In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik Erikson (Book Review)

Author:  Bloland, Susan Erikson
Publisher: New York: Viking Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Eisold, Barbara, Spring 2005, pp. 37-40

This intimate memoir by Sue Erikson Bloland, the youngest child and only daughter of Erik and Joan Erikson, includes, along with her personal reminisces and speculations about them, more general discussions of fame, on the one hand, and the need for idols on the other. These discussions seem to have been necessary weigh stations, as Ms. Bloland undertook the journey of separation from her famous father. His fame apparently impressed her deeply throughout her childhood. In fact, exposure to famous people of any kind always affects her, she tells us, leaving her at times “barely able to speak,” or with dry mouth and thumping heart (p. 216). Thus, she says, the primary task for her, in writing this memoir, was to reconcile the “overwhelming and bewildering” effect of her father’s “public aura” with the brilliant, but “awkward, ” (p. 12) “unpredictable,” often “irritable” man she distantly encountered, growing up, in those moments when he was not escaping his family and friends in order to write.

Her mother meanwhile, had gifts that seemed “virtually unlimited” (p. 15). Beautiful, healthy, accomplished, (a dancer with degrees, respectively, in sociology and education), Joan Erikson, a modern-day version of Sonya Tolstoy, did everything for her husband and family. In addition to encouraging exercise, preparing healthy meals, entertaining effortlessly and taking total charge of childrearing, she rose early every day to edit her husband’s work.

Together, according to Ms. Bloland, her parents told stories about themselves, about how they had “...transcended experiences of childhood rejection to find idyllic romantic love with each other and to ascend together to ... fame” (p. 8). These stories, which had a huge effect on others, made “...the real world seem mundane and colorless by comparison.” to their daughter (p. 9).

Meanwhile, it seems she gave them quite a hard time. Five years younger than her next older sibling, Ms. Bloland describes herself as chubby, grim, poor of posture and generally miserable (p. 20). Her obvious lack of contentment “...embarrassed them all.”

If Mother was the very model of self-sufficiency, I represented the other end of the emotional continuum. I was needy and demanding and always wanted more of her attention. [Father,] “was impatient and irritable with me. He urged me not to make so many demands on Mother. And he begged me not to misbehave in public, where my undisguised unhappiness was a source of great embarrassment to him. (p. 30)

This undisguised misery continued until she was nine, she says, when finally her mother bought her first a donkey and then a horse. She became deeply absorbed in riding and caring for these beasts and was thus able to follow her brothers out of the house into activities of her own.

Ms. Bloland attributes much of the misery she experienced as a child to events that took place immediately following the birth of her brother, Neil, in 1944. He was born with Downs Syndrome, in Berkeley, California, where the family was then living, when Ms. Bloland herself was 5 and her mother 41. Before his birth, her mother, she says, was “thrilled” about the pregnancy, and

“...in a gesture towards me that I still think of as deeply touching, she suggested that we prepare together for this new arrival ... I imagined that I would be needed and would earn Mom’s love and approval by helping her with the baby’s care... When at last Mother went to the hospital to give birth, I stayed with family friends. ... The hours of waiting turned into days ... before Dad arrived to give me news. His face was anguished. ... The baby, he said, died at birth. Mother was still in the hospital and would need time to recover. ... I could not come home yet. And when I did ... the topic was not to be discussed. ... I had lost the baby that she and I were to care for together and I had lost the opportunity to bond with her in this special way ... my mother had withdrawn from me into her own terrible pain. ... My brothers and I had been told that Neil had died. But there was no burial, no ritual ... to mark his existence ... they never talked about Neil – with each other or with us (p.24-25).”

What had actually happened, a story familiar to those who have read historian Lawrence Friedman’s biography of Erikson (Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner’s, 1999), is that Neil had not died at all, but had been institutionalized. While his wife was still unconscious from anesthesia, Erikson, with the help of Margaret Mead, made the decision to institutionalize the child, whom they were told would not survive much beyond infancy. Her mother, according to Ms. Bloland, accepted this decision but it created “emotional turmoil” and tension in the family. “It was a crushing narcissistic blow for her to have such a child ... At the same time she felt guilty about her own paralysis in the matter.” When she got angry at Erik for sending Neil away, “he was devastated and withdrew” (p. 23). As a consequence of these dynamics, the marriage was shaken to its foundation and the couple considered divorce. Her father, Ms. Bloland learned later from her mother, was involved in a relationship with a research assistant. Her mother, very distressed, went for a week to see Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (whom the Eriksons knew) in Taos, New Mexico and felt considerable relief as a result.

These are sad events indeed. Ms. Bloland describes the pain and vulnerability her parents continued to feel, given the rift in their sense of themselves that Neil’s birth had created. But with their move from West Coast to East, six years later, soon after the publication of Childhood and Society, they pushed “the tragedy of Neil as far out of their conscious awareness as possible –[and to focus instead] ... on ... my father’s ... fame” (p. 92).

This period in the lives of the Ericksons are given a somewhat different turn by Friedman. Devastated as Joan Erikson was, by the birth of Neil, and the destruction of the “romantic image that she, even more than Erik, liked to invoke of a healthy ... vibrant family” (p. 210), Friedman tells us Joan Erikson visited Neil periodically after his birth, even while she was still supposed to be in bed. According to Friedman, it was, in fact, largely her decision to keep Neil institutionalized, a decision she made because of a combination of factors: First, Neil did not respond to her personally as his mother, which hurt her deeply; second, she already had plenty to care for at home. Third, the pervasive “scientific” knowledge of the day about retarded children (before the “crusade” for them “got under way,” (p. 211)) seemed to encourage her to leave Neil in an institution, where, presumably, there would be people who knew better than she how to care for him. The outcome of all this was that she tried, without much guidance, to find a good placement for him and once she found one that seemed to be okay, she kept him there.

Meanwhile at home, still according to Friedman, “Neil’s birth affected Erikson’s thinking about the nature of human development ... provoking him to continue with it (p. 217).” In continuing this work, Friedman says, Joan became more than a critic, she became his collaborator, at least on the major (eight stages) essay in Childhood and Society. Working together “almost” as partners, they began reading together again, Shakespeare among other things, the “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It, which outlines seven ages of man. Their reading expanded as their ideas grew. “The Eriksons,“ Friedman continues, “ found themselves using their collaboration as a path away from the crisis of family dysfunction rooted in Neil’s birth” (p. 218). Their highly creative bond not only rejuvenated them, but produced another kind of (normal) child, his (or their) most famous work about “normal” development, one that generations continue to read, in high school, college, graduate school, all over the world.

Sue Erikson, however, apparently never felt the impact of this period of rejuvenation in her parents’ lives and, once settled in the East, in 1951 (when she was 13), her resentment of them continued. They bungled her schooling, she says, removing her from one school, where for the first time in her life she had won some recognition, and sent her instead to another, where she felt completely lost. From there, by now badly estranged, she went to Oberlin College, where she did not read a word of her father’s work, not even Childhood and Society, not even when others in her class were reading it (Friedman, 1999, p. 257). Unconsciously, all along, she had identified a lot with Neil, the stupid one, she tells us. Even before they finally told her about him (which also occurred when she was 13), she dreamt of being “Mongolian.” It was only much later that she understood the significance of this dream.

Her resistance to her parents continued well past college, Ms. Bloland continues, and was evident in the work she finally chose. After graduation, believing that her parents did not think of her as “career material”, she took a secretarial job in California, where she returned, leaving her parents in the East.

From here on the book is largely focused on Ms. Bloland’s unfolding as an adult. Her secretarial work (at the Institute of International Studies, in Berkeley, according to Friedman) is barely mentioned as providing her with anything of importance. What was important was that she met and married an academic, an intellectual like her father. This relationship, she says, was extraordinarily complicated by her “...enmeshed relationship with my parents and my deep-seated ambivalence toward achievement” (p.114). The marriage, in which she bore a son, did not last. Ms. Bloland, who had returned to the East with her husband and was settled in New York, was more than a little confused about who she was at this point in her life; and was also feeling inadequate as a mother (in comparison to her own mother). At this point, for the first time in her life, apparently, she went to see a therapist, to someone recommended by a friend. She was in her thirties.

Relevant here and interesting to me, in Ms. Bloland’s account, were the mixed messages she received from her parents about psychoanalysis. Her mother, she tells us, went into analysis well before the birth of Neil, only because she thought it was expected of her. She fabricated dreams for her analyst to interpret and laughed when he tried to imply that she could be lasciviously (oedipally) interested in him. “Mother had survived ... childhood by being secretive,” Ms. Bloland says (p. 77), and she was not going to let any psychoanalyst in. Moreover, her (Joan’s) practical turn of mind, which later famously led her to develop offsite, community-related activity programs at Austen Riggs, mitigated against much faith in deep self exploration. Instead, she favored the creation of “ego-strength” through active involvement in life, which her husband supported as well (Friedman, p. 258).

It is difficult to get a clear picture from Ms. Bloland of what she believed her father’s opinion of his own analysis had been, in part because Erikson himself seems to have been unclear. She describes the competition between her mother and Anna Freud (Erikson’s analyst) for his fealty. However, Ms. Bloland is quite precise about her own love of psychoanalysis. Once she took it up, she says, she discovered that she had been “programmed” for its language and that she identified profoundly with her father, whose writings she read as an adult. In fact, for the first time in her memoir, Ms. Bloland describes her feelings about her parents in absolutely positive terms. Somehow, through the haze of resentment in which she grew up, she says she was,

“blessed not only with a deep faith in psychoanalytic insight, but also with a basic trust in the psychoanalytic process—a trust inspired ... by an identification with my father. But ultimately, it was the loving effort on the part of both Mom and Dad to be better parents than their own that had made it possible for me to benefit profoundly from a source of healing to which neither of them had been able to turn (p. 125).”

Ms. Bloland’s account of her own analysis, her difficulty establishing trust, her fear of betraying/destroying her parents, of her analyst’s betrayal, and finally of the process of coming into her own, did not seem very different to me from many analyses, except perhaps for the fact that her father was realistically famous (rather than just in her fantasy) and famous in the world she was entering herself. This reality may have added something to the intensity of her coping processes. At any rate, she registers considerable gratitude to her analyst and to the faculty at the Manhattan Institute in New York, where she finally trained as an analyst herself, and where she learned to approach psychoanalysis from a perspective a bit different from her father’s.

A memoir of this kind will be read by those who have relationships of their own, real or imagined, with the person being memorialized and who are more interested in learning about him (or her) than about the person actually writing the account. In this regard, for me it was good to read both about Erikson’s mesmerizing charm and his belief in, and almost exclusionary commitment to, his work. In contrast, it was disconcerting to read about both his irritability when asked to do a household chore by his wife, and his unwillingness to encourage his daughter’s intelligence. Above all, however, it gave me considerable pause to read that Erikson himself was apparently not satisfied with what he had achieved. The feeling of “generativity” (which must have been his, given the well received books and the gratitude of his students, patients, supervisees) was not enough for him. Indeed, his prescription of an ongoing, active integration of self and its surround, at every stage, which, if fully pursued will arrive each of us, finally, at a solid, presumably satisfying sense of generativity, was not sufficient for him at all. According to his daughter, only reassurance about the longevity of his fame, might have given him peace. And the rest of us? Who knows?

Reference

Reference
Friedman, J.F., (1999). Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson New York: Scribner’s

Reviewer Note

Barbara Eisold is a Division 39 member in New York City and a faculty member of the Center for Social and Emotional Education

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