Hiram Caton: What drove Margaret Mead's leading critic

Historians in the News

[In two books, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Harvard University Press, 1983) and The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (Westview Press, 1999), anthropologist Derek Freeman claimed that Mead had been duped to believe that Somoans believed in free love and clamed that her own desire to vindicate her mentor's theories of human development led her astray. Now Freeman's the one who has been put on the couch.]

... Hiram Caton believes he has found compelling evidence to explain what drove Freeman. The recently retired professor of history and politics at Griffith University, in Australia, specializes in political psychology, with a particular interest in cult leaders and followers. He worked closely with Freeman from 1983 to 1993 and stayed in touch with him until his death.

In "The Exalted Self: Derek Freeman's Quest for the Perfect Identity," published last year in the Canadian journal Identity, he argues that the anthropologist, who had a reputation for eccentric and antagonistic behavior, had a clinically diagnosable narcissistic-personality disorder. Freeman's urgency stemmed as much from that disorder as from his critique of Mead and cultural anthropology, Mr. Caton believes.

Not surprisingly, this starkly psychoanalytic view discomfits some scholars. Peter Hempenstall, a professor of history at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, is preparing a biography of Freeman with Donald F. Tuzin, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at San Diego. While he finds some of Mr. Caton's ideas "suggestive," Mr. Hempenstall says, the "presentation of Derek Freeman's personality as the result of a clearly established clinical pathology is too extreme and unconvincing."

Sounding a Mind

The question of Derek Freeman's mental health and its role in his scholarly work is not new to close observers of the battle over Margaret Mead and her legacy. As Mr. Caton notes, Freeman was "shadowed by a reputation that he was a 'difficult man' who suffered from a mysterious psychological disorder."

"Until his last breath," Mr. Caton says, "he denied imputations of a disorder, styled them 'defamatory,' and unequivocally affirmed his complete mental health and self-control."

But Freeman's reputation — along with at least two major documented mental-health crises during his career — served as ammunition for his many detractors, who whispered that his ideas could not be trusted. During the Mead-Freeman debates of the 1980s, more than one ethnographer made remarks to this reporter like, "You know he was carried out of Borneo in a straitjacket, don't you?"

Such statements did have a basis in fact, Mr. Caton acknowledges. And yet, he says, they do not tell the whole story.

To try to understand Freeman's motivations, Mr. Caton delved into a trove of correspondence between the anthropologist and administrators of Australian National University, where he taught, as well as other internal documents in the university's archives. There Mr. Caton discovered letters about Fredeman's soundness of mind and what Mr. Caton calls his "tireless defense" of it.

He also found statements from three psychiatrists who had determined that Freeman suffered from panic attacks and delusions, but that the disorders were temporary and could be expected to pass once he returned from the field to the campus, in Canberra.

The documents shed new light on the incidents that led detractors to attack Freeman as mentally ill. His "mental turmoil," says Mr. Caton, was most dramatic during two episodes: the first in Sarawak, in 1961, and the second in Samoa, in 1967.

The first episode was rooted in Freeman's intense dislike of Tom Harrisson, curator of the Sarawak Museums and chief ethnographer of that region of Borneo. Freeman accused Harrisson of manufacturing pornographic icons and then misrepresenting them as expressions of local culture.

Mr. Caton says Freeman took it upon himself to become "the protector of native culture." He was eventually removed from Sarawak — not in a straitjacket, as some of his detractors have suggested, but highly distraught and in the care of Australian diplomatic officials and his university department head. Even so, Freeman, in an apparently manic state, saw himself as "having triumphed over the evil that he had confronted," Mr. Caton reports.

In 1967 a similar incident occurred, this time in Samoa. Drawing from the archives, Mr. Caton concludes that sexuality was once again the trigger. Freeman came to believe that Mead's depiction of adolescent girls as guiltlessly promiscuous was a projection of her own fantasies of free love.

Most telling about the episodes was how Freeman spun them, Mr. Caton suggests in his essay: "In published autobiographical statements, Freeman likens the Sarawak episode to a religious conversion." Like Freeman's conviction about Mead, Mr. Caton says in an interview, the breakdown served as an epiphany that "was going to drive him towards his new conception of anthropology, which in fact he already held to."...

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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