Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik Erikson 
by Lawrence Friedman.
Free Association, 592 pp., £15.95, May 1999, 9781853434716
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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.

Later he would send copies of his books to Anna Freud. She seldom replied: by adding to psychoanalysis and interpreting it in his own way, he was diluting the pure milk of doctrine. She reportedly said that she found his ideas superficial. In one sense this was true. Erikson’s belief, encouraged by meetings in the United States with anthropological writers such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, was that the outer world of familial and social patterns was as important for each individual as the inner world, that the intersection of the two was the crux of character. Hence his writings on Native American child-rearing, on national characteristics, on historical figures such as Luther, Hitler and Gandhi. The Viennese Freudians were vertical thinkers, digging downwards into the psyche; Erikson’s generation of post-Freudians were thinking horizontally, putting psychoanalytic ideas into contexts, filling in backgrounds to the clinical orthodoxies. It was the time for this to be done. Some of the writers of this period do tend towards the superficial, certainly, and can seem more dated than the wild Freudian pioneers. The crucial question of whether this is true of Erikson is not quite answered by this biography. As an account of a life it is painstaking (it was ten years in the writing), but not quite enlivened by the insight that it needs.

Erikson did not think of himself as a rebel against psychoanalysis, and in any case the days when followers diverging from Freud’s line were shot at dawn had passed. But his concerns gradually became more general than particular, and his books none the better for it. His original statement of aims was well put in his introduction to Childhood and Society in 1950:

Psychoanalysis today is implementing the study of the ego, a concept denoting man’s capacity to unify his experience and his action in an adaptive manner. It is shifting its emphasis from the concentrated study of the conditions which blunt and distort the individual ego to the study of the ego’s roots in social organisation ... This is a psychoanalytic book on the relation of the ego to society.

Wrapped up in this programme was of course the identity question: how much of this is formed by society, how much self-created?

The Homburger family’s move to the United States in 1933 must have provided Erik with his second great dose of identity-bashing. His wife was Canadian and glad to get out of Europe, but for him it was not so easy. They had the usual struggles of the immigrant. Erikson was lucky to acquire patients, lecture invitations and jobs relatively quickly. On the other hand, he was too much his own man to fit in well with American rigidity: the analysts found him too relaxed and informal with his patients; directors of research programmes felt him to be a loose cannon, uninterested in measurement and statistics. But he quickly made his way, and five years after arrival, applying for naturalisation, he decided to change his name to Erikson. He was criticised for this change, with its implication of anti-semitism. It was actually not an unreasonable decision – he wanted to cut the connection with his stepfather, his family liked the change. Nevertheless ... Erik Erikson! Was there a suggestion of Viking splendour, of a man reborn by a change of name? He was to write later, in his book on Gandhi, that ‘special men ... strive to become their own fathers.’ Again, we don’t quite know what to make of him. Overall, he seems to have been a diffident man, with just the occasional venture into such grandiosity.

This mixture of insecurity and assertion was demonstrated again in his response, in the Cold War year of 1950, to the demand that academics sign an oath of loyalty to the USA or lose their jobs. By this time Erikson was a tenured professor at Berkeley. Many of his colleagues were putting themselves at risk by refusing to obey such an order. He agonised long over the decision: apart from the question of his livelihood, he liked and was grateful to his adopted country – but he remembered, better than most, Nazi demands for unquestioning obedience. The end result seems to have been a compromise. He did refuse to sign: his statement declared that his field included the ‘study of “hysteria”, private and public’ and that the nation was in the grip of such a hysteria. But a newly worded contract was drawn up, which some felt was almost as bad as the first one, and Friedman argues that he probably signed it – at any rate he stayed on at Berkeley for another year before quitting. Not a Gandhi, then, nor a Viking.

Childhood and Society (written in the 1940s, climbing to fame in the 1960s) was published around this time. What constituted its tremendous appeal? It includes case histories, both child and adult; thoughts on play; chapters on the culture of the Yurok and Sioux communities; novel analyses of the backgrounds of Hitler and of Maxim Gorky, drawing on their autobiographies; a chapter on the eight stages of life, a schema that Erikson was very fond of and was to rework rather tiresomely often. What must, I think, have struck home, and what kept students (to his amusement) rushing to him with news of their identity crises, was the chapter entitled ‘Reflections on American Identity’. In this he anatomises the special problems of affirming identity in a melting-pot country, the conflict between Puritan values and the myth of the wild frontiersman, the lack of traditional grandparenting authority, the weight of ‘Mom-ism’ and ‘bossism’. He contrasts the plea in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – ‘I just can’t take hold, Mom, I can’t take hold of some kind of a life’ – with rip-roaring frontier folk material: ‘Raised in the backwoods, suckled by a polar bear, nine rows of jaw teeth, a double coat of hair, steel ribs, wire intestines, and a barbed wire tail, and I don’t give a dang where I drag it. Whoopee-whee-a-ha!’ The end-product of these opposing pressures he sees as American-style blandness. ‘The streamlined smile within the perfectly tuned countenance and within the standardised ways of exhibiting self-control does not always,’ the sharp-eyed European immigrant notes, ‘harbour that true spontaneity which alone would keep the personality intact and flexible enough to make it a going concern.’ (Bruno Bettelheim, whose work does not seem to have impinged on Erikson’s at all, had the same uneasy reaction to the polite, well-adjusted kibbutzniks he studied for The Children of the Dream.) ‘Reflections on American Identity’, read together with Erikson’s account of the very different Native American world and with books such as Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, caught the imagination of the anti-conformist, soon-to-be-hippy generation. It is of course an analysis solely of the white world; Erikson’s interest in American blacks came later.

The time was ripe for all this. The pool of patients (including himself) from which Freud drew his theories may have been neurotic or traumatised, but most came from an established Jewish-bourgeois setting. ‘Who am I?’ was not the first question that sprang to their lips. Not that the ‘identity problem’ burst for the first time ever into the mid-20th century. What was Wordsworth’s Prelude but an extended account of it, though he called it ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’? Even before the age of Romantic introspection, James Boswell, crushed by an oppressive father, was much concerned about who he might be, as he stood before the mirror admonishing himself ‘Be Johnson!’ or ‘Be Paoli!’ Hume had a look for his ID, and serenely found nothing there. And half a century of preoccupation with dreams, hysteria, hypnosis and divided personality led up to William James’s chapter on ‘The Self’ in his textbook of psychology, published before Erikson was born. Brothers William and Henry: there were two with identity tangles to sort out!

All the same, it was only as society became more and more disjointed that the subject moved into the limelight. The United States had finished with two world wars and a Depression, and was ready to tackle a new way of looking. Erikson, because of his unusual background, was the man to step forward, though others – Margaret Mead, Erich Fromm, Geoffrey Gorer – were writing along the same lines. Friedman quotes Erikson’s account of how he first saw the centrality of his concept when he was one of a panel examining traumatised war veterans. Always averse to the psychoanalytical view of the world as one vast psychiatric ward, he argued that these men were not pathological cases, ‘shell-shocked’ or ‘psychoneurotic’. They had experienced dramatic disruptions, loss of everything familiar, all ‘sense of personal sameness and historical continuity’, and had plummeted into an identity crisis.

Unfortunately, as he enlarged on the idea over the rest of his life, it came, in Eriksonian fashion, to acquire more and more, but vaguer and vaguer, meanings – spiritual, ethical – rather as Jung’s concept of ‘individuation’ did. The idea that one might have a firm, but not very attractive social identity (established East End villain, obedient Mafia member?) did not raise its head. Instead it all expanded like Proust’s paper flower. In Friedman’s index there are 20 sub-headings under the word, and some seventy page references; looking at a recent collection of psychoanalytic studies, I have found only one index reference to Erikson, and the word ‘identity’ is used only with reference to women’s gender identity.

Erikson did not concern himself much with the problem of conflicting identities: the fact that, at the least, we have to have one face for the office, one for home, one for friend A and another for friend B. Some people manage this without even noticing it. For others, as for Matthew Arnold,

There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life,
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course.

There was Sartre’s mauvaise foi (not unconnected, I suppose, with France’s recent collaboration/Resistance problem); then the concept of the ‘false self’ that blocks the true one became important. First spelled out in psychoanalytic papers by Winnicott, it reached a huge public when R.D. Laing published The Divided Self in 1959. Suddenly everyone realised they had a false self, and wanted to get rid of it. Erikson did not incorporate these ideas; but his description in ‘Reflections on American Identity’ of the jolly fellow with the streamlined smile and the perfectly tuned countenance is an immediately recognisable false-selfer. Nor has the identity issue faded into the past, as the number of courses and therapies dedicated to ‘finding out who we are’ demonstrates.

The two books with which Erikson might be said to have initiated psycho-biography – Young Man Luther and Gandhi’s Truth – came out in 1958 and 1969; the first inspired John Osborne’s play, the latter won several prizes. In both he focused on turning-points (or identity crises) in the lives of the great men to whom he felt drawn. Luther is rather more tied down to the psychoanalytical than Gandhi: the amorphousness of Indian culture and character could hardly be squeezed into a European schema. The study sprang from a stay with the affluent Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad (consistently misspelled by Friedman, among other words) while he was addressing a seminar there. The extraordinary Sarabhais, who founded a psychoanalytic clinic and nursery school where Erikson’s name is still fondly remembered, had known Gandhi well. In the 1918 strike of textile workers (Ahmedabad is a Gujarati Manchester) one family member had closely supported Gandhi, one had courteously opposed him. Erikson was able to talk to them about the strike, to make several visits to India, to struggle with culture shock as well as with sheer Gandhi-shock. Of all the Mahatma’s contradictory postures, it was the image of the man at the humble spinning wheel that appealed most to him. Friedman suggests that Erikson was himself spinning and interweaving a hugely assorted bunch of threads into the book. Though there were criticisms when the biography appeared, this was the time of Erikson’s peak. The descent from it, as he moved into old age and there was a new generation to assess him, was unpleasantly steep.

Attacks started to come from all sides: it was the time for debunking. Marxists on the Gramsci/Althusser axis accused him of lacking social awareness. Historians detected faulty scholarship. New psychoanalytic thinkers, now investigating the deep infant roots of personality, found him shallow to the point of – horrors! – being no analyst at all, but a therapist. The new feminism rose up against the man who had reported that little girls and little boys set out different play configurations in the consulting room. Overall, the fact that his work was, by intention, interdisciplinary, made him the target for accusations of lack of rigour. Worst of all, for the prophet of ‘wholeness’, ‘authenticity’ and such, was a major attack on his way of life, based on the fact that he had changed his name and seemed to be denying his Jewishness. ‘Cosmic chutzpah’ was one summing-up. His book sales dropped sharply. The old man was very distressed, drafted letters for critics and family members, tried to explain the whole wretched business of his parentage again.

He had been overpraised and he was now being punished for it. The same thing was to happen to, among others, Margaret Mead and Benjamin Spock, both good friends of his. In fact, there seems little of which he needed to be ashamed. He had rebelled against his Jewish upbringing because it was bourgeois and stepfatherly. He was married to a committed Christian, his children were a quarter Jewish; and it was probably his spirited mother’s revolt against her own upbringing that had caused the dilemma of his parentage. His writing in ‘The Legend of Hitler’s Childhood’, among other places, shows that he was not in a state of ignorance about Nazism. He had written of ‘the bleached bones of men of my kind in Europe’. He had sent generous support to his family in Palestine when he had barely established himself in the United States. As for feminism, he had for his time been a strong supporter of his women colleagues and friends; but he was tarred with the Freudian brush.

As he grew seriously old, of course, his public image changed back again, from misguided old fogey to splendid old survivor. Honours were awarded him, and a big celebration arranged for his 80th birthday. He continued to write, rather feebly, and was cossetted by his wife and three children, with whom he had in the past had his differences. He drifted into his dotage, and died in a nursing-home, aged 92.

More time will have to pass before Erikson comes back into fashion and is reassessed. My guess is that future readers interested in branches off the Freudian tree will find a lot to interest them in his books, albeit in a scattered way. ‘I have nothing to offer except a way of looking at things,’ he said in Childhood and Society, and hoped that his way of looking would bring children and women back into social history. It is a pity he did not write more on play, with which he started his career; on this subject, Toys and Reasons was an interesting late book (though it is disconcerting to find a review of it by myself made unrecognisable by Friedman). His own estimation of his value was as a border-crosser, a position destined for him by his origins. He has crystallised for all time the importance of a sense of identity, though sometimes by shooting all round the target. He comes closest to hitting the mark when he refers to a resting-place between the extremes of free fantasy and conscience: ‘in this third state we are least impulsive, neither wishing that we could, nor feeling that we ought to, do anything different from what we could and would and should do.’ This is reminiscent of William James’s ‘The very core and nucleus of ourself, as we know it, the very sanctuary of our life, is the sense of activity which certain inner states possess.’

As for Erikson as a person, it is hard to know whether it is the author’s fault or his subject’s that the picture which emerges is rather indistinct. The huge amount of detail conscientiously amassed by Friedman is more flattening than enlightening. More direct quotation, from letters or other sources, might have helped; to be told simply that he made ‘witty jokes’ and wore ‘stylish clothes’ is rather dispiriting. His record both as a university teacher and a family man appears creditable. I suspect that he was kindly, timidly unconventional, intuitive, and that a spell of psychoanalysis with him – unlike most analysts – would have been quite enjoyable.

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