Karla Abrahamsen, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark, came from a prominent Jewish family (Wrightsman, 60). In 1898, she married a Jewish stockbroker, Valdemar Salomonsen. Although she never divorced Salomonsen, the marriage only lasted one day. Karla soon discovered her husbands ties to crime and fraud. She left him to remain with her family while he fled to either Mexico or the United States (Friedman, 29-30).
Four years later, Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany. He was the product of an extramarital affair. Karla never disclosed who the father was. However, there were rumors that the father was a Copenhagen court photographer. Nevertheless, on his birth certificate, Salomonsen was named as the father and he was given the name Salomonsen (Friedman, 30). Four months later, Karla was informed that her husband was dead. Now that she was a widow, she could now move on with her life (Friedman, 30).
Karla and Erikson remained in Germany, where Karla acquired training as a nurse at a nearby hospital (Friedman, 31). For the first three years of his life, Erikson and his mother maintained a very strong relationship. However, on June 15, 1905, Eriksons third birthday, Karla married a Jewish pediatrician, Theodor Homburger (Burger, 118). At this point, Theodor requested that Erikson be told that he was Eriks father. However, Eriksons last name was not changed to Homburger until 1908 and he was not legally adopted until 1911 (Friedman, 34).
Between the time Karla was married to Theodor and 1912, three daughters were born. Elna was born in 1907, but died in 1909 of diphtheria. Ruth was born in 1909, and Ellen was born in 1912 (Friedman, 33). After the daughters were born, Erikson became keenly aware of the difference between the treatment Theodor afforded his own daughters verses Eriksons treatment. He felt that he was not an equal to the rest of his family because he was only a stepson. This feeling of not belong would eventually force him "to create an identity out of being a stepson" (Friedman, 40).
Because of his feelings regarding his place in his family, throughout Eriksons adolescence, he tended to shy away from anything his family endorsed, including religion, school, and eventually medical training (Wrightsman, 61). For instance, in school, he was considered to be "selectively attentive" and not a good student (Wrightsman, 61). After graduation from gymnasium, the equivalent of an American high school, he refused to enter medical school (Burger, 118). He also isolated himself from the synagogue his family attended because he was not accepted by the members. Because of his Danish appearance, he was commonly referred to as goy (Burger, 118).
After graduating from gymnasium, Erikson enrolled at Karlsruhes Baden State Art School in 1921 (Friedman, 45). Although art was his passion throughout his childhood, his father, Theodor, did not think highly of artistic talents. In Germany at this time, art was seen as a culture that included some of the least savory people in Germany (Friedman, 38). After a year of studying art, Erikson left his home to travel to Munich and then throughout Europe.
Very little is known about this part of Eriksons life. He made some wood cuts, also known as carvings at this time (Friedman, 46). The most widely known carving depicts his parents honeymoon cruise. It has been theorized that it illustrates his feelings of exclusion from his mothers new life, now that she had married Theodor. Erikson eventually began to paint childrens portraits in Vienna in 1927 (Friedman, 47).
Because of his rapport with the children he was painting, Anna Freud offered Erikson a job as a fill in tutor at the Hietzing School, a school for the children of Freuds patients and friends (Burger, 117); the school was "organized according to psychoanalytic principles and geared to cooperation with the analyst" (Friedman, 62).
When Anna Freud began to work with Erikson at the school, she soon realized the depth of his compatibility with the children and offered to teach him to be a child analyst (Wrightsman, 61). His training included daily psychoanalysis sessions with Anna Freud as well as lessons from her. He also attended a Montessori school in order to earn a teaching degree and took classes at the University of Vienna (Friedman, 67-68). He eventually became a full time instructor at the Hietzing School.
His work at the school afforded Erikson his first steady employment. As a teacher at the Hietzing School, Erikson acknowledged that he improvised most of the time and felt quite nervous in front of the classroom (Friedman, 65). Nevertheless, he was admired by many of the students and did influence them greatly, especially in the students dealings with art (Friedman, 64).
During this time, Erikson also began attending the weekly meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Due to this along with his training under Anna Freud, Erikson was received as a member of the society in 1933. This admittance allowed Erikson to practice psychoanalysis anywhere in the world (Friedman, 59).
Next, in 1929, Erikson was introduced to his wife, Joan Serson (Friedman, 64). In 1930, Joan became pregnant with their first son, Kai. In order to not make the same mistakes his mother made, he married Joan prior to Kais birth (Friedman, 83). Originally, the marriage was not accepted by Eriksons family because of religious differences. However, after Karla and Theodor mat Joan, they immediately approved of her (Friedman, 84).
By 1933, their second son, Jon MacDonald was born. The family had very little money and lived poorly (Friedman, 85). Because of these lack of career prospects in Vienna and the mounting concern of Hitlers regime, Erikson and his family moved to Copenhagen in hopes of beginning a practice and securing Danish citizenship (Friedman, 95-96). Because of an influx of German Jews into Denmark at this time, he and his family were only given a six month visitors pass, which did not allow them to seek employment (Friedman, 107). Eriksons then attempted to extend the pass; this was denied. He and his family had no choice but to move to the United States, Joans native land (Friedman, 109).
When Erikson arrived in the United States, he moved to Massachusetts and became one of the first child psychoanalysts in Boston (Friedman, 103). However, A. A. Brill, the leading Freud scholar in the United States discouraged him from continuing a practice because he had no formal higher education (Wrightsman, 61). Because of his contacts through the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, he secure jobs working as a research assistant and an assistant professor at Harvard and Yale (Friedman, 103). Eventually, to be order to continue working in his profession, Erikson was forced to further his education. However, when he took his first graduate level class, he failed out ((Wrightsman, 62).
In 1934, Erikson was admitted as a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, even though he didnt have a college degree. This was made possible through his membership to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association and further membership to the International Psychoanalytic Association (Friedman, 115). Because of his new membership, he had begun to receive lecture invitations and could now have a private practice in the United States. By 1936, his career was secured (Friedman, 116).
In 1936, Erikson moved to New Haven to begin working as a research associate. He soon left this job because of anti-semitic sentiments and moved to the Institute of Human Relations at Yale (Friedman, 128-129). During his time at Yale, his daughter, Sue, was born. He also began supporting his parents who had fled Germany because of the Nazi regime (Friedman, 143).
In 1938, Erikson petitioned for naturalization as a United States citizen. This was not formalized until September of 1939. When he did this, he also changed his last name from Homburger to Erikson. Although some sources state that the name change was a repudiation of his stepfather and mother, Erikson asserted that this was a family decision, approved of by his parents. He went on further to say that his son, Kai, came up with the familys new surname (Friedman, 143-144). The new last name of the family originated from a "Scandinavian tradition of naming a "son" after a father" Friedman, 145) . The name for Kai meant that he was the son of Erik; for Erikson, it only illustrated his feelings of not knowing or having a "real", or biological father (Friedman, 145).
During the time of the naturalization process, the Eriksons moved to Northern California. Erikson would now be working as a research associate and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley (Friedman, 151). In 1942, he began to enhance his salary by starting a small practice. By 1944, however, this became a full time endeavor (Friedman, 155). Soon after his arrival in California, Erikson became involved in the greater San Francisco psychoanalytic community. In 1950, he was elected president of the San Francisco Society and Institute (Friedman, 156-157).
During this time, the Eriksons third son was born, Neil. Neil was found to have Downs Syndrome and no neck muscles. The doctors said that he would not live for more than two years. However, he lived to be 21. Because of the advice of medical professionals, Neil was immediately placed in a special facility. Erikson then told his other children that Neil had died (Friedman, 209). This placed a strain not only on Eriksons relationship with his children, but also with his wife. During this time, Erikson and his wife nearly got a divorce. The children found Neil to be a very sensitive subject, especially after they discovered that he was still alive (Friedman, 211).
In 1949, Erikson was offered full professorship at the University of California. He only held this position until 1950, when the university required all professors to sign an oath of loyalty.. After refusing to sign the oath, he resigned on June 30, 1950. Soon after this, Erikson moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to work at the Austen Riggs Center (Friedman, 250).
While working at the Austen Riggs Center, Erikson frequently traveled to Pittsburgh in order to participate in Arsenal Health Center conferences and use the nursery in the facility (Friedman, 261). During the time of his work here and in Massachusetts, Erikson outlined and wrote his most prominent book, Childhood and Society. This book was "a psychoanalytic book on the relation of the ego to society [and] the egos roots in social organization" (Friedman, 234). Although the book was first published in 1950, the book was not widely read until 1963, when it began being published in paperback form as well. Soon after, it became a popular book for college Psychology classes (Friedman, 240-241).
Throughout the 1950s, much of Eriksons time not spent working, he spent writing. In 1958, Erikson wrote "The Nature of the Clinical Evidence". This paper discusses how the observer (in consultation) is preoccupied with constructing data about the participant (Wallerstein and Goldberger, 651). Also, in 1957, he began writing a biography of Martin Luther. This was written in a case study form in order to investigate the identity crisis of an adolescent (Friedman, 278).
Next, in 1960, Erikson was offered another job at Harvard. Instead of working as a research assistant, he would be a professor. His salary would now be $20,000 with guaranteed pay raises each year (Friedman, 307). By the 1963-1964, although he was still teaching, he recognized himself more as an author than as a professor.
At this time, Erikson was working on many writing projects at the same time (Friedman, 334) He also began his work on Gandhi at this time (Friedman, 321). In 1964, Erikson also finished writing Insight and Responsibility, a collection of earlier speeches, and in 1968, he finished Identity: Youth and Crisis, a collection of prior essays (Friedman, 343, 352).
By the end of the decade, Gandhis Truth was published. Through this book, Erikson attempted to investigate Gandhis identity and move through his stage of generativity versus stagnation (Wrightsman, 79). Soon after the book was published, Erikson retired from Harvard. Nevertheless, he still presented lectures at the college in 1972 (Friedman, 401). Finally, 1975, Erikson produced another book of essays, Life History and the Historic Moment (Friedman, 419)
By 1980, he had completely retired from all work, primarily because of his failing health. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which led to catheterization and many infections. This was followed with a serious fall that broke his hip (Friedman, 470). Finally, on May 5, 1992, Erikson died in his sleep with his wife, Joan, at his side. After his funeral, his son, Jon gave a public statement, in which he remarked that "He died of old age, peacefully in his sleep." (Friedman, 473).
Burger, Jerry M. (1986).Personality (fourth edition). Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. New York, NY.
Friedman, Lawrence J. (1999). Identitys Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. Scribner Publishing Company. New York, NY.
Wallerstein, Robert S., M.D., Goldberger, Leo, Ph.D. (1999). Ideas and identities: The llife and work of Erik Erikson. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 68 (4), 648-653.
Wrightsman, Lawrence S. (1994). Adult Personality Development: Theories and Concepts(volume 1). Sage Publications, Inc. Thousand Oaks, CA.