Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead
The startling coming-of-age story of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead whose radical ideas challenged the social and sexual norms of her time.
The story begins in 1923, when twenty-two year old Margaret Mead is living in New York City, engaged to her childhood sweetheart and on the verge of graduating from college. Seemingly a conventional young lady, she marries, but shocks friends when she decides to keep her maiden name. After starting graduate school at Columbia University, she does the unthinkable: she first enters into a forbidden relationship with a female colleague, then gets caught up in an all-consuming and secret affair with a brilliant older man. As her sexual awakening continues, she discovers it is possible to be in love with more than one person at the same time.
While Margaret's personal explorations are just beginning, her interest in distant cultures propels her into the new field of anthropology. Ignoring the constraints put on women, she travels alone to a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific called Samoa to study the sexual behavior of adolescent girls. Returning home on an ocean liner nine months later, a chance encounter changes the course of her life forever.
Now, drawing on letters, diaries, and memoirs, Deborah Beatriz Blum reconstructs these five transformative years of Margaret's life, before she became famous, revealing the story that Margaret Mead hid from the world - during her lifetime and beyond.
1. Tell us about Margaret Mead; why did she make history?
It’s always funny to be asked to explain Margaret Mead and what she did, because for years — in fact for most of the Twentieth Century— she was one of the most well known women in this country, a true American icon. So legendary, in fact, that in 1999, when the US Postal service made a series of stamps to commemorate each decade, her image, along with those of Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh, was chosen to represent the 1920s. Even today, when her name is not familiar, her quotes remain profoundly relevant: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And in the Library of Congress, the Margaret Mead Papers is the largest collection assembled around any one single individual.
So how did she get there? Born in 1901, at the end of the Victorian era, she was raised in a world in which women had few opportunities. She, like other young ladies, was expected to marry early and was not encouraged to pursue any kind of work outside the home. Margaret upended all of that. To sum her up I’d say that Margaret Mead was a firecracker. She challenged the social and sexual constraints that kept women in their place, giving them permission to express themselves in ways that had never before existed. It’s fair to say that without her, the revolutions of the 1960s — including women’s liberation and free sex — would never have happened. She did all of this by being, of all things, an anthropologist. It's remarkable really, when you think about the changes she was able to bring about.
2. Tell us a little about Mead as a passionate young woman discovering her own sexuality. How you think it effected what she chose to study?
The story picks up at the point in Margaret’s life when she was living in New York City, on the verge of wedding her childhood sweetheart, and about to start graduate school in anthropology at Columbia University. She soon found out that while married life provided security, it was lacking in passion. When she was unexpectedly caught up in an affair with a brilliant older man, and then in a forbidden relationship with a female colleague, she began to question the concept of monogamy.
She also started to test limits in her professional life.
As a graduate student in anthropology she was expected to do fieldwork with a Native American tribe somewhere in the continental United States. Over the objections of friends, family and colleagues, she insisted on going to Polynesia. In August of 1925, she traveled 9000 miles, first by train and then by ocean liner, to a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific called Samoa. Once there she set to work to investigate the way adolescent girls in a “primitive culture” differed from their counterparts back in America. The subject coincides with issues she had been wrestling with in her own life, namely — why can’t men and women experiment with sex before marriage?
Then a chance encounter on the ocean liner bringing her home added to the tumult in her personal life. Yet that encounter, with all of the confusing and ecstatic emotions it unleashed, built on her own sexual awakening, and positioned her to write Coming of Age in Samoa, a compelling account about young love. Although ostensibly about intimate relationships in the South Seas, it was replete with meaning for the Western world, too. The book catapulted her into world fame.
3. Why did you choose Margaret Mead as a topic?
My interest in Margaret Mead began with my own chance encounter in the 1970s. At the time, Mead was in her early seventies and world famous, I was a recent college grad, working as a receptionist at a small publishing company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Late one afternoon, while I was sitting at the switchboard and counting the minutes until closing time, I heard a noise in the foyer. Looking down the hall I saw an old woman struggling to get out of a heavy overcoat. Her hair was mousy gray, her shape squat and dumpy. Surprisingly, her mere presence was causing a commotion among the men. I asked a co-worker to tell me who she was. With great reverence she whispered, “That’s Margaret Mead.”
I’d never seen men behave that way around a woman who wasn’t beautiful. What gave this old woman so much power? Without my realizing it, a seed had been planted. I began to read about her, starting with her memoir. The ideas she floated had to do with finding one’s own unique path in the world and having the confidence to assert oneself. This resonated - it was the way I wanted to live my own life.
4. You indicate that Margaret Mead kept the personal details of her life secret, during her lifetime and beyond. What was she hiding and how did you uncover her secrets?
As a young woman, Margaret came to believe that she was incapable of maintaining “a single hearted devotion.” She questioned why love and intimacy need be limited to one person at a time, or, for that matter, limited to the opposite sex. She gave herself permission to live outside the norms of accepted society. For the time in which she lived, her behavior was extremely radical, if not downright taboo. But she was, at the same time, anxious to safeguard her reputation. She knew if the details of her forbidden affairs ever came to light her career would be ruined. Her secrets were not laid bare until 2009, many years after her death, when her letters entered the public domain. I was able to make digital copies of hundreds of these letters and study them. They provided a window into her mind during her formative years.
5. Thinking of all the bookclub readers who are reading this interview, would you put together your ideal bookclub– made up of authors –who you would pick to meet with to discuss your book. And what would you expect them to ask you?
My main mentor as a writer – my father, Edwin Blum (he co-wrote Stalag 17 with Billy Wilder) used to say that all writing is just thinking. It took me a long time to understand this. And now, believing this to be the case, I would be thrilled to be in a room with some of my favorite writers who I know to be great thinkers.
For me, when I take on a book project, the story is everything. That being the case I’d love to discuss the process of finding the story in a real-life situation and using letters and memoirs to get inside the heads of the actual participants, the way that two masters of narrative non-fiction do, namely Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts) and David Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon).
It would also be fascinating to have some historians of women’s history in the room, like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Gloria Steinem, who would help us focus on the role Margaret Mead played in changing the consciousness of American women, and men.
And finally, because I make an effort to construct my non-fiction books so they read like novels, I’d like to hear from authors Lily King (who fictionalized a later episode in Margaret Mead’s life in Euphoria), and Paula McClain (who fictionalized Hemmingway’s first marriage in Paris Wife) to explain how they straddled the line the novel and non-fiction.
Short of these writers joining me, I have to say that I would be equally thrilled to drop into a random book club, somewhere in another part of country, with people I’ve never met. We could tackle the same questions and have just as good a time.