Copyright © 2004, James S. Fleming, Ph.D.
I came to psychology from art, which may explain, if not justify, the fact that at times the reader will find me painting contexts and backgrounds where he would rather have me point to facts and concepts. I have had to make a virtue out of a constitutional necessity by basing what I have to say on representative description rather than on theoretical argument. –Erik Erikson1 I have nothing to offer except a way of looking at things. –Erik Erikson2
_______ Erikson and Personal Identity: A Biographical Profile Understanding Erik Erikson’s own story of personal development facilitates and illuminates an understanding of the development of his psychology. And it was a remarkably individualistic life that he led. Erikson was an illegitimate child, born near Frankfurt, Germany in 1902, of a secret romance between his Jewish mother and an unknown Danish man. His mother married when he was three years old, but Erikson took after his biological father in appearance. His blond, Nordic appearance made him stand out among his young Jewish friends. In Germany and other parts of Europe at the turn of the century, anti-Semitic attitudes were quite pronounced (as was seen with Freud), and Erikson must have felt that he failed to fit into in with either the majority culture or the Jewish minority. Because of these unusual circumstances, he had an obvious “identity problem,” which surely influenced not only his unconventional lifestyle, but also his ideas about the crises that each person encounters at each stage of his or her life. As a young man, Erikson became a wanderer – almost a nomad – as he traveled through Europe. He also became an artist, and unsurprisingly given his independent nature, was largely self-trained. Erikson lived a bohemian lifestyle during these years, rebellious, but 9-1
also confused (Freidman, 1999). But he began teaching art to the children of Americans who came to Vienna to study psychoanalysis with Freud and his circle, specializing in children’s portraiture. He also became a Montessori instructor. It was at this time that he began studying psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, as well as being analyzed by her. Through his studies and associations with the psychoanalytic community he became one of the few psychoanalysts who practiced and was certified without a medical degree, specializing in chilld psychiatry. In 1933 Erikson, now married to Joan Mowat Erikson (née Serson), migrated to America to escape European fascism. Joan Erikson became Erik’s editor and research collaborator; they had four children and remained married for 64 years, until his death in 1994 at age 81. Erikson’s real surname was Homberger, after his physician stepfather, but he changed it legally to Erik Homberger Erikson in 1939. Although he gave no formal reason for this change, some have suggested that this name symbolized a personal transformation, that he literally created himself, or gave himself his own identity, as “Erik’s son,” suggesting that he was the “son of himself.” Erikson taught at several prominent universities and institutes, including Yale, Berkeley, the Menninger Foundation, Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, and Harvard. More than once his socio-political views caused him to move on from one place to another. He left Yale for Berkeley because of the anti-Semitic attitudes he encountered there. Later he left Berkeley for the Austen Riggs treatment center in Boston because he objected to signing loyalty oaths – this was during the McCarthy era – even though he was not himself a Communist, it was a matter of principle for him. In addition to psychology, Erikson was also very interested in cultural anthropology, and he lived for a time among the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota and the Yurok tribe in California. He wrote on a wide variety of psychological and cultural themes, including combat stress in veterans (his term...