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 mother, Karla Abrahamsen, had become pregnant, in all likelihood during a brief fling with a Danish Protestant artist and photographer. She subsequently married a Jewish stockbroker named Valdemar Salomonsen, about whom little is known. The marriage was probably unconsummated, and Karla left her native Denmark, perhaps in disgrace, and traveled to Germany.
In Frankfurt, she gave birth to a boy whom she named Erik (perhaps after the biological father) Salomonsen (who was certainly not that father). Young Erik Salomonsen was somewhat sickly and Karla took him to see a pediatrician named Theodor Homburger. Years later Erik recalled his impressions of “that intruder, the bearded doctor with his mysterious instruments,” whom Karla soon married. A condition of marriage was that Erik would be told that Theodor was his biological father; eventually he was formally adopted and reared as Erik Homburger. Yet neither the newly renamed Erik Homburger nor the neighbors were fooled, since Erik was the blond, blue-eyed, light-skinned child of two dark-haired Jews.
An unusually sensitive young man, Erik Homburger spent many years dreaming about three father figures (the real one, unknown; the second, the mysterious Salomonsen; the third, the physician who had taken his mother away from Salomonsen). He was extremely close to his mother, dating back to the days when they had lived alone, and remembered especially her remarkable beauty, her intelligence, and their intense eye-to-eye contact; no doubt Erikson had her in mind when he said that identity (the feeling that “I am somebody”) begins with the recognition of a mother’s smile. One needs neither the techniques nor the beliefs of psychoanalysis to conclude both that Erik was in search of a father figure, even as he was especially dependent upon strong maternal figures, and that he was eventually to encounter the parents he desired in Sigmund Freud, his intellectual father, and Anna Freud, who became his teacher and his personal psychoanalyst.
Erik Homburger’s youth was troubled. He was as uncertain about his religion as about his parentage. His observant Jewish family was jarred when he formally broke off relations with the rabbi at the local synagogue. He began to study the Christian Gospels, and was electrified one morning when he heard the Lord’s Prayer spoken in Luther’s German. He disliked primary school and, despite Karla’s daily tutoring, did not perform well. He was even more alienated at the classical gymnasium in Karlsruhe, repelled by its rote learning, strict discipline, and absence of artistic subjects. (One thinks of Albert Einstein’s similar disaffection, a generation earlier.) Karla insisted that he finish and he did so, though in the bottom half of his class. Thereafter, and forever, Erik Homburger forswore formal schooling. He used to joke that he was the only Harvard professor who lacked a college degree and had flunked the only course that he had ever taken in his subject (a psychology course in the 1930s at Harvard).
While perhaps less dramatic than his quest for parents, Erik Homburger’s search for a profession was equally pained. Coming from an intellectual, artistic, and professional family, he was under considerable pressure to choose a legitimate career. His adopted father wanted him to become a pediatrician who would practice in Karlsruhe. But instead the adolescent Homburger went off on a Wanderjahr of immoderate length. For seven years, he meandered across Europe, trying to work as an artist, in his memorable phrase “a young man with some talent, but nowhere to go.” He made numerous sketches and woodcuts, though for some reason (which psychoanalysts would likely probe) he was unable to express himself in color.
It is less widely known that Homburger also kept a journal in which he speculated about a wide range of spiritual, philosophical, and psychological questions. Like other adolescent intellectuals (and the “other” psychologist of children, Jean Piaget, who also kept a journal), Erik Homburger dealt in his jottings with many of the same issues that he would eventually write about professionally: they included the despair of adolescence, idealistic goals for social change, the personality of the leader, “genuine selfhood,” death as a return to “the meaning of the beginning,” the “cycles of life,” and the “stages of character.” Homburger later acknowledged he had been deeply neurotic during this period: “I was probably close to psychosis,” he once said.
Perhaps the most important event in Homburger’s life was his encounter, in 1927, with the Freud family. On the recommendations of his lifelong friend Peter Blos and of Dorothy Burlingham, an American heiress in analysis with Sigmund Freud, Homburger was hired to teach in a small school for the young children of those in the Freudian circle. For the next six years, he remained in Vienna, where he was analyzed daily by Anna Freud, mastered the new field of child psychoanalysis, and was accorded the unusual honor of being elected as a full (rather than an associate) member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society with automatic membership in the International Psychoanalytical Association.
Much remains unclear about the attraction between young Erik Homburger and the Freud family. They evidently found one another personally appealing and professionally useful. Homburger was looking for a parental relationship and a career; the Freuds were happy to welcome a handsome, talented young man of Gentile appearance who was attracted to their revolutionary enterprise. Yet—and here is the obscure part—Homburger evidently had a very special talent. Without any credentials, he was hired on the basis of his way with children, and he advanced through the psychoanalytic (and the teaching) ranks because of his understanding of children’s “psychosocial and psychosexual development”—words that only later came into widespread use. Homburger/ Erikson’s genius lay in his extraordinary clinical insights—as he put it, he became a “clinical artist”; unless this “way of seeing” emerged full-blown upon his move to Vienna, we have to assume that he somehow acquired it during his own troubled childhood, his long Wanderjahre, and his reflections on both experiences. At any rate by the time Homburger left Vienna, he had come “as close to the role of a children’s doctor as one could possibly come without going to medical school.”
If his early years were stressful, Erik Homburger had an astonishingly successful middle life. In Vienna he met and married an unusually attractive, talented, and warm Canadian woman, Joan Serson, on whom he remained lovingly dependent for over sixty years. (Characteristically for two people who had doubts about their identity, they held three separate marriage ceremonies in 1930.) Intensely aware of the fascist trends in Central Europe, Erik and Joan attempted to settle in Copenhagen, but when this proved difficult, they chose to move to America in the autumn of 1933. As a gifted young child analyst bearing the imprimatur of the Freud family, Homburger was welcomed into the psychological and psychiatric communities of the United States. In the 1930s and 1940s, he held a series of academic and clinical positions at Harvard, Yale, and the University of California at Berkeley. He began to publish, first under the name of Erik Homburger, and then, after he became a citizen in 1939, under a name that he made up, Erik H. Erikson.
With the help of the anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, H. Scudder Mekeel, and Alfred Kroeber, Erikson visited Indian communities in the Southwest; these visits inspired important writings about the impact of Euro-American practices on traditional child-rearing and adult character. He also began to write about the distinctive ways of growing up in different industrialized countries. Fried- man tells us that Erik Homburger wrote a perceptive essay about Hitler’s appeal to youth in the very year that Hitler came to power; and that he was aided in translating his essay into English by an American that he met, the diplomat George Kennan, who happened to be traveling on the ship that took the Homburger family to America.
Homburger arrived during the worst depression in the history of the nation. He knew little English, had no formal degrees, and was an expert in a field that did not really exist. Nonetheless, something about his person, knowledge, and what I would call his charismatic vulnerability caused even those in the competitive fields of scholarship and medicine to come to the aid of the young clinician and his growing family. In addition to positions at major scholarly institutions in this country, he received regular grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fund, the General Education Board, and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. The “old boy” and (in child study and anthropology) “old girl” networks went to work on his behalf.
Yet Erik Homburger was not a team player. While he was expected to join others in collegial research, he did so only hesitantly and, in the end, often broke away and worked on his own. No question that Erik Homburger Erikson brought an unusual set of talents to the study and care of normal and troubled children; no doubt that he was an attractive young man with a handsome family; still, it is by no means evident why so many persons and institutions rallied to the support of this somewhat exotic figure.
In the late 1940s, the man who was now known as Erik Erikson became entangled in the loyalty oath controversy. As part of America’s overreaction to the threat of communism, many institutions required their members to swear that they did not belong to the Communist Party. Erikson had no particular political history and certainly had not been a Communist. Yet, as one who had observed the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Erikson was deeply offended by the intrusion into the personal beliefs of citizens who were otherwise unexceptionable. Along with a few other members of the psychology faculty at Berkeley, where he was then teaching, Erikson resigned from the university.
Lawrence Friedman points out that this action was not as courageous as it would have been for a person who was purely a scholar; Erikson could gain comparable income from clinical work and was already an acclaimed psychologist who had other job offers. Moreover, he appears on another occasion to have signed something like a loyalty oath at the University of California. Nonetheless, at a time when so many others caved in to political pressure, Erikson—who always thought of himself as a guest in an adopted land—proved that he could think and act independently on a matter of conscience.
Erikson came into his own at mid-century. Childhood and Society, the book in which he introduced his own perspectives, was published in 1950. This loosely linked set of essays soon acquired the status of a classic. During the 1950s, Erikson worked with troubled adolescents, and further developed his views on identity, at the Austen Riggs Clinic in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Another formidable patron, Dean McGeorge Bundy of Harvard University, overcame academic protocol and invited Erikson to Harvard, where he taught to increasing acclaim during the 1960s. (He was my own tutor for two years.) Going beyond clinical studies of children, and portraits of American Indian and modern cultures, Erikson virtually invented the new field of psychohistory. From his work, one could understand better not only the personal development of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi, but also the dialectical ways in which their life trajectories interacted with broader historical and cultural forces.
Finally, as he approached old age, Erikson ventured increasingly into two complex matters: the role of human values in our society and the application of lessons from psychological analysis to pressing social problems, such as racism and violent conflict. In this latter work, he collaborated publicly with his wife Joan, who had long been his editor and his most important confidante. She was also his chief solace when, in the 1970s, Erikson came under increasing criticism for both personal and professional reasons.
Erikson’s discipline was psychoanalysis. It was as a result of his apprenticeship with the Freuds that Erikson acquired both his professional standing and the analytical categories and approach that he used for the remainder of his life. Erikson never rejected his psychoanalytic origins and, throughout his life, many of his close friends and associates came from the analytic camp.
That said, Erikson was never an orthodox Freudian. He was often linked to the neo-Freudians, or the ego psychologists, but he spurned such labels. Over the years, his work took him further and further afield from both the concepts and the issues that are the workaday concerns of those who see patients eight hours a day, discuss them at conferences, and occasionally write them up for publication. Not surprisingly, reactions to Erikson often reflect the different views taken by psychoanalysts; those closest to the Freudian faith are most drawn to Erikson’s early writings about individual patients, with their grounding in infantile sexual processes and fixations, while those who are suspicious of Freud’s approach are more sympathetic to Erikson’s historical, social, and cultural concerns, which are more akin to the writings of a wide-ranging intellectual than to the insights of a skilled clinician.
Quite apart from the drama of his life, Erikson’s work remains of much interest today. I would single out four motifs of that work, each linked to a particular phase in Erikson’s intellectual development.
First and perhaps most important is Erikson’s “epigenetic” approach to human development. Freud had a strong tendency toward what Erikson once termed “originology.” Erikson acknowledged the importance of early experience but, refusing to accept that it determined everything else, he stressed that each phase of human life has its own crises and opportunities. Each crisis must be dealt with during its own phase, and yet the form and completeness of the resolution colors each of the successive phases of life. For orthodox Freudians, human personality is effectively fixed by age five; Erikson saw development as continuing in successive phases throughout the life span—a view so widely accepted today in both popular and scholarly circles that its origins are seldom acknowledged.
During the 1940s Erikson worked out a sequence of eight successive stages of life, each having a central conflict. The struggle in infancy occurs between feelings of basic trust and mistrust; the struggle in adolescence pits a sense of identity against the perils of confusion over one’s identity or place in the world. In the struggle of old age, feelings of having sustained one’s integrity (a life reasonably lived) conflict with despair over opportunities irretrievably lost. At each of the other phases of life there are other, if less memorable, struggles. Erikson prepared a number of diagrams that illustrate the relations among these phases. (See the diagram from 1959 on the opposite page for a typical example.) Early versions were much more closely tied to Freud’s scheme of sexual devel-opment in children. Shrewdly and characteristically, Erikson was not wedded to such diagrams. He often said, “Such charts are useful for the kinds of people who like that kind of thing.”
Growing out of the scheme of the life cycle, a second Eriksonian concern is the centrality in human life of a “sense of identity”—the construction of a self that makes sense for the particular individual as well as for the community in which that individual lives. As shown in the diagram, issues of identity commence in the infant’s sense of time; and they recur continually throughout the stages of life until, in the closing years, people contend with the question of what they have done with their lives.
The effort to create a sense of identity occurs at a central point in the life cycle; and it has proved to be central today. Erikson took the view that just as issues of sexuality had been paramount in Central Europe during Freud’s time, issues of identity had come to the fore in an age that had already absorbed some of Freud’s central tenets. Reflecting on the life of George Bernard Shaw (but clearly having his own case in mind as well), Erikson showed particular interest in young people who undergo a struggle over establishing their identity—who indulge in a lengthy “psychosocial moratorium,” in which they are trying out different personae in an effort to determine which fit best.
Erikson was particularly struck, for example, by the case of a young American Protestant seminarian who suffered a breakdown while training for missionary work in Asia. This patient had suffered severe depression, suicidal impulses, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors that had brought him to Erikson’s care at the Austen Riggs clinic during the 1950s.
Deep into therapy, the seminarian described a powerful anxiety dream, “the most disturbing dream of his life”: it was “of a big face sitting in a buggy of the horse-and-buggy days.” The face was completely empty of features, and “there was horrible slimy, snaky hair all around it. I am not sure it wasn’t my mother.” Erikson saw this dream as symptomatic of this patient’s painful state in which his identity had become diffuse. Whenever he had begun to have faith in a person or precept, angry emotions erupted, and the seminarian felt mistrusting, empty, a victim of despair. The patient had become obsessed with figuring out who he was—the empty face underscored his complete confusion about his own identity. Erikson also noted what was absent: no words, no motives, no facial features, no father.
Piecing together various clues that had emerged in previous months, Erikson drew attention to the patient’s belief in the sturdiness of values that pervaded his grandfather’s “horse-and-buggy days.” The patient seemed deeply uncertain about his own religious belief and affiliation as he searched for a God whose face might shine upon him. The Medusa figure reflected a mother who had been domineering, if not castrating; and the hair Erikson saw as a resentful reference to himself, since he had temporarily abandoned the patient because of surgery at a time when the patient desperately sought his help. Erikson tentatively offered these interpretations of the themes crystallized in the dense dream. He praised the youth’s willingness to invade the “zone of irreality” in order to have more reciprocal relations with his family and with his therapist.
Erikson’s words had an emancipating effect on the sensitive young man. After considerable further treatment, the patient had been able to combine these themes into a workable identity. Leaving the ministry, he became a medical doctor, thus reestablishing a link to his father and grandfather, both of whom had been physicians.
Studies of the life cycle and of identity center on the individual, though in Erikson’s version, the individual is much more of a product of his culture than most Freudians would allow. From his earliest work in the 1930s and 1940s, Erikson was fascinated by the choices available to (and the constraints imposed on) persons who lived in radically different environments. He contrasted the life stages and the identity crises of young people who were growing up in contemporary America and those who grew up early in the century. He compared the lives of young people in industrial cities like Pittsburgh and in native communities like the American Indians. He discussed the relation between culture and personality in societies he knew well, like pre-Nazi Germany, and in those about which he had only read, like the Russia of Maxim Gorky’s youth.
In his third major project, associated with the 1950s and 1960s, Erikson took such cultural analysis in a new direction—that of psychological history. Erikson had been a student of history in his childhood and had read widely, if unsystematically, during his Wanderjahre. He had always been interested in religion; he felt a strong identification with Jesus and Luther, and had been inspired as well by the work of Mahatma Gandhi, which he had first encountered in the 1920s when he had read a popular book about him by the French writer Romain Rolland.
In the 1950s, motivated in part by his sessions with the young seminarian, Erikson analyzed Martin Luther and the rise of Protestantism during the sixteenth century. His concerns with identity crises among religious believers culminated in an influential and controversial book, Young Man Luther. Erikson dared to suggest that Luther had a full-blown identity crisis as well as a series of early experiences (including severe toilet training) that led him to break from the Church and to conceive a new form of protesting religion. And he argued persuasively that Luther’s message had appeal because so many of his German-speaking compatriots felt the same doubts and stirrings as did the young protester.
Then, following a stay in Ahmedabad, India, in 1962, Erikson undertook his even more ambitious psychohistorical study of Gandhi as a leader who grew up in a traditional, colonized civilization, was transformed by his experiences in England and South Africa, and created a form of nonviolent protest that had historical effect not only in his own country but in other contemporary societies as well. Finding a clear and candid voice that surprised even his closest admirers and students, Erik-son interrupted the narrative of his Gandhi’s Truth to compose a twenty-five page personal letter to Gandhi—first published in The New York Review*—in which he began by expressing admiration for Gandhi’s achievement and then went on to raise doubts about what Gandhi had done and how he had spoken and written about it.
Among many other indictments, he singled out several “untruths” Gandhi told in the service of purportedly telling the truth. Erikson lamented Gandhi’s mistreatment of his wife and his cruel behavior toward his children, as well as the sadistic and hypermoralistic streak toward those who did not follow his doctrines. Erikson observed, moreover, that Gandhi’s violent rejection of sexuality was combined with the practice in late life of sleeping next to, and perhaps with, young women. Yet Erikson was also convincing in his belief that Gandhi will been seen as the chief spiritual figure of recent centuries; and his probing study will remain one of the principal texts on the man and his achievement.
Erikson’s final project, his attempt to formulate a new, psychologically based morality, emerged in the middle 1960s. Erikson had now become one of the best-known public intellectuals in the world, with its numerous platforms open to him, and with an increasing feeling (in a man who was, I think, genuinely humble) that he must speak out on world issues, particularly the dehumanizing effects of the cold war. As he strode with determination across the Harvard campus or the lecture platform, his brilliant halo of white hair surrounding his handsome and ruddy face, Erikson also looked the part of the seer. His studies of Gandhi and Luther had underscored the power of the individual when his or her personal vision intersects with the forces of history. Erikson felt that the world stood at a historic moment: it might well fall apart through armed nuclear conflict, but it might also prove possible to construct less hostile ways in which people could interact with one another.
So Erikson spoke out, in Washington, D.C., and in South Africa, to conflicting social groups about the power of “mutuality.” He wanted people to acknowledge both their membership in the same species and the perils of creating “pseudo-species in which one nation or group feels that it has the right, the power, even the obligation to denigrate those who look or act differently.” He underlined the importance of ritualized behavior, in which we act out our aggressive tendencies in a nonbrutal way, and develop practices, as Gandhi did, by which we can strengthen the best qualities of our opponents as well as ourselves. Indeed, he pronounced a new version of the Golden Rule, “a relationship in which partners depend on each other for the development of their respective strengths” and “it is best to do to another what will strengthen you even as it will strengthen him.” And he laid out a set of eight virtues—each corresponding to a fundamental stage of life. Thus “hope” relates to infancy, and “wisdom” to old age, while “will,” “purpose,” “competence,” “fidelity,” “love,” and “care” make up the six virtues that come in between.
In writing about these issues, Erikson was making an earnest attempt to contribute to perennial discussions of love, conflict, morality, and survival, and to do so while taking account of recent evidence about the life cycle in human beings and also (as he learned from his conversations with the biologists Konrad Lorenz and Julian Huxley) about the instinctual behavior of other animals. It is not easy to make fresh contributions on such matters.
As Freud had come to identify with Moses in his final years, Erikson also identified increasingly with Jesus. His final writings explored the sayings of Jesus and honored Jesus’ sensitivity and his willingness to cross the boundaries of gender, poverty, and nationality. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Erikson’s efforts to explore such matters was particularly original or that they had much effect. Yet I believe that he was right—and, as in other aspects of his life, courageous—to make this attempt. And indeed, the clumsy efforts to base morality and religion in biology, undertaken nowadays by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, underscore the con-tinuing difficulty of accomplishing such a mission.
Erikson the Sage was impressive to those who saw and heard him but his later writings attracted less attention. In part, this was because he no longer had complete mastery of his faculties, in part because such sentiments seem sentimental during a cynical time. Moreover, for the first time, Erikson was also sharply attacked on personal grounds. In critical writings by Marshall Berman and Paul Roazen, the “architect of identity” was castigated for obscuring his own identity and, in particular, his Jewish heritage. Although his biological mother and his adoptive father were both Jewish, Erikson had, in dropping the name Homburger and presenting himself as a Dane, Erik, the son of Erik, implied he was a Christian. Important parts of his own life had been obscured in favor of a story that was at best incomplete and in some parts fictional. Erikson had claimed to see wider truths and yet had hidden the truth about himself from others—and perhaps from himself.
Friedman reveals other troubling features of his personal life that were unknown to me. Not only was Erikson an often uninvolved and often indifferent father—he also, during his earlier married years, seems to have been a distant husband. In 1944, moreover, he and Joan had a son, Neil, who suffered from Down’s syndrome. Already the parents of three, the Eriksons made the difficult decision to have Neil placed in an institution. Erik exorcised Neil from his family’s memory, even telling two of his children that Neil had died. He rarely visited the child and he always described himself as the father of three children.
Neil lived until he was twenty-two. He died while the Eriksons were in Italy. Joan and Erik Erikson decided not to come home and instead asked the surviving three children to arrange the cremation and burial of the sibling whom they had not known. The man who presented himself as sensitive to children proved far from exemplary with his own children—and unjustifiably remote from his retarded offspring. Such revelations are one more painful reminder that excellent child clinicians (and psychologists) are not necessarily model parents. From my own experience, I can add that Erikson was an unusual mixture of insecurity and confidence. He frequently looked to others—even those much younger and much less well-informed—for advice and guidance. And yet, at a deeper level, he had a strong sense of what was right for him and what he must do.
A troubled childhood; feelings of insecurity in his mature years; a certain coldness in his family life—these were part of the background of a brilliantly successful adult career and the achievement of several lasting insights about human nature. Thanks to Lawrence Friedman’s work, we understand better these different aspects of Erikson’s character and have important clues about how they relate to one another. Perhaps (as Friedman argues) only a person with a troubled sense of identity could discern the universality of the identity crisis; and perhaps (though Friedman does not say so explicitly) Erikson’s painful personal history made it difficult to become intimate with family members and impossible to love a child who deviated sharply from the path of normal development.
Friedman writes as a historian-biographer who came to know Erikson during his last years. I write as a one-time student who tries to apply the methods of biological, psychological, and social science to the understanding of human growth and experience. What from such a perspective were the special gifts that Erikson brought to the task of such understanding? Friedman offers little help with such questions, and although I’m hardly confident of my own answers to them, an effort to describe Erikson’s special qualities seems worth making.
By disposition an artist who carefully observed individuals and scenes, Erikson impressed both Anna and Sigmund Freud as soon as they met him. It was not only his manner with others, and especially with children; it was his remarkable powers of perception. It is not quite clear how the Freuds regarded Erikson’s gift; and Erikson was somewhat reluctant to speculate about this. But clearly he had his own “way of seeing.” Either Sigmund Freud or Anna Freud or both Freuds believed that Erik Homburger could help others to see patterns that were salient for him yet invisible to others.
Over the years Erikson wrote and spoke a great deal about seeing and hearing, about noticing the visual world and paying attention to what is said and how it is said. He cited Charles Darwin’s statement that he was capable of “noticing things which easily escape attention and observing them carefully.” Of course, listening and looking are part of the stock-in-trade of psychiatrists and especially psychoanalysts. But one only needs to be in the presence of a gifted person who senses and perceives the personalities of others extremely well, and with seeming naturalness, to realize that the ability to do so is neither a universal gift nor one easily transmitted. This trait may be especially rare among verbally fluent intellectuals who are attracted to the academic world in general, and to psychoanalysis in particular. Erikson was not always direct in his advice. I remember that he said to me, very early in my student years, “Don’t try to be like me.” Whatever else the architect of “identity” may have meant, I am sure he wanted me to understand that not everyone was able to perceive what he could perceive and write about it in subtle and nonreductionist prose.
Initially, Erikson pioneered in the study of children at play—particularly of the shapes that youngsters created out of blocks or clay, or the scenes they made up when given a set of props. He wrote,
To Freud, the via regia to mental life had been the dream. For me, children’s play became the first via regia to an understanding of growing man’s conflicts and triumphs, his repetitive working through of the past, and his creative self renewal in truly playful moments.
In these moments the problems and pressures that beset the child may emerge; and in observations that would eventually trouble feminists, Erikson perceived striking differences between girls (who situated themselves within comfortable and low-sided structures that housed people and animals) and boys (who energetically situated themselves outside of tall and closed structures).
But Erikson soon went beyond the tangible playthings of the child—in Blakeian terms, as he put it, he came to confront the “old man’s reasons” as well as the “young man’s toys.” He considered a wide range of human artifacts—works of art (like Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), journals (such as those of SÌüren Kierkegaard), spoken exchanges (as in his own dialogues with the Black Panther Huey Newton), the private screams of Luther, the public confrontations of Gandhi. And in each of these “specimens” he was able to discern patterns, configurations that were initially hard to see but that, once he pointed them out, made sense, indeed sometimes deep sense. In what they suggested about the life cycle and the identity crisis, they seemed of universal significance.
In trying to understand Erikson’s gift, we can turn to Keats’s description of “negative capability”: the sense, most developed in poets, of being able to enter the mental worlds of very different persons and scenes, to lose oneself, and in effect “become” the objects of one’s own attention. In a comparable spirit, the critic Erich Auerbach described “figural interpretation,” where one discerns in one element (like a dream or the moment of play) the seeds or “prefiguration” of a greater cosmic whole. Erikson himself repeatedly referred to sensitivity to “configurations.”
Erikson’s essay on “the nature of clinical evidence” is particularly telling about his aims. Using the dream of the seminarian as his point of departure, Erikson not only brilliantly described the sense of “identity diffusion” I have mentioned. He also talked about the “disciplined subjectivity” by which analyst and patient enter each other’s psyche and, in the course of transference and countertransference, illuminate one another’s tendencies and concerns. Erikson was attempting the same dialectical process when he addressed Gandhi in his open letter; he was saying that one cannot fully know or attempt to deal with another human being unless one is willing to expose one’s own dreams and vulnerabilities as well. Such grounding in the clinical encounter reminds us that the treatment of a patient is neither the disinterested exploration of the scholar or scientist nor the attempt at creation or re-creation of the artist.
It may well be easier for human beings to see patterns in the natural world than in the human world; I have always thought it significant that most folk myths concern animals and that the cave paintings of southern France and Spain feature animals and not human beings. Erik Erikson applies such gifts of “naturalistic intelligence” (the intelligence of Charles Darwin or Barbara McClintock) to patterns in the human sphere, using “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” intelligence. What Keats wrote about other human beings, and Auerbach accomplished with literary interpretation, Erikson achieved in seeking to understand and help those who were troubled. It is worth remembering that Erikson was an indifferent student and never went to college. He read widely but selectively and was uncomfortable in the scholarly world of erudition, footnotes, and polemics. I suspect that he did not have a conventionally high IQ. And yet he could reliably see and hear what professors who were considered to be “much smarter” almost invariably missed.
Erikson may have been a good preceptor for clinicians in training but it is not quite accurate to say that Erikson trained students. Just as the Freuds saw something that was already there (or at least nascent) in Erikson, so, too, Erikson sought out (and perhaps attracted to him) those who already saw things the way that he did. Erikson caught the attention initially of those who perceived human complexities in a configurational way, like the Harvard psychologist Henry Murray (who created the “thematic apperception test”) and the anthropologist Ruth Benedict (author of Patterns of Culture). His longest-term American associate was the psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, who studied the casualties of war in Europe and Hiroshima; his first biographer was Robert Coles, who drew on Erikson’s ideas about the strengths of children to write perceptively of “children of crisis.”
Lawrence Friedman also places in Erikson’s orbit senior scholars like David Riesman of The Lonely Crowd and keen observers such as Margaret Mead and Geoffrey Bateson’s daughter Mary Catherine Bateson (author of Composing a Life, With a Daughter’s Eye, and Peripheral Visions) and Carol Gilligan (author of In a Different Voice). My early scholarly work drew me toward cognitive rather than clinical directions, but I have continued to be attracted to Erikson’s approach and was particularly grateful for the nondirective way in which he supported my efforts over the years.
Today many in the academy, and perhaps many outside of it as well, question whether the social or behavioral sciences have legitimacy. Under the pretext of investigating human phenomena, many nowadays seek to reduce human beings to their genes, their instincts, or their evolutionary history. Still others try to isolate cognitive and perceptual capacities and to account for them by reproducing them in the operations of a computer. Certainly, scholars who write without apology about identity or faith or truth or mutuality are likely to face skeptical reactions from colleagues and “non-New Age” readers.
Will studies in an Eriksonian configurational tradition endure, or pass from the scene like other academic vogues? The answer depends upon whether this “way of seeing” addresses a need that cannot be answered by art and literature, on the one hand, or by the aggressively reductive models of biology or computation on the other. Artists look at and attempt to capture the personality of individuals but typically are not interested in describing broader patterns; scientists look for those patterns that are indifferent to the vagaries of different places and other times. Erikson believed that the clinical relationship between therapist and patient provided unique opportunities for a particularly valuable kind of insight. As he put it,
The relativity implicit in clinical work may, to some, militate against its scientific validity. Yet, I suspect, this very relativity, truly acknowledged, will make the clinicians better companions of today’s and tomorrow’s scientists than did the attempts to reduce the study of the human mind to a science identical with traditional natural science.
I have little doubt that Erikson’s own insights, and those of the most gifted observers in this tradition, will have a long life. Both the resources of the biological sciences and the study of human culture are far stronger than the critics of either perspective appreciate; and only those analysts (including clinicians) who can draw deeply on both sets of disciplines will get the story right. Indispensable for such work are people who can discern both the uniqueness of each person and the patterns that go beyond the individual, and make those perceptions come alive for others. The configurational approach will not appeal to those who search for precision or certainty. But those who seek a nuanced understanding of the human world will, I believe, continue to be drawn to the small group of people with special knowledge and powers of insight, of which Erikson was an exemplary and courageous representative.
June 24, 1999