The Dude Troll As Anthropologist: A Review of Peter Hempenstall’s “Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Cultural Anthropology”

The Dude Troll As Anthropologist: A Review of Peter Hempenstall’s “Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Cultural Anthropology”

The first time I read Coming of Age in Samoa was in my Intro to Anthro course. My teacher — and future mentor — was a social anthropologist and a social conservative of the Mary Douglas stripe. As we read the book she carefully pointed out passages where Mead seemed to contradict herself. Her impatience with the books was obvious, and at the end of the class she said “There, now you can say you’ve read something by Margaret Mead”. The message clear: Margaret Mead was an anthropologist that only non-anthropologists took seriously.

I didn’t know at the time that anthropology was in the middle of a major debate in which the kiwi anthropologist Derek Freeman set about trashing Margaret Mead’s reputation. Instead, I went on to graduate school to study cognatic kinship in Papua New Guinea. My next major encounter with the Mead-Freeman debate occured at UC San Diego, home of the world-famous Melanesian Archive. This was back in the day when if you wanted to read a book, you actually had to go to a library. My visit to the archive was incredibly important to me, since it was one of the few places in the world where I could access the historical and specialist literature on my topic.

So when I got taken out to coffee by Don Tuzin, professor who founded the archive, I wanted to make a good impression. And, I was told, this might not be easy: Don could be difficult. He was imposing, tall, and with eyebrows that seemed particularly intimidating  somehow. The topic of Derek Freeman came up and I said that I thought his article “On The Concept of the Kindred” was brilliant and one of the best things ever written on kinship — something I still think to this day. His face transformed. A wide smile broke out on it and suddenly, I was in. I had no idea at the time, but I was speaking with Freeman’s most loyal student — a man who was practically his hanai son. I spent just a little time with Don, but I remember his help and support warmly. I had, apparently, chosen Freeman in the Freeman-Mead debate.

I didn’t grow up a Meadian, then. Quite the contrary. Even the few people I knew who did study Mead, such as Lise Dobrin and Ira Bashkow, who did fieldwork in the same location as Mead, seemed far more impressed with Reo Fortune’s fieldwork than with Mead’s.

I was shocked to discover, then, how completely convinced I was by Paul Shankman’s superb volume The Trashing of Margaret Mead. The book carefully and patiently described the true value of Mead’s work and poked holes in Freeman’s critique. Even more, it provided a pretty authoritative account of Freeman’s own mental dysfunction, which literally involved him being removed from his field site in a straightjacket.

These days the Mead-Freeman controversy is ancient history, with Shankman’s 2009 volume serving as the official summary of the debate. Until now, that is. Peter Hempenstall’s new book, Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Cultural Anthroplogy is a new entry into this debate. The first full-length biography of Freeman, it also includes a long and careful walk through the bibliography of the debate.

The cover of Peter Hempenstaall's book "Truth's Fool"

There is a lot in Truth’s Fool to recommend it. For me, it brings a kind of closure. Don Tuzin had always planned to write a book like this, and did extensive research reading Freeman’s diaries and interviewing him and his family. But Don passed away with his biography unfinished in 2007. Reading this book, which is dedicated to Don and which draws so heavily on his research, I feel a chapter of history has finally been closed.

The book deserves accolades for other reasons. It is clearly and briskly written, never getting bogged down in details or lost in the minutae of contexts. It goes down easy — I finished it in a weekend. The research is very solid, based on a liftetime of exeperience as a Pacific historian and deep research, including interviews with people who knew Freeman.

Best of all, Truth’s Fool is an unabashedly partisan book which actively seeks to rehabilitate Freeman’s public reputation. This is not intellectual history: Freeman’s sanity and decency are, in fact, the central issue of the book while his ideas are secondary. Freeman and his opponents frickin’ loathed each other and their scholarly exchanges were radioactive. It’s therefore particularly impressive that Hempenstall takes a measured, judicious tone and carefully sifts fact from fiction, allegation from reality. When Freeman is in the wrong, Hempenstall says so. When Freeman’s opponents are mistaken, Hempenstall insists on this as well. We couldn’t ask for a more judicious approach to this most unjudicious debate.

Freeman has gotten the biographer he deserved, then. Or perhaps one even better than he deserved. I expected to come out of this book with a deeper appreciation for Derek Freeman. Instead, I came away with a deep appreciation for Peter Hempenstall. But in fact, reading the volume convinced me more than ever that Freeman was monster, and crawling around inside of his head for three hundred pages made my soul feel dirty. I do not exaggerate. I literally mean that.

So what is the image that we see of Freeman in this book?

At the center of Hempenstall’s book is the claim that it is wrong to call Freeman crazy. Accusations of mental illness, he says, are stigmatizing — an argument that many critical medical anthropologists will recognize. Freeman had an intense personality, Hempenstall suggests, and he had moments of ’emotional abreaction’ (as Freeman called them), but these were often fruitful and therapeutic, opening up new intellectual and emotional vistas for Freeman. To call him ‘mad’ relies on a hegemonic definition of normal, and a bright and clear boundary between sanity and insanity which probably does not exist.

And yet despite these caveats Hempenstall is too careful to be able to avoid saying that Freeman was a deeply disturbed individual. Consider, for instance, this passage:

“It is fair to argue that he experienced ‘mental health issues’ in the form of a bipolar condition that was clinically diagnosed, was medically treated, and may have waned. A milder form of mania may have been responsible for some of his responses… He also experienced several delusional episodes… Were these ‘psychotic’ episodes?… the answer is a qualified yes.”

Passages like this don’t exactly score points against Freeman’s opponents. In fact, I think Hempenstall makes a wrong move claiming that Freeman was merely eccentric rather than mentally ill. Freeman’s actions, recounted here in never-before-seen detail, seem profoundly disgusting me. Freeman emerges as someone capable only of hurting himself and the people around him. Hempenstall’s exculpatory account ends up being worse than Shankman’s portrayl of Freeman in Trashing. If Freeman was sane enough to take responsibility for his actions, then that makes him an even worse person than someone who was simply too mentally ill to be held to account.

Hempenstall also attempts to ameliorate perceptions of Freeman’s performance in the Mead debate, but here too he is less than successful. Hempenstall insists that Freeman was deeply injured by the negativity that got thrown at him in the debate, not a monster who honey badgered his way through. This is good to know, but it makes one wonder why Freeman would act in a way that would be so hurtful to himself, much less others. There is also a lot of tu quoque in the book, pointing out that Freeman was not the only bad actor in the debates. But of course this excuses no one.

Hempenstall’s biography gets down in the weeds — deep, deep in the weeds — of Freeman’s inner life. But it never undertakes the deep analysis of Freeman’s psyche which Freeman himself often did. The book is psychologically deep, but Hempenstall doesn’t really give a careful analysis of Freeman a go. For instance, Hempenstall laments the fact that Freeman’s campaign against Mead kept him from finishing his biocultural synthesis. But to me, this seemed to be the point of the Mead campaign.

Freeman imagined himself a master thinker with three monumental contributions to make to humanity: a biocultural synthesis, a definitive work on Sāmoa, and a definitive work on the Iban. If he tried and failed to write any of these books, or if they were not masterpieces, Freeman would have been forced to pay a tremendous psychic price. It was infinitely safer to be someone who could write them, but chose not to. Is it really surprising, therefore, that Freeman found a cause which kept him too busy to complete his life’s mission? I think not. The Mead campaign, the endless reading lists, the articles announcing (but not carrying out) a new research paradigm… did these not do the important work of keeping him from having to test whether he was a prometheus or, instead, just another academic?

Over time, Freeman developed a theory that Mead was not to be blamed for misunderstanding Sāmoa because she had been ‘hoaxed’ by her informants. It’s fascinating to speculate about the work this did for Freeman’s psyche. Whatever this claim’s truth, we should note that way it allowed Freeman to blame and persecute Mead without actually blaming and persecuting her — a move that enabled him to have his cake of domination and eat it too. And of course, as someone driven to perform bad actions by forces he could not control, it’s not hard to see how Freeman would project this structure of guilt and absolution on to Mead herself.

‘Domination’ is one of the key themes in Freeman’s life, and his diaries express an uncontrollable need to dominate others, combined with a profound sense of regret and disappointment that he cannot keep from hurting others. Hempenstall documents this at length. But I was surprised that gender recieves so little attention in the book. ‘Domination’ is mentioned, but never ‘masculinity’. This is surprising since, these days, Freeman seems the prototypical dude troll, straight out of the depths of some disturbing Reddit subthread or alt-right ‘men’s lives matter’ movement. Moreover, the psychodynamics of masculinity were a central focus of Don Tuzin’s work, such as his brilliant but troubling The Cassowary’s Revenge.

Indeed, while Hempenstall occasionally remarks on the difference between Freeman and Mead’s gender, I was hoping for a more detailed discussion of Freeman as a man, and particularly what masculinity meant to a kiwi of his age and social position. Freeman’s quoting of poetry seems to invoke to me a sort of Byronic self-understanding, one possibly tied to social class in places like Australia and New Zealand, where romantic intellectualism may have been looked down on as ‘pommy’ even as it instilled anxiety in other commonwealthers about their social position.

Shifting now to Freeman’s thought, I have to say that I was disappointed here as well. Darwin and Freud are the two great thinkers who shook humanity’s faith in objectivity and progress, and yet somehow Freeman used them to construct a theory of himself as a scientist who was 1) completely objective due to introspection and 2) was moving science Forward. Who undertakes therapy, as Freeman did, and comes out of the experience believing objectivity is easy and achievable? Someone for whom the psychic costs of admitting otherwise are too high, that’s who. And in the end, this view of humankind owes more to the evolutionary thought of Spencer, who emphasized the inevitability of progress, than Darwin and the new synthesis.

Although Freeman flirted with E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and others undertaking an acultural synthesis that saw complex behaviors determined by the genome, he ultimately relented. I also didn’t realize how much Freeman’s “Anthropology of choice” involved reinventing the basic assumptions of Boasian anthropology. Human beings evolved to allow agency and behavioral plasticity? To many of us, that’s not news. Perhaps the final irony is that although Freeman was interested in the explanatory potential of ethology when applied to humans, these days animal ethologists see animals as increasingly like humans and not vice versa: capable of learning, emotion, some degree of intersubjectivity, and so forth.

In the end, then, Hempenstall has given us the kindest possible portrayal of Freeman. It’s a welcome corrective to the literature, and he deserves credit for producing a well-written, phlegmatic book about a decidedly choleric personality. But Hempenstall does not rescue the reputation of Freeman in the book. Some may regard Freeman as a man too sick to be blamed for his actions, while others may find him even more culpable than before. Regardless of the substantive issues in the Mead-Freeman debate, Truth’s Fool will probably ensure that Freeman’s reputation is that of a damaged, hurtful man: anthropology’s original dude troll.

2 Replies to “The Dude Troll As Anthropologist: A Review of Peter Hempenstall’s “Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Cultural Anthropology””

  1. This was a great review. I’m looking forward to reading the book. I think it may be worth pointing a few things about Don Tuzin and his relationship to Freeman and Mead respectively. The Tuzin Papers at UCSD demonstrate Tuzin’s conflicted relationship with Freeman. In correspondences with Gil Herdt and others, he reflects on his unease with Freeman’s style and the surrounding Mead/Freeman controversy. It’s clear from Tuzin’s correspondence that he was far from uncritical of Freeman as a person or his broader arguments ( If nothing else, he felt a debt to both Freeman and Mead. Freeman was his advisor at ANU, but it’s worth remembering that Mead wrote the forward to Tuzin’s first book, The Ilahita Arapesh: Dimensions of Unity (1976). Tuzin also had a portrait of Mead prominently displayed in one of his offices. In the Tuzin Papers you can read his notes on Freeman’s diaries. There’s a section about Freeman’s 1990 visit to UCSD. In the diary, Freeman reflects on how he called Burno Latour a liar to his face, accused Shirley Strum of “constructivism,” and ranted that Tanya Luhrmann was “seduced” by “Harvard postmodernism.” It might be worth pointing out that he got along well with Mel Spiro. In his notes about these diary entries, Tuzin remarks that the visit was personally a terrible embarrassment and that while Freeman thought all went well, Tuzin thought it was a disaster. Clearly, Freeman had a tendency to alienate even those inclined to support him.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how much Hempenstall deals with the Oxbridge style of argument and how it may have played a role in fostering someone like Freeman (see Fortes’s glowing statements about Freeman as having “a gift of selfless devotion to the search for answers”). It’s interesting to note that Freeman and Needham got along well, or at least Freeman thought so (Tuzin/Freeman interviews in the Tuzin Papers). Freeman thought his attacks on Needham, some of which sure sounded personal (see “Thunder, blood, and the nicknaming of God’s creatures”), were the best way to tell Needham that his thoughts were worth engaging. Freeman thought he was flattering Needham. He goes off in an interview with Tuzin about how Needham got that. I think he even says something about Needham being the true spirit of Oxford, opposed to Kuper (I think). Freeman seemed to think that aggression was a potent sign of the strength of convictions. Speaking about Samoa, but probably also reflecting on his own tendency toward aggressive argument, he writes “Indeed, the force necessary to restrain an enraged man is a conspicuous measure of the strength of his impulse to fight. Further, when restraint is so exercised, it is apt to result in the redirection of this impulse to fight on to those who are attempting to curb its expression in action” (Aggression: Instinct or Symptom, 1971, p. 70). In his 1990 visit to UCSD Tuzin tried to restrain and temper Freeman’s agressive attacks, but Freeman shot back, “I’m right you fool.”

    Anyway, it’s been a long time since I looked at this stuff, but I remember how clearly conflicted Tuzin seemed to be about Freeman. While Freeman seemed to think Tuzin was an acolyte, because of Tuzin’s neo-Freudian interpretations of culture and interest in human evolution (see Tuzin’s Social Complexity in the Making), Tuzin had more complicated feelings about his mentor. It was part embarrassment, part horror, and part appreciation for Freeman’s dogged determination.

    I like how you’ve picked up a theme of the Freeman/Mead debate that seems particularly relevant to our contemporary debates about the nature of academic argument. Sometimes, the dogged determination to persevere in advancing one’s argument is really just an attempt to flood out others’ voices, particularly women. Freeman is case in point. I think you’re right. He was a Dude Troll.

  2. Aiiiieeeah, what a horrid stinky quarrel!!! Two big scientists fighting from the grave. Ghosts are beating us with sticks.

    Eeeeeh I would have loved to be a gecko on the wall when the big chief Derek was asking the nursi girls to explain sex to him. I would have laughed and laughed and laughed, maybe split my skin. Does this man know nothing. We fixed him. We made him a chief and got all his goods and he had to buy 3 pigs, fatty ones. Hahahaha.

    The big meri woman, we got all her goods, easy. But that stupid woman never came back. She made herself famous and brought shame on us. She needs to pay. Big Chief Derek said he would make her pay.

    But please no more stupid books about us.