• U.S.

Behavior: Miss Markit Mit

7 minute read

In 1928 Margaret Mead’s teacher and friend, Ruth Benedict, went to lunch with Margaret’s father. Later Anthropologist Benedict wrote to her student: “My congratulations, Margaret. I don’t see how you ever grew up.”

Indeed, growing up was a painful experience for America’s most distinguished anthropologist—much more so than for the adolescents she describes in her classic books on coming of age in Samoa and New Guinea. However, Mead seems to regard the hurts of her early years not as obstacles but as spurs; she underlines this view with the title of her newly published autobiography: Blackberry Winter (William Morrow; $8.95). To country people, that term designates the time when frost nips the blackberry blossoms—and thus, paradoxically, ensures a rich harvest.

By many measures, Mead has reaped such a harvest. She has made twelve field trips to the South Seas (where the natives, with affectionate respect, call her “Miss Markit Mit”). She has written 26 books and hundreds of articles about her findings in Oceania, her observations on Western society, and her conception of anthropology (a science that can “protect the future” by shedding light on “what man has been and is”). Though this prodigious output has brought her many honors, she has also received her share of criticism. Some scientists have charged that her methods are imprecise and that her broad pronouncements on contemporary culture are speculative and insubstantial (TIME, March 21, 1969).

Much of the credit for distinguishing herself, Mead says, belongs to her paternal grandmother, “the most decisive influence in my life.” Mead describes her in words that apply equally well to herself: “She was unquestionably feminine, and wholly without feminist aggrievement. She had gone to college when this was a very unusual thing for a girl to do, she had a firm grasp on anything she paid attention to, she married and had a child, and she had a career of her own.”

All this was also true of Mead’s mother, but she “was filled with passionate resentment about the condition of women.” Mother had other problems. The family doctor considered Emily Fogg Mead “emotionally inadequate,” her sisters criticized her “austerity,” and Margaret herself writes that her mother “had no gift for play and very little for pleasure and comfort.” For instance, “She conscientiously filled the 18 lamps we needed, but she let me arrange the flowers. She could neither tell nor make up stories, and there was always a touch of duty in the parties and games she planned for us.” Partly for this reason—and because she considered herself less attractive than the other children in the family—Margaret assumed, at age eight, the role of “stage manager of family festivals,” making table decorations and arranging settings in which her sister Priscilla could show off her beauty, her brother Dick could sing and her sister Elizabeth could dance and play the piano.

Father was a different part of the problem. There were “other women” in the life of Economist Edward Sherwood Mead: “One of them had red hair, and one almost persuaded him to marry her.” His voice was “loud and direct,” the “imperative mode was very congenial to him,” and when angry, he resorted to sarcasm and bitter parody. His judgments were “conservative” and “money-bound.” He wanted Margaret to become a nurse because she was “not strong enough” to study for a college degree—though at the time she was carrying a heavy high school program, making the costumes for a school play and keeping house for her family.

Edward Mead’s opposition led Margaret to explode in “one of the few fits of feminist rage I have ever had”; it did not keep her from going to college. But at DePauw University, where the 17-year-old Margaret had “expected to become a person,” she was confronted instead with “the snobbery and cruelty of the sorority system at its worst.” In a college that was then geared to producing Rotarians and garden-club members, her intellectual gifts were a handicap. Her atrocious clothes did not help: to a Kappa rushing party, she wore a dress of her own design; it suggested a wheatfield with poppies. Her sponsor turned her back at the sight, and Margaret found the evening “strangely confusing” because she did not then know that everyone had been given a signal to ignore her. The ostracism lasted all year, and for the first time Mead learned that both those who reject and those who are rejected generally suffer “irreversible character damage.”

Sullen Weeds. After transferring to Barnard and graduating, Mead entered into the first of her three marriages, to a ministerial student named Luther Cressman. She had chosen him partly because he possessed the sensitivity to people’s feelings that she so missed in her father. They had been engaged for five years and had read manuals on sexual technique, but they found at first that there were “moments of strangeness and disappointment to overcome.” Overcome them they did, but Mead soon realized that she was writing poems that were “curiously contrapuntal to my expressed contentment.” One, for instance, began, “Throttled by sullen weeds I lie…”

Within five years, Luther was succeeded by Reo Fortune, a New Zealand psychologist. Mead met him on her way home from Samoa, and when the ship landed in England, was so deeply engrossed in talk with him that she did hot even see Luther waiting on the dock to greet her. Seven years later Reo was replaced by British Anthropologist Gregory Bateson under oddly similar circumstances. Emerging from a joint study trip to Kenakatem in New Guinea, Margaret and Reo joined Gregory in the nearby village of Kankanamun to compare notes for a few days. Though they had not previously met, all three slept in the same guesthouse. One night, reports Mead, “Reo woke to hear Greg and me talking,” already immersed in “a kind of communication in which Reo did not share.” When they came out of the wilderness, Reo and Margaret parted. The new marriage, however, also ended in divorce.

All this seems to confirm Fordham Anthropologist Warren Swidler’s observation that Mead’s “private life has been a shambles; she’s not been very happy, so she’s gone outward. Much as she loves people, her great commitment is to science.” Then how does Mead, with a disordered personal life, presume to counsel the young? The answer may well be that the same hurts that motivated Mead to achievement gave her the insights necessary to help others.

More significantly, Blackberry Winter raises more questions than it answers about what Mead is like as a person. Though it sketches vivid portraits of her parents, it is singularly uncommunicative about the author herself. Her fairness toward those who caused her suffering is admirable, but a spirited apologia and a bit of justifiable human anger would be more revealing. In fact, Mead’s dispassionate recital of events that must have hurt her suggests a lifelong flight from personal feeling, and possibly even from people. One of the book’s more revealing passages may be the one in which Mead describes her attic office at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History: “It was the kind of room I had always chosen in each house we lived in. Among other advantages, there were two stairways leading up to the tower. This meant that one could creep down one stairway while someone whom one did not want to meet was coming up the other.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com