The Eccentric and the Asshole
A note on the Freeman / Mead controversy
|Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman|
One of the “joys” of our media saturated culture is that it both manufactures controversies and creates opportunities for media junkies to get a fix. The Mead / Freeman “controversy” is one such manufactured controversy and both of the participants can be described as “media pushers”.
Of course in this case one of the participants in the “controversy” was dead so that it was basically one sided. The other participant thoughtfully waited until his victim was dead before shall we say going public with his hatchet job.
Margaret Mead, (1901-1978), was to put it mildly an eccentric and she was probably the most successful popularizer of Anthropology in the twentieth century. Among her eccentric beliefs was a strong belief in psychic powers and UFOs.1
Her first bestseller was the book Coming of Age in Samoa.2 The book was a look at the process of adolescence in Samoan society in the 1920s and it became a huge bestseller. The book argued that adolescence was not necessarily a traumatic time for people due to biological factors but due to cultural factors as shown by the less traumatic nature of adolescence in Samoan society.
Now at the time the book was criticized for being overly general and making some key mistakes and was generally thought to be flawed.
The book however did sell very well and helped to make Margaret Mead the best known Anthropologist of the twentieth century. Margaret Mead subsequently went on to publish several other successful books and among other things wrote a column for the magazine Redbook.2
Margaret Mead as mentioned above was a great believer in paranormal stuff. Margaret Mead for example related stories about a relative of hers levitating and diagnosing illnesses. It appears that her research into other so-called primitive societies made her think that this sort of thing was real. Margaret Mead became in 1942 a Trustee of the American Society for Psychical Research, later a member of the research committee and in 1969 largely because of her advocacy the American Association for the Advancement of Science voted to allow the Parapsychological Association to become a member organization.3
Later when she was dying of cancer Margaret Mead used the “services” of a Chilian psychic healer.4
Derek Freeman, (1916-2001), is another kettle of fish. Like Margaret Mead he was an anthropologist but unlike Margaret Mead he was not merely eccentric; he was an asshole and bull-shitter. I am not using those terms as mere statements of personal abuse but as descriptions of his character and his work on Margaret Mead.5
For example the statement that he was a bull-shitter, what I mean by this is that it appears that Derek Freeman’s rather obvious personal dislike of Margaret Mead was so intense that he didn’t seem to care at least some of the time whether or not his criticisms of Margaret Mead were valid but only said them to tear her down.
To give but one example Derek Freeman characterized Margaret Mead has believing that it was all cultural that explained the behaviour and culture of societies. This is to put it mildly a strawman and is simply false.6
As for personal animosity Derek Freeman showed the calibre of his character by in public saying he had respect for her while in private heaping acres of unbridled contempt. Derek Freeman had told colleagues that he was going to ruin Margaret Mead’s reputation years before he published his two books.6 For some reason Derek Freeman seemed to believe that Margaret Mead’s entire reputation rested on Coming of Age in Samoa and that he didn’t have to consider anything else she had done much at all. After quoting Derek Freeman a critic writes:
The use of a legal metaphor is worth noting because Mead and Freeman were not in a court of law. Mead was not on trial. She was dead. Yet Freeman seemed to believe that he was prosecuting a case against her rather than simply providing an academic review of her work.7
It is of interest that Freeman showed no interest in Margaret Mead’s rather eccentric paranormal interests; on which she was most assuredly vulnerable to criticism. Derek Freeman also rather cavalierly almost entirely ignored her monograph on
Samoa, Social Organization of Manu’a,8 which was the real subject of her
research in Samoa. But then Derek Freeman was,
it seems, determined to destroy Margaret Mead’s reputation and so cast all his
attention on Coming of Age in Samoa.
Margaret Mead’s book Coming of Age in
Samoa was a popularized offshoot of her primary research not its main
In fact the sheer amount of personal spite Freeman directed against Mead is breathtaking and so was the Freeman’s paranoia. For example he was constantly on the look out for signs of conspiracy against himself and fantasized mythological links and campaigns against himself and his ideas.9
Of course the real subject of this debate the Samoans were mere pawns in this contest against evil going on in Freeman’s head.
As mentioned above Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa is flawed and certainly not up to modern standards of care in anthropological ethnographies, although, and this is well worth remembering, the book was not intended to be an ethnography, but a popularization.
Samoans then and later have condemned the book for making them look bad, by making them look like sex mad orgiests.10 Aside from being a rather silly caricature of the book this criticism should be taken with a heap of salt. The Samoans who condemned the book complained that it made them look bad by saying they were promiscuous and therefore immoral. That Samoans valued virginity and made sure that their young women would not behave so badly and immorally. Well the bottom line is a lot of this is motivated by dislike that Mead had talked about things that were not supposed to be talked about and had therefore broke decorum. Like Kinsley she was describing what was; not what ought to be. And to many Samoans what ought to be is sexual puritanism. By denying that Mead was denying part of their self image.
That this self-image owed a lot to the preachings and indoctrination of Protestant missionaries was of course ignored. Mead was well aware of the importance of the practice of ceremonial virginity in Samoan society. It was just that her interactions with Samoans led her to believe that the actual behaviour of Samoans was not the same.11
Unlike Freeman whose ability to get anything accurate about the actual sexual behaviour of Samoan young women, was minimal; Mead has a women was able to get that information. Freeman being a man got from Samoans the “party line” regarding such matters from Samoan men, especially chiefs.12
Did Mead get correct information regarding sexual behaviour from her female informants? Freeman contended that she was deceived by at least one informant who later confessed to the deception and further that she had provided Mead with all of her information for the stuff about young female Samoan sexual behaviour. Well that does not in fact seem to be the case at all and is simply wrong. Mead seems to have gotten her information from a wide number of female informants and the one claiming to have deceived Mead was not one of the principal informants. In fact her testimony seemed at least in part to be because that informant viewed what Mead said in her book has making them, Samoans, look bad.13
Like the Kinsey Reports, which said things some Americans didn’t want to hear, Mead reported things that some Samoans did not want to hear and preferred to keep hidden.
Freeman’s image of Samoan society is one in which Samoan’s rigidly guard the virginity of their women. Unlike Mead I rather doubt Freeman had access to confidences of Samoan young women. Further in Freeman’s mind Samoan society was characterized by juvenile violence, rape and very high levels of anxiety. This certainly was in contrast with Mead’s rather sunny view of a Samoan society with young people going through a pleasant adolescence.14
This led some Samoans to point out, that from the point of view of Samoans, Freeman’s view of Samoan society and adolescence was at least as “negative” has Mead’s. Although, I must say, I am puzzled why some Samoans think there is much positive in their view of actual Samoan society being “really” a rigidly puritanical society jealously guarding the “purity” of their young women. It is interesting to see how this self-image reflects at least in part the sexual ethos of puritanical Protestant ministers. 15
And of course if Samoan society had been so sexually puritanical it does not explain the stories of 19th century explorers and travellers about the sexual availability of Samoan women or the hysterical diatribes of Protestant missionaries about “carnal” “debauchery”.16
Since Freeman is at pains to depict Samoan society has rigid, puritanical and sexually aggressive, with high levels of rape, violence and juvenile delinquency it is interesting, or would be if he mentioned it, to hear his discussion of Homosexuality. Well although Mead treats it in her book, for Mead states that the Samoan’s aren’t much concerned about it; Freeman entirely avoids the subject in his two books about Mead. Why? Well the answer is obvious, because Mead was largely right about this and Freeman must avoid accepting that.
For if Samoan society is “naturally” sexually repressive and composed of puritanical Christians as Freeman alleged than one would think Samoans would get all hot and bothered by it, also considering the rather puritanical anti-Homosexual ethos they would get from the Protestant missionaries. Freeman does not discuss it at all! Further Freeman does not discuss the role of Fa’afafine, who are men who fill a female role including having sex with men and the Fa’atama, who are women who fill a male role. People “playing” both roles are accepted in Samoan society as family members and employees..
Freeman ignores this and it’s implications for his ideas about rigid gender roles and sexual repressiveness in Samoan society. Meanwhile Samoans do not like public discussion of this.17
If Freeman’s books are so flawed, and so filled with personal, visceral dislike of Mead; just why were they so successful in destroying Mead reputation?
Well there was the characterization of this debate has being part of the great nature / nurture debate. Supposedly Mead was an absolute cultural determinist and Freeman the brave interactionist, (Nature and Nurture interacting.); who bravely opposed the hysterical and wrong ideology of cultural determinism. Of course it turns out that this portrayal of the debate is an attack on a strawman. Mead was not a cultural determinist, that is a distortion of her position. Further Freeman who deliberately propagated this falsehood would have known better.18
The other matter was culture war stuff. Freeman and many of his allies seized upon discrediting Mead has a method of attacking all the wicked stuff they saw in modern life. Like sexual freedom, progressive education and all other bad things associated with the “sixties”, which in their view was a “demonic” decade of wickedness. In fact in the play that David Williamson wrote about the affairs, Heretic, all sorts of wickedness was alleged to have arisen from Mead's book Coming of Age in Samoa. For Williamson wrote:
Mead’s passions for sexual expression and for status and recognition lead her to crucial errors of judgement that result in the generation of one of the century’s enduring myths, and perhaps even the social upheaval of the sixties themselves.19
This is straight political agit-prop. It is obvious that Williamson despises much of what he associates with the sixties. Further he relied and in effect collaborated with Freeman while writing the play. In effect it is Freeman’s portrait of Mead has a person. That this portrayal is an absurd caricature is ignored. And of course the idea that Coming of Age in Samoa was responsible for the unrest of the sixties is risible.
So that bashing Mead fitted into a “Conservative” “Politically Correct” backlash against “Liberalism” and that evil decade known as the “Sixties”. This would help to explain why attacking Mead was popular, it fitted into a certain political / social mindset perfectly.
There is so much more one can go through in discussing Freeman’s errors, distortions and yes, falsehoods. One thing is clear Freeman did not write his books about Mead in Samoa in good faith. The books are flawed, vastly more seriously than Coming of Age in Samoa. Frankly Freeman comes across has a paranoid, repulsive little man with a vicious hateful animosity against Mead that borders on pathological. In other words Freeman was an asshole.20
Mead the eccentric, meanwhile has been unfairly tarnished by this pathetic and loathsome attack. The irony is that Coming of Age in Samoa is indeed deeply flawed, perhaps at another time I will discuss those flaws; meanwhile avoid the Freemans of the world like the plague.
1. Gardner, Martin, The New Age, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, 1991, pp. 19-24.
2. Mead, Margaret, Coming of Age in Samoa, William Morrow & Co., New York, 1928.
5. The two books Freeman wrote about Mead are Freeman, Derek, Margaret Mead and Samoa, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1983, and The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1999.
6. Shankman, Paul, The Trashing of Margaret Mead, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WS, 2009, pp. 15-16.
7. IBID, p. 17.
8. Mead, Margaret, Social Organization of Manu’a, Bulletin 76, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu HA, 1930.
9. Shankman, pp. 239-241.
10. IBID, pp. 135-150.
11. IBID, pp. 153-159.
12. IBID, pp. 175-177.
13. IBID, pp. 193-205, and Footnote, 10.
14. IBID, pp. 145-146.
15. IBID, pp. 137-140, 177-179.
16. IBID, pp. 181-183.
17. IBID, pp. 171-172.
18. IBID, pp. 206-224.
19. Williamson, David, quoted in Shankman, p. 42. For the play see Williamson, David, Heretic, Penguin Books, Melbourne Australia, 1996.
20. See Shankman, pp. 244-248.