Who Was Erik Erikson? Who was Erik Erikson? Was he a Dane, a German, or an American? Jew or Gentile? Artist or psychoanalyst? Erikson himself had difficulty answering these questions, and he spent nearly a lifetime trying to determine who he was.
His identity confusion began early. He knew who his mother was—a brilliant, beautiful Jewish Dane whose family tried hard to appear Danish rather than Jewish. But who was his father?
As a child, Erikson had three separate beliefs regarding his biological father (Erikson, 1975; Friedman, 1999). Originally, he believed that Theodor Homburger, his mother's husband, was his biological father. However, as Erik matured, he began to realize that this was incorrect because his blond hair and blue eyes didn't match the dark features of either his mother Karla or her husband Theodor. Moreover, his name was Erik Salomonsen, not Erik Homburger. He pressed his mother for an explanation, but she lied to him and said that Valdemar Salomonsen—Karla's first husband—was his biological father and that he abandoned her after she became pregnant with Erik. However, Erik didn't quite believe this story either. As he grew older, he learned that Salomonsen's marriage to his mother did not last even one night and was probably never consummated (Friedman, 1999). In any case, Salomonsen left Karla 4 years before Erik was born, so he couldn't have been Erik's father. Finally, Erik chose to believe that he was the outcome of a sexual liaison between his mother and an artistically gifted aristocratic Dane. For the remainder of his life, he believed this third story, but he continued to search for the identity of biological father.
Erik's blond hair and blue eyes contributed to his identity confusion during his school days. When he attended temple, his Scandinavian features made him appear to be an outsider. At public school, on the other hand, his Aryan classmates referred to him as a Jew, so Erik felt out of place in both arenas. Throughout his life, he had difficulty accepting himself as either a Jew or a Gentile.
To discover his niche in life, Erikson ventured away from home during late adolescence, adopting the life of a wandering artist and poet. After nearly 7 years of drifting and searching, he returned home confused, exhausted, depressed, and unable to sketch or paint. At this time, a fortuitous event changed his life: He received a letter from his friend Peter Blos inviting him to teach children in a new school in Vienna. One of the founders of the school was Anna Freud, who became not only Erikson's employer but also his psychoanalyst.
While under analytic treatment, he stressed to Ms. Freud that his most difficult problem was searching for the identity of his biological father. However, Anna Freud was less than empathic and told Erikson that he should stop fantasizing about his absent father. Although Erikson usually obeyed his psychoanalyst on other matters—such as obtaining her permission to marry Joan Sereson—he could not stop thinking about his father or trying to learn his name.
Erikson's struggle with identity and identity confusion included taking on a new name. After he moved to the United States, he changed his name from Homburger to Erikson (his name had been Erik Salomonsen for the first 6 years of life). This name change from Homburger to Erikson was a crucial turning point in his life because it represented a retreat from his earlier Jewish identification. Originally, Erikson resented any implication that he was abandoning his Jewish identity by changing his name. He countered these charges by pointing out that he used his full name—Erik Homburger Erikson—in his books and essays. However, as time passed, he dropped his middle name and replaced it with the initial H. Thus, this person who at the end of life was known as Erik H. Erikson had previously been called Erik Salomonsen, Erik Homburger, and Erik Homburger Erikson.
As Lawrence Friedman (1999) reported, Erikson's search for identity took him through some difficult experiences during his generative stage. According to Erikson, generativity requires a person to take care of the children, new products, and new ideas that he or she has generated. On this issue, Erikson was deficient in meeting his own standards. During the generative (middle adulthood) stage of his life, Erikson failed to take good care of his son Neil, who was born with Down Syndrome. At the hospital while Joan was still under sedation, Erik agreed to place Neil in an institution. Then he went home and told his three older children that their brother had died at birth. He lied to them much as his mother had lied to him about the identity of his biological father. Later, he told his oldest son Kai the truth, but he continued to deceive the two younger children, Jon and Sue. Although his mother's lie had distressed him greatly, he failed to understand that his lie about Neil might later distress his other children. In deceiving his children the way he did, Erikson violated two of his own principles. "Don't lie to people you should care for," and "Don't pit one family member against another." To compound the situation, when Neil died, the Eriksons, who were in Europe at the time, called Sue and Jon and instructed them to handle all the funeral arrangements for a brother they had never met and who they only recently knew existed. Who was Erik Erikson? Was he a compassionate child psychotherapist or an insensitive father who did not take care of the children he cared about? Or both?
Erikson also sought his identity through the myriad changes of jobs and places of residence. Lacking any academic credentials, he had no specific professional identity and was variously known as an artist, a psychologist, a psychoanalyst, a clinician, a professor, a cultural anthropologist, an existentialist, a psychobiographer, and a public intellectual. In addition, he rarely lived in one place for more than a year or two, and he once changed residences nine times in 6 years while living in the same city (Friedman, 1999).
Through all these changes, Erikson continued to seek his father's name. When his mother died in 1960, Erik, then 58 years old, feared he would never know the identity of his biological father. But he persevered in his search by enlisting the help of a Danish American friend who had knowledge of his mother's genealogy. But the friend found no further information.
Finally, more than 30 years later and as his mind and body began to deteriorate, Erikson lost interest in learning his father's name, but he continued to show some identity confusion. He regressed to a point where he spoke mostly in German and took perverted pride in displaying the flag of Denmark, a country in which he never lived.
Who was Erik Erikson? Although he himself may not have been able to answer this question, other people can learn about the person known as Erik Erikson through his brilliantly constructed books, lectures, and essays.
Erikson, E. H. (1975). Life history and the historical moment. New York: Norton.
Friedman, L. J. (1999). Identity's architect: A biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner.