There have been moments this spring when I thought we were all the jurors in an intellectual custody suit over Samoa. Every week someone else took the media witness stand to testify on behalf of either Margaret Mead's description of the island culture or Derek Freeman's vision.
The apparent issue--if you have been off on a tropical island these many weeks --has been which anthropologist portrayed the real Samoa. Was it Margaret Mead, who, in 1925, saw a culture that was relatively peaceful with a guilt-free love under the palms? Was it Derek Freeman, who in the 1940s and 1960s saw a culture obsessed with virginity and rife with rape? Is it any wonder that an exasperated prime minister of Samoa said this week, "To be frank, I think that both anthropologists were all wrong."
Having now waded my way through Mead's original "Coming of Age in Samoa" and Freeman's recent "Margaret Mead and Samoa," I have a somewhat different view of the controversy. This is not a custody suit over Samoa. It's a case of arrested rebellion.
Derek Freeman has become the Gary Crosby or the Christina Crawford of the anthropological family.
It was daughter Christina who first told us that behind Joan lurked a Mommie Dearest. It is son Gary traveling about the country explaining how Great Guy Bing called him Bucket Britches and drove his mommy to drink. Now Derek Freeman is on the media circuit stating that the Founding Mother of modern anthropology was the dupe of a bunch of adolescent girls who lied to her about their sex lives.
Like the other descendants of superstars, Freeman is the master of the posthumous attack. Neither Joan nor Bing nor Margaret is around for a good solid "other side of the story." At no point in his book does Freeman explain why he waited so long to publish research done in the 1940s and 1960s.
It's not that Freeman's critique of Mead's early work is entirely wrong. It's been clear for decades that Mead's work was limited by poor knowledge of the Samoan language, by the relatively short length of her visit, and her inexperience. She was young and so was her profession. Others, particularly Brad Shore of Emory University, have disagreed with her before. Their work was an advance on Mead's, not a repudiation.
But Freeman is also limited by his sources, and surely his prejudices. There is no proof for example that Mead was duped. As Michael Lieber, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, has noted, "Mead's conclusions were based on her observations of adolescent girls, Freeman's on his close association with the Samoan male power hierarchy. If a foreigner asked American high school girls to describe America, he'd get a different picture from what corporate executives would present. This is the essence of the Mead-Freeman controversy."
As spring and the arguments wear on, Freeman's research is being contradicted point by point, article by article. But the tone of the book is more offensive than the details. It is just one academic shade short of nasty, full of the muckraker's delight in portraying Mead as a fraud, and more than a little patronizing.
He suggests among other things that Mead was also the pawn of her professor, sent out to prove his theory. This attack prompted even Mead's first husband, anthropologist L. S. Cressman, to rise to her defense in a moving letter, calling this "utter nonsense."
"If Margaret, in going to Samoa, wanted to prove some preconceived idea, it certainly was not the nature of adolescence in a Samoan village . . . but that a woman, she, Margaret Mead, could be a professional anthropological field-worker as well as any man."
Freeman poses as a brave man willing to take on the Mead Myth for the sake of truth. Gary Crosby has said the same thing. But in fact, there's nothing brave about it. The public loves a good unmasking.
What is behind all this is not an intellectual argument about Samoa or even human behavior, unless it's our own human behavior. There's a touch too much glee in watching people whack the great off their pedestals.
There's an added glee, I fear, when the towering figure is a woman. After one lengthy article on the controversy, Mead's daughter, Amherst College anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, noted that The New York Times had referred to "Professor" Freeman and "Miss" Mead.
Indeed, Prof. Bates has been one of her mother's greatest defenders this spring. Margaret Mead was at least lucky with her real child. Too bad about Bing.