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Margaret Mead's fantasy island of sexual fulfillment

Editor’s note: The following commentary is excerpted from Jack Cashill’s eye-opening new book, “Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture,” where he shows how, over the last century, “progressive” writers and producers have been using falsehood and fraud as their primary weapons in their attack on America.

In San Francisco in 1926, as she prepared to sail away to Samoa, 24-year-old Margaret Mead wrote a farewell letter to her husband, Luther Cressman. When Cressman got the letter back in New York and read it, the cold calculation of it all unnerved him. How had his sweetheart slipped away from him so?

Less than three years earlier, the newly ordained minister had married the petite, quirkily pretty Mead in an Episcopal Church near her childhood home in suburban Philadelphia. According to Cressman, they were both virgins. After the honeymoon, the couple returned to New York City where they pursued their respective studies at Columbia University.

This was an exciting time to be young and a New Yorker. Cressman described the city as a “vortex of new ideas derived from discoveries in science, reaction to and reflection on the lessons of the war, and an awareness that a new phase of life for the Western world had come on stage with the Russian revolution.”

Also in the air that fevered decade was the first great whiff of sexual awakening. Energized by the scent of it, the Samoa-bound Mead decided it was finally time for a little sampling. In concluding her fateful letter to Cressman, she wrote, “I’ll not leave you unless I find someone I love more.”

One can understand Cressman’s shock at reading this anticipatory fare-thee-well. Mead had progressed from “Till death do us part” to “Dear John” in a New York minute. And as Cressman would learn the hard way, Mead was still progressing.

Mead was likely not the only 20-something running around New York with this much emotional baggage. In fact, her life reads like a flapper-era pilot for “Sex in the City.” It’s just that she was the one woman uniquely positioned to transform this baggage into social science. The man who made this possible was Franz Boas, her mentor at Barnard, and later Columbia, and the godfather of modern anthropology. In the fall of 1922, Mead took a course from Boas and his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict, and her life was never the same.

Mead heeded Boas’ words as if they had come from a burning bush. When she accepted a grant to travel to Samoa and study “the problem of which phenomena of adolescence are culturally and which physiologically determined,” she already knew the answer. The junket was largely an exercise in proving herself and Boas correct.

Had Mead merely visited Samoa and observed the culture and then finessed the data to fit her thesis, she would have been guilty of garden-variety bad science and little worse. Unknown to Boas, however, Mead had another mission. She needed to make sense of her own confused, omnivorous sexual appetite. At the time, the adventurous Mead had less interest in Luther Cressman than she did in fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict with whom she would soon enter “an intimate Sapphic relationship.”

In full flight from Puritan America, Mead was prepared to employ her humble social-science skills to imagine a fantasy island of sexual fulfillment regardless of whether it existed in reality or not. The result was the semi-salacious “Coming of Age in Samoa,” easily the best selling anthropology text of all time and still a standard in high schools and colleges.

Sex was “a natural, pleasurable thing” for Samoans, Mead claims to have discovered, but for Americans it was just the opposite. Americans faced an “implacable” God and a “half dozen standards of morality,” all of them repressive. As a result, American girls found themselves crippled by neuroses, frigidity and Electra complexes as they watched in horror “the huge toll of barren, unmarried women who move in unsatisfied procession across the American and English stage.”

Although she would expand the scope of her wrath as her celebrity grew, Mead focused her youthful indignation on the bourgeois American household – this “tiny, ingrown, biological family.” According to Mead, these families instilled in their children a self-perpetuating set of “Puritan self-accusations” that crimped their libidos and left them burdened by “guilt” and “maladjustment.”

In fact, as was transparent to anyone who had spent time in the Samoa of the 1920s, the islands were anything but a sexual paradise, at least in the Bohemian New York sense of the word. As other anthropologists would later observe – Derek Freeman of New Zealand most notably – every attempt was made to safeguard the virginity of Samoan girls. There was much at stake. At marriage, the bride had to undergo a formal virginity test, and it was not multiple choice.

The almost complete Christian overlay on Samoan culture only reinforced the traditional premium on chastity. As Freeman notes, Mead’s early correspondence back to Boas strongly suggests her awareness that “Samoa in the 1920s, in contrast to some other parts of Polynesia, had a society in which the virginity of nubile females was of preeminent and vital concern.” How could she not know this? While in Samoa, the always-exploitative Mead happily accepted the perks due the ceremonial virgin she shamelessly pretended to be.

Predictably, the cultural establishment came down hard on Freeman when he revealed the depths of Mead’s fraud. The fact that Freeman had stayed there years and not just a few months as Mead did, mattered not at all. What mattered was that Mead’s take on traditional American sexual customs be allowed to stand as gospel. Only a chauvinist and a prig like Freeman would dare subvert it.

And yes, by the way, Mead did find someone she loved more than her husband. She promptly dumped the latter to marry the former … a process she would later repeat.

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