Open Book

Less than Perfect

Erik Erickson's daughter chronicles the pitfalls of celebrity

Magazine Issue
July/August 2006
Less than Perfect

In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson

By Sue Erikson Bloland

Viking. 229 pp. ISBN: 0-670-03374-X

For the psychologists and several generations of students who devotedly read the groundbreaking Childhood and Society in college, Erik H. Erikson was a name to be revered. Sue Erikson Bloland grew up with a father who turned people speechless: “My God, he’s your FATHER?” A psychoanalyst like her father, her meticulous memoir, In the Shadow of Fame, goes to the heart of the basic question: what’s it like to live with an icon? Bloland chronicles the shadow that fame casts upon even the seemingly sanest of families.

The famous live glamorous lives in the public eye; but in private, they suffer like you and I. Their celebrity doesn’t protect them: even in their well-appointed houses, their insecurities multiply.

Erikson is well known for works that expanded the boundaries of psychoanalysis. He extended Freud’s stages of development, which had been confined to childhood, and proposed an approach that encompassed the entire life span. He helped popularize the notion of “identity,” a concept that’s now a psychological commonplace. His books on Martin Luther and Gandhi initiated the psycho-history genre for the modern audience.

Perhaps his most significant contribution to the field of psychoanalysis was the idea that societal and cultural circumstances are crucial to a child’s development. It may be easy from our vantage point to underestimate the significance of these ideas, now that they’re so effortlessly embedded in our psychological consciousness. But tell that to Anna Freud, the master’s daughter (and Erik’s analyst) and the many other analysts who were furious at him and thought him a turncoat for daring to suggest that the psychological impact of the social world could have as much weight as internal psychodynamics.

This memoir is no Mommy Dearest, Joan Crawford’s daughter’s searing tale of maternal cruelty and abuse. Erikson and his wife are portrayed as accomplished and loving parents who have their quirks, their needs, their faults. The work-obsessed Erik was somewhat absent–most contented toiling in his study. When he had to socialize, he preferred it to be among a circle of friends and acquaintances who idolized him. Aside from the wonderful bedtime stories he told her as a small child, Bloland seems to have received little of her father’s attention growing up, and her resentment of that is evident throughout her memoir. As an adolescent, she refused to read his books, and then joked about it at parties: “Oh, is that the yellow one?”

Both Erik and his wife, Joan, insisted that Sue, a somewhat morose little girl, behave herself and not embarrass them. Erik and the family’s reputation had to be protected at all costs. Sue also had the unfortunate luck to have two unspeakably handsome siblings, Jon and Kai, who’d inherited their father’s grace and style. She felt like the ugly princess in a royal household.

Still, she adored her parents even more than she resented them. That’s part of the problem: she was so intimidated by her father and her overwhelmingly competent mother that she constantly felt diminished. It doesn’t matter that her mother bought her a horse when she was unhappy, or took her on magical shopping trips to New York. She details the small indiscretions, the slights, the misdemeanors. Above all, she tells of the emotional reserve she detected in her parents. It was a reserve that signaled: “You aren’t the most important person in this family. Your father is.”

This is a family that maybe 90 percent of Americans would die for, and yet Sue felt restrained and unhappy. It’s fascinating and perplexing. There was no abuse, lots of attention (though less than she wanted), money, wonderful homes, and meals right out of Adelle Davis’s organic cookbook (with vegetables from her mother’s garden). Still, Sue was in pain. But she isn’t looking for pity in this book: she’s reporting what went on, in her family and in her own mind.

And, contrary to appearances, what went on wasn’t perfect. The man who helped establish the identity industry wasn’t the person others thought he was. Erik Erikson was a made-up name. His mother was a Danish Jew, whose husband ran off within a day or two of their wedding. Later, she became pregnant with Erik and refused to divulge his father’s identity. It was rumored that the father was a member of the Danish royal family, a fairy-tale that Erik later embraced.

His mother went off to Germany to live a bohemian life, but later married an orthodox Jewish doctor, Theodor Homburger. Young Erik, Sue reports, “never felt very secure in his mother’s love,” and didn’t like his stepfather either.

When he emigrated to the United States in the ’30s, he immediately adopted the name Erikson. The H stood for Homburger. Years later, he was attacked for the hypocrisy of hiding his identity. His reasons for changing his name weren’t surprising: emotional distance from his father and a fear of anti-Semitism. But the fact that he kept it a secret until it was uncovered speaks to his need to create the perfect fantasy self.

Erik and Joan met at a masked ball in Vienna. She’d grown up in Canada, the daughter of an emotionally distant minister and a depressed mother, and had gone to Europe to study. Joan, a name she selected for herself, made up for her insecurities by becoming a supermom. She was trained as a dancer, but shelved her dreams to become the stage manager of her budding-genius husband and their enchanting children. Later she’d write books on the arts. But she took great pride in sequestering Erik and playing midwife to his books. They were a royal couple, self-created, gracious to all who came within their orbit. People loved to be around them.

And they loved and needed each other.

Cracks in the family’s foundation began to emerge after their son Neil was born with Downs Syndrome. While Joan was recovering in the hospital, Erik sought the advice of a number of friends (including Margaret Mead) about what to do; he was desperate. The consensus, with which Erik agreed, was that the child be institutionalized. On one level, it was a rational decision. Neil wasn’t expected to live long (in fact, he lived until the age of 22). Whatever her guilt and pain about Erik’s decision, Joan never challenged it.

Sue was told that Neil had died at birth–a lie that was maintained until she was an adolescent. The Eriksons hid the existence of their son from their closest friends. All mention of Neil was forbidden in the household. The decision cost the couple years of emotional agony. But in truth, says Sue Erikson Bloland, Neil would have disrupted the seamless functioning of the house. His care would have upended everything, including her parents’ fantasies of superior competence. The Eriksons’ house would no longer be the domain of a supremely happy family and a protected genius. Had Neil been brought home, the universe of the house would have revolved around a disabled son, and her father probably wouldn’t have written his books (or as many of them).

Years later, the Eriksons underwent more trials, when Erik’s fame and power began to diminish. He was no longer the star, and felt others had made more substantial contributions to psychology. A Pulitzer and the National Book Award weren’t enough; he and Joan murmured to each other about their yearning for the Nobel Prize. Part of the machinery of fame, says daughter Sue, is a disguised grandiosity combined with a fear of losing what you do have. Nothing is ever enough.

Originally she was too intimidated by her father’s reputation to do anything except secretarial work, but Sue eventually earned advanced degrees and became the second psychoanalyst in the family. As an accomplished analyst, she dissects ever emotion, feeling, and thought: behind every incident, she discovers shadows and perplexities. Analysts teach us that nothing is what it appears to be. That’s why you can spend a lifetime ruminating, leaving no stony emotion unturned. Cognitive distortions don’t exist in analysis: only endless complexities.

While reading this book, some people may find themselves thinking, “What’s needed here is a little repression. Maybe a little ‘move on!’ or a little ‘get over it!'” Two thousand years ago, Socrates proposed that the unexamined life is not worth living. A good measure of Western civilization, along with quite a bit of therapy, is built on this insight. So here’s my question: how much examination is enough? I’m not sure. Perhaps I should take it up with my (nonanalytic) therapist.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.