Picks and Pans Review: With a Daughter's Eye

updated 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mary Catherine Bateson

In 1925, when she was just 23, anthropologist Margaret Mead traveled to the South Seas to study an exotic, little-known island culture. Her enormously successful account of what she found, Coming of Age in Samoa, startled America with tales of teenage sexuality and made Mead an instant celebrity. For the next 50 years, until her death from cancer in 1978, Mead's views on love, marriage and child rearing made headlines. As Howard shows in her sensitive, beautifully crafted biography (Simon & Schuster, $19.95), Mead loved center stage as much as fieldwork. She also relished companionship. Mead collected "a new friend of importance every two or three months, without ever losing any of the old ones," Howard writes. "A big part of her genius," the author adds, was "connecting the otherwise unconnected." Another part of her genius was polishing her legend. Her androgyny—she struck one observer as "the perfect gentleman" and another as "a tender, sensitive, feminine person"—gave her a godlike neutrality in commenting on the sex life of the world. Privately, Mead was as lusty as a Samoan adolescent. "She had affairs with both men and women—though never with two men or two women at the same time," one of Mead's friends told Howard. Oddly, Howard fails to discuss Mead's enduring sexual relationship with Ruth Benedict, Mead's mentor and the era's other leading female anthropologist. Their affair, which lasted throughout Mead's three marriages, is only hinted at in the book, and its implications for both Mead's and Benedict's work are not discussed at all. This lesbian love, however, is the centerpiece of With a Daughter's Eye (Morrow, $15.95), a lyrical, gently critical memoir by Mary Catherine Bateson, Mead's daughter by English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. When she learned of the Benedict affair after her mother's death, Bateson felt deeply deceived. Yet, she accepts Mead's bisexuality as part of her complexity and independence. "Sometimes...I want simply to laugh aloud at Margaret's refusal of all forced choices," Bateson, herself an anthropologist, writes. "Her besetting sin was her greed for more and richer experience." Mead paid a price for this insatiability. In her rush for new adventures, some anthropologists now contend, her research was incomplete and sloppy. Still, as Howard writes, "in a world where many are famous for no special good reason or for dubious deeds, Margaret Mead, for all her nearly seventy-seven years, not only attracted but deserved the attention of the public. Lord knows she meant well. And she did well too."

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