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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIXTY EIGHT Identity Crisis

When Philip Larkin wrote

They f**k you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

I think he must have been reading Child and Society, the 1950 book by Erik Erikson that helped to direct thinking about personal development towards the psycho-social and away from the psycho-sexual approach of Sigmund Freud.

Among his many other ideas, Erikson was the man who introduced the concept of the 'identity crisis'. In fact, his most important work was based on his own identity crises here in Karlsruhe, where we are currently enjoying some Black Forest Ham (cured with salt, garlic, pepper, juniper berries and coriander and then smoked over cones and logs from a fir tree). The palace over to our left exemplifies Erikson's sixth stage of development - the crisis of the 'young adult': Karl Wilhelm, Margrave of Baden-Durlach, built it in 1715 as a playground for his mistresses and as a 'Rest' from his wife: the town has been called 'Karl's Rest', Karlsruhe, ever since.

Erik was born in 1902 to a Jewish mother and Nordic father, who was not the marrying kind. On realising she was pregnant, his mother fled to faraway Karlsruhe where later on she married Erik's paediatrician. Erik was not told his true parentage then and when he found out, in his teens, the bitter feeling remained with him for the rest of his life.

His step-father was also Jewish and at school the tall, blond Erik found himself ostracised alternately for being Jewish and for being Scandinavian. Study did not suit him and he took himself on a Wanderjahre, trying to earn his living as an artist. He failed and was forced to return to Karlsruhe where he became an art teacher.

In parentheses, Karlsruhe has an extraordinarily rich collection of art. There are the jewels, illuminated manuscripts, leather work and chain mail of the Grand Vizier of the Janissaries, among the Tuerkenbeute, the Turkish Booty captured by Margrave Ludwig; Assyrian ivory pieces; Roman sculptures; a painted limewood Madonna and Child by Tilman Riemanschneider; Blaue Reiter paintings and expressionist works by Kokoscha and Beckmann; and two masterpieces by Matthias Gruenewald - Christ Bearing the Cross and The Crucifixion, panels from the Taubischofsheim Altarpiece.

Erikson's life changed in 1925 when a close friend invited him to Vienna to teach. Here his intuitive skill with children was noticed by Anna Freud who engineered his admission to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute where he studied child development and the Montessori method. He fled Germany for America in 1933 and was the first child psychoanalyst in Boston. His career ranged widely - Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, research projects with native Americans, clinical work, writing; he worked alongside Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Benjamin Spock.

Glitter was not enough: his daughter, Sue Erikson Bloland, herself a psychoanalyst, has said that her father had "lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy" to which he added his own sense of "identity confusion".

As a student of psychoanalysis, Erik recognised his impediments early on and saw salvation through partnership with his wife, Joan Mowat Erikson, whom he had married whilst still a student in Vienna. Joan was multi-talented: she started out in dance ethnography, but she became skilled in arts and crafts and taught art therapy and the importance of play.

Joan also had her own direct experience of developmental issues: she directed remedial activities for seriously disturbed adults and children at the Austen Riggs Centre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (where Erik treated Norman Rockwell); later they both taught at the Joan and Erik Erikson Center at Harvard.

Norman Rockwell The Problem We All Live With [1964] (the painting deals with racial integration in schools and the girl, Ruby Bridges, met Obama in the White House under this picture thirty years later)

Joan contributed hugely to Erik's success. She was his intellectual equal and while she could easily claim, as he acknowledged, intellectual partnership in his Erik's theories, she did not. To their daughter, she was "the ultimate source of strength and wisdom within the family (if not the universe), the real healer, the solver of all problems both practical and personal”.

Between them they made major advances in understanding how we become what we are, arguing that a child's environment (parents are part of this) is the determinant of self-awareness. The staged progress through the Eriksons' theory of personality makes harrowing reading:

0 to 18 months: – the child acquires hope and trust (or not)

1 to 3 years: the child gains a sense of autonomy (but if made to feel incompetent, experiences shame and doubt)

3 to 5 years: the child acquires confidence and is able to lead others (or feels guilt and the sense of being a burden)

6 to 11 years: the child develops a sense of adequacy and competence (or not)

12 to 18 years: the child looks for its own identity (parents pushing their ideas create identity confusion)

18 to 40 ('young adulthood'): the young adult works out how to establish lasting, intimate relationships. Margrave Karl, with his mistresses in the 'Rest', clearly failed on this one.

40 to 65: the adult finds happiness and fulfilment in child-rearing and work (or a sense that wrong decisions had been made earlier on).

65 onwards: accepting life's experience, victories and failures (or feeling guilty and depressed at past misdeeds and debacles)

After Erik's death in 1994, Joan added a ninth stage, very old age: she railed against the prevailing custom of isolating the elderly from society and from young people - for her “ageing is a process of becoming free”.

We finished our Black Forest Ham and, as I walked the Race Marshal back to her Harley, I recalled a sharp corner in the North Peaks in Derbyshire that has brought to their deaths many men of a certain age. Picking up too much speed on the straight, their newly acquired high-powered motorcycles don't quite grip the road. I'm not quite sure why, but the Race Marshal roared off rather abruptly when I mentioned that this corner is known locally as 'the mid-life crisis'.

An interview with Erik and Joan Erikson -

A man with long hair and a Tennessean accent explaining Erikson's ideas -

Norman Rockwell and Erik Erikson -

Here is Pigeon John, name he says was provided by Jesus, in his Identity Crisis -

Who is Sylvia - Jussi Bjoerling -

The Who heading for an identity crisis -

Alan Jackson at the 65 onwards stage -

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Ah, the good old Identity Crisis! I remember when you weren't a proper college student if you were having an Identity Crisis. I vaguely remember having a sort of crisis at the end of my first term at Oxford, but it was put to rest after a long dinner and accompanying pints, with a mutual friend, at the Turf.

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