Blum (Bad Karma: A True Story of Obsession and Murder, 1986) reconstructs the five-year period of Margaret Mead’s life leading up to and including her transformative trip to Samoa in 1925.
Throughout her long and respected career, Mead was seldom a stranger to controversy, either in her progressive views about sex and relationships or in her approach to research. Her provocative reputation was further bolstered by her memoir, Blackberry Winter (1972). Since her death in 1978, she has been the subject of several biographies as well as Lily King’s acclaimed novel Euphoria (2014), which explores the sexual tensions that arise between a group of anthropologists on a tribal expedition; the characters are loosely based on Mead, her second husband, Reo Fortune, and future husband, Gregory Bateson. Sexual tensions are also at the heart of this latest biographical exercise, and Blum provides a structure more akin to fiction. Drawing from letters, diaries, and memoirs, she weaves a dramatic tale around the intimate relations of the individuals who were central to launching Mead’s career. The key players were Mead’s instructor at Columbia, Dr. Ruth Benedict, linguist Edward Sapir, her first husband, Luther Cressman, and, in later chapters, fellow anthropologist Fortune. Though the author tracks Mead’s career pursuits, they remain peripheral to the emotional drama as the heated love triangle among Sapir, Benedict, and Mead takes center stage. Cressman was also along for the journey, as their marriage was continually in jeopardy and finally collapsed under the strain of Mead’s attraction to Fortune. Though the narrative is a frequently absorbing, occasionally breathless page-turner, the individuals are narrowly portrayed through the span of their infatuations and come across as flat. The brilliant writer and thinker that Mead would become is hardly evidenced by the self-absorbed, love-obsessed woman depicted here.
A minor effort for readers interested in learning more about Mead’s early life.