The Disappearance of Margaret Mead

The Disappearance of Margaret Mead
Mead in 1923

American Anthropologist Margaret Mead went through a similar evolution to Christie but there’s more sex, more anthropology and less mystery. Born in 1901 she married her first husband (there were three) in 1923 after a lengthy engagement. It was all over by 1927 and the divorce was finalized in 1928 just as it was for the Christies. What happened in between?


Mead went to American Samoa in mid-1925, to do the field work that would become Coming of Age in Samoa (published 1928), the book that would make her famous. Her husband stayed in the US. In her last letter before departing, she wrote: "I'll not leave you unless I find someone I love more." She stayed in Samoa through mid-1926 and on her return she told her husband, "Well, I met someone aboard ship I love very much and I want to marry him."

This became the basis for Mead’s critics to argue that her book “which allegedly established the naturalness of casual sex, was a work of fraud and fiction, merely a projection of Mead's own sexual beliefs,” as one critic put it. But critics divided into whether Mead was hoaxed by the Samoans or whether she willingly entered into the hoax to suit her own goals, which amounted to a personal and political manifesto of sexual liberation, ostensibly about Samoa, but really directed at the Puritan United States. It’s the latter view that puts her on a par with Agatha Christie as a poison pen letter writer. Autobiography concealed as anthropology.

I would add that I think the criticisms are wrong, even ridiculous, but Mead’s interest in gender-bending and subverting stereotypical social roles shocked a lot of American conservatives. More interesting for modern readers is her evident bisexuality and her own attraction to the teenage Samoan girls she was researching, and her own Puritan side in how she came to terms with it, not whether she made stuff up.

Samoan girls, circa 1902