Friday Book: Sex and the Samoans

The Fateful Hoaxing Of Margaret Mead By Derek Freeman, Westview Press, pounds 16.50
"THIS MEAT has surely been used for soup," says Miss Bartlett at the beginning of A Room with a View. I had similar thoughts on picking up Derek Freeman's latest book on the "Mead-Freeman controversy", about the validity of the American anthropologist's famous fieldwork in Samoa. Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in 1983, five years after Mead's death. His earlier book provoked not only many publications but also a play called Heretic, staged in Australia and New Zealand. Yet such is Freeman's skill with condiments that, in the end, one has quite a tasty meal.

The American Anthropological Association won many people over to Freeman's side when it passed a resolution denouncing the 1983 book without inviting Freeman to defend himself. This stupid reaction vindicated the contention that Mead was a liberal American mother-goddess of the Spock era whose cult led her devotees to behave unscientifically when challenged by a rude Australian.

The scholarly issue - to what extent had a 24-year-old anthropologist been led to exaggerate sexual permissiveness among Samoan adolescent girls in her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa? - is not of great intrinsic importance. But Mead was to become the first, and most successful, media anthropologist. She built for herself a unique position in American public life as social critic and ambassador for her discipline. (In Britain, she was never so much admired.)

Those who live by the media are often brought down thereby. When Freeman's earlier book was published, Harvard University Press hired a New York PR firm to handle his talk-show bookings. While proclaiming that his only goal is the truth, he has piggybacked on Mead's fame.

Freeman does show that Mead's research relied more on hunch than on rigour. Her close relationship with her professor, Franz Boas, did induce Mead to tailor her findings to his hypothesis: that adolescent behaviour was subject to cultural variables, rather than genetically determined. Boas, meanwhile, was over-indulgent towards a book written with Mead's enchanting literary facility.

Amusingly, Freeman records how Mead skimped on the focused research she had promised Boas because it required spending time with (in her words) "socially unimportant adolescents". Staying in US Navy premises for most of her fieldwork, she was treated as one of the governing elite from America and took on the persona of a visiting taupou or ceremonial virgin (concealing the fact that she had married two years previously).

Freeman's new material is partly based on a reconstitution from archives of Mead's itinerary, and partly on testimony sworn in the late Eighties by an old lady called Fa'apua'a, one of Mead's closest Samoan friends. She confessed that she and a girlfriend had engaged in recreational lying when they told Margaret that they spent their nights with boys.

Freeman builds an edifice upon one evening, 13 March 1926, when Mead is supposed to have been gulled by this teasing. But Fa'apua'a was a taupou herself and Mead knew quite well that a taupou's virtue was carefully protected. Moreover, Fa'apua'a and her friend were in their mid-20s, as Mead was - not adolescents. Freeman shows literary flair himself in persuading the reader that he is building up a watertight case, and he has succeeded in convincing some eminent natural scientists. But he remains a prosecuting attorney rather than an impartial historian.

It may well be that Mead's informants told her what they thought she wanted to hear, and that she did not cross-check the story. But many Samoans have come to resent their culture's reputation for sexual looseness, and this may have slanted Fa'apua'a's evidence in the Eighties. Also, America in the Twenties was quite strait-laced. Mead may have sussed out the reality of private sexual norms in Samoa, and confused these with public rules. In fact, Samoa seems to have been neither especially permissive nor especially restrictive.

Freeman concedes that Mead and Boas were not deliberately deceitful (they allowed extensive archives to be preserved) so much as "cognitively deluded". Though he oversimplifies Boas's position, Freeman has a point in criticising those anthropologists who think that culture somehow overrides biology. His own pleas for a reintegration of cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology are fine words, but he does not explain how the Samoan debate bears on the theoretical problems of today.

Mead insisted that her best-seller, Coming of Age in Samoa, should not be revised. It will survive as a literary rather than a scientific classic. And if she was duped? The mistakes people make at the age of 24 acquire public notoriety only if they later become famous.

There was nothing in her of the curmudgeon. In life, she was serially married to three anthropologists. Freeman, having found the key to her weak spot, has hyphenated himself to her as an endlessly replicating duo in the afterlife of publicity. A feature film must impend: Derek and Margaret, perhaps?

Jonathan Benthall

The reviewer is director of the Royal Anthropological Institution