Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 15, 1902. There is a little mystery about his heritage: His biological father was an unnamed Danish man who abandoned Erik’s mother before he was born. His mother, Karla Abrahamsen, was a young Jewish woman who raised him alone for the first three years of his life. She then married Dr. Theodor Homberger, who was Erik’s pediatrician, and moved to Karlsruhe in southern Germany.
The development of identity seems to have been one of his greatest concerns in Erikson’s own life as well as in his theory. During his childhood, and his early adulthood, he was Erik Homberger, and his parents kept the details of his birth a secret. So here he was, a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was also Jewish. At temple school, the kids teased him for being Nordic; at grammar school, they teased him for being Jewish.
After graduating high school, Erik focused on becoming an artist. When not taking art classes, he wandered around Europe, visiting museums and sleeping under bridges. He was living the life of the carefree rebel, long before it became “the thing to do.”
When he was 25, his friend Peter Blos — a fellow artist and, later, psychoanalyst — suggested he apply for a teaching position at an experimental school for American students run by Dorothy Burlingham, a friend of Anna Freud. Besides teaching art, he gathered a certificate in Montessori education and one from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. He was psychoanalyzed by Anna Freud herself.
While there, he also met Joan Serson, a Canadian dance teacher at the school. They went on the have three children, one of whom became a sociologist himself.
With the Nazis coming into power, they left Vienna, first for Copenhagen, then to Boston. Erikson was offered a position at the Harvard Medical School and practiced child psychoanalysis privately. During this time, he met psychologists like Henry Murray and Kurt Lewin, and anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. I think it can be safely said that these anthropologists had nearly as great an effect on Erikson as Sigmund and Anna Freud!
He later taught at Yale, and later still at the University of California at Berkeley. It was during this period of time that he did his famous studies of modern life among the Lakota and the Yurok.
When he became an American citizen, he officially changed his name to Erik Erikson. No-one seems to know where he got the name!
In 1950, he wrote Childhood and Society, which contained summaries of his studies among the Native Americans, analyses of Maxim Gorkiy and Adolph Hitler, a discussion of the “American personality,” and the basic outline of his version of Freudian theory. These themes — the influence of culture on personality and the analysis of historical figures — were repeated in other works, one of which, Gandhi’s Truth, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Award.
In 1950, during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror, Erikson left Berkeley when professors there were asked to sign “loyalty oaths.” He spent ten years working and teaching at a clinic in Massachusetts, and ten years more back at Harvard. Since retiring in 1970, he wrote and did research with his wife. He died in 1994.