Margaret Mead: Fact, Fiction — Really Great Fiction

In June, I read a magnificent novel for book club. An AMAZING book. A book that was just absolutely fantastic WOW.

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Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on one tiny part of Margaret Mead’s life. It’s a beautiful love story set in Papua New Guinea in 1932/33. The prose is terse and exquisite. I finished the book in a day.

That’s a photograph of a real tree on the cover — a rainbow gum tree, which is featured in the novel.

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I love the book, love the cover, and I have a powerful compulsion to read Euphoria again — starting now.

But I need some time to go by before I reread the novel. It’s such a short book that it will feel like eating a chocolate sundae or inhaling a bagful of cotton candy if I devour the story again right away, I’m just too giddy about the gorgeous writing and the plot and that deliciously dark and complicated love story, set within the infinitely dark and complicated history of anthropology in Papua New Guinea.

*So* much of Euphoria was taken from the real life of Margaret Mead (barring the ending, mind you, though I won’t spoil the story!) that my book club decided to read the book that inspired Lily King’s work — which was the 1984 biography of Margaret Mead by Jane Howard, titled Margaret Mead: A Life.

 

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That unfortunate cover, so dark you can barely make out what you’re looking at, is a photo of Margaret Mead at work. She cut off the top of her roll-top desk to give herself more work space, and I’m assuming that’s the famous desk in this picture. The weird wooden junk priceless artifacts on the right side of the page are most likely items Ms. Mead collected during her travels.

I don’t know why anyone believed this book cover would attract readers. It’s really off-putting, I think. The photo sums up the driving force of Ms. Mead’s life — her anthropology work, her books, her lectures, her nose perpetually to the grindstone — but the enormous swaths of dark grey and black tones in the photo dwarf Ms. Mead’s image, and a lot of the cover just seems like wasted space. The colors chosen for the title and author name seem unfortunate, too. I’d just be really depressed if I put out a book with a cover like this.

However — despite all that — Margaret Mead: A Life, is an excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, as it brought Euphoria to life in new ways, letting me see *all* the many things Lily King took from real life for her novel — and the experience of delving into the truth the novel portrayed was such fun! The book taught me SO much about the incredibly intelligent and hard-working Margaret Mead, and completely wowed me with the author’s insight and attention to detail. Reading this book was just awesome.

It’s a long book, 441 pages total. I admit that by page 275, I suddenly began to feel bogged down reading about Ms. Mead’s post-menopausal, post-third-marriage, frenetic-lecture-circuit, on-the-road-to-immortality, bossy-woman life. She was a hen on her roost at that point, and started doing things that bothered me. I skimmed about 80 pages, reading here and there, and then settled back into the book, thoroughly absorbed again to the end. And the final chapters were great.

Margaret Mead’s fame started when she wrote this book, an account of the field research she did when she was 23 years old —

 

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Coming of Age in Samoa.

After Mead’s death, the anthropologist Derek Freeman published this book, refuting Mead’s field notes and conclusions about sex and adolescence in Samoa —

 

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Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.

I understand why people immediately rushed to defend Margaret Mead, why they denounced Freeman’s book, and why they saw his argument as an attack on the entire ethos of anthropology as a whole, not just a refutation of Margaret Mead’s book about adolescence in Samoa.

If you want to learn more about this controversy, this 1988 film, Margaret Mead and Samoa, is really well done. Succint, informative, with a lot of great video and pictures. I agree with the conclusions this film draws (without being as blunt about it as I’ll put it here) — that, yes, Margaret Mead made some mistakes in her first research trip. A group of young teen girls punked her good, and Mead wanted to believe their jokes and fibs, and recorded their words as the truth. (I remember high school quite well, thank you, and I could easily see myself going along with the crowd playing this kind of prank on an anthropologist, had I been one of the teenage “bush monkeys” Margaret Mead set out to study.)

(Side note: as Margaret Mead: A Life, made clear, the term “bush monkey” and the n-word were frequent descriptions anthropologists used for their subjects in the 1920s, ’30s, and beyond. This was not peculiar to Margaret Mead, but a general practice of all.)

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: yes, I believe the Samoan girls punked Margaret Mead. And yes, I believe that Ms. Mead was aware that she had been punked, but was happy to be punked, because the lies allowed her to write the argument she penned in Coming of Age in Samoa. The book portrayed Samoan adolescence as a stress-free time of casual, consensual sex, and no one ever got pregnant as a result of all this pre-marital fornication, because Samoa was like a sexual paradise of free love.

The truth is, adolescence is as difficult a time for a Samoan youth as it is for anyone else, the culture of free love was nonexistent there (according to Freeman’s research), and it’s regretful that the Samoan people were portrayed falsely in Mead’s account of their lives. But I’m also glad that book was written, because Americans used Coming of Age in Samoa to open their minds up to the idea that sex doesn’t have to be rigid and sin-laden and a disgusting chore that requires (ugh!) nudity — (sin!!). People are controlled, to a large extent, by their cultures, especially their unconscious cultural beliefs, and Mead’s book helped people start to open their eyes and see that.

And now I must say something about appearance, which seems to pop up in any discussion or writing about Margaret Mead.

A lot of people called Margaret Mead “physically unattractive” or said she “wasn’t comely” as a youth, which I just don’t understand.

 

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Granted, she isn’t wearing her glasses in this photo, but still. I like glasses on women. The whole “four-eyes” bully-talk was never my thing. How could someone look at this woman and call her unattractive? It just boggles my mind, how much emphasis was put on Mead’s “lack of looks” — this was a woman men fell in love with, men who pursued and married her based on the quality of her vivacious mind, wit, and drive. Intelligence and self-confidence makes people shine, makes them glow from within, and that is far, far more sexy than — well, whatever “pretty” is supposed to be. Marilyn Monroe or something.

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I’m not saying Marilyn Monroe is unintelligent. That would be false. Norma Jeane had a lot of intelligence, and she was an incredibly sensitive person. But here is one thing I will say: Margaret Mead had a lot more self-confidence, and I find self-confidence a heck of a lot sexier than a person’s looks. Give me ballsy Margaret Mead any day, she was one hell of a woman — inspiring, gutsy, fierce.

Here she is looking “more matronly” later in life, after her third marriage, the birth of her child, and living in the spotlight of the anthropology world —

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And here’s a picture of her much later in life, before she developed pancreatic cancer and lost weight, when she was still healthy —

Margaret Mead (1972)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most telling lines of her biography appeared on page 274, when Jane Howard wrote, “All Mead’s life she had had a weakness for one-line generalizations about nationalities, as about practically everything else.” Which was obviously what gave her writing such force, such compelling attraction for so many readers. Oftentimes, our greatest weakness is also our greatest strength, no?

Another of my favorite lines of the biography came near the very end, as Jane Howard described the extent of Margaret Mead’s denial that she was sick, gravely ill, and dying of cancer (Mead died in 1978):

“She needed the money [from lectures] and she needed the activity. If she had stopped, she might have had to think about herself.”

Margaret Mead was an observer of the life all around her — but the observation and probing of herself was kept to a minimum.

Regardless of her own lack of self-probing, Margaret Mead would be delighted to know what great reading material her biography made, and she’d be relieved to hear her life’s work is not forgotten, despite Freeman’s refutation of her field notes from Samoa.

And wow, did Lily King publish a great novel about her! *swoon*

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5 Responses to Margaret Mead: Fact, Fiction — Really Great Fiction

  1. Edwin Young says:

    And so, Melissa, you join ranks with the likes of Margaret Mead and also of great novelists with your lyrically, lovely, enchanting words. You are a beautiful person and a brilliant one. Please don’t deny me the pleasure of your company.
    ed

    Like

  2. A Cranky Spider says:

    She seemed cool but BUSH MONKEYS!? REALLY?!

    Like

    • MelissaStacy says:

      Yes, sadly, the larger culture, full of embedded racism, was present in the original conception of anthropology.

      Like

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