The Private Lives of Anthropologists: A Review of Lily King’s Euphoria

[This is an invited post by Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. Paul is an anthropologist of Samoa, and author of numerous articles about Margaret Mead and the Mead-Freeman controversy including The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, and reviewed here on Savage Minds).]

 A review of Euphoria by Lily King. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014).

The last time Margaret Mead appeared as a character in a best-selling novel was over fifty years ago. In Irving Wallace’s The Three Sirens (1963), Dr. Maud Hayden (the Mead stand-in) finds her world turned upside down by the discovery of a Polynesian island where, as America’s foremost anthropologist, she leads a team of researchers who encounter “people from a simpler, happier society, free from the inhibitions and tensions of the 20th century.” The novel’s dust jacket informs us that the culture of the island is “a shocking assault, a challenge to their most cherished beliefs about love, sex, marriage, child rearing, and justice.” So profound is this encounter that the researchers end up studying their own desires, fears, and passions. Of course, this trashy potboiler had no redeeming social value, but interest in the Mead character, the tension between a repressive West and a permissive Polynesia, and the interplay between professional fieldwork and private lives attracted many avid readers.

Lily King’s new novel, Euphoria, draws on our enduring fascination with Mead. Is there another anthropologist who could attract the public’s attention in a work of fiction? Euphoria even bears some superficial resemblance to The Three Sirens. As one reviewer summarized its story line, an anthropological study plunges “three young anthropologists into a deep and passionate love triangle which begins to threaten not only their careers but their very well being.” Yet Euphoria is a serious novel with characters based loosely on Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson.

Set in early 1930s colonial New Guinea, Nell Stone (the Mead surrogate) and her anthropologist husband Schuyler Fenwick or Fen (Fortune) are fleeing a difficult field site. Emotionally and physically exhausted after studying the “bloodthirsty” and warlike Mumbanyo, they journey by boat through the steamy, mosquito-infested Sepik River region, an area rich in ethnographic possibilities. There they encounter Andrew Bankson (Bateson) who had been doing fieldwork in the Sepik for some time. Isolated and frustrated, Bankson had become suicidal. But after meeting Nell and Fen, he is rejuvenated. They enjoy each other’s company. While socializing with the young couple and discussing their mutual interest in fieldwork, Bankson introduces them to a new tribe, the female-oriented Tam.  As Nell and Fen commence their study of the Tam, Bankson becomes increasingly enamored of Nell, intellectually and erotically. You can probably guess where this is headed (Spoiler alert: there is something about hot stone massages.)

The story line is, of course, based on the Mead-Fortune-Bateson triangle that King first read about in Jane Howard’s Margaret Mead: A Life (1984). Inspired by this story, King’s retelling is not limited by its details or outcome. While the novel is “based on a true story,” it is not a historical novel; it is a novel of the imagination that takes place within a recognizable historical framework, blurring the genres. In her acknowledgments, King lists the ethnographic, biographical, and autobiographical sources that helped her develop her characters and the overall context of the novel. Yet as King herself tells us in an essay about the writing of Euphoria, “I had slipped out of the shackles of history, made a clean break with fact. And I set off into the jungle of my imagination.” King deliberately falsifies and distorts history to give the novel a life of its own. As she wrote the novel, even the thin disguises that she gave the characters and tribes became irrelevant to her.

Anthropologists may want to read Euphoria because it received high praise in literary circles, including a glowing review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It is a very readable work of fiction. We will most likely read it because, unlike other novels involving fieldwork (Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinskiand Mating by Norman Rush, for example), Euphoria hits closer to home. We immediately identify with the Mead, Fortune, and Bateson characters and want to know what King will do with them. After all, they are part of our disciplinary DNA. Despite the author’s disclaimer, we wonder about the relationship between the novel and the limited knowledge we have of what actually happened in the Sepik so long ago.

In Euphoria, readers meet a strong, inquisitive, tireless researcher in the character of Nell. Fen and Bankson are also fleshed out, and so is the fieldwork process. The characters discuss contemporary issues such as subjectivity, positionality, and the different perspectives that individual ethnographers bring to the field. Bankson asks, “When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?”In the novel, Nell, Fen and Bankson observe and comment on each other’s fieldwork styles. They experience serious illness, the stress of fieldwork on relationships, and the work in fieldwork, as well as the creative “invention” of the cultures they study. King tells their story, in part, through their letters, fieldnotes, and journals, providing an unusual dimension to their work and lives. “Euphoria” refers to that point fieldwork when, for the first time, everything starts to make sense to Nell. Things become familiar; the confusion and frustration of the first months in the field give way to a period of intense productivity and sympathetic understanding.

Euphoria has some small touches that only anthropologists may appreciate. There is a Ruth Benedict character and the mention of Boas.  There is a presentation of the never-published “theory of squares,” a grid of generalized orientations (aggressive/compliant, pragmatic/creative, etc.) that Mead and Bateson developed onto which cultures and perhaps individuals could be mapped. They wanted to move beyond the details of analyzing individual cultures and, like Benedict, examine universal patterns of culture. This theory was the culmination of long and intense discussions between Mead and Bateson, the capstone of their intellectual interactions in the Sepik. It appears prominently near the end of the novel. The culmination of Nell and Bankson’s romantic interests also finds a place at the end of the novel (Did I mention hot stone massages?).

Much of the recent commentary from anthropologists about Euphoria has involved the accuracy of the portrayal of the characters, especially Reo Fortune, although King reminds us that they are literary creations, not literal ethnographers. We can live with this. Her portrayal of indigenous New Guinea people is more problematic. We learn relatively little about the people with whom these ethnographers work. In the first few sentences of the novel, the Mumbanyo (a surrogate for the Mundugumor) have thrown a dead baby in the river; we later learn in passing that they also kill their twins and may be cannibals. The Tam and other groups receive more attention, but they are a mashup of different New Guinea groups and not well developed. So the ethnographers are more interesting than the people they study. It would be helpful to have more commentary on Euphoria from specialists like Deborah Gewertz, Fred Errington, Nancy McDowell, and the many other ethnographers of New Guinea who may be concerned about how the groups they know appear in the novel.

Euphoria is selling well and may renew public interest in Margaret Mead. The last three decades have not been kind to her. Derek Freeman’s deeply flawed critique of Mead’s Samoan work severely damaged her reputation. Now, as a character in Euphoria, Mead is once again an engaging presence. There may even be a movie based on the novel, and Mead could receive more attention. Would this be a good thing for anthropology? Should we be euphoric? Irving Wallace’s Three Sirens never made it to the silver screen. And although actress Lindsay Wagner (of ‘The Bionic Woman’ television series) bought the movie rights to the story of Mead’s life in 1980, it too was never filmed. Now rights to Euphoria have been optioned, and the talented Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and several episodes of the television series Masters of Sex) is set to direct. Who will be cast as Margaret Mead? My nominee is Michelle Williams. Stay tuned….

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 thoughts on “The Private Lives of Anthropologists: A Review of Lily King’s Euphoria

  1. I read Euphoria and think this is a first rate overview of the novel. Evaluating the book based on its adherence to the historical and/or ethnographic record does miss the point. I thought the novel conveyed a few simple but profound features of how ethnographers think/work, grounded in a fiction version of the old anthropological days of the “Anglo West” learning the lives of the “Indigenous Rest.” Now we need a novel of contemporary ethnography, showing some of those same features at work in research and practice in this century, though it would probably have to be called Dystopia.

  2. Who will be cast as Margaret Mead? My nominee is Michelle Williams.

    Ooh, excellent choice! I personally think Carrie Coons would be great in the role, as well.

    And then comes the real interesting fantasy cast—who’s gonna play Bateson?!?

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