Thursday, September 22, 2011


I was adopted as an older child who was separated from his biological parents at the age of five.  I had memories of my original parents but only vague impressions of what they looked like, and had almost no knowledge of their origins or their medical histories. 
The issue of identity arose sharply for me in adolescence.  Then most of my concerns were physical.  What would I look like as an adult?  When would I begin to shave?  Would my ears and nose, which already seemed larger than they should be, continue to grow?  And as my hairline began to recede at age 18, would I, as my unhelpful little sister liked to taunt me, be bald at 25?  My worst fears were not realized and once it became clear the opposite sex found me attractive, concerns about my physical appearance faded away.    
                          Who Am I?
But the more fundamental questions of identity, the question of who I was, what talents or intelligence I had inherited, and what I might become did not fade away. 
I did not know as I began the struggle with these questions that Erik Erikson, the Freudian psychoanalyst and father of identity studies in America, had faced the same issues.    Both the development of identity and adoption were primary personal concerns for Erikson.  His biological father was a mysterious Danish man who left his mother, Karla Abrahamsen, before Erik was born.  When his mother subsequently married Dr. Theodor Homberger, Erik’s pediatrician -- who was German and Jewish like his mother -- Homberger adopted Erik. So Erik became Erik Homberger, a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was Swedish and Jewish.  Amongst his Jewish boyfriends he was teased for being Nordic and among non-Jewish friends he was teased for being Jewish.  Identity and adoption became the great themes of Erikson’s life.  Friends reported that he talked about them all the time. 
Years later, when he became an American citizen, Erikson assumed the new name of Erik Erikson.  No one seems to know where he got the name since he had never searched for his biological father or even knew that father’s name.  When an American adoptee asked why he had never searched for his father, Erikson said that perhaps it was better to keep his fantasy.  I think he meant that he had created an image of the father he wanted who fulfilled his needs.  In a reversal, the son created the father.  I did the same thing.  I describe the process in Children of the Manse as follows:

“Through the years I had come to picture Lonnie (my biological father) as a handsome wanderer who liked to tease; a loving man strong but tender; a singing man inspired by the beauty in life; a kind man always willing to help out.  With only memories from my early childhood to help me sketch a portrait of Lonnie, I had been free to create the ideal father I wanted.  I often shared my life with that Lonnie in my imagination, and I wanted him, as we do with our fathers, to be proud of me.”   

I agree with Erikson that it sometimes important to keep our fantasies.  Fantasies can serve a useful purpose.  In a summing up in Children of the Manse, I write: 

“I’ve let go of my idealized portrait of Lonnie so psychologically useful to me through the years.” 

And how useful!  There were moments when the portrait I created of Lonnie, my first father and secret counselor, was about all I had to keep me from despair.  But the creation of an ideal father was not quite the half of it.  As Erikson puts it,
“We create ourselves in a way.  When I became an American citizen I realized that I could take a name of my own choosing.  It is better to be your own originator.”
                      We Are Our Own Creation
In other words, he had not just created an ideal father.  Erikson created his own identity.  He became Erik, the son of Erik.  He created himself.   Again, I agree with Erikson.  It is better to be your own originator.   There is tremendous freedom in that.  Sometimes biological families can be burdens, realities to overcome.  I would later learn that mine was such a family.  I had to be separated from them to be free to develop myself.  I have come to see that abandonment, at first so painful for a child, can be a new freedom if we choose to make it so.  
It seems to me that sooner or later in this life most of us realize we are our own creations.   Erikson certainly believed that we all create our own identities.  Some choose, he said, to make their family history and family members part of their identity.  Others, for various reasons, do not. 
It would have been easier had I known about Erikson’s history and ideas when I began to create my own identity in the teen years.  Especially then it is important to know that you are not alone as you deal with the fact that as an adoptee, you are somehow different from most of your friends.  Others, including some famous others, have dealt with the same issues in their lives.   Knowing that makes a big difference.