Biography of Erik Erikson

Erik Homberger Erikson (as we now call him) was born near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1902. He was raised by his mother, who was Jewish and of Danish ancestiy, and his stepfather, a Jewish pediatrician whom his mother met when she sought care for 3-year-old Erik. Erikson did not know that he was conceived illegitimately, and he believed that his stepfather was his biological father and was given his last name, Homberger (Hopkins, 1995). His biological father, a Danish Protestant, had left his mother before he was born, but Erikson's mother had not told him about his biological father. Erikson was not accepted as fully Jewish because of the physical appearance that was the legacy of his Danish parents: tall, blonde, and blue-eyed. Yet he hadn't been raised to think of himself as Danish. This somewhat confused background contributed to his own keen interest in identity, as he later said.

Erikson studied art and wandered through Europe in his youth, tiying to become an artist (Wurgaft, 1976). In a job found at the suggestion of a friend, Erikson taught art to children of Freud's entourage. His future wife, Joan Serson, was studying to be a psychoanalyst, and she introduced him to psychoanalysis. Interestingly, in later years he be came the psychoanalyst and she the artist. They had three children, including a son who unfortunately suffered from Down syndrome. Erikson was analyzed by Freud's daughter, Anna, for three years and was recruited as an analyst, a "lay analyst" because of his nonmedical training. In 1933, he and his wife left Germany, where anti-Semitism was becoming increasingly overt. They went briefly to Denmark, his ancestral home, and then to the United States. To mark the identity change in his own life, he took Erikson as a last name at this time.

Although he had no college degree (not even an undergraduate degree), Erikson became a child analyst and taught at Harvard. There he was affiliated with the Harvard Psychological Clinic, under Heniy Murray (E. H. Erikson, 1963), and was the author of the Dramatic Productions Test in Murray's (1938, pp. 552-582) well-known research report, Explorations in Personality. He also was affiliated, at various stages in his career, with the Yale Institute of Human Relations, the Guidance Study in the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Austen Riggs Center in the Berkshires. Besides his clinical and developmental studies, his association with anthropologists permitted him to observe development among two Native American cultures, the Sioux at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and the Yurok, a California fishing tribe.

At the time that Erikson was a professor of psychology and a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of California at Berkeley, the United States was undergoing a wave of concern about Communist infiltration in the schools. Faculty members were required to sign an additional loyalty oath, besides the oath in which they had already routinely pledged to uphold the national and state constitutions. Erikson and several others refused, resulting in their dismissal, although this was overturned in court. Since Erikson had become a U.S. citizen as an adult and conducted psychological research for the government during World War II, analyzing Hitler's speeches and conducting other war-related studies (Hopkins, 1995), he cannot be accused of anti-Americanism for his stance. In explaining his action, Erikson (1951b) argued that the anti-Communist hysteria that had prompted the requirement of a loyalty oath was dangerous to the university's historical role as a place where truth and reason can be freely sought and where students learn critical thinking. Undoubtedly, his experience with German nationalism under the Nazis figured in his position.

Although he considered himself a Freudian, Erikson proposed many theoretical innovations that emphasized the ego and social factors. Most notably, he theorized that ego development continues throughout life. In his 80s, he and his wife were still active, interviewing a group of elderly Californians to learn more about this last stage of life (Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986). He died at a nursing home in Massachusetts on May 12, 1994, at the age of 91.

Although Erikson had "neither medical training nor an advanced degree of any kind except a certificate in Montessori education" (Fitzpatrick, 1976, p. 298), his contributions to psychology have transformed our understanding of human development and of the relationship between the individual and society. Erikson's most important contribution was a model of personality development that extends throughout the life span. The concept of ego development, though by no means exclusively Erikson's contribution (cf. Hartmann, 1958; Loevinger, 1966), has become much more popular as a consequence of his work.



132 ^ Part II The Psychoanalytic-Social Perspective

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