In the Shadow of Fame
A Memoir by the Daughter
of Erik H. Erikson
Sue Erikson Bloland
VikingThis Erik Erikson was a study. According to his daughter, he was a bastard, and not only in the old-fashioned sense.
He grew up in Denmark in a profoundly religious household. His adoptive father was icy, super-critical ... especially when Erikson decided to become an artist. Later, he described himself a typical rootless "adolescent neurotic."
All that changed when he arrived in Vienna, fell in with the Freuds, was analyzed by Anna ... Anna Freud herself. (That's not unlike learning musical theory from Stravinsky, studying 'cello with Casals, or having Bob Dylan 1963 invite you to come by and practice some riffs and have a toke or two with him and his pal Joan Baez, in his pad, there on the fifth floor of the Harvard Square walk-up.)
Erikson hit the jackpot in the '50s with his book Childhood and Society. As we have noted before, Erikson is not only a spare and intelligent writer, his book came along at just the right time. Psychotherapy was drifting away from Freudian dogma, the chains of a too-exact, absurd theory. In addition, in Post-WWII America, everyone wanted to know about the actions and thoughts of their children, why they did what they did --- especially when it turned out to be self-destructive. It was yet another form of familial control.
Consequently, Erikson came to be one of the primary inspirations for what was later to be called "Family Therapy," which came together under the ægis of Salvador Minuchin, Jay Haley, Milton Erickson, and Maria Selva Palazzoli.
In an astute passage in Childhood and Society, Erikson saw the poison that could be found in the blood of apparently "normal" "happy" families --- where the reality of deceit turns child against parent, child against child:
in truly significant matters people, and especially children, have a devastatingly clear if mostly unconscious perception of what other people really mean, and sooner or later royally reward real love or take well-aimed revenge for implicit hate...
Families in which each member is separated from the others by asbestos walls of verbal propriety, overt sweetness, cheap frankness, and rectitude tell one another off and talk back to each other with minute and unconscious displays of affect --- not to mention physical complaints and bodily ailments --- with which they worry, accuse, undermine, and murder one another.
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Bloland doesn't seem too impressed by her impressive father. Indeed, she dwells inordinately on the distance, the outbursts of temper, his apparent favoritism towards her older brothers. The god of the newest 1950s theories of family dynamics was, she is telling us, a lousy family man.
Big deal. As my friend Tom Connors used to say, another person with a monkey on her back. Her gloomy style, and her passion for repeating herself does nothing to set the reader on fire. How many times do we have to hear of Erikson's fixation on the fact that his missing father might have been of the Danish nobility?
It all turns into a bummer, especially for those of us who don't give a toot about the eccentricies of artists. Do you and I care that Norman Mailer beat up on his lovers, Gauguin died of syphilis, Hart Crane liked taking on sailors (and getting beat up by them),, that Edna St. Vincent Millay was named after a hospital? Sorry, Bloland. The only perfect saint died 2500 years ago, and civilization isn't in any hurry to reproduce another.
There are a few mildly interesting interpolations here: that Erik Erikson named himself --- his real name was Salomonsen --- which, she tells us, "suggested that he had, in effect, invented himself." Thus, the author apparently doesn't realize that we all invent ourselves (or maybe she's never heard the expression, "I've made up my mind.")
She dwells on the family tragedy: a younger brother Neil was born retarded, and without his wife's permission, Erikson immediately had the infant placed in a "special care" facility. One of the advisors was Margaret Mead. This was, she tells us, yet another proof that specialists in family psychotrauma don't know from squat when it comes to their own families.
Perhaps, but those of us who didn't have to live with him would rather remember Erikson as a brilliant, gentle, supremely intelligent therapist who, in his desire --- in one case --- to understand the agony of one of his very young patients arranged to move in with the boy's family for a month or so. Just so he could see what was cooking on the home front. Unencumbered by mere words.
The cover photograph of In the Shadow of Fame shows a rather pouty girl in the arms of her rather nice-looking dad. Evidently that pouty girl hasn't learned, over all these years, how to surrender her snippishness to reality.--- María Olvidados