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The Architect of Identity Had an Identity Crisis of His Own

By Elaine Cassel

Erik Erikson, the psychodynamic theorist whose theory of human development covers the entire lifespan, is famous for his theory of identity development. A recent biography finds the roots of Erikson's theory in his own identity crises.

Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson (New York: Scribner, 1999) by Lawrence J. Friedman, is the first full-length biography of this famous American psychologist. Central to Erikson's life were several crises over who and what he was, the first beginning at birth. The illegitimate son of a Danish mother, his biological father had abandoned his mother before his birth in 1902. His mother married a German pediatrician, who held himself out for many years (with his mother's complicity) as the young Erik's biological father.

Growing up in his Jewish stepfather's home in Germany challenged the young Erikson to define his ethnic identity. While the members of his father's temple referred to Erik as a "goy," the Jewish slur for a Gentile "outsider," to his German schoolmates Erik was a Jew. In both domains, he was perceived as an outsider. When World War I broke out, Erikson openly identified himself as a Dane, an obvious choice since Denmark remained neutral in the Great War.

Erikson struggled with his occupational identity. Rejecting his mother and stepfather's academic plans for him, he set out to be an artist and painter. Sigmund Freud's theories piqued his interest, so at the age to thirty he moved to Austria to study and practice psychoanalysis under Anna Freud. When the Nazi movement engulfed Austria, Erikson immigrated to the United States, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.

Although lacking a formal education in psychology, he held teaching positions at Yale Medical School and the University of California at Berkeley. Falsely branded (with many others) as a Communist by Joe McCarthy because he refused to sign a "loyalty oath" to the United States, Erikson lost his job at Berkeley, but found a home at Harvard University, where he mentored several of today's well-known psychologists, including Howard Gardner.

His identity crises were not over. Erik rejected his role as father to his Down's syndrome infant, Neil, agreeing with his wife to institutionalize the boy. Erikson and his wife deceived their two younger children by telling them that they had an older brother who died shortly after birth.

Identity's Architect examines Erikson's "pathological" (his own term) identity crises, for which he sought resolution in psychoanalysis. Though he did not become the kind of artist he had envisioned as a young man, out of his personal struggles he constructed the premier theory of lifespan development, one that emphasizes the individual's potential to master personal and environmental challenges that compete with one's one sense of self. "I needed to name this crisis and to see it in everybody else in order to really come to terms with it in myself."*

*Erikson, E.H. (1975). Identity crisis in autobiographical perspective. In E. Erikson, Life history and the historical moment. New York: Norton. p. 43

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