girl who demanded to go to school dressed as though she was attending her First Holy Communion, a little boy who’d commandeer anything in the house as a gun. And what of the emerging genre of narratives by and about gender-crossers, people who for whatever reason — biological or social — choose to live within a different gender than the one they were born into?
There does seem to exist what I can only call a strong will to gender — sometimes in the face of all opposing evidence and authority. But whether or not gender always originates within our bodies, it always takes on additional meanings.
Gender boundaries seem to harden under scrutiny. Money may have contended that gender was arbitrary and malleable, but he had no way of assigning gender identity except by imposing stereotypical behavior. Gender makes us anxious; we like to impose rules and standards. Paradoxically, some of the toughest rule makers are those who have broken the rules themselves: transsexuals who are creating new gender identities. I enjoyed and admired “Crossing,” Deirdre McCloskey’s intelligent memoir of her male-to-female transsexual odyssey, but I found myself tensing at her observations about feminine tidiness and what she calls “graceful living.” Just take a look at my kitchen, Deirdre, I thought, surprising myself by the fierce defensiveness of my response. Of course, McCloskey is hardly the gender police. But that’s how the gender conundrum works: As soon as you go searching for a road map you begin to sound like you’re writing the rulebook.
It’s not the purpose of “As Nature Made Him” to deconstruct the gender system. But interestingly and responsibly, Colapinto gives depth to his discussion by letting the system’s exceptions speak. In the past decade, intersexuals — people born with genitals that are not recognizably male or female — have begun to organize, to question their treatment (by Money and others) and to protest early surgery that has made some of them incapable of orgasm and made it harder for others to assume the gender that they ultimately chose.
“First do no harm” seems like a temperate enough demand, but intersex organizations have had remarkable difficulty getting a medical establishment that insists on early and irrevocable gender assignment to listen to them. These organizations do believe that a child needs to be reared in one gender or the other, but they ask for the recognition that a gender may be assigned mistakenly and for the confidence that, given patience and support, the subjects will best be able to sort things out for themselves. That is, in fact, a profound demand, because it asserts that “nature” is not always as simply, neatly and immediately bifurcated as we might like it to be.
Einar Wegener, on whose life David Ebershoff’s novel “The Danish Girl” is based, may have been an intersexual; historical accounts differ, but he believed that he possessed a rudimentary set of ovaries. Wegener, a Danish painter, was the first transsexual to have a successful male-to-female sex-change operation: He became Lili Elbe at the Dresden Women’s Clinic in 1930. “The Danish Girl” is loosely based on his/her life.
An elegant fiction adorned with a profusion of lapidary detail, “The Danish Girl” has nothing formally in common with “As Nature Made Him.” But there’s an odd resonance, for both books situate their stories of gender identity within love relationships. “As Nature Made Him” is compelling partly because of Colapinto’s sensitivity to the Reimers’ deep family ties. “The Danish Girl” takes as its subject Wegener’s remarkable marriage to a woman who seems to have been his companion, accomplice, lover and impresario.
Gerda Wegener (here called Greta) was a successful painter and illustrator whose favorite model throughout the late 1920s was Einar, dressed as Lili. It makes for fascinating speculation: a transsexual’s partner who is not only supportive and encouraging but artistically and — in a rarefied sense — erotically involved in his/her transformation. In Ebershoff’s telling, Greta’s relationship with Einar/Lili is both sacrifice and adventure, devotion to another (who is about to become very other indeed) and fulfillment of her own talent.
The themes — of two selves becoming three becoming two, of sharing and separation, of Lili’s springing to life under Greta’s gaze and of Einar’s disappearance — should make for a powerful and original love story. But the novel remains curiously abstract, its characters wandering through marvelously rendered period landscapes with a sort of art-film vague purposefulness, as though they were trapped in some lovingly photographed Miramax-land.
For whatever reason, “The Danish Girl” lacks the urgency of the story as Lili told it herself, in Neils Hoyer’s compilation of her rather overheated memoirs. I read “Man Into Woman” with delight in the gay and lesbian section of the San Francisco Public Library’s historical collection, the yellowing pages of the 25-cent 1953 Mentor paperback almost dissolving under my fingers. “A nova vita,” Gerda thinks to herself, peering at Lili in her hospital bed. A new life. And the tellers of every gender-identity story I’ve encountered (including David Reimer’s) speak with comparable uniqueness and urgency, almost with awe, from the meeting place of meaning and matter of the mysterious conundrum of identity.
Pam Rosenthal has previously written for Salon under the pseudonym Molly Weatherfield. A portion of her (pseudonymous) novel "Safe Word" appears in "The Best American Erotica 2000" (Touchstone).More Pam Rosenthal.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)