Midway through this compelling memoir, Bloland, the daughter of renowned psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, relates one of her father’s favorite jokes: “the story of the psychoanalyst’s daughter who, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, answered, ‘A patient.’” Bloland’s book, In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson, chronicles her life as the psychoanalyst’s daughter, virtually ignored by her father, himself author of the groundbreaking Childhood and Sociology. In contrast to the public impression of Erikson as a benevolent, wise father, in reality he was an ineffectual, distant parent, who craved the public limelight more than the company of his own family.
“My father became famous when I was thirteen,” Bloland’s narrative begins. She recounts how her father, whose talent was recognized by Sigmund and daughter Anna Freud, ascended the academic ranks to become an intellectual giant, extending Freudian childhood theory to encompass adult stages of development. His eloquent writing style and charismatic public personality garnered him an extensive following. As a result, he was in great demand as a lecturer, professor, and writer; his book, Gandhi’s Truth, would win the 1970 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Joan, Erikson’s wife and Bloland’s mother, was a dancer and determined student who cast herself in the role of the consummate helpmate and hostess, subordinating her own talents--she earned an M.A. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and would eventually author five books--to nurturing her husband’s career. Bloland’s mother entertained and edited, cared for the children and managed the household, while Erikson “lived in a special universe that he referred to as ‘my work,’ the physical locus of which was his study.” For all was not as the public perceived in the Erikson home: “From there he visited us for events like dinner . . . but like anyone visiting from another universe, he found family life rather alien and was awkward and uncomfortable around us.”
In perhaps the most fascinating chapter, “My Parents’ Childhoods,” Bloland, herself a practicing psychotherapist, articulately conveys the origins of Erikson’s obsessive drive for recognition and approval. The story is indeed fascinating. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1902, Erikson was an illegitimate child of a Jewish woman abandoned by both her first husband and Erikson’s father. Banished by her own family, she would never, for the rest of her life, reveal the identity of Erikson’s father. Erikson’s mother eventually married Theodor Homburger, a pediatrician of Jewish descent, who was dutiful to the boy, but never completely welcomed him as his own son, even though the boy was led to believe that his stepfather was his biological father. The young boy’s confusion over his Jewish heritage and strikingly blonde appearance created social disharmony throughout his early childhood years, and he was greatly teased as a “goy.” He eventually learned through relatives that his biological father was of Danish descent. Feeling greatly betrayed and deceived, Erikson grew up with delusions of a fantasy father of Danish nobility, with great physical, artistic, and intellectual prowess. His drive to distance himself from his origins culminated in a name change to Erikson. In effect, Erikson was “reborn” in his own image, not unlike the woman he would marry, who was born Sarah, called Sally, but “hated” both of her given names and chose the name Joan.
The complex relationship between Erikson and Joan is at once profoundly productive and destructive. Early in the narrative, we learn of the contrived deception surrounding the Erikson’s fourth child, Neil, born with Down’s Syndrome. Neil was institutionalized (never even to be brought home) and Bloland and her two brothers told that Neil died at birth. It was a secret the parents did not readily share; many of their closest friends only learned of Neil’s existence after the publication of Lawrence J. Friedman’s biography of Erikson. Bloland herself would not know of Neil’s existence until she was 13; sadly, and under the emotional influence of her parents, she never met her brother, who eventually died in the institution. In a particularly chilling moment, we learn of the parents’ reaction to Neil’s death, Joan’s furtive whispering on the phone, their failure to return from Italy after receiving the news, the delegation of the funeral duties to Bloland and her brothers, and the parents’ decision not to attend Neil’s funeral.
Of her parents’ behavior towards the children, Bloland’s tone is circumspect, often expressing sadness and disappointment but never condemnation. She is remarkably forgiving of her parents, even as she associates her own personal difficulties with the alienation she experienced as a child. The narrative, at times, reflects the struggle to retell the story. The descriptions of her family members often take on grandiose, improbable heights, as in the description of her parents’ fairytale-like meeting or the cloying description of brothers Kai and Jon: “Girls’ knees tended to buckle when they encountered either one of my gorgeous brothers.” The first few pages are especially challenging as we are abruptly plunged into Erikson’s fame, splashes of psychological theory, and the sudden revelation of Neil. In later chapters, Bloland’s symbol-laden dreams seem conveniently ripe for psychoanalytic interpretation. However, these detractors, which have earned unfair criticism, do convey the tremendous distance between Bloland and her family. She was truly in the shadow, not only of her father, but of a preoccupied mother and idealized brothers. In acknowledging the help of her brothers in preparing the book, Bloland thanks them for their “extraordinary source of support and guidance, respectful of the ways in which my personal experience of our family life has differed from theirs but responsive to the book in a way that has touched me deeply . . . I am very grateful to both of them.” She is still the little girl in awe.
The monolithic father and larger-than-life family members cast an intimidating shadow where Bloland resides. It would be easy for the narrative to dissolve into a plea for sympathy for her lonely, alienated childhood as her parents shunted her from one boarding school to another: “I attended an orientation session and looked for them afterwards to tell them what I had learned—trying to be optimistic and prepared to be very brave when it came time for good-byes. I was shocked to learn that my parents had already left . . . .” But she does not ask for our sympathy. Instead, Bloland carefully, and at times even clinically, recounts her experiences. Telling the story is a difficult journey for anyone to undergo, and it’s understandable why she waited until the publication of the Friedman biography of Erikson and the deaths of her parents to share some of the somber, even macabre truth of her family’s private history.
Bloland’s assessment of her family is disarmingly honest, and she does not exclude herself from the critique. Although a bright and promising student, she repeatedly acknowledges that she is not her father’s intellectual heir. She spent her early adult years wandering through graduate school programs and ambivalent about career aspirations, casting herself as amanuenses: “I could think of nothing more humiliating than to reveal my intellectual limitations to the world. So it was much safer to stand behind the front lines—to be a good secretary and to serve as helpmate to my husband—than to expose myself to comparison with my world-famous father. On the other hand (of course), I harbored secret fantasies of my own person greatness—an inevitable defense against the feelings of inadequacy that plagued me.” It is an interesting parallel track of both her mother as helpmate and her father as keeper of delusions of grandeur.
It was only after Bloland decided to enter therapy (her parents, always the analysts, never the patients, were “startled and alarmed” at the news) that she finally started to make sense of her experience. The eventual result was the essay “Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy,” published in The Atlantic Monthly. However, familiarity with this essay, Erikson, and an advanced understanding of psychology aren’t necessary—Memoirs is delightfully free of the academic jargon and pedantry that would otherwise bog down the general reader’s experience. And that’s to our benefit, because the importance of this book is beyond the personal. Shadow of Fame is not only about the Erikson family; it examines a society obsessed with fame, the cult of celebrity, and the devaluation of an ordinary life. Celebrities, in turn, must sustain that level of applause, and, as Bloland tells us, often to the detriment of those closest to them. In the end, Bloland offers no final judgments, just a humble acknowledgment of her working through the process, one which she invites us to share. At a time when the publishing industry and the public are casting a cautious eye over memoirs and works of purported nonfiction, it is refreshing to spend time with a work of such candor.