A Life of Low Self Confidence

A Life of Low Self Confidence, by Edward Green

I have thought a lot about how I went from low self-esteem at age 15 to….well, low self-esteem at age 78. This admittedly does not make the kind of narrative arc that publishers respond to. But however little progress I made in my inner life, my outer life gradually changed. I went from being a school (and summer camp) expellee and juvenile delinquent (with a little police record that I was most proud of) to becoming a successful anthropologist advising President George W. Bush from my perch at Harvard. Why did my inner self not catch up with my climb up the ladder of success?

There is a scholarly book about sibling birth order called Born to Rebel by Harvard scholar Dr. Frank Sulloway, who himself is a second son like me. I thought this book would serve as a theoretical framework for my memoir: My elder brother, as the first-born, was a defender of the status quo, whereas I, the second son, was, well, born to rebel, to overthrow the unfair system that put my brother first in all matters, starting with being allowed to stay up later than me.

However, there were too many exceptions to the rule in my family, and those of other families, to make Dr. Sulloway’s book more than an interesting guess at why people with the same genetic endowment and socioeconomic upbringing can as siblings be almost polar opposites of one another.

In the simplest terms, this is what I think happened to me: I was expelled from elite Groton School when I was 15. My father had been a great success at the same school and my older brother was a student there at the time of my expulsion. (By the way, I later read that our longest serving president, FDR, considered himself a failure at Groton.) So I packed up and went with my family to my father’s new Foreign Service post in Seoul, Korea. In the weeks and months that followed, my mother took every opportunity to tell me that I was a complete failure.

Never had I done one thing in my life that could be called successful. But hold on: My mother had promised that if I did super-well at Groton, I could transfer to St. Albans, a private day school in Washington (where Al Gore went, so still considered acceptable by my mother.) I had worked very hard my first year at Groton and made the Honor Roll in the belief that my mother would honor her word. It was very difficult to make this elite list (my dad hadn’t), but when I did, my mother told me it would “be a sin to take me out of Groton now that I was so well adjusted.”

Deceived by my own mother! In fact, I wasn’t well adjusted; I had just been pretending to be an A student, working my way out of boarding school toward freedom. I still missed my gang of juvenile delinquents in Washington called the Sewer Rats.

Anyway, my mother told me my life was over and that I would never achieve anything. A life of failure? I thought. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet! I went on to continue my life of bad grades and general bad behavior.

A couple of years later, I was on the verge of flunking out of junior college in California. One night, while slightly sloshed on cheap Ripple wine, I found myself trying to impress a UC Berkeley girl who made what seemed like a spontaneous comment, “God, you really are stupid,” as if the question of my intelligence was now settled once and for all. Yes, probably my mother was right all along. Maybe this girl’s comment was a major inflection point, because I began to clean up my life soon after that.

The first step I took was joining a group of volunteers working at a state mental hospital in Napa, California, in no small part because I sought insight into why I felt so alienated from my peers. Meanwhile, my older brother Mark, a Groton graduate and a student in good standing at UC Berkeley, seemed so normal and successful.

I somehow stumbled into the field of anthropology. Looking back, I can’t think of another field I could have fitted into so well. A former president of the American Anthropological Association observed about people attracted to anthropology: They tend to loathe authority (check); avoid positions of authority (check); have escapist tendencies and romanticize all things faraway and exotic, along with the belief that emancipation from their own oppressive culture lies in adopting another culture (check). Alienated from their own culture, they just need to find one where they might fit in.

Thus, I found myself, as a PhD student in cultural anthropology, doing my dissertation field work in the northern Amazon rainforest, with the Maroons of Suriname, descendants of escaped enslaved Africans. I was adopted into a Maroon tribe, almost with more ease than I had fit into boarding school, and given the name Afibiti (the Curious One). My two years of fieldwork in the Suriname rainforest proved to be a wonderful growth experience. I felt accomplished and competent—for about a week. Then I went on the academic job market and was brutally reminded of how much I didn’t know.

With many bumps along the road, I started to climb the ladder of outward success. I worked and lived in two countries in Africa, and before long, I was consulting in diverse countries around the world. Yet I knew deep down that I was a fraud; I was not the person people thought I was. I was the failure my mother had frequently said I was. It was just a matter of time before I would be exposed. This almost happened (or did happen?) when I gave a presentation at Johns Hopkins University for which I was totally unprepared (and which I discuss in painful detail in my memoir On the Fringe.)

I was living in Mozambique at the time, and had been flown to Baltimore for a two-day job interview. I was on the verge of being offered a tenure track position, when the department chairman who was hosting me asked for my PowerPoint so he could get things set up in the oversized auditorium that awaited me. This was in 1995 and I had heard of power points but I certainly didn’t have one. In fact, I had not been forewarned that I was expected to make a formal presentation to the entire Bloomberg School of Public Health.

It was a public disaster.

Yet ten years later, I was a Senior Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and was testifying in Congress; my field notes from Suriname and multiple countries were archived at the Smithsonian Museum; I had written a number of well-received books and peer-reviewed articles and… well, I guess I had turned into exactly the son my mother had tried to mold me into. What a pity she died before I was hired by Harvard. And died before Groton school published a six-page interview about my controversial AIDS research.

My research was considered controversial because I observed that starting in at least one country, Uganda, men (in particular) were changing their behavior out of fear of catching the dreaded HIV. They were sticking with one partner, not having casual sex with multiple partners. Partner fidelity went against the orthodox belief that HIV cannot be prevented; we can only reduce the risk, primarily with condoms (this was before effective antiretroviral drugs were invented and soon thereafter, widely distributed—at great financial cost.)

I found myself, a proud liberal, joining forces with religious conservatives because I saw clear evidence of sexual behavior change working better in Africa (where we find 70% of all HIV infections) than condoms. During the first year of the PEPFAR AIDS prevention program, the signature program of “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush administration, I gave a speech for the conservative American Evangelical Association showing evidence from Africa that “behavior change” was more effective than condoms in limiting the spread of HIV. My fellow liberals were not very forgiving of my transgression. The condom was, after all, the icon of the Sexual Revolution, which I had definitely participated in.

But my new-found celebrity, or notoriety, was only because I had fooled the world, I believed. And today, all these years later, I still lack self-confidence. I would still prefer not to do public speaking, especially if I know the audience is opposed to what I am saying.

My career has not been exactly standard. I spent some years finding ways to involve African indigenous healers in public health programs. This seemed like a very common sense thing to do: traditional healers were the de facto primary health care providers for something like 80% of Africans, at least at the time I began designing and promoting what I called collaborative, intersectoral health programs.

I am quite sure my mother would be proud of me, as would my dad, about whom I have not said much. He told me once, “I don’t care what you boys do with your lives, just so you are happy.” I said once to an interviewer that “when I discovered anthropology, I guess I stumbled into bliss.” I sometimes wonder how much more I could have achieved if I had not been held back by feelings of unworthiness. And then I wonder: Was it that very feeling of unworthiness that drove me to prove myself?


EDWARD GREEN: is a retired American medical anthropologist, who has served as a senior research scientist at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, later becoming the director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project. He is currently Research Professor at George Washington University. Green was appointed a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (2003-2007) and served in the Office of AIDS Research

Advisory Council for the US-based National Institutes of Health (2003-2006).

On The Fringe: Confessions of a Maverick Anthropologist is his memoir, available now.