When Tobias Schneebaum decided to live with the jungle-dwelling Asmat Tribe of New Guinea it was more out of a robust sense of adventure than sentimental notions about the "noble savage." Earlier, he had visited isolated villagers in Peru: "I realized that they were as limited and controlled as we in the Western world and that they too had violence in their lives that troubled me." Schneebaum soon found, however, that the society was in the midst of a transformation in sex roles. Women in the tribe had become more physically aggressive just as the men had become less so, ending their raids against other villages.
One day, for instance, women gathered ("a jumble of painted figures") and attacked the men, including Schneebaum, with long knives, spears and arrows. The next day, many of the men in the tribe were humiliated: "Their bodies were limp like marionettes, needing other forces to move them, feeling weak and lost without the power, the fearlessness that had almost been demanded of them" in the days when they would march off to headhunting. "Where the Spirits Dwell" is not, however, a story about vanished virility. On the contrary, it goes on to chronicle how the Asmat men merely transferred the symbol of power from war to sex--primarily sex between men. This kind of intimacy has a special meaning for the author, for he desired it as a young man, but was unable to confront his homosexuality. This book, then, is largely autobiographical, a journey within as well as a travelogue exotic enough to captivate even reluctant armchair travelers.