Obituary: Professor Erik Erikson
Monday 16 May 1994
ERIK ERIKSON was one of the most distinguished of psychoanalytic theorists. His work in child psychotherapy, his anthropological observations on childhood, his discussions of 'identity', 'identity crises' and 'stages' in the lives of human beings, influenced many psychoanalysts, mental-health workers, and the general public. He also wrote biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi which brought attention and admiration from historians and biographers. His book on Gandhi won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.
Erikson's writing always indicated his loyalty and debt to Freud and to psychoanalysis, while dealing with cultural issues in a way that classical psychoanalysis did not. For instance, he emphasised social influences on developing individuals, rather than sexual or instinctual issues.
In a foreword to his first book, Childhood and Society (1950), he wrote that 'the psychoanalytic method is essentially a historical method'. 'Yet the psychoanalyst is an odd, maybe a new kind of historian: in committing himself to influencing what he observes he becomes part of the historical process which he studies . . . Neither terminological alignment with the more objective sciences nor dignified detachment from the clamouring of the day can or should keep the psychoanalytic method' from being 'participant'. He later said: 'The way you 'take history' is also a way of 'making history'.' Not surprisingly he came to be linked with psychohistory - though the term was not his.
He was born in Frankfurt in 1902. His stepfather, Theodor Homburger, a German-Jewish paediatrician, had married his mother when Erik was three years old. In an autobiographical sketch Erikson said about himself that he grew up blond, blue- eyed and 'flagrantly tall', so that in his stepfather's temple he was referred to as a goy - while his schoolmates considered him a Jew.
His stepfather had wanted him to become a medical doctor. Erik attended the local Gymnasium, from where he went on to art school, rather than medical studies. 'Like other youths with artistic or literary aspirations', he later wrote, he became 'intensely alienated from everything' his 'bourgeois family' stood for. He went on to live as a Bohemian artist.
After wandering in Italy, where he had what he called an 'aggravated identity crisis', he went to Vienna in 1930. Peter Blos, a friend of his, later to become a psychoanalyst, had invited him to Vienna to teach at a school that Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlington had set up there. This was Erikson's first regular job, and there he started to shed 'a stepson's negative identity . . . to avoid belonging anywhere'.
At the school he saw that anxiety and despair rob children of play and freedom. He regarded the child as the prototype of the powerless victim. Identifying with the children as underdogs, and with their tricks and tactics, he battled for them, as he was later to do as a psychotherapist. He saw psychoanalysis with children as a means of restoring their 'playful freedom'.
He entered the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute and had an analysis with Anna Freud. He saw in his 'truly astonishing adoption by the Freudian circle . . . a kind of positive stepson identity' that made him 'take for granted' that he should be accepted where he 'did not quite belong'.
In 1933 he graduated from the institute, and in the same year emigrated to the United States. He married a Canadian woman, Joan Serson, with whom he was to have two sons and a daughter. He learned English as an adult, but his writings give no hint that English was not his native language.
Without a medical or other university degree, he worked at various American medical colleges: in 1935- 36 at Harvard Medical School, in 1936-39 at Yale School of Medicine, in 1939-51 in the department of psychiatry at the University of California. He was 'living on the boundaries' - his own phrase.
In his work he explored people living on the margins of society: American Indians, blacks, delinquents. He called his work a 'conceptual itinerary', and in it he relied upon an intuitive or literary mode of truth-seeking. Unlike Freud, he never invoked or adopted the guise of a scientist. He once wrote about psychoanalytic technique that few patients 'want to know whether or not our interpretations are scientifically true; most patients are satisfied that they feel true and that they give meaning to suffering'.
In the 1950s the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber invited him to spend some time with the Yurok, a Californian Indian tribe, whose culture Kroeber had described. In a classic of 'ethnopsychiatry', Erikson wrote about the tensions between crowded female-dominated living places and the sweathouses where men went to be uncrowded and male.
In 1951-60 he was on the staff of the Austen Riggs Center, a psychoanalytic treatment facility in Massachusetts, and was also a visiting professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. He joined Harvard in 1960, where he lectured in the department of psychiatry and was Professor of Human Development.
Probably Erikson's best-known contribution to the psychoanalytic literature is his outline of 'stages' in human life, which the individual can negotiate well or poorly. He proposed that infancy, for instance, is marked by a conflict between trust and mistrust of the mother, and a successful outcome leaves the individual with a feeling of hope. In the next stage, a basic conflict is between the individual's wish for autonomy and a sense of shame and doubt, with a successful outcome being will; 'the unbroken determination to exercise free choice as well as self-restraint'. Erikson described eight stages altogether, the successful outcome of each resulting in what he called a virtue. Beside hope and will, the other 'virtues' arising from the successful resolution of childhood conflicts are purpose and competence; from a successful adolescence fidelity; and from success in adult stages love and care.
As old age approaches, Erikson believed, people face a conflict between achieving a sense of 'integrity' and falling into despair. They must come to know 'that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history.' Success at this stage results in wisdom.
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