In upset response to these misrepresentations, Fa'apua'a, a devout Christian, branded Mead a liar and a woman who had mistakenly interpreted innocent jokes
about their lives as the truth, misrepresenting the Samoan people -- and, by implication, misrepresenting humankind.
Although Freeman gave great weight to the alleged tales told to Mead by Fa'apua'a and Fofoa in his portrayal of Mead as a dupe, Shankman notes that, in
fact, "there is no information on the sex from these two women in Mead's field notes." Mead cannot have been fooled by women who were never her informants.
What Mead really drew on for her conclusions was data "collected on 25 adolescent girls of whom over 40 percent were sexually active" and from
interviews with Samoan men and women. While it is true that, in Coming of Age, Mead downplayed some of the uglier aspects of Samoan sexuality --
including violent rape and physical punishment bestowed on those who violated sexual norms -- it is not true that Mead essentially invented a false
cultural portrait from a couple of informants' sexual fish tales.
Shankman concludes, "It seems that Fa'apua'a had become a medium for Freeman's own views about Mead. He constructed a narrative about Mead's hoaxing and
carefully culled her testimony for evidence to support it."
But why did Freeman get it so wrong? Shankman's book suggests Freeman was obsessed
with Mead and with what he saw as her dangerous stories about the flexibility of human cultures. He saw himself as a brave "heretic," a man saving true
science from Mead's mere ideology.
The current New York Times Magazine article, which alludes to Freeman's claims as if they stand, focuses not on the trashing of Margaret Mead but
on the trashing of another anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, by the self-styled journalist-activist Patrick Tierney. Just as Freeman's wild
misrepresentations of Mead's work grew legs, so did Tierney's misrepresentations of Chagnon and his collaborator, the geneticist James Neel.
One noticeable difference exists, though, in this pair of "controversies." While many in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) rose to defend Mead
against Freeman, many turned to join Tierney in the attacks on Chagnon. Why? Hard to say, but it probably has something to do with the relative popularity
in leftist anthropology of Mead's story -- more about the happy importance of nurture -- than Chagnon's -- more about unhappy persistence of nature.
I spent about a year researching the Chagnon-Tierney controversy, so I know from
my conversations with Chagnon that, on more than one occasion, Mead rose to personally help Chagnon in his work -- most notably when she vocally objected
to attempts to ban a session on sociobiology at the AAA meeting that Chagnon had organized. How painful that their reputations have both had to face
authors who wove not only false stories about them, but false stories so well supplied with pseudo-documentation that reasonable people believed them. The
two cases raise a question I often find myself pondering: How do you effectively face a critic who amply footnotes what amounts to a fantasy?