- Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik Erikson by Lawrence Friedman
Free Association, 592 pp, £15.95, May 1999, ISBN 1 85343 471 X
Psychoanalysts and psychologists have always done it: construct the final theory about human nature around their own problems in life. Few did so more strikingly than Erik Erikson, ‘identity’s architect’ as he is rather grandiosely titled by Lawrence Friedman: he made identity his key concept because it was something he was deprived of in a dramatic way. To the end of his days, he had no idea who his father was.
Erikson’s name may now ring a bell for very few people, and even they may be surprised to realise that he died only a few years ago. He had by then had a long, long life; his period of renown as psychologist, author and sage could be said to have begun in the mid-1950s, when his book Childhood and Society began to take off; it peaked in 1970, when his picture appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and a Berkeley sociologist quoted by Friedman said of his students that ‘you can’t always be sure they’ve read Shakespeare, but you know they’ve read Erikson.’ The last quarter-century after that was, inevitably, a period of decline. Though apparently quite a modest man, once he had attained the position of sage his ideas grew thinner and his prose flabbier.
At birth in 1902 his surname was Abrahamsen, that of his clever and pretty mother. From a respected Jewish family in Copenhagen, she had been left motherless at 15 and made a disastrous first marriage which broke up almost at once. Some years later, well after the disappearance of this first husband, she found herself pregnant, which is where the mystery of Erikson’s birth came in, the crux of his life and writings. Karla Abrahamsen’s family had sent her to Germany to bring up her child, and she and he were together there for his first three years. What the photographs show is a dark, strikingly semitic girl holding the palest, blondest, most angelic of little boys. Erikson has been blamed for ignoring his Jewish background, but for him to assume that he had one gentile parent was not unreasonable.
If Karla Abrahamsen had been, as Erik’s half-sisters later suspected, virtually raped by an unknown, it would explain why she would never speak of her son’s parentage; on the other hand, the circumstances of his conception may simply have been discreditable or humiliating. The silence allowed him as he grew up to invent a Danish nobleman or artist to fill it – fantasies that Anna Freud, his psychoanalyst, would treat rather severely.
He was three when his mother got remarried, to a conventional German-Jewish doctor. Now Erik Homburger, he was told the new husband was his real father and grew up doubting the whole thing. At the synagogue he was teased as a goy on account of his appearance; at school as a Jew. When he confronted his mother with questions, she now told him he was the child of her brief first marriage. So: a mixed-up adolescent, with more than good reason; seven Wanderjähre around Europe while he tried to be an artist, and pondered the nature of the ‘self’, the ‘I’ and the ‘ego’ in his diary; and then – Vienna.
Homburger/Erikson began his psychoanalytic career with a chance tutoring job in the family of Anna Freud’s friend Dorothy Burlingham. He was good with children and highly perceptive, as products of confused families often learn to be. He went on to teach in the little school run by Anna Freud’s circle; within a few years he was elected a full member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, specialising in work with children. He had no university qualifications but was always, as Friedman emphasises and as was quickly recognised, a wise-clinician. It is perhaps a pity that the books, which vary in quality, remain, while there are few records from within the consulting room. There is a story, though, from his years of fame, that when Edward Kennedy came over from Hyannisport to consult him about running for President, Erikson asked him to think about what kind of old age he wanted.
He had at first been doubtful about the whole psychoanalytical milieu, so ‘intensely verbal’ as he described it, too talmudical perhaps for the budding artist. Anna Freud’s reply, that he might help to make people see, had a touch of inspiration, and she became his analyst. (What father figure might he have made of a male analyst?) Though he was not uncritical of his time with her, perhaps it was a factor in his excellent choice of marriage partner: one of those dedicated wives typical of the time who was also lively and independent.