| AKA Erik Homburger Erikson
Birthplace: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Location of death: Harwich, MA
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Eight Stages of Childhood
Erik Erikson was an influential and pioneering psychologist, psychoanalyst, and author whose theory of the eight psychosocial stages of development profoundly shaped the field of child development. Although his best-known work is the now classic Childhood and Society (1950), additional facets of his theory were elaborated in such works as Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) and Young Man Luther (1958). Gandhi’s Truth (1969), which focused more on his theory as applied to later phases in the life cycle, garnered Erikson the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Although highly original, Erikson’s work shows heavy influences from the work of Sigmund and Anna Freud, as well as from the field of cultural anthropology.
Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 15, 1902 to Karla Abrahamsen, a young Jewish woman. Although married, she was living her family at the time of the birth, having moved in after leaving her husband, Valdemar Salomonsen. A Jewish stockbroker, Salomonsen had fled the country four years earlier in connection with fraud and criminal ties. Karla Abrahamsen had engaged in an extramarital affair in his absence and become pregnant. She never disclosed the specific identity of her son’s biological father, merely that he was of Danish extraction. She listed her son’s surname as “Salomonsen”. Four months later, word arrived that she was newly a widow; Valdemar Salomonsen was dead.
Abrahamsen trained as a nurse and eventually remarried, when young Erik was about three years old. Erik’s new stepfather was his pediatrician, Theodor Homburger. Homburger, who insisted on being referred to as Erik’s father, conferred his surname on the boy in 1908 and finally adopted him in 1911. Despite this it became apparent, with the arrival of three half sisters, that Erik held a very different place in the family as the adopted stepson. Throughout adolescence he increasingly identified as an outsider, both within and in the local community. He was teased at school for being Jewish, and at synagogue for being tall and blond. His stepfather refused to accept his intense artistic inclinations.
When Erik finished gymnasium, he refused to go to medical school (as his stepfather wished) and abandoned home to enroll in Baden State Art School. A year later, he took experimented with travel. Ultimately, he ended up in Vienna where, among other things, he painted children’s portraits. A friend, Peter Blos, recommended that Erik expand on this by tutoring and teaching art at a school run by Dorothy Burlingham, a friend of Anna Freud, daughter and intellectual heir of the famed Sigmund Freud. The Hietzing School, as it was called, was organized along psychoanalytic principles, and many of the students were the children of Freud’s patients and friends.
Seeing Erikson’s skill with children, Anna Freud began mentoring him. (Note that he was actually still Erik Homburger at the time). His training, which included regular psychoanalytic sessions with Ms. Freud, resulted in a certificate from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. At the same time he attended classes at the University of Vienna, and also earned his teaching degree and a certificate in the Montessori method. He continued to teach, to become more involved in psychoanalysis. He also became married to Joan Serson a dance teacher at the Hietzing School. Eventually, economic pressures and the rise of the Nazis prompted the couple, which now had two sons, to move to Copenhagen, and then to the U.S.
Erikson’s initial efforts to set up shop in the U.S. as a child psychoanalyst were at first stymied by his lack of an advanced degree. So he worked for a time as an assistant professor and research assistant at Harvard and Yale. He took some graduate level courses, but ultimately it was his ties with members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society that won him professional acceptance. He moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and took a position as a research associate and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. Soon he was able to start his practice, at last, eventually becoming an important member of the bay area’s psychoanalytic community, and even serving as president of the San Francisco Society and Institute in 1950.
Meanwhile he had applied for U.S. citizenship, which was granted in 1939, and he had legally changed his last name to Erikson. Supposedly the named choice was influenced by his eldest son who liked the idea of continuing the Scandinavian tradition of being bearing the father’s name as part of the surname. However there is some very slight indication that “Erik” may have been the name of his own biological father as well.
More significantly, it was during his period at Berkeley that Erikson began his groundbreaking research into childhood and childrearing among the Lakota and the Yurok tribes. Influenced both by the work of cultural anthropologists like Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson, as well as by the theories of Sigmund Freud and his own experience with psychoanalysis, Erikson began formulating his own highly fertile and original viewpoint on child development.
He stayed in many ways true to the psychoanalytic assumptions grounded in Sigmund Freud, but there were differences as well. He accepted Freudian notions such as the ego and the Oedipal complex and the development of the self through various stages. But rather than rely entirely on universal drives from within the psyche to explain cognitive development and personality, he integrated information from anthropology about the role played by society and culture. In short, children within each culture learn different values, different goals, and receive vastly different kinds of nurturing and guidance. These influences powerfully shape how the psyche of the child develops and influences how he/she will navigate the typical challenges presented by psychological and physical development.
But despite such differences from one society to the next, Erikson was able to elaborate a theory of development that was also universal. He perceived that there were eight distinct phases of development (in contrast to Freud’s five). The stages were Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair. To be negotiated successfully, the individual must find the balance of each value. That is he must, for example be able to feel a healthy degree of trust while maintaing enough “distrust” to avoid gullability.
In addition, while Freud’s stages of development focused only on the period from birth to age five (as he believed personality was fully formed by that time), Erikson saw growth and development as something that stretched throughout the life cycle. According to Erikson there were various “crises” that developed naturally and inevitably at various points in the life cycle. Successful resolution of these crises would determine whether one later experienced relative happiness, or discontent and neurosis. In addition, each of the different phases — and the skills that came from resolving each successive crisis — built upon those that came before.
One value of this theory is that it illuminated why individuals who had been thwarted in the healthy resolution of early phases (such as in learning healthy levels of trust and autonomy in toddlerhood) had such a tough time of it with the crises that came in adulthood. More importantly, it did so in a way that provided answers for practical application. It raised new potential for therapists and their patients to identify key issues and skills that required addressing. But at the same time, it yielded a guide or yardstick that could be used to assess teaching and child rearing practices in terms of their ability to nurture and facilitate healthy emotional and cognitive development.
In fact, Erikson’s contributions to the field of child development are only matched in impact and significance by the work of Jean Piaget. Like Piaget, Erikson came to the conclusion that children should not be rushed in their development; that each developmental phase was vastly important and should be allowed time to fully unfold. While Piaget emphasized that cognitive development could not be rushed (without sacrificing full intellectual potential), Erikson emphasized that a child’s development must not be rushed, or dire emotional harm would be done, harm that would seriously undermine a child’s ability to succeed in life.
Ironically, Erikson, whose work has done so much to promote the healthy emotional and cognitive nurturance of children, had a mentally handicapped son, Neil, who lived his entire 21 years discarded in an institution. Born with severe Down Syndrome and physical handicaps, Neil Erikson was predicted by doctors to live for no more than one to two years. His parents, busy intellectuals with three more children at home to care for, conceded to the doctor’s recommendation and institutionalized their son. They told the other children that Neil had died. Eventually however the truth resurfaced. Before and after, it was a source of friction within the household. Erikson’s biographer, Lawrence J. Friedman, has pointed out that the life of his youngest child may have served as a constant contrasting back drop for both Joan and Erik Erikson as they co-developed the theories of healthy child development that eventually emerged in Childhood and Society
Even as the book came out and he achieved promotion to professorship, Erikson left his position at U.C. Berkeley in order to sidestep a (McCarthy era) demand that all professors sign an oath of loyalty. He moved to Massachusetts to work at the Austen Riggs Center, and then, in 1960, accepted a professorship at Harvard, where he remained until his retirement. Erikson continued, throughout most of his life, to heavily identify as a writer and to produce significant books and papers. His excellence in this area was acknowledge upon the publication of his extensive work on the life and personality of Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi’s Truth: the book earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. After his retirement from Harvard in 1970, Erikson continued writing, doing research, and occasionally lecturing. But in 1980 serious health problems (including prostate cancer) forced him into full retirement. He died in 1994 at the age of 91, passing peacefully in his sleep.
Mother: Karla Abrahamsen
Father: Dr. Theodor Homberger (stepfather)
Wife: Joan Serson
Son: Kai T. Erikson
Son: Jon MacDonald
Son: Neil (down syndrome)
Professor: Harvard Medical School (1934-35)
Professor: Yale Medical School (1936-39)
Professor: University of California at Berkeley (1939-51)
Author of books:
Childhood and Society (1950, psychology)
Young Man Luther (1958, psychology)
Insight and Responsibility (1964, psychology)
Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968, psychology)
Gandhi’s Truth (1969, psychology)
Dimensions of a New Identity (1974, psychology)
Life History and the Historical Moment (1975, psychology)
The Life Cycle Completed (1987, psychology, with J.M. Erikson)