Biography of Erik Erikson

Who was Erik Erikson? Was he a Dane, a German, or an American? Jew or Gentile? Artist or psychoanalyst? Erikson himself had difficulty answering these questions, and he spent nearly a lifetime trying to determine who he was.

Born June 15, 1902, in southern Germany, Erikson was brought up by his mother and stepfather, but he remained uncertain of the true identity of his biological father. To discover his niche in life, Erikson ventured away from home during late adolescence, adopting the life of a wandering artist and poet. After nearly 7 years of drifting and searching, he returned home confused exhausted depressed and unable to sketch or paint. At this time, a fortuitous event changed his life: He received a letter from his friend Peter Bios inviting him to teach children in a new school in Vienna. One of the founders of the school was Anna Freud who became not only Erikson s employer, but his psychoanalyst as well.

While undergoing analytic treatment, he stressed to Anna Freud that his most difficult problem was searching for the identity of his biological father. However, Ms. Freud was less than empatliic and told Erikson that he should stop fantasizing about his absent father. Although Erikson usually obeyed his psychoanalyst, he could not take Freud's advice to stop trying to learn his father's name.

While in Vienna, Erikson met and with Anna Freud's permission, married Joan Serson, a Canadian-born dancer, artist, and teacher who had also undergone psychoanalysis. With her psychoanalytic background and her facility with the English language, she became a valuable editor and occasional coauthor of Erikson's books.

The Eriksons had four children: sons Kai, Jon, and Neil, and daughter Sue. Kai and Sue pursued important professional careers, but Jon, who shared his father's experience as a wandering artist, worked as a laborer and never felt emotionally close to his parents.

Erikson's search for identity took him through some difficult experiences during his adult developmental stage (Friedman, 1999). Accordmg to Erikson, this stage requires a person to take care of children, products, and ideas that he or she has generated. On this issue, Erikson was deficient hi meeting his own standards. He failed to take good care of his son Neil, who was born with Down syndrome. At the hospital while Joan was still under sedation, Erik agreed to place Neil hi an institution. Then he went home and told his three older children that then brother had died at birth. He lied to them much as his mother had lied to him about the identity of his biological father. Later, he told his oldest son Kai the truth, but he continued to deceive the two younger children, Jon and Sue. Although his mother's lie had distressed

Chapter 9 Erikson: Post-Freudian Theory 243

him greatly, he failed to understand that his lie about Neil might later distress his other children. In deceiving his children the way he did, Erikson violated two of his own principles. "Don't lie to people you should care for," and "Don't pit one family member against another." To compound the situation, when Neil died at about age 20, the Eriksons, who were in Europe at the time, called Sue and Jon and instructed them to handle all the funeral arrangements for a brother they had never met and who they only recently knew existed (Friedman 1999).

Erikson also sought his identity through the myriad changes of jobs and places of residence. Lacking any academic credentials, he had no specific professional identity and was variously known as an artist, a psychologist, a psychoanalyst, a clinician, a professor, a cultural anthropologist, an existentialist, a psychobiographer, and a public intellectual.

In 1933, with fascism on the rise hi Europe, Erikson and his family left Vienna for Denmark, hoping to gain Danish citizenship. When Danish officials refused his request, he left Copenhagen and immigrated to the United States.

In America, he changed his name from Homburger to Erikson. This change was a crucial turning point in his life because it represented a retreat from his earlier Jewish identification. Originally, Erikson resented any implication that he was abandoning his Jewish identity by changing his name. He countered these charges by pointing out that he used his full name—Erik Homburger Erikson—in his books and essays. However, as time passed, he dropped his middle name and replaced it with the initial H. Thus, this person who at the end of life was known as Erik H. Erikson had previously been called Erik Salomonsen, Erik Homburger, and Erik Homburger Erikson.

In America, Erikson continued his pattern of moving from place to place. He first settled hi the Boston area where he set up a modified psychoanalytic practice. With neither medical credentials nor any khid of college degree, he accepted research positions at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard Psychological Clinic.

Wanting to write but needing more thne than his busy schedule in Boston and Cambridge allowed, Erikson took a position at Yale hi 1936, but after 2V2 years, he moved to the University of California at Berkeley, but not before living among and studying people of the Sioux nation on the Pine Ridge reservation hi South Dakota. He later lived with people of the Yurok nation in northern California, and these experiences in cultural anthropology added to the richness and completeness of his concept of humanity.

Dining his California period, Erikson gradually evolved a theory of personality, separate from but not incompatible with Freud's, hi 1950, Erikson published Childhood and Society, a book that at first glance appears to be a hodgepodge of unrelated chapters. Erikson himself originally had some difficulty finding a common theme underlying such topics as childhood in two Native American tribes, the growth of the ego, the eight stages of human development, and Hitler's childhood. Eventually, however, he recognized that the influence of psychological, cultural, and historical factors on identity was the underlying element that held the various chapters together. Childhood and Society, which became a classic and gave Erikson an international reputation as an imaginative thinker, remains the finest introduction to his post-Freudian personality theory.

In 1949, the University of California officials demanded that faculty members sign an oath pledging loyalty to the United States. Such a demand was not uncommon during those days when Senator Joseph McCarthy convinced many Americans that Communists and Communist sympathizers were poised to overthrow the U.S. government. Erikson was not a Communist, but as a matter of principle he refused to sign the oath. Although the Committee on Privilege and Tenure recommended that he retam his position, Erikson left California and returned to Massachusetts, where he worked as a therapist at Austen Riggs, a treattnent center for psychoanalytic training and research located in Stockbridge. In 1960, he returned to Harvard and for the next 10 years, held the position of professor of human development. After retirement, Erikson continued an active career—writing, lecturing, and seeing a few patients. During the early years of his retirement, he lived hi Marin County, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Cape Cod. Through all these changes, Erikson continued to seek his father's name. He died May 12, 1994, at the age of 91.

Who was Erik Erikson? Although he himself may not have been able to answer this question, other people can learn about the person known as Erik Erikson through his brilliantly constructed books, lectures, and essays.

Erikson's best-known works include Childhood and Society (1950, 1963, 1985); Young Man Luther (1958); Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968); Gandhi's Truth (1969), a book that won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; Dimensions of a New Identity (1974); Life History and the Historical Moment (1975); Identity and the Life Cycle (1980); and The Life Cycle Completed (1982). Stephen Schlein compiled many of his papers in A Way of Looking at Things (Erikson, 1987).

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