Saturday, March 19, 2016

Intertwined Lives. Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. By Lois Banner.

Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were two of the most important influences on anthropology during their lifetimes. Many know of Mead’s popular writings in this subject area, particularly her Coming of Age in Samoa. She had an important impact on the US populations views during a time when news agencies and popular magazines went to experts for opinions on events and phenomena, rather than using a now more prevalent “man-on-the-street” approach to reporting. Fewer people are familiar with Ruth Benedict, who has been recognized by most academics as the successor of Franz Boas (founder of modern US anthropology), and the first woman president of the American Anthropological Association. The fact that the careers of these two women began before women had the vote, during a time when many of their colleagues thought of women as mentally inferior to men, is a testament to their determination and ability.

The relationship between these two women is fascinating for their individual brilliance, as well as their intellectual influence on each other. Banner spends a great deal of time discussing how they communicated around their ideas and edited each other’s work. In addition, the author discusses the people, (friends and foes), who surrounded these two women as part of the social circle of international anthropology. The depiction of this circle provides a rich portrait of an expanding field of human exploration and the personalities that molded it.

Prior to Intertwined Lives, there was some controversy concerning whether or not Mead and Benedict had a sexual relationship. While there are still some deniers, Banner’s study is “the first biographical account of the lives of these two women to draw on all their papers.” This author had access to love letters that previous generations of researchers did not. Large portions of their private writing had been “restricted until their close friends and associates had died,” which is a standard practice. (Banner, p. ix). Professor Banner quotes passages of letters like this where Benedict writes “How little the lovemaking solved in our feeling for each other,” which clearly show a sexual component to the relationship. (Banner, p. 272). While the author discusses Mead and Benedict’s five year sexual relationship, she does not present it as the central feature of their bond. It is one element which occurred early in a deep friendship that spanned 24 years, involving a great deal of personal support and impelling mutual scholarly influence.

At times, Banner is too psychoanalytical. She states that Benedict “felt peaceful with Margaret, who rested her “like a padded chair and a fireplace.” Our biographer adds “that image suggests domestic tranquility, but it also suggests domination, for it was fathers who sat in armchairs in front of fireplaces.” (Banner, p. 185). Benedict’s feeling of tranquility is clear. Banner injects her own Freudian gloss which has questionable merit. This over-analysis is not limited to the relationship between the two subjects. Professor Banner later describes a painting in the childhood home of Margaret’s second husband, Gregory Bateson; a watercolor by Blake that shows Eve with the Serpent and Satan: “being an angel, Satan has no genitals of his own. Did Gregory think of himself as a devil with women, as an ambiguous male who was both powerless and all-powerful?” (Banner, p. 346). Okay, Bateson did dream about this watercolor for years, but it would have been a disturbing, memorable image in any child’s home. The author’s interpretation is a reach. Freudian psychoanalysis was a fashion during the lives of these scientists. They spent many hours and letters discussing the psyche with intricate fabrication. But we do not have to. The factual information is enough.

Anyone expecting these independent female leaders in anthropology to have 21st Century notions concerning women or LGBT people, are in for a disappointment. While neither viewed being lesbian or gay as harmful to society, they both saw this characteristic as abnormal. “In Mead’s cultural scheme, homosexuals are more maladjusted than heterosexuals” because they have given-up “the drive to procreate.” (Banner, p. 356). Benedict saw “homosexuality…as an abnormality shaped by society.” (Banner, p. 274). There were a few individuals who thought that being LGB or T was equal in health to heterosexuality (Magnus Hirschfeld in the 1890s comes to mind), but they were a tiny minority. Mead’s views on women deserve special attention for their controversial nature. While “feminists of the 1970s…claim her as their forerunner,” Betty Friedan “identified her as the architect of the back-to-the-home movement of the 1950s.” (Banner, p. 364). Banner, herself a professor of History, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, reports both the progressive and regressive opinions of her two anthropologists with the forgiving equanimity of a historian who understands that we are all a product of our times and cultures.

As a responsible biographer, Lois Banner has marshaled a voluminous quantity of material by and about her subjects. It is undoubtedly more demanding to create a dual biography, rather than focusing on one individual, but the rewards are also great. In addition to creating a unique record of a relationship, revealing the immense intellectual spark that they collectively produced, there is the value of comparative research. In the author’s own words, “Benedict and Mead both believed that the comparative anthropology of several societies offered insights into all of them; similarly, comparing the biographies of two individuals can shed light on each of them.” (Banner, p. 11). Banner shares this complexity of information with an elegant style as fluid as conversation, intertwining their stories as these two women intertwined their lives.


Banner, Lois W. Intertwined Lives. Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.