‘Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology’ by Peter Hempenstall

Peter HempenstallTruth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology. xiv +321pp., 17 illus., 2 maps, bibl., index. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.

Peter Hempenstall’s Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology offers a fresh and thoroughly researched biography of the controversial anthropologist Derek Freeman. The book is built around Freeman’s infamous criticism of Margaret Mead’s first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, and the ensuing acrimony within the discipline. An admirer of Mead’s work, Freeman travelled to Samoa to do his own research, attempting in the process to find Mead’s original informants and reproduce her research on adolescent sexuality. In the early 1980s, he began to argue that her conclusions on adolescence were mistaken, and that she had been hoaxed by mischievous young informants. Attacking Freeman, Mead, and one another, anthropologists around the world took sides that reproduced a kind of nature-nurture debate on human development and teenaged identity crises with supporters of Mead on the side of nurture and those backing Freeman on the side of nature. The furor did not subside until after Freeman’s death in 2001. This dispute, still a sensitive subject for many anthropologists, acts as Hempenstall’s focal point, but Truth’s Fool goes well beyond it. In fact, in the beginning, Hempenstall advises his readers to remember that “the Mead thing” (7) is only one particular way of understanding Freeman’s life and work. I recommend this book as a compelling story for anyone interested in the history of anthropology as a discipline, as well as those trying to grasp the fallout of Freeman’s work and the heated response to it. As an outsider to anthropology but an insider to Australian academia, Hempenstall gives us a new perspective into this period of anthropological debate.

The book is divided into two sections: “A Heretical Life” and “The Mead Thing,” bookended by an introduction and conclusion. The first section takes us from Freeman’s childhood to his later years. Of course, the specter of “the Mead thing” is always there, but it lurks in the shadows for these eight chapters. Instead, Hempenstall tells us about the boy Derek growing into a man, how he meets his wife and pursues his intellectual career.

Hempenstall lays out his sources in intricate detail. He weaves them into his narrative, documenting where he gets each bit of information—not just the source, but which archive he found it in or who led him to it. He also notes which materials he didn’t have access to, primarily large portions of Freeman’s personal diaries. While the author keeps himself deftly and appropriately in the background, he lets drop at one point that he worked in the same hallway as Freeman but was too afraid to go talk to him. Freeman had a harsh reputation.

In relaying the story of Freeman’s life, Hempenstall isn’t only telling an interesting story, although it certainly is that. He is crafting a character, rebuilding Freeman into a full-fledged human being in contrast to the near-caricature that the man has become for some. While refusing to paint Freeman as gentler, kinder, or less rigid than he was, Hempenstall shows us his activism for Aborigine rights, his tenderness for his wife, and his heartfelt commitment to scholarly truth. Importantly, Hempenstall tells us exactly when Freeman first mentions Mead’s work as a concern. Contrary to the popular mythology around the affair, which would have Freeman on a vendetta against Mead from his first forays into anthropology, he only became interested in “correcting” her much later.

Rumors of Freeman’s “madness” abound in the lore. Hempenstall treats this subject with the care and caution it deserves. He is empathetic and does not overstep in his claims about Freeman’s mental state at any given time. Just as he hasn’t set out to settle the argument about whether Freeman or Mead is right about Samoa, he leaves the question of Freeman’s so-called madness open. It is not for him (or for us, one might read between the lines) to play guessing games about this subject. So rather than even suggest, Hempenstall only writes about what can be documented. Freeman was diagnosed as bipolar at one point, but calling that “madness” and dismissing Freeman’s meticulous and acclaimed anthropological work because of it is both unfair and unethical, according to Hempenstall.

Another valuable aspect of this book is the way that it discusses how Freeman’s anthropological work has been taken up, or not, as the case may be. While Hempenstall stays out of anthropology’s theoretical debates, anthropologists might find this book helpful to understand what kind of work Freeman actually did and what he was trying to accomplish. Although his ideas may have been problematic, they were deeply thought and not unworthy of discussion within the discipline. In Hempenstall’s telling, the biggest problem was Freeman’s abrasive personality and often domineering style, not his intelligence or his ability to engage with anthropology.

This book makes for a suspenseful read, especially for younger scholars like myself who didn’t live through the worst years of personal attacks all around. But it’s more than a good tale. With a few decades’ distance, we would do well to review those rancorous years through the eyes of a skilled historian, an outsider to the field, and a compassionate and lively writer. This book can help us learn about anthropology as practice and might make us question how we choose our loyalties, as well as how we defend those loyalties when pressed.

Marion Lougheed: contributions / / Department of Anthropology, York University

1 Comment

  1. This sensitive and generous review suggests: “With a few decades’ distance, we would do well to review those rancorous years through the eyes of a skilled historian, an outsider to the field, and a compassionate and lively writer.” And the book is, indeed, lively and well-researched—as far as Freeman’s life and work is concerned. But Hempenstall does not accord the same charity to Mead’s American defenders that he does to his countryman. Furthermore, Truth’s Fool suggests that it is not necessarily so good to be an outsider to the field when the issue involves profound knowledge of the work in the discipline.

    Prof. Lougheed writes that Hempenstall “hasn’t set out to settle the argument about whether Freeman or Mead is right about Samoa” but he firmly states his belief that American anthropologists reacted hysterically to protect the honor of the idol of their tribe. He repeatedly emphasizes Freeman’s belief that it was his mission to tell unpalatable truths to the world, like a Shakespearean fool. But such a belief does not guarantee that the fool actually possesses the truth. Hempenstall does not grant that his American opponents might also be seeking the truth rather than reflexively defending their compatriot. Truth’s Fool tells us a great deal about Derek Freeman but it does not contribute to the discussion of the issues involved in understanding Samoan culture as Margaret Mead found it in 1925. For this we should begin with Paul Shankman’s The Trashing of Margaret Mead.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.