Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond.

3498 words

Was Derek Freeman “mad”?

28 January 2018

Review essay | The controversial critic of anthropologist Margaret Mead was a man driven to extremes


Breaking a butterfly upon a wheel: anthropologist Derek Freeman. From the cover of Truth’s Fool.

Breaking a butterfly upon a wheel: anthropologist Derek Freeman. From the cover of Truth’s Fool.

Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology
Peter Hempenstall | University of Wisconsin Press | US$34.95 | 336 pages

In 1981, when I was writing my doctoral thesis at ANU’s Research School of Pacific Studies and he was professor emeritus in anthropology, Derek Freeman and I often arrived at our offices before any other staff or students. We would chat briefly, almost invariably about Freeman’s forthcoming book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. So convinced was he that it would transform anthropology and demolish Mead’s reputation as a serious scholar of Samoan life that he sometimes became euphoric. At seven o’clock in the morning, as I was struggling to get my brain into gear, his enthusiasm for his subject and the gusto with which he expressed himself were sometimes alarming. I often had the feeling that he was trying to intimidate me.

In a new book about Freeman, Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology, Peter Hempenstall uses what he calls “a biographer’s perspective and historians’ tools” in order to “excavate the muddy waters of the Freeman–Mead debates.” But any attempt at excavating waters, muddy or clear, is probably doomed by their tendency to rush back in and find their own level. In spite of Hempenstall’s sympathetic efforts, the murk surrounding Freeman’s critical appraisals of Mead’s Samoan work remains. But his book does trace the anthropologist’s trajectory, ambitions, achievements and struggles — both personal and academic — carefully and with intellectual generosity.

John Derek Freeman was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1916. The favoured child of a domineering, fiercely Presbyterian mother, he was talented and ambitious. After graduating from teacher training in 1934, he studied psychology and philosophy at Victoria University College, though he didn’t complete his degree. He was involved in radical student politics, having been galvanised, like many of his contemporaries, by the anti-fascism of Franco’s opponents in the Spanish civil war. Apparently an accomplished primary school teacher, he took up a teaching position in Samoa in 1940. His experiences in a village there stirred an interest in anthropology that had already been piqued by Ernest Beaglehole’s seminars at Wellington. Nevertheless, as Hempenstall shows, Freeman’s move into anthropological study was circuitous.

Initially a pacifist, he enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After he joined the NZ navy in 1943, he was stationed at an officers’ training school at Plymouth in England; from there, he travelled regularly to London, attending seminars in anthropology. After the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 he was on the ship sent to Borneo to accept the Japanese surrender. This was his first encounter with Iban people, who would become his major subject.

After his demobilisation, Freeman decided to pursue an academic career. Raymond Firth, who was professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, engineered his admission to postgraduate studies despite his having no degree. During his Plymouth sojourn Freeman had become friends with Edmund Leach and Meyer Fortes, both of whom would become professors at Cambridge. Leach was influential in Freeman’s decision to focus his doctoral research on the Iban — not, as Hempenstall writes, because he had undertaken fieldwork for his own PhD there (Leach’s thesis was on Highland Burma) but because he had surveyed tribal communities in Sarawak after the war for the Colonial Social Science Research Council. The Iban Dayaks were one of the tribes Leach suggested.

Freeman’s PhD thesis and his numerous articles on Iban society and culture established his reputation as a meticulous fieldworker and a major figure in Borneo studies. His detailed report on Iban agriculture remains a classic text, testimony to his painstaking anthropological fieldwork, and Borneo scholars generally hold him in high regard. But he was already jealous of his reputation and Hempenstall records that he “engaged in trench warfare against those who would usurp his authority in Iban studies.” He continued to publish on Borneo and undertook further fieldwork there in the mid 1970s. He had in mind to write the definitive study of Iban religion, but this project never eventuated. Given his dedication to writing works that would introduce new paradigms and theoretical transformations — and so generate a “Big Idea” — and his punctiliousness about amassing information before embarking on an analysis, his failure to publish was predictable. It was a recurring theme in his career.

As the title of Hempenstall’s book indicates, Freeman’s notoriety within the discipline now rests mainly on his attack on Margaret Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa. Freeman’s book was published in 1983, after Mead’s death, timing that incurred much criticism from her defenders. Hempenstall defends the delay, citing Freeman’s perfectionism and the intervention of administrative responsibilities during the 1970s. (Freeman claimed that he had been accumulating material on Mead for many years.) Margaret Mead and Samoa generated a vast number of critical responses from anthropologists. It also attracted considerable media coverage, particularly in the United States where Mead’s fame as a public intellectual ensured that a denunciation of this kind would attract wide attention. Later, Freeman’s view was given sympathetic treatment by David Williamson in his 1996 play Heretic.

Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, was based on Mead’s first ethnographic fieldwork, conducted when she was twenty-four years old. Written for a popular audience, it presented an argument about human plasticity during adolescence. She maintained that Samoans did not experience the vicissitudes associated with adolescence in America and attributed this difference to their permissive attitudes to sexuality and their expression in adolescent sexual relationships. Assuming that puberty and the biological changes it brought were the same for all humans, she argued that culture, rather than biology, was the factor that accounted for cross-cultural variation in human behaviour.

By the 1970s Derek Freeman had become highly critical of anthropologists who stressed culture and childhood socialisation (another of Mead’s interests) as the forces determining social conduct and moral values. Influenced by the ethological research of biologists such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, he believed that biological factors were the primary determinants of behaviour — that nature rather than nurture should be the primary subject of study by anthropologists. He wanted to establish an ethological laboratory at the Australian National University for this purpose.

As Freeman himself declared, he did not discount culture as a factor in human behaviour. Most of his ethnographic writing falls squarely into the sociocultural field. But he had become entranced by the idea that much human behaviour was best explained biologically. The final section of his book about Mead sketches his ideas about how anthropology should combine biological or ethological research with detailed analysis of specific cultures. This was his Big Idea, but it was not novel. Most anthropologists premised their examinations of culture on the assumed biological similarities of human populations, and indeed criticised racism from this standpoint. In this vein, Mead’s other postwar works stressed her ideal of peaceful coexistence. Freeman’s contention that all American anthropology reflected a belief in “cultural determinism” was a straw man.

Much of Freeman’s critique of Mead focused on her presentation of material about Samoan society and adolescent behaviour that directly contradicted prevailing views of adolescence in America. Freeman regarded her account of Samoan sexual activities as a slur on Samoans’ morality and, given his proprietorial attitude to the people he lived with, deeply offensive. He countered her findings with material from his own research. As many reviewers pointed out, Freeman’s Samoan adolescents inhabited a rather Hobbesian world full of violence, stress, strict moral codes and punishment — devoid of the relaxed, liberal attitudes that Mead had described. Hempenstall appears to accept Freeman’s characterisation of American anthropologists as “absolute cultural determinists” and to discount many of their arguments against Freeman. He calls them his subject’s “enemies.” While he acknowledges one critic, Paul Shankman, to be “sober-minded…, patient and well-versed in Samoa’s cultural history resources” and concedes that he “breached Freeman’s defences” on the subject of ceremonial virginity, he is still eager to defend Freeman’s arguments as having “a consistent moral compass,” as if that somehow removes them from shaky ground.

Freeman was delighted in 1987 when, during the making of a film on the controversy, an octogenarian Samoan woman claimed that she was Mead’s informant and that she had been joking when she spoke with her about secret nocturnal trysts with boys. He believed this was the clinching piece of evidence and that, after the bruising encounters with Mead’s defenders, he would finally emerge victorious. He published another book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, in 1999, which summarised the debate from his viewpoint and used the interviews with the Samoan woman to suggest that Mead’s representation of Samoan adolescence was simply the result of a hoax. Shankman’s research exposed the flaws in Freeman’s use of this material, revealing that the woman had spent only one day with Mead and that Freeman had been extremely selective and inconsistent in his use of interview material. The anthropological community generally accepted Shankman’s research and his conclusion that Freeman had failed utterly to prove that Mead had been hoaxed.

Freeman was a Popperian, dedicated to the notion of anthropology as a “true science” that should proceed from hypothesis to testing, subjecting findings to rigorous scrutiny through processes of empirical falsification. But while Karl Popper himself held that all truth was provisional and that the scientific method meant that any finding must be open to falsification, Freeman was convinced he had found the truth about Samoan adolescence. He was a dogmatist rather than a sceptic, utterly confident that his methodology and his findings were uniformly unassailable. In placing so much emphasis on the testimony of one elderly woman, his zeal for “truth” was exposed as merely the stubborn desire to win the argument.

“Freeman inhabited a strong moral universe,” Hempenstall observes. In practice, this meant he was extremely judgemental of others and quick to express outrage over events or behaviour that he considered immoral. He was especially upset by sexual behaviour that he considered reprehensible. I recall vividly his astonishment and horror when he discovered that Margaret Mead had been bisexual. Mead’s published autobiographical material about her relationship with Ruth Benedict had given clues to its sexual nature, which was known by many people in the anthropological community, but it had apparently escaped his notice until 1981. He accosted me one morning, asking in an almost accusatory tone whether I was aware that Mead was a “sexual deviant.”

Hempenstall’s coverage of Freeman’s intellectual development, scholarship and controversial attack on Mead is clear and consistent, but in his discussion of the other notorious aspect of Freeman’s life — his sanity — he enters trickier territory. Hempenstall is at pains to clear Freeman of the accusation of “madness” that was often levelled at him, yet he describes numerous instances where Freeman’s mental state was clearly abnormal and his behaviour bizarre.

Freeman was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder in 1974 and was treated for a short period with lithium. He abandoned the treatment because it interfered with his mental acuity. His diaries over a twenty-year period reveal a “constant struggle for mental equilibrium,” according to Hempenstall. As Freeman wrote, “I have no doubt that I am an individual prone to manic-depressive affective reactions.” He had at least three well-documented manic, delusional events in his life.

The first case, mentioned by Hempenstall, occurred in Sarawak in 1961 and involved Tom Harrisson, curator of the Kuching Museum, of whom Freeman was highly critical. Freeman, horrified by a display of Dayak carvings that he judged to be obscene, pornographic and “fake,” went to the museum, took photographs of the items he found offensive and smashed one of them. The carvings were copies of the originals made by Dayak craftsmen whom Michael Heppell, an authority on the art and material culture of the region, describes as “superb” craftsmen.

Hempenstall suggests that stories about Freeman cutting the penises off carvings is an exaggeration and maintains that only one museum statue was broken. But other sources attest to his penis-lopping in the home of his mortal enemy Tom Harrisson. Heppell writes:

My first source of what happened is Alastair Morrison who lived next door in Pig Lane and a number of people working in the Museum had the same view. Derek went to Pig Lane and Harrisson’s house to confront him and he was not there. He let himself in (no one locked their doors then), confronted the servant and then grabbed a (no doubt hair tufted) handy machete and cut off the penises of a few of the statues. So the story went, he must have swept them up into a tidy heap as that was how they were when people entered the house (the servant of course was not interviewed about such detail). By this time a police patrol had arrived — all Iban. They were on the street when Derek exited. He hailed them in Iban telling them that he was one of the Iban Immortals from Panggau and that he was heading back to town. The Iban police simply let him go.

Freeman was convinced that Harrisson was a psychopath, writes Hempenstall, and that the statues were “exercising a degree of mind control that [was] inspiring a local cult, in cahoots with Soviet Russia, to undermine the Sarawak government.” He flew to Singapore, then to Karachi, intending to proceed to England and encourage authorities to have Harrisson removed. The High Commissioner in Karachi had him examined by a psychiatrist and then contacted the Australian National University. His head of department travelled from Australia to collect him and accompany him home.

Hempenstall maintains that his account rests on two independent sources, Judith Heimann and Hiram Caton, but in fact both of these authors relied almost entirely on Freeman’s version of events. For Freeman, this episode was the first of his great intellectual transformations. He experienced a “cognitive abreaction: a sudden and deep realisation of the inadequacy of the assumptions of contemporary anthropology.”

The second “emotional and psychological crisis” occurred in Melbourne in 1965 after he delivered a paper offering a critique of Freud’s Totem and Taboo at a conference of psychoanalysts. He was admitted to hospital and given electric shock treatment and tranquillised. Another “abreaction” came in 1967 when he had a delusory, manic episode in Samoa; on that occasion he was inspired to embark on his attack on Margaret Mead’s ethnography. He appeared to think that a thorough refutation of Mead’s first book would usher in a new paradigm for anthropological inquiry. For most anthropologists, the task he set himself was simply “breaking a butterfly upon a wheel.”

Hempenstall recounts so many instances of abnormal behaviour, florid emotional reactions and extreme responses to people and objects that offended Freeman’s moral sensibilities that his constant insistence on Freeman’s sanity seems to fly in the face of his own evidence. He appears to think that the episodic nature of Freeman’s “breakdowns” is proof that he was not “mad.” He discounts the labelling of abnormal conditions as pathological, invoking Foucault to bolster his objections.

But when colleagues and others called Derek “mad,” they were using the term colloquially rather than offering a psychiatric diagnosis. While rumours occasionally circulated that Derek was in need of psychiatric treatment, people used “mad” to describe his strange, extreme, often anti-social behaviour. “Mad” is no longer a clinical term, but it is certainly pejorative — and Freeman invited hostile responses.

Freeman was also a prude. Two of his “abreactive” episodes were provoked by representations of sexual activities by “his people.” He believed that he was correcting slurs and insults aimed at the Iban and the Samoans. He was also definitely more than “eccentric” when he attributed agency to objects. The NZ historian Keith Sinclair, who shared a cabin with him on a naval voyage from New Zealand to Melbourne in 1944, once described him to me as “barking mad.” He recounted how Derek gave sanctimonious lectures to sailors on the perils of extramarital sex and had a collection of rounded stones that he polished regularly and thought gave him protection. (His use of various talismanic objects appears in Hempenstall’s account at several points.) He attributed evil emanations to the Dayak carvings he destroyed and also, much later, when he objected to an Aztec calendar stone displayed at the university. For someone who maintained that he dealt only in scientific truth, he was remarkably superstitious.

In his day-to-day life, Freeman’s behaviour towards his students and colleagues was often unnecessarily combative. He could never drop an argument or agree to differ. He appeared to revel in his belligerent pursuit of any opponent, however trivial the dispute. According to Hempenstall, he was well aware that his responses to people were extreme and he strove to restrain his florid emotional reactions. This self-awareness was not apparent in any of the adversarial interactions that I witnessed. Indeed, the main reason many thought him “mad” was because he appeared unable to control his emotions and would insist on winning every argument.

He was also a misogynist. Hempenstall alludes to his bad treatment of his wife Monica (as does a scene in Williamson’s play) but ignores his attitude towards women in general. He treated visiting female scholars, colleagues and graduate students appallingly, ostentatiously scribbling notes, reading the newspaper, groaning, rolling his eyes and shaking his head as if he could not believe what he was hearing — all of it designed to unnerve any woman giving a seminar paper. His questions were invariably hostile or dismissive. He publicly bullied and verbally abused Dr Marie Reay, the only senior woman in the department. He once threw several draft chapters of a graduate student’s thesis on the floor and declared that he would have her scholarship withdrawn. Like many of his students, she changed supervisors and successfully completed her thesis.

If ever a woman challenged him, his reactions were so extreme as to appear deranged. I recall vividly one seminar in which he was insisting that all Samoan women were chaste before marriage and that this was undeniable because of the practice of digital defloration and the inevitable bleeding that occurred. He began waving an open book that had an illustration of this, as if this clinched his argument. Diane Bell, then a graduate student, expressed scepticism that all Samoan women would be equipped with hymens that would bleed copiously. When he insisted that this was the case, she asked, “Are you suggesting that Samoan women are pre-adapted for this practice?” Aware that she was not only sceptical of his claims but was mildly ridiculing his biologism, he became incandescent with rage. Bell stood her ground and made him appear silly. For days afterwards he would harangue unwilling listeners with tirades against “that woman.”

On the morning following this seminar he came into my office and began pacing up and down, repeating his claims about “scientific methods” and “incontrovertible evidence.” When I protested that asking the parents of young women about their daughters’ virginity was unlikely to produce reliable evidence, and that any other “scientific” evidence would be impossible to obtain, he began denouncing me as a “cultural determinist.” I sat at my desk, trying to keep calm, but actually rather frightened that he might hit me, such was his anger. Then he suddenly switched tack. He knew that I had worked for Edmund Leach as librarian and research assistant for six years and began upbraiding me for falling under his “malign structuralist influence.” He then began to speak in more measured tones, explaining his critique of structuralism, almost as if he was unaware of the extraordinary rage that he had vented minutes before. He left my office with a cheery farewell.

Freeman’s erratic outbursts, his apparent inability to see his bullying behaviour as professionally inappropriate and distressing to his victims, his insistence that he invariably had intellectual grounds for attacking people — all these contributed to the widely held view that he was mentally unbalanced. Yet complaints to the head of department were usually dismissed with condescending mollification — “That’s just Derek” — and his “madness” was used by male colleagues to excuse and justify his behaviour.

Peter Hempenstall has written an apologia for his difficult subject. It is to his credit that he discusses the behaviour that earned Freeman his reputation for “madness,” but his attempts to disprove the facts of his mental state dominate the biography in ways that undermine his claims for Freeman’s scholarly legacy. Freeman never produced a work that set out his Big Idea about the relationship between biology and sociocultural anthropology. His behaviour in academic roles as a postgraduate supervisor and departmental head was often disruptive and counterproductive. Hempenstall appears to consider the lack of acknowledgement in the official Australian National University history a slight. I suspect it was because Derek Freeman had become too much of an embarrassment. •

Read next

1019 words

How the Show went on

Books | A former communist and a former Catholic activist combine forces to cast new light on the organisation that helped fuel the Labor split


Opaque: Catholic lawyer B.A. Santamaria with the archbishop of Adelaide, Matthew Beovich, at a Catholic Action rally in 1943. Wikimedia

Opaque: Catholic lawyer B.A. Santamaria with the archbishop of Adelaide, Matthew Beovich, at a Catholic Action rally in 1943. Wikimedia