Reading Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was my
duction, not only to the concept of culture, but to the critique of cul
ours. Before , when I read Coming of Age in an Introduction to A
pology course at the University of Michigan, Mead had already done
deal to popularize the concept of cultural relativity. Her voice had r
into my teenage hell, to whisper my comforting first mantra, ‘‘Everyt
relative; everything is relative,’’ meaning: There are other worlds, po
ties than suburban California in the s. I was a scholarly minded h
from NewYork (where I had spent my childhood) and a red diaper baby
athletic, hated dating boys, and resented pretending I was less of ever
than they were. Neither girls’ clothes nor girlish attitudes felt ‘‘right’’
And I was attracted—in some sweaty way that had at first no name—t
and women.
College in Ann Arbor was better, but still found me unhappily stru
to fit into a slightly more sophisticated workup of American womanh
was looking for any way out, some Mad Hatter to lead me down a rabb
into a world where I didn’t have to carry a clutch purse and want to be
nated by some guy with a crew cut and no neck. Having these though
however inchoately, a critique. Acting on them constituted rebellion
ing myself gay, which I had done tentatively and with self-loathing at s
moved opposition to a higher level. Anarchism, I read once, is an ideo
permanent rebellion. Anthropology, by refuting any one culture’s cla
absolute authority, offers a permanent critique. So when I read Coming
in Samoa my senior year in college, I was, to put it mildly, receptive.
Through Margaret Mead I grasped that my adolescent torments ov
gender, and the life of the mind could have been avoided by different
arrangements. It’s not that I imagined a better life in the South Seas. I
from fancying myself in a grass skirt (despite becoming an anthropol
am a homebody; the rigors of long lonely stays in places without elec
and flush toilets only appealed to me, as it turned out, in books). Even t
Mead’s Samoan girls were happily exercising a heterosexual openness
had found unsatisfying, the setup was so radically different—multip
enting, sexual freedom—from what I had been convinced was norm
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