The Enigma of Erik Erikson

Like the major topics that he addressed, the psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson came into his own in the America of the 1960s. From his newly created position as professor of human development at Harvard, Erikson claimed that there were major psychological differences between men and women, a view that was taken as a challenge and a provocation by the nascent women’s movement. Decades-long studies of troubled youth in several countries culminated in his concepts of “identity” and the “identity crisis,” notions that rapidly entered into the popular culture and took on special meaning for college students, hippies, draft resisters, and aging members of the “beat” generation. Incorporated in his much-praised study of Mahatma Gandhi, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Erikson’s notions of identity came to be applied as well to the emerging nations of Africa and Asia.

As the themes and concerns of the 1960s faded, so did much of the aura surrounding Erikson. His concepts, his writings, and even the way in which he led his life came under sharp and often unsympathetic scrutiny. He wrote much less and his work no longer captured public attention. As the social sciences, and society generally, moved on to new concerns, Erikson seemed to some a beleaguered defender of an increasingly discredited Freudian perspective, to others an unduly optimistic chronicler of human nature. By the time of his death in 1994 at age ninety-one, Erikson had been absorbed into a long list of mid-century émigré intellectuals, reduced to a respectful paragraph or two in psychology textbooks.

Already the subject of two books and scores of praising and critical articles, Erikson might seem an unlikely candidate for a new and relatively long study. But the sympathetic portrait of Erik Erikson by the historian Lawrence J. Friedman proves to be well worth reading. Erikson’s unusual life affected his work in ways that are fascinating and revealing, even for those who are not much in sympathy with his ideas. As someone who knew Erikson off and on for thirty years, I might have emphasized somewhat different aspects of his work; yet, in my view, Friedman’s achievement as his biographer is definitive.

Erikson was less of a scholar and more of a seer in both senses of that term: he used his eyes probingly, and he discerned patterns that were invisible to others. A study of Erikson must take up fundamental questions: What did Erikson see? How lasting were his insights? With respect to these issues, Friedman’s achievement is less satisfying.

In a stirring preface to his book, Friedman describes how he presented the ninety-year-old Erikson with photographs of two Danish photographers—one of whom in all likelihood was Erikson’s biological father. (Alas, Erikson was too senile to appreciate that his long search for his biological father might be over.) From his earliest childhood, the man who came to be known as Erik Erikson sensed that his paternity was surrounded by mystery. His Jewish …

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Letters

Erikson’s Enigma November 18, 1999