“And what is your name, young man,” asked the small, stocky woman with short gray hair in a voice that more than filled the crowded hotel elevator. I was standing at the back. A tall, gawky teenager in the front of the elevator mumbled something in reply.
“I can’t hear you. I asked for your name.”
Again, he answered with a mumble, although slightly louder. Apparently, it was loud enough.
“You are pronouncing it incorrectly! It’s not XYZ; it’s ABC and your people originally came from the Black Forest in Germany. Now start saying it right…and stand up straight!” the woman said, flaring her full-length black cape as she swooped out of the elevator, leaning on a walking stick that was taller than she was.
The teenager may still be standing in the elevator wondering what just happened to him. The rest of us, however, had conference badges and were on our way to the ballroom where a world-renowned anthropologist would be speaking.
In the hall, I took a seat near the stage. The conference chair called the meeting to order and gave a lengthy introduction of the keynote speaker. Then he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen. It is my extreme privilege to present to you the most brilliant anthropologist in the world, the one and only, Margaret Mead.”
A few seconds passed, and nothing happened. So he tried again. “Please join me in welcoming Margaret Mead!” Again, no action from stage left.
Suddenly, with a familiar whoosh of her long, black cloak, in waltzed, (marched and stomped) to the podium, all five feet of Margaret Mead, complete with walking stick. She faced the audience’s roaring applause. She stayed there until there were only one or two people left clapping.
“Thank you, dear friends and gentle people,” she began, finally. For the next hour and a half, she hardly took a breath in between the multiple stories of her conquests in the world of anthropology. She focused on her most famous subject regarding the attitudes toward sex in various cultures in Samoa. According to Wikipedia, Mead “was a proponent of broadening sexual mores within a context of traditional western religious life.”
Following her death from cancer in 1978 at the age of 77, Dr. Mead’s much-acclaimed work during her lifetime was repudiated and scorned by the scientific community.
Two lessons stuck with me following the conference. First, some celebrities take themselves a little too seriously and start to believe their press. Second, they can promote questionable ideas even if extremely thin on research, facts and solid foundation.
When I learned Mead’s much-heralded work has been widely discredited, I discovered fame, celebrity and success are not necessarily as important as humility, knowledge or practicality. I also learned to be less in awe and more awesomely scrupulous about buying into the hype of what I read and hear. Just because someone famous says it, doesn’t make it wise, accurate or even useful.
I was in awe of Dr. Mead but she was a woman with foibles, missteps and mistakes—just like all the rest of us. Because she was a celebrity, however, her words had more weight with me.
Of course, in Dr. Mead’s case it probably helped that she carried a big stick!