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Erikson's History

Book Review

Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson

By Lawrence J. Friedman

New York: Scribner, 1999. 592 pp. ISBN 0-684-19525-9. $35.00

Review by Alan C. Elms

When Erik Erikson wrote an essay at age 67, "Autobiographic Notes on the Identity Crisis," he may not have intended to steal the thunder from a multitude of would-be psychobiographers who were eager to analyze him. In explaining the origins of his intense concern with the development of stable personal identity, he was merely analyzing himself in much the same manner as his studies of Martin Luther and Mohandas Gandhi. By then the term "identity crisis" had become permanently lodged in the popular vocabulary (not only in America; Erikson cited the Pope's recent reference to a "crisis of identity" among the priesthood.) The identity crisis and the seven other psychosocial crises in Erikson's developmental schema had become fixtures in introductory psychology texts and in doctoral dissertations across several fields. No need to wonder where the idea came from, Erikson said. In addition to his clinical work with adolescents and his immigrant observations of American culture, he had been primed from birth to worry about identity:

"I grew up in Karlsruhe in Baden as the son of a pediatrician, Dr. Theodor Homburger, and his wife Karla, née Abrahamsen, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark. All through my earlier childhood they kept secret from me the fact that my mother had been married previously and that I was the son of a Dane who had abandoned her before my birth." (1970, p. 742)

Of course that essay did not reveal everything about the connections between Erikson's life and his work. An adulatory book by a disciple, Robert Coles (1970), clarified and elaborated certain points, in consultation with Erikson himself. Articles by Marshall Berman (e. g., 1975) and a critical biography by Paul Roazen (1976) challenged Erikson on several crucial issues, including his name change from Homburger to Erikson and his apparent slide from Judaism to Christianity. Erikson provided semi-private explanations of such matters to friends, but resisted his impulse toward public battle with Berman and Roazen. Though he considered writing a full-scale autobiography (interview with A. Elms, August 10, 1982), he never committed himself to that project. Indeed he declined most requests for biographically oriented interviews, and no further biographies of him have been published until now. Fortunately, Identity's Architect is a highly detailed and for the most part even-handed life history, written by an experienced biographer and historian.

Applying his historiographic training well, Lawrence Friedman has winnowed one archive after another, interviewed a multitude of Erikson's relatives, friends, and colleagues, studied not only Erikson's published work but his unpublished notes and incomplete manuscripts, and delved into a trove of personal documents held until her death by Erikson's wife of sixty-four years, Joan Serson Erikson. (According to the publisher's press release, this is an "authorized biography.") One of Friedman's most resourceful moves as a biographical researcher was to search in Denmark for the identity of Erikson's biological father. That question had intrigued and disturbed Erikson for decades, but his mother Karla had always refused to answer it. Friedman brought back a photograph of Karla in her youth and information on two paternal possibilities, both Danish photographers and both named Erik. Unfortunately Erikson was at age 91 too far gone, from either "Alzheimer's disease or simply senility" (p. 467), fully to appreciate Friedman's efforts. But as Friedman describes him when he saw the photo of the sad young woman who had become his mother, Erikson

"gazed at her for many minutes. 'What a beauty,' he remarked. Although he was very frail and nearly immobile, his eyes had come alive. A smile crossed his face. . . . He glanced at the small Danish flag on the mantel above his fireplace and back again at the photograph. After several minutes, he was ready for a nap." (p. 19)

That is one of the biography's most touching scenes. There are few dramatic revelations unanticipated in Erikson's own "Autobiographic Notes on the Identity Crisis." One such revelation appears early in the book and is often cited thereafter: In addition to having three healthy children (as was commonly known), Erik and Joan Erikson had a fourth child, Neil, who suffered from severe Down Syndrome. Neil was institutionalized immediately after birth, and lived for 21 years with almost no parental contact or acknowledgment. This information was revealed to Friedman by the playwright William Gibson, a close friend of the Eriksons, who proposed that "Neil's presence [or more accurately his absence] had contributed significantly to Erik's work on his eight-stage model of the human life cycle--the pattern not of Neil's but of normal human development" (p. 23; Friedman's italics). That is an intriguing hypothesis, worthy of careful psychobiographical exploration, and one that Joan Erikson was later eager to accept as she asserted her own central role in the development of the life cycle model (pp. 215-220). But Erikson himself seems never to have uttered a word in support of the idea, and indeed he had already developed the general framework of the life cycle model before Neil was born. On this matter, Friedman is most persuasive when he argues that "Neil's birth affected Erikson's thinking about the nature of human development less by changing the direction of his earlier conceptual work than by provoking him to continue with it, and at a brisker pace" (p. 217).

The book's strength is not in the sorts of big psychobiographical arguments that Erikson advanced in Young Man Luther, Gandhi's Truth, and several shorter life-historical studies. Rather, Identity's Architect works best in giving us the daily detail of Erikson's life and the context thereof. That sort of detail is, as it turns out, essential to an understanding of Erikson--probably as essential as a knowledge of his uncertain parentage and his attempts to forget the existence of a tragically damaged child. We come away from the book knowing much more about Erikson's life than we even knew to ask about before, especially concerning the slow development of his career and his conscious efforts to make it a career rather than an accidental convergence of experience and opportunity. We also come away with a much clearer sense of the cultural and historical context of his developing ideas, his writing, his clinical practice, his teaching, and his occasional political stands. Here is where it means the most that Lawrence Friedman is a professional historian by training and experience, rather than a psychologist or psychiatrist who has strayed into psychobiography through an interest in a particular subject.

The book also offers frequent summaries and assessments of Erikson's books and papers. These are useful in marking the development of Erikson's ideas, but the summaries are usually quite brief (perhaps in order to keep the book to a manageable length), and the assessments are often carping in tone. One gets the sense that in Friedman's eyes, Erikson never quite lived up to his full capabilities. Friedman's retrospective editing of Erikson's books (criticizing them for a lack of polish here or a "hasty discussion" there [p. 427], complaining that they are too technical or too fuzzy or too repetitive of earlier publications) sounds much like a reviewer telling an author what sort of book the reviewer would have written if he had written the book instead. In a similar spirit (and with no plans to write a biography of Erikson myself), I hereby offer a few suggestions for the next edition of Identity's Architect, which Friedman is free to adopt (or not):

A.) Friedman organizes his book paragraph by paragraph, typically with one footnote at the end of each paragraph, giving the sources (published or unpublished) for virtually every sentence in the paragraph. That may be another sign of Friedman's traditional historiographic training, and for the most part it provides a solid foundation for his narrative. But the narrative itself becomes stylistically rather flat as a result. I hesitate to use the term "pedestrian," because the book sustained my interest throughout. Let's instead apply a related but more appropriate figure of speech: Friedman's paragraphs march steadily through Erikson's life from beginning to end. Here and there they make a hop, a skip, a little jump--but the narrative almost never takes wing, as Erikson's often do. Am I setting too high a standard in using Erikson's work as a criterion? One matter this book never really discusses is how high a standard Erikson did set for later biographers, through example and encouragement.

B.) Friedman seems to have made a decision to quote only briefly and partially from Erikson's own writings. Perhaps this practice too comes from Friedman's disciplinary training, or perhaps it involves copyright issues with Erikson's publishers (surely not with his family?) Whatever the decision's source, Erikson's own voice is to a considerable extent missing from the book. This would be a major problem for any account of Erikson, whose writing gained depth from his tentativeness, his allusiveness, his skill at raising questions to which neither he nor the reader could supply ready answers. Erikson's voice is missing also because, by the time Friedman began sustained work on the book, Erikson was no longer able to answer his questions, or to clarify matters that other informants raised during Friedman's research. In that sense, the absence of Erikson's voice can never be fully remedied. But I would hope for more extensive and more extended quotations from Erikson's writing (in letters as well as in his published work) in an inevitably longer second edition. Surely no one would object to a second-edition apology like that offered by Erikson early in Gandhi's Truth: "Throughout this book I must let this voice [i. e., Gandhi's voice] speak in what at times may seem inordinately long quotations" (1969, p. 92).

C.) Erikson's major psychobiographical works (or "psycho-histories," as he reluctantly called them, with hyphen and quotation marks firmly in place; see p. 271) are considered by Friedman largely in terms of their factual accuracy and their exhibition of Erikson's psychosocial theories. But they are even more important, to many professional readers, as handbooks of psychobiographical methodology. They offer lessons, explicit and implicit, in how to do life history research iteratively; in how to make sensitive assessments of a psychologically damaged subject's creative strengths; in how to incorporate simultaneous accounts of personal and cultural change into a narrative of an individual life cycle; in how to assess the motives, the anecdotal style, and thus the reliability of a biographical witness; in how to confront the biographer's countertransferences and make them serve rather than obscure the analysis of the subject's significant psychological issues. As with Freud's studies of Leonardo and Moses, Erikson's assessments of Luther and Gandhi may be factually arguable, but his underlying strategies are still worth adding to the life-history researcher's armamentarium. D.) In the process of paying more attention to Erikson's methodological contributions for a second edition, Friedman might also find himself using those methods more productively in understanding Erikson. He might begin with two areas in which Erikson's methods appear to be missing from the current edition: First, Friedman rarely raises the issue of whether an informant's accounts of Erikson might be biased by the informant's own agenda. Second, Friedman addresses only in one brief footnote (# 19 on p. 528) how his own political commitments might have biased his accounts of Erikson's reactions to political controversy.

E.) Friedman repeatedly evaluates the success or failure of Erikson's books, and to some extent the growth or decline of Erikson's reputation, by citing how many copies of a certain book were sold in a given time period. Publishers' sales statistics may be of some interest, but as Friedman and we are well aware (not only from Erikson's example but from Darwin's, Freud's, Skinner's), short-term or even medium-term sales figures are a highly unreliable index of long-term impact. Whether or not undergraduates are still required to buy Erikson's books (are they still required to buy anyone's original monographs?), his ideas about the life cycle and about psychobiographical research methods have sunk deep into the collective preconscious of biographers everywhere. Further, his conceptual contributions, for a time under vigorous attack (especially by certain feminists, as Friedman cogently discusses), are currently stimulating more empirical research than ever, especially on the broad topic of generativity. (See, for example, Kotre, 1996, and McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1998.) Friedman's second edition could benefit from more attention to such research evidence of Erikson's continuing influence, and less attention to royalty reports.

In spite of these recommendations and reservations, I want to end this review in the true Eriksonian spirit, by focusing on strengths rather than apparent weaknesses. Identity's Architect is truly a major biography, ranging through the entire lifetime of a dominant figure in psychology with a level of detail and a range of perspective rare in our field. Further, Friedman has completed his task in a remarkably short time: a mere five years after Erik Erikson's death, and only two years after Joan Erikson's. Freud died fifteen years before the appearance of Ernest Jones's first volume, and nearly fifty years before Peter Gay's one-volume biography reached a level of detail and accuracy comparable to Friedman's. We still have no adequate biographies of such major figures as Gordon Allport and Abraham Maslow. Even if Friedman turns his attention elsewhere, never producing a second edition of Identity's Architect according to my specifications, later Erikson biographies will benefit enormously from his quick and energetic program of interviews, and from his wide-ranging accumulation of other biographical data that might have been dispersed or lost without his efforts. And surely there will be later Erikson biographies. Erikson's assessment of Thomas Jefferson will in the long run prove to be, I think, descriptive of Erikson himself:

". . . brilliantly studied as he has been by devoted scholars (and, of course, also hastily analyzed by many more occasional reviewers), this man still walks through time as an enigmatic figure whose image is amplified as successive generations attempt to behold him." (1974, p. 12)


Berman, M. (1975). Erik Erikson, the man who invented himself. New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1-2, 22.

Coles, R. (1970). Erik H. Erikson: The growth of his work. Boston: Little, Brown.

Erikson, E. H. (1969). Gandhi's truth: On the origins of militant nonviolence. New York: W. W. Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1970). Autobiographic notes on the identity crisis. Daedalus, 99 (4), 730-759.

Erikson, E. H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity. New York: W. W. Norton.

Kotre, J. (1996). Outliving the self: How we live on in future generations (revised paperback edition) . New York: W. W. Norton.

McAdams, D. P., & de St. Aubin, E. (Eds.) (1998). Generativity and adult development: How and why we care for the next generation. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Roazen, P. (1976). Erik H. Erikson: The power and limits of a vision. New York: Free Press.

Reprinted by permission from Contemporary Psychology, 2001.
Copyright © 2001 American Psychological Association.

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