Margaret Mead, who died in 1978, was an intelligent, energetic anthropologist of strong convictions. No one can question the sincerity and dedication of her work or that her influence on public opinion in many fields was as refreshing as it was admirable. This year ( 1983), as a result of Derek Freeman's book Margaret Mead and Samoa, grave doubts have been cast on the soundness of her earlier field studies. Freeman marshals compelling evidence that when Mead investigated Samoan culture she had little comprehension of the need for stern measures to suppress what is now called the "experimenter effect"--the unconscious tendency of researchers to bias data in the direction of intensely held beliefs.
In the publicity surrounding Freeman's attack, surprisingly little has been said about Mead's lifelong interest in the paranormal. I have made no attempt to research this aspect of her life, so what follows is based only on books, notes, and clippings at hand.
In an interview published in this country's leading occult magazine, New Realities (vol. 2, no. 2, 1978), Mead spoke of a great-great aunt ( Louisiana Priscilla Ramsay) who was said to have the ability to float about rooms, diagnose ills, and read minds. Her family, said Mead, accepted these phenomena as genuine. In her autobiography, Blackberry Winter, Mead refers to her aunt as "one who could read people's minds."
As a young anthropologist, Mead's field studies persuaded her that "special gifts" of this sort were common in primitive cultures. Do some cultures have a larger percentage of psychics than others? No, Mead told New Realities, cultures differ mainly in how they treat their psychics. Some encourage them, some repress them. "But I didn't find in them any more cases of what you'd call great sensitives than what you'd find here." In Appalachia, she added, children with psychic gifts are taught to conceal them. "It's a great protection, for there's nobody who's more of a nuisance than a psychic child."
In 1942 the American Society for Psychical Research recognized Mead's interest in psi by electing her a trustee (see the society's journal, April 1942),