Book Review: Fulford on Erik Erikson

It’s rare for a nationally-syndicated columnist to review a book with relevance to the history of psychology.  Rarer still is it for the author to be an alumnus of one of the core schools in history and theory.

And yet that’s what happened: in last Saturday’s National Post, Robert Fulford reviewed Daniel Burston’s Erik Erikson and the American Psyche: Ego, Ethics, and Evolution (Jason Aronson, 2007).

This year, Erikson is the subject of a poised and sympathetic study by Daniel Burston, an Israeli-born, Toronto-raised psychologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh….  It’s a monument to a now neglected figure and a demonstration of how quickly intellectual fashion changes and fame flees. People dominate the cultural landscape and then, almost overnight, vanish into what Burston calls “a dim recess of the collective psyche.”

[B]y the time Erikson died (at 92, in 1994), his reputation had all but evaporated. What happened? His theories were often analyzed critically but it wasn’t his critics who did him in. He was betrayed by history. For one thing, psychoanalysis went into decline everywhere, partly because of its dubious success record, partly because analysis cost so much and took so long, and partly because Freud and his followers presented themselves originally as scientists but never developed a scientific method to judge their work.

More important, as Burston says, the world changed, radically. Youth, Erikson’s great subject, was transformed by the media, by new attitudes to sex, by changed views of authority — and by prescription drugs. To Erikson’s generation of therapists, an adolescent crisis offered a way to explore family history and social context, then carefully ease the patient back to health. “In that dimly remembered long-ago time,” Burston writes, “psychotropic drugs were viewed as a treatment of last resort.” Nowadays they are every MD’s panacea. The chance to grasp what a disturbed adolescent is communicating can be drowned in pharmaceuticals.

Thanks to Ray Fancher for drawing our attention to Fulford’s review.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.