Derek Freeman
The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead

After Mead had agreed to supplement her hook in the way William Morrow had suggested, he assured her that he would do everything in his power to see that Coming of Age in Samoa would have 'a real show with the general public.' This was principally achieved by the expertly concocted illustration on the dust jacket of the first edition, which Mead, before leaving New York, had seen and approved. It shows, by the alluring light of a just-risen full moon, a bare-breasted Samoan girl, inflamed with passion, leading her half-naked lover to what Mead, in her fanciful text, called a tryst beneath the palm trees. On March 14, 1926, after her hoaxing by Fa'apua'a and Fofoa, Mead had quite mistakenly concluded that in Samoa there is at puberty no curb on sexual activity. By the fall of 1928, this fiction, as was flamboyantly depicted on its dust jacket, had become the leitmotiv of a book vouched for by Franz Boas as a 'painstaking investigation.'

Mead's vexing problem in Coming of Age in Samoa was to reconcile the fiction that she had taken to be fact with all of the other information she had collected about Samoa and, at the same time, produce an account of a problem-free society that would warrant the desired generalization of universal applicability that 'the difficulties of adolescent girls' cannot be explained other than in terms of the 'social environment.' This she attempted to do in the first of the two chapters added to Coming of Age in Samoa at William Morrow's request. She began with the fiction of the adolescent girl's 'many years of casual love-making' and then proceeded to airy denial of anything that might detract from what she called 'the general casualness of the whole society.'

In this chapter, as in her other writings on Samoa, Mead totally ignored tacts well known to her that were inconsistent with the cultural pattern she was intent on establishing. The belief on the part of Mead and Benedict in patterns that lie beyond the empirical variability of the observable world is a latter-day version of an idealist notion that can he traced back to Plato. For Plato, the variable world of phenomena was 'nothing hut the reflection of a limited number of fixed and unchanging forms,' eide, as he called them, or 'essences as they were called by the Thomists.' It is these that are believed to be real, with variation being attributed to the imperfect expression of an underlying essence. Thus, for fervent upholders of cultural patterning like Benedict and Mead, departures from a postulated cultural pattern are 'viewed as merely accidental, and as having little theoretical significance,' a stance that readily leads to denials and distortions of a quite flagrant order.

Thus, although on New Year's Day, 1926, Mead lived through a hurricane that, as she described it at the time, 'destroyed every house' in a nearby village and caused a severe famine, she nonetheless claimed, in seeking to establish a pattern of 'general casualness,' that 'neither poverty or great disasters' threaten the people of Samoa. Although she knew that Sotoa, the high chief of Luma, had in 1924 been dismissed from his position as district governor of Manu'a for opposition to U.S. government policy, she nonetheless described Samoa as a place where 'no one suffers for his convictions.' In her loose-leaf folder, she recorded two cases of forcible rape, one on Ta'ti and the other on Olosega. Yet in her paper 'The Role of the Individual in Samoan Culture,' which, with the approval of Franz Boas, was submitted to the National Research Council in November 1927 as part of her report, she states that 'the idea of forceful rape or of any sexual act to which both participants do not give themselves freely is completely foreign to the Samoan mind.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.