Remembering Erikson

Article excerpt

Remembering Erikson

Ellen Herman

Ellen Herman teaches history at the University of Oregon. She is the author of The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts.

Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson, by Lawrence J. Friedman. Scribner, 1999.

Americans may pride themselves on a history of diligent self-invention, but we no longer seem to know who we are, let alone how to make ourselves up from scratch. Since the 1960s, when the civil rights revolution recast the terms of being and belonging, identity has been an American obsession. Controversies over affirmative action, child adoption, electoral representation, school curricula, and intermarriage absorb our time and attention. We wonder if identity is passed down to us through communities of descent, wired into us by our genes, or brought upon us by acts of free will. What makes an American, for example? Must national identity trump other loyalties that make us who we are: race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, family, philosophy of life?

Is identity a style of belonging at once reassuring and rigid, as in having Jewish blood or Indian blood or Black blood? Periodic calls to revise census categories illustrate that Americans think of themselves not (or not only) in terms of tribal ascription but in terms of behavior and experience that are chosen, combined, and recombined. Identity is racial and biracial, gendered and transgendered, cultural and multicultural. As a way to categorize personhood, identity may be fixed or fickle. In either case, a post-identity moment has not yet arrived. From identity crisis to identity politics, identity matters.

Erik Erikson came closer than anyone to being the individual author of the identity concept. A prize-winning writer, gifted clinician, and originator of a famous eight-stage model of human development, Erikson lived a long, productive, and mostly happy life from 1902 to 1994. A Freudian who transmitted psychoanalytic ideas to popular and academic audiences at the zenith of their American vogue, Erikson anticipated the analytic drift toward ego psychology and its preoccupation with how human organisms become social selves. His reverence for maternalism made him a cultural feminist before that style came back into fashion in the 1970s; his commitment to gender difference was denounced by radicals interested more in obliterating than sacrilizing feminine identity.

Erikson's sixty-four-year marriage is an object lesson in the dependence of brilliant men on the voluntary subordination of brilliant women. Joan Erikson closely supervised her husband's career, demonstrating a creative flair that only occasionally gained an independent outlet. She edited everything he wrote, decided what he would wear and eat (even in restaurants), selected his friends. While he was tending to other people's children, she raised his.

Identity's Architect is engrossing, full of telling details about Erikson's marriage and family, his accomplishments, and the settings that nurtured his ideas. Lawrence Friedman devotes considerable psychobiographical skill to interpreting this fascinating life. Unsurprisingly, he is deeply indebted to his subject's core insight: that psychology and society are inseparable. Erikson's studies of Hitler, Luther, and Ghandi were sacred texts for pioneering psychohistorians, who took seriously Erikson's twin claims that psychoanalysis was a historical method and that history was a gigantic bundle of individual case histories. So it goes in this book. Friedman's treatment of Erikson is so Eriksonian that readers may be as struck by the identification between biographer and subject as they are by the chronicle of Erikson's lifelong search for an identity of his own.

Friedman documents moments of real identity crisis in Erikson's life, especially in relation to his biological father, whose identity he never knew, and his son Neil, born with Down's syndrome and institutionalized until his death as a young adult, another ghost in the Erikson family. …