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One thing I quickly discover is that there appears to be no broad middle ground in people’s opinion of John Brown. Some former patients can’t praise him highly enough. "He did exactly what I asked," says one young woman who asked Brown to increase her cup size from 34B to 36B. "He was always a gentleman, courteous, very considerate, thoughtful, intellectual and calm."
To old friend and longtime admirer Patrice Baxter, Brown was "one of the best surgeons in the United States." Not only did he do Baxter’s tummy tuck, face-lift and breast implants, he also did her granddaughter’s ears. "They stuck out. The kids on her track team called her Dumbo — ‘Why don’t you just fly?’ He did her nose, too." It turned out so well that she became a model.
At 66, Baxter has a trusting manner, pink, unblemished cheeks and, thanks to Brown, a generous uplifted bosom. She met Brown in Rosarito Beach in 1982, she tells me, and over the years he operated on so many of her friends and relatives that it became a running joke. One time when Brown was visiting Baxter’s home, she ran out of bedrooms. "So my girlfriend says, ‘Well, he can sleep in my room. He’s seen everything I’ve got.’ Then I said, ‘Well, he can sleep in my room. He’s made everything I’ve got.’"
Which isn’t to say that Brown didn’t have his faults, says Baxter. "He was brilliant, but he had no common sense. He would walk through plate-glass doors. He couldn’t balance his checkbook." Sometimes in the middle of a conversation he’d just pick up a magazine and begin to read. His bedside manner was no great shakes, either. "He tended to mumble. He didn’t hold your hand."
But so what? she asks. "He wasn’t a general practitioner," he was a surgeon. He certainly wasn’t in it for the money. "He only charged $2,500 [for a sex change]. Half the time they didn’t even pay."
In the last 25 years, according to Brown’s estimate, he did 600 male-to-female sex-change operations, most without benefit of a medical license. Even so, with at least some of them, the results could hardly have been better. One 33-year-old "manager for a major airline" tells me she had Brown do her gender- reassignment surgery in 1985, when she was only 19. It was so successful, she says, that when she later got married, her husband never guessed she’d been a male. (To simulate a period, she used to prick her finger to leave bloodstains on the sheets.) I also hear from Ann, a Cambodian refugee whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, that Brown changed her entire "suffering, painful life" from that of "an ugly worm to a beautiful butterfly." Furthermore, unlike that of some transsexuals, who have difficulty passing as women, her surgery turned out so well, she says, that she got a job as a stripper in Las Vegas’ Chinatown.
At the same time, there are plenty of other people who tell me they won’t rest until Brown is behind bars for life. UC San Diego plastic-surgery professor Jack Fisher has personally repaired 12 to 15 of what he calls Brown’s "pelvic disasters." "He’s a terrible, appalling technical surgeon," says Fisher. "There’s just no other way to describe it. He doesn’t know how to make a straight incision. He doesn’t know how to hold a knife. He has no regard for limiting blood loss." Basically, says Fisher, the man "had been committing crimes against humanity for years."
Dallas Denny, an Atlanta-based transgender author and activist who periodically posts warnings about Brown on the Internet, says that among transsexuals he was known as "Table Top Brown" for his willingness to operate in kitchens, garages and motel rooms. "Patients were waking up in parked cars or abandoned in hotel rooms. There was no screening and no aftercare. Anyone who walked in the room was a candidate."
And the results of the surgery, says Denny, were horrific. "Some of these people, expecting vaginoplasties, received simple penectomies, leaving them looking somewhat like a Barbie doll," she wrote in a 1995 attack on Brown’s skills. "Others ended up with something which looked like a penis which had been split and sewn to their groin — which is essentially what had been done. Some ended up with vaginas which were lined with hair-bearing scrotal skin; these vaginas quickly filled up with pubic hair, becoming inflamed and infected. Some ended up with peritonitis, some with permanent colostomies. Some ran out of money and were dumped in back alleys and parking lots to live or die."
Cheree, a northern California businesswoman, went to Mexico in 1984 to have dual sexual-reassignment surgery with her brother at Brown’s Tijuana clinic. "He ran specials — ‘bring a girlfriend, two for the price of one.’" But after Cheree saw the conditions there, she changed her mind. "The sewers overflowed once or twice a day." There was never enough running water or enough bathrooms. The operating room was just an ordinary bedroom with an ob-gyn chair. Sometimes, says Cheree, "Brown would sip coffee while doing the operation."