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May 12: Erik Erikson

May 12, 2013

ErikH.EriksonErik Erikson (Homberger), the German-born (to a Danish Jewish mother) psychoanalyst who coined the phrase “identity crisis” and postulated nine stages of human development from infancy until the end of life, died at 91 on this date in 1994. He trained as a child psychologist under Anna Freud and also studied Montessori education. In 1930 he married a Canadian dancer, Joan Serson, with whom he emigrated, first to Denmark and then to the U.S., when the Nazis rose to power in Germany in 1933. Erikson became a convert to Christianity and made up his new surname. Though he lacked academic degrees, he was given positions at both Harvard and Yale, and then moved to the University of California at Berkeley. In 1950, Erikson published his best-known book, Childhood and Society, then left UC Berkeley when professors there were made to sign loyalty oaths. In 1960 he returned to Harvard for ten more years of teaching. His 1969 psycho-biography, Gandhi’s Truth, won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. “Erikson’s concepts,” wrote the New York Times in its obituary, “. . . opened a door to the idea that adults, despite poor childhoods, could compensate for their deprivations. The mold of the first five years of life was not hard and fast.”

“Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed, well considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child’s spirit; for such mutilation undercuts the life principle of trust, without which every human act, may it feel ever so good and seem ever so right, is prone to perversion by destructive forms of conscientiousness.” —Erik Erikson