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Book Forum: Life Stories   |    
Ideas and Identities: The Life and Work of Erik Erikson
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:1941-a-1943. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.11.1941-a
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San Francisco, Calif.

Edited by Robert S. Wallerstein, M.D., and Leo Goldberger, Ph.D. Madison, Conn., International Universities Press, 1999, 430 pp., $65.00.

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This is a remarkable collection of essays by various authors who define and discuss the significant contributions of Erik Erikson to psychoanalytic theory, clinical practice, "psychohistory," and social science from 1929 to 1994. The book is an outgrowth of an all-day symposium held in 1995 in San Francisco commemorating and celebrating Erikson’s life. Robert Wallerstein, long-time friend and colleague of Erikson’s, organized the symposium. The proceedings of the symposium were published in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought. Wallerstein and Leo Goldberger, editor of that journal, constructed this volume from papers presented at the symposium, along with additional perspectives from other writers on Erikson’s influence on current psychoanalytic thinking. Several of Erikson’s most important contributions are also included.

It is difficult to summarize in a brief review the remarkable richness of the chapters in this book, each of which addresses, from a different perspective, Erikson’s life and psychoanalytic contributions. A selection will be presented here in order to give a flavor of the whole book. The volume begins with a concise and informative chapter, "Erik H. Erikson, 1902–1994: Setting the Context," in which Wallerstein reviews key aspects of Erikson’s life, the social/historical changes that occurred during his lifetime, and the evolution of psychoanalytic thinking.

In the next chapter, "Erik Erikson and the Temporal Mind," Marsha Cavell, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, gives an eloquent discussion of Erikson’s work in relation to philosophy. Cavell emphasizes the role of "doubt," self-awareness, and the role of being the "doubter" in the field of philosophy. She presents a very informative discussion of the development of the "I" in the development of identification and an equally rich discussion of the significance of "shame and doubt" in the development of the sense of separateness and individuality.

In "Erik Erikson as Social Scientist," Neil J. Smelser, Ph.D., discusses Erikson’s role as a social scientist. Smelser emphasizes Erikson’s interdisciplinarian approach, some of the unresolved methodological issues in his approach, his diagnosis of Western culture, and his sociological idealism. Smelser, in a very concise and elegant critique, discusses in detail the strengths and weaknesses of Erikson’s approach as a social scientist, especially the difficulty in unifying or integrating into a whole Erikson’s multiple perspectives on human functioning and adaptation. In general, Smelser is quite positive about Erikson’s contributions, especially his discussion of the dangers of totalitarianism and the phenomenon of "pseudospeciation" and its detrimental effect on society.

Walter H. Capps gives an eloquent discussion of Erikson’s contribution to the understanding of religion:

Thus, when Erikson addressed the subject of religion, he concentrated on the quest for truth, and truth was always linked to integrity, and integrity to wholeness, and wholeness to "being well," or as he put it sometimes, to "being all right." In the end, his work stands as a testament to moral courage.

Other chapters include interesting contributions from Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph.D. ("Erik Erikson on Bodies, Gender and Development"), and a chapter by Robert Jay Lifton on Erikson’s historical perspectives ("Entering History: Erik Erikson’s New Psychological Landscape").

Two papers are included in addition to those given at the 1995 symposium: "Erikson, Our Contemporary: His Anticipation of an Intersubjective Perspective," by Stephen Seligman and Rebecca Shahmoon Shanok, and "Erik H. Erikson’s Critical Themes and Voices: The Task of Synthesis," by Lawrence J. Friedman. The Seligman-Shanok chapter discusses in detail how Erikson’s emphasis on the significance and psychological power of the person’s environment, especially the complex relationships with important people in the environment, not only presaged but also predicted the gradual evolution of an "intersubjective" point of view that emphasizes the essential place of relationships in motivation, development, and clinical practice:

We believe that Erikson’s insistence on the inclusion of broad social and historical conditions in psychoanalytic psychology challenges adherence to the two-person perspective to include a wider array of familial, institutional and cultural relationships in their project.…Erikson’s concept of identity provides a profound account of subjective experience in terms of processes of locating self and other representations in intersubjective space.

Friedman’s chapter provides a remarkably clear and concise discussion of Erikson’s historical role in psychoanalytic thinking as well as his influence on current culture. He gives a very informed discussion of Erikson’s criticisms of Western culture, especially the culture in the United States, and a very lucid discussion of Erikson’s concept of "pseudospeciation" as "the arrogant placing of one’s nation, race or culture, and/or society ahead those of others." Friedman discusses three of Erikson’s longstanding topical interests—American society, psychoanalysis, and the human life cycle—and talks about how difficult it is to integrate these interests into a coherent theory.

One of the great treats of this book is the inclusion of four classic papers by Erikson: "The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis," "The Problem of Ego Identity," "The Nature of Clinical Evidence," and "The Galilean Sayings and the Sense of ‘I’." In addition, there is a very moving document, a position statement made by Erikson in 1950 (the McCarthy era) to the Committee on Privilege and Tenure of the University of California in which he resigns his position. He did so in protest of the University of California’s newly developed requirement that faculty sign, in essence, a loyalty oath, including a statement that they "are not a member of the Communist Party or any other organization which advocates the overthrow of the government by force and violence, etc." Erikson refused to sign the loyalty oath but was found fit for continued tenure; he resigned his position in protest.

All of the Erikson papers included in this volume are important contributions. In the ego identity paper, Erikson very thoughtfully elaborates his understanding of the development of ego identity with a rather extensive discussion of his definition of the term and the internal and external forces that play a role in the development of one’s ego identity. Wallerstein describes Erikson’s "The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis," written in 1954, as "arguably the most important single paper on dream analysis since Freud’s Dream Book in 1900."

There is a moving and succinct epilogue by Goldberger and an excellent bibliography. One of the most impressive aspects of this book is that the extraordinary variety and intelligent and informed approaches of the various authors reflect Erikson’s remarkable diversity and his capacity to think in various domains of human existence.




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