By Emily Hancock

Are we wired at birth or can we be shaped to be female over time?

That's the question Sharon Krum of the Guardian (London) asked me this morning. She's writing an article about the boy whose penis was mutilated in a botched circumcision when he was 8 months old in 1964. His parents were advised at Johns Hopkins, where world-famous sexologist John Money taught, to change him into a girl.

There was nothing unusual about this advice or the course of action that followed. Babies born with ambiguous genitalia are almost always made into females and raised as girls. After all, a vagina is easier to craft than a penis. And, as Sharon pointed out, "the '60s was a gender-neutral era."

What is unusual is that this boy, whose pseudonym is "John," is outraged about what happened to him. From the beginning, he says now, the sex change was wrong. As a small child, he rejected dolls and tried to grab his twin brother's trucks. He never wanted to sit on the potty to pee, but rather urinated standing up. At 7, he tore off his dresses. At puberty, he hated his breasts. Every cell in his body told him that he was a boy. Being a girl never "took."

When he got so depressed he became suicidal, his father broke down and told him the truth. He was 14.

After that, John had the breasts his female hormones had produced removed via a double mastectomy. Doctors sealed up his artificial vagina and constructed a rudimentary penis for him. Now in his 30s, he is married and has 3 adopted children. Being male again is a relief, in spite of the ordeal he's gone through to reclaim his original sex.

What, the Guardian reporter wanted to know, do the psychologists have to say about nature vs nurture? Freud thought that anatomy was destiny for both boys and girls. He believed that a girls was a boy with something missing -- an ironic error as we now know that it's the boy whose XY chromosomes lack a leg compared to the girl's complete XX. As the penis was the center of a boy's psychology, the lack of a penis was at the center of a girl's, in Freud's view. While men could build entire civilizations, women were capable of little beyond biological functioning, except perhaps "weaving and plaiting." Clearly the lack of a penis made them inferior.

With the launch of the women's movement, feminists were determined to refute Freud's theory by breaking down the view that women were limited by their biology. They took the stance that there were no inherent differences between men's and women's psychology. Male-female differences were socially constructed, they argued. Their efforts to liberate women from the confines of motherhood were tied to this dogma.

Feminists of the '60s and '70s even attacked psychologist Erik Erikson for his observations about female awareness of "inner space." Erikson, who was originally an artist and studied with Anna Freud, worked with children when he first became an analyst. He noticed that girls' play constructions were nearly always of enclosed rooms that had elaborate vestibules or entry ways, while those of boys, nearly always cylindrical towers, reflected their outer morphology. Only Carl Jung, who insisted that the masculine and feminine principles are different, seemed to be immune to the feminist negation of essential differences and the insistence that male and female is entirely malleable.

A host of other scientists simply ignored male-female differences. The many psychologists who followed Freud built their theories on observations of males, assuming that female psychology could be extrapolated from them. The medical realm too has been guilty of basing all sorts of studies on males, leaving females out. Subject groups in psychology texts are often described as "college sophomores" when in fact they are all men. Drug companies set doses of medicine based on "the average person" -- the 165 pound male.

Can we wipe out the differences between males and females and proclaim that they are the same? Those of us who came of age during feminist times made every effort to do so. When my son was born in 1968, my aversion to the Viet Nam war enforced my determination to raise him without guns. The result? He'd pick up sticks in the park and shoot with them at other kids. He loved trucks. He made noises a girl would never make when he was engrossed in play.

Berry Brazelton, a brilliant pediatrician I worked with at Children's Hospital in Boston, could tell the difference between baby boys and girls in the newborn nursery even when they were premature. Fifteen years ago one of his pediatric fellows made videos showing how babies under 3 months old respond differently to their mothers and fathers when they are in an infant seat. When their fathers approach them, they squeal with excitement, feet thrusting, arms flailing, faces fully animated. When their mothers come to them, they coo and reach for them with modulated movements. Even at that age, they know what we have forgotten: some differences are fundamental.

But we Americans are hell-bent on denying fundamentals. We have built our nation on the impulse to escape them. We came to this country to cut off our roots. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed our negation of our origins. Triumphing over destiny, we trumpet the self-made man. Our idea of being grown up is to move away -- from our origins, from the limitations that used to define us, as well as from our parents. Having dispensed with cultural and national origins, we believe we can dispense with biological origins as well. As Americans, we believe that anything is possible and everything is pliable.

How much can we truly escape our biological origins? The question has been at the front of my mind ever since I "found" my birth mother five years ago. Although she declined to meet me, I had several visits with her sister Helen (my aunt), Helen's husband Al, and their daughter Sally. They were flabbergasted at the resemblance between my mother and me. Not only do I look more like her than any of her other children, but I have her mannerisms, her sardonic sense of humor, her way of screwing up her face to make a point, her emphatic style, her gestures, and her tone of voice. And although I do not make a point of this with them, when they tell me of my mother's struggles, I cannot deny that those of my life are the same. Yet I have never even met her.

Twin studies show the same thing. Those separated at birth turn up at 25 or 30 in the same golf jacket, drinking the same beer, pursuing the same hobbies, telling the same jokes.

Though it goes against the American grain, we simply cannot cancel everything we're born with. Just as girls at 8 crystallize a distinct and vital sense of self, it seems that "John" at 7 refused an altered identity. (Perhaps we will come to see the "latency" era as one whose task is to proclaim the great "I AM" rather than an unimportant era in psychological development). As John's story and the women's stories in my book The Girl Within illustrate, we do not become whole by refuting who and what we are, but by circling back to reclaim the identity we had in the first place. Surgery and social conditioning do not make a girl. They make only for the undoing of a boy. 

Copyright 1999 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved