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Erik Erikson and the American Psyche:
Ego, Ethics, and Evolution
Daniel Burston

Lanham, MD (USA): Jason Aronson, 2007.
219 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7657-0495-5


Reviewed by David Waterman



Daniel Burston’s recent book on Erik Erikson is the logical continuation of a lifelong interest in the history of psychoanalysis, after preceding works devoted to Freud, Jung, Fromm and Laing—the author is Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA).  Although not a practitioner of psychoanalysis, there is no problem of credibility in Burston’s work, as he is more interested in the psychoanalyst as public intellectual than scientist, and, at least in North America, the diminishing importance of such holistic thinkers as “preceptor[s] to humanity at large” [1].

Chapter One, “In Hitler’s Shadow,” gives a brief overview of the decline of psychoanalysis, after a century of priceless contribution to society (Erikson’s concept of intergenerational identification, for example), largely due to economic factors—“quick fix” pharmaceutical solutions are much cheaper than analysis, hence favored by insurance companies. A condensed biography of Erikson’s childhood follows, giving the reader essential information about the crisis of identity which would plague Erikson all his life, including questions regarding paternity, nationality and Jewishness, all of which would leave Erikson “unsettled” in both literal and figurative ways, even after his association and training with the Freuds.  
The second chapter, entitled “The New World,” traces Erikson and his family’s flight from the Nazis in 1933 to various locations on the American East Coast and California, where his reputation gained him access to the most respected intellectual circles, including association with Margaret Mead and Benjamin Spock, for example. Professional success, however, seems to have come at the price of family troubles; Erikson had little time for domestic worries, at least until he and his wife Joan decided to collaborate and map the human life cycle, a project which took form in the epigenetic principle and was published in Childhood and Society (1950), a work which owes much to Jung and Fromm, although Erikson professed complete loyalty to Freud [see Burston 35-36]. Joan’s influence would continue as she became cultural director at the Austen Riggs Center, where her programs highlighted the importance of work and community recognition in healing troubled adolescents, a fact not lost on Erikson himself [41].
Chapter Three, “A Crisis of Integrity,” traces Erikson’s career at the peak of his popularity at Harvard University in 1960, a time when Erikson’s willingness to transgress both disciplinary as well as generational boundaries earned him a great deal of respect outside the academy. His opposition to nuclear arms, the Vietnam War, racism and poverty were tempered by his refusal to support the “regressive inwardness” manifested by dropping out of society [53]. Then, as previously mentioned, comes a more detailed account of Erikson’s ambivalence between Judaism and Christianity, “stranded at the interstices of these two religious identities” as he was for all of his life [61]. And without ever formally leaving the Freudian school, Erikson channeled his theoretical differences into the new discipline of psychohistory, producing, for example, studies on Luther and Gandhi. 1975 marks the year of Erikson’s decline, retired and in failing health, then suffering a severe ad hominem attack from the pen of political scientist Marshall Berman.
Chapter Four, “Situating Erikson,” deals in large measure with his relation to Freud, and their differing conceptions of the ego’s role, however, if we are “rediscovering” Erikson today it is perhaps due more to his interest in ritual and play and the “specificity of cultures” which makes familiarity with Erikson essential for any student of Cultural Studies [87]. Along these lines, Burston calls Erikson a “crypto-revisionist” for his efforts at uniting psychoanalysis and ethics, while the Freudians have always insisted that psychoanalysis be value free [89-90], as well as Erickson’s view that “individual identity is actively constructed or created by and for the person within the context and constraints provided by tradition,” in other words, self-authorship [95-96].

The following chapter presents Erikson’s interest in the psycho-profiles of great thinkers, specifically Luther and Gandhi, thus creating the contentious category known as psychohistory. While such case studies can be very interesting and enlightening, their frequent shortcomings in terms of scientific methodology cause much disagreement in analytic circles, criticism to which Erikson was not immune:

After all—and by his own admission—Erikson was searching Luther’s life for evidence to justify and illustrate his evolving theories of identity and the life cycle. Therefore, he was reproached with trying to make the evidence fit a preconceived theoretical schema. [103]

Burston also takes Erikson’s portrait of Luther as a humanitarian and a revolutionary to task, given Luther’s tendency toward violence, his selective emphasis on certain Biblical texts (while ignoring others), not to mention his rabid anti-Semitism [110-15]. Gandhi fares better among Erikson’s critics, despite some concern that Gandhi’s sense of virtue (in the sense of celibacy) often involves violating human instincts [134].
Erikson’s psychohistorical treatment of Darwin and Freud is the subject of Chapter Six, which highlights the unflattering conclusions that both come to regarding human nature and the fierce resistance they subsequently encountered. The differing roles of adaptation and of positive and negative conscience are treated at length. Freud and Darwin are then linked to, among others, Nietzsche and Adler, including the similarity of Erikson’s definition of the ideological phase of adolescence, akin to Fromm’s “framework of orientation and devotion,” as an integral period of the life cycle [151-52].
Despite some reservations regarding the ultimately biological foundation of Erikson’s epigenetic development of conscience, Burston concludes that, fundamentally, Erikson was right when he prescribed “the reciprocal recognition and affirmation of individuals in different phases of the life cycle” as necessary to mental health and the “unfolding” of conscience [154]. Then there follow several pages of concerns about the abuses of technology, especially reproductive techniques which allow humans, for the first time in Earth’s history, to remove themselves entirely from evolution and natural selection [163].

The seventh chapter, “The Historicity of Dreams,” tackles the delicate subject of treating dreams as data or as historical artifact, which, like all other data and artifacts occur in a socio-historical context, an often-overlooked element in dream analysis. Then the reader learns of Freud’s disagreements with Wilhelm Fliess regarding alleged plagiarism on the subject of bisexuality—as it turns out, Burston contends, Freud was often inspired by other thinkers without properly acknowledging the debt [186]. The final chapter, “Erikson’s Erasure,” examines the question of how one of the foremost authorities on adolescence in 1965 could be largely forgotten today. The decline of psychoanalysis is a partial answer, Erikson’s biological foundation of the life cycle as politically incorrect is another [192-93].  Childhood in the 1950s was much different than childhood in the early twenty-first century, especially regarding the banalization of sexual activity and violence, rising illiteracy, not to mention the accelerated rate of technological and social change. Politically, there is also suspicion that Erikson’s insistence on an ultimate human nature is merely yet another attempt to impose a dominant set of norms and values on subaltern groups [197]. While this is a legitimate concern, Burston cautions against taking up the opposite point of view, namely a total disbelief in human nature, for without some idea of human nature we are incapable of defining “universal human rights or fundamental human needs” [197].  Despite certain legitimate criticisms, Erikson has left an immense body of work that we ignore at our peril, and his passing into oblivion is one of the factors leading Burston to the pessimistic conclusion that “the basic developmental needs of children and adolescents are no longer being met in our society” [201].

Daniel Burston has produced an excellent work which succeeds by its balanced approach to Erikson’s troubled life and career, never falling into hero worship while highlighting the immense social contribution, especially in adolescent development, which is Erikson’s legacy. Readers within disciplines from psychology and sociology to history and anthropology will be attracted to this thorough and well-researched book, which, in spite of being categorized as “Psychology / Biography” by the editors, will be of interest to anyone within the much broader scope of Cultural Studies and the articulations among and between the various disciplines. Thanks at least in part to Burston’s work, Erik Erikson has been (re)placed where he belongs, as an engaged public intellectual.




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