BOOKMARKS; A Man for Our Seasons: Erik Erickson Framed the Problems Family Therapists Struggle with Today

By Bograd, Michele; McCollum, Eric | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

BOOKMARKS; A Man for Our Seasons: Erik Erickson Framed the Problems Family Therapists Struggle with Today


Bograd, Michele, McCollum, Eric, Family Therapy Networker


The Erik Erikson Reader

Edited By Robert Coles

W.W. Norton & Co. 526 pp. ISBN 0-393-04845-4

Reviewed by Michele Bograd

No one's books are more commonly displayed in therapists' offices as a badge of professional seriousness than the works of Erik Erikson, the great child analyst and developmental theorist who died in 1994. Erikson's theories about the stages of human development and the impact of culture and society on personality are taught in every graduate program of every mental health field--he's the one who coined the terms "identity crisis" and "life stages," among others. He challenged the notion that personality is a set phenomena from childhood, offering an elaborate description of the stages of emotional development across the life span. Erikson broke with tradition as a child analyst by working with the family long before family therapy was born. His literary exploration of the interior of the self was matched by his investigation of the impact of social context, historical period and moral and cultural values on human experience.

Excerpts from Erikson's seminal works, written from 1950 to 1987, have now been compiled by noted child psychiatrist Robert Coles, accompanied by commentary on the work of his teacher, whom Coles loved. Coles has organized by theme substantial excerpts from Erikson's writings, dividing them into four sections that mirror Erikson's primary theoretical passions: children; psychoanalysis and human development; leaders; and moral matters. Each section starts with a preface by Coles that highlights major concepts and helps us understand how Erikson's own ideas are tied to the man who created them at a certain point in his own development and in a certain historical context.

At first reading, there is much that is off-putting to 21st century family therapists about this volume. It is steeped in psychodynamic language; its theorizing on infantile stages of development may seem dated to the more systemically minded; its prevailing concern is broad and philosophical, not focused on clinical utility. Yet The Erik Erikson Reader has much to teach family therapists. We learn how our radical theories of the family had roots in Erikson's work decades earlier; we see how he situates the individual in a web of psychological, maturational, generational, cultural and historical dimensions decades before family therapy appeared as a discipline. Again and again, The Erik Erikson Reader reveals how Erikson was ahead of his time. He spoke of the clinical encounter as, at heart, a moral one, and thus anticipated the current evolution in family therapy as we move from technique to elaborating the moral choices of client and therapist alike. Diversity is the buzzword these days, but Erikson was writing about it a half-century ago, in his many works about the complexity of culture and human development. He describes the Sioux and Yurok Native American children, examining the interplay of child-rearing techniques, cultural values and cross-generational relationships and offering a multicontextual framework that includes the intersection of Native American culture and white "benevolent" interventions without ever referring to his subjects as "primitive."

Erikson explored other topics that have only recently captured the attention of our field: the impact of migration, dislocation, trauma, poverty, values clashes, the silenced voices of women and children and the psychological and social costs to minorities marginalized by the dominant culture. For example, in 1950, Erikson wrote on black identity, looking at themes now debated in contemporary discussions about race: Are there cultural images of strength for people of color? How does shade of skin color shape social status? How do racial caricatures stereotyped by the entertainment industry influence identity? How do limited opportunity and discrimination create psychological crises? …

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