A psychoanalyst for his age (but not ours)
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 August 2007)

Who killed Erik Erikson? Intellectually, he was once a king, ruling a sizeable empire, but now he's a dead commoner. A German-born psychoanalyst who blossomed in America, he appeared in 1970 on the cover of Time magazine, the ultimate honour at that moment in history.

Even today, when people speak of someone's "identity crisis," they pay unconscious tribute to him. He didn't invent that term, but he explored its meaning so deeply that it's linked to him forever.

This year, Erikson is the subject of a poised and sympathetic study by Daniel Burston, an Israeli-born, Toronto-raised psychologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Erik Erikson and the American Psyche: Ego, Ethics, and Evolution (Rowman & Littlefield) not only describes why he once mattered but why, in many places, he ceased to matter.

It's a monument to a now neglected figure and a demonstration of how quickly intellectual fashion changes and fame flees. People dominate the cultural landscape and then, almost overnight, vanish into what Burston calls "a dim recess of the collective psyche." Burston's last chapter "The Erasure of Erikson," cites Gore Vidal's summary of the U.S. as "the United States of Amnesia."

Erikson's own identity was the first great problem of his life. He was an illegitimate child whose mother, a Danish Jew, refused to name his father. Erikson, tall and blond, assumed he was the son of a Danish gentile, and in later years fantasized about being related to the royal family.

Eventually, his mother married a German Jewish doctor from Karlsruhe who adopted Erik. While living in Germany, Erikson had his first experience of alienation. He felt physically out of place among Jewish teenagers but as a Jew felt an outsider in the larger gentile world.

In his twenties, he taught art in a Viennese school for the children of Sigmund Freud's patients. That led him into Freudian circles, where he became a certified analyst under Anna Freud.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Erikson and his Canadian-born wife and coauthor, Joan Serson, emigrated to America. There he was again a stranger, defining himself in a new society. That was when he changed his last name, from Homburger (his stepfather's name) to Erikson, meaning son of Erik. He proclaimed himself his own father.

His most influential book, Childhood and Society, published in 1950, slices human life into eight stages, identifying the conflict that governs each of them. Infancy centres on Trust vs. Mistrust, for instance, and adolescence on Identity vs. Role Confusion. Neurosis beckons at every stage, and the individual must resolve each crisis in order to be free. His other writing included Young Man Luther, a brilliant psychobiography of Martin Luther, and psychological examinations of historical figures ranging from Gandhi to Hitler.

An army of admirers magnified Erikson's fame. In the 1970s, Gail Sheehy's Eriksonian book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, stayed on the best-seller list for three years. As a new era of feminism dawned, Sheehy appealed particularly to women. Half the women I knew read her; others merely quoted her.

But by the time Erikson died (at 92, in 1994), his reputation had all but evaporated. What happened? His theories were often analyzed critically but it wasn't his critics who did him in. He was betrayed by history. For one thing, psychoanalysis went into decline everywhere, partly because of its dubious success record, partly because analysis cost so much and took so long, and partly because Freud and his followers presented themselves originally as scientists but never developed a scientific method to judge their work.

More important, as Burston says, the world changed, radically. Youth, Erikson's great subject, was transformed by the media, by new attitudes to sex, by changed views of authority -- and by prescription drugs. To Erikson's generation of therapists, an adolescent crisis offered a way to explore family history and social context, then carefully ease the patient back to health. "In that dimly remembered long-ago time," Burston writes, "psychotropic drugs were viewed as a treatment of last resort." Nowadays they are every MD's panacea. The chance to grasp what a disturbed adolescent is communicating can be drowned in pharmaceuticals.

Erikson tried to make patterned (and possibly universal) sense out of the lives he observed. He knew we must all be understood in our social context but he had no idea how much the culture of the young in North America would change in a quarter of a century. It was simply beyond his imagination. And everyone else's.

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