In my early doctoral student days at the University of Chicago (UC), one of my colleagues handed me a cardboard-covered paperback stamped with a bold “Reviewer’s Copy” warning that it was not for resale. She said that her brother was a reviewer for a major national daily newspaper and had sent the book to her as a matter of possible interest. “But I think this is more up your alley,” she advised me. It was a copy of Lawrence J. Friedman’s Menninger: The Family and the Clinic (1990). I had precious little time to read my new gift as I worked through the rigors of the UC quarter system with plenty enough provided to read. But every so often, my eyes would drift to the corner of the desk in my International House room where I had parked the biography. I would take ten-minute holidays, making my way through the unsparing story that Friedman was telling.

Later, as an associate professor of social work at the University of Kentucky, I began a study of the work of child psychiatrist and social documentarian Robert Coles. In my first visits with Dr. Coles, he always began our conversations with stories about his old friend Erik Erikson. Coles published a widely acclaimed book, Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work (1970), which was based on a two-part portrait published earlier in The New Yorker. Coles also wrote about Erikson in many subsequent essays, often calling upon him as an interlocutor of sorts across a wide range of topics.

Erikson died in 1994 after a long illness, and Coles was afraid that he was being forgotten by the new generations of students and clinicians that he was teaching. While Coles had made Erikson a household name through The New Yorker articles, Bob felt like he was still in Erik’s debt. Erikson had reached out to Bob and Jane Coles in the early 60s to invite them by for a “chat” about their work in the South with children, adolescents, and families undergoing racial warfare in New Orleans and Atlanta. When the Coles started having children, they put down this exciting but very dangerous work and returned home to New England.

Erikson and David Riesman made Bob Coles a section leader for their wildly popular Harvard undergraduate courses. After years of medical training and even as he was growing his reputation as a public intellectual and author of scores of publications in professional, political, and literary journals, Coles took a job as “section man.” He loved it. The steady (but non-tenure) track

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academic position under the title of “research psychiatrist” affiliated with University Health Services allowed Coles to restart his education as he commenced a long and satisfying career of teaching at Harvard. By reflecting on the rich reading lists selected by these two intellectual giants, Coles deepened the sophistication of his own writing. He was also invited to join Erikson’s prestigious writing seminar, which proved helpful in producing his first books, especially the first volume of his Children of Crisis series, A Study in Courage and Fear (1967). This series ultimately led to his recognition with the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

So, it was little wonder that Bob Coles started almost every visit with stories about Erikson. He was making a point and ensuring that I got it. Erikson’s reputation had suffered a serious decline, and the presentation of his work in psychology textbooks often proved superficial. The richness of his work was hiding in plain sight. Bob shared that he was remedying this with an anthology of Erikson’s work for general readers, one curated especially for college professors and their students. He was also excited that a historian had been selected as Erikson’s official biographer, a serious scholar that would get the job done and give Erikson his due in perpetuity. I asked the inevitable question, and Bob responded, “He’s a professor up at Indiana University—Larry Friedman.” Then, in 1999, Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson appeared—with a generous preface by Robert Coles. In that little essay, Coles described Erik and his wife Joan as exemplifying the adage, “It takes two to make a truth.” I think it fair to say that Friedman and Coles, in their own way, made some truths as well.

Why were both men—successful writers who could write about anyone or anything they pleased—so determined to “save” Erikson from intellectual oblivion? The answer lies in the fact that Bob Coles and Larry Friedman were also social justice activists with powerful moral concerns that drove their ambitious work. (Both had participated in Freedom Summer 1964.) Erikson’s “ways of seeing” had inspired and galvanized both for many years. Why? Erikson sought to use psychoanalysis in an applied and translational manner through ethics-informed approaches to addressing individual and social pathologies. He thought that a deep understanding of human development across the lifespan would provide the evidence necessary to utilize naturalistic, successful care across the generations that could then be applied to clinical and social interventions. He saw this as an ethics-driven enterprise. At

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the heart of successful human development were macro-historical and biopsychosocial processes that promoted individual and social thriving. These provided powerful clues for preventing individual and social pathologies that were extraordinarily difficult to treat or attenuate, much less cure. Friedman’s biography revealed a flawed but inspirational figure who, in partnership with his wife Joan, developed a corpus of work that remains rewarding for every serious reader who is willing to engage.

After reading Identity’s Architect, I wrote to Professor Friedman, offering to take him to lunch. I wanted to pick his brain about writing biography in the hopes that maybe I could try my hand. He insisted that I visit with him and spend the night at his family home in Bloomington. Larry was a whirlwind of conversation and activity. We went to dinner, stopping along the way to check in on some politicians who were anxiously watching the local election results coming in that evening. He predicted that an obscure Chicago politician named Barack Obama would someday win the Democratic nomination and then the Presidency. (I thought that was interesting but reckless speculation.) We went back to his home, and he loaded me up with books that he felt would bring theoretical and historical depth to my work. Like almost everything he did in the years that followed, this generosity helped me accomplish some of the most meaningful work in my career. I saw him do that for many accomplished and beginning scholars alike through the wonderful Public Intellectuals conferences that he convened. Indeed, Erikson would have diagnosed him as an exemplar of generativity—as we all have over the years.

I will close this tribute by reflecting on an illuminating essay that Larry published in 2004, “Erik Erikson: A Biographer’s Reflections on a Decade-Long Process,” in Kenneth Hoover’s edited volume commemorating the centennial of Erikson’s birth. I want to pass along his insights for those who might not have read this essay, which followed one by Robert Coles entitled “Remembering Erik.” Friedman’s reflections on doing the Erikson biography provide some lessons to those of us engaged in personological writing.

First, Friedman (2004) speaks to the challenge that the effective biographer must describe “the social, cultural, and economic processes” while describing the idiosyncratic, i.e., the subject’s favorite food, drink, music, books, etc. (p. 33). The person-in-the-world requires a life rendered at the personal level and further

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requires that the world be adequately rendered to understand both. Biography is harder to write than straight history. When the subject’s friends and family can say “That’s the fellow I knew,” the biographer has hit pay dirt. But the historian of that subject’s era must also readily recognize the subject’s world.

Second, Friedman asserts that what a biographer includes or excludes will be dictated by the writer’s particular interpretive framework. He crucially goes on to ask: “But what if the framework is somehow flawed or reductionistic or otherwise problematic as the biographer increasingly finds a stake in it through years of arduous writing and long hours with his subject?” (Friedman, 2004, p. 33). Larry then drives the nail home: “And can a human life, with all its variables, coexist with even the most nuanced interpretive framework?” (p. 33). He sees this as the elementary dilemma facing every serious biographer.

Third, the public will read the biography, then challenge and elaborate on the biographer’s thesis. Will he or she listen? Friedman first resisted this but later came to realize that it deepened his understanding of his own book and of Erikson. Indeed, a published biography will often generate new evidence as readers and colleagues respond to the work. “Reader response” should be patiently encountered, encouraged, and even appreciated in order to create valuable insights for the biographer.

Finally, Larry notes that the experience of doing the Erikson biography created levels of personal transformation that he never anticipated. He writes: “I myself was crossing the divide between the generative productivities of middle age and the questions and doubts of old age” (Friedman, 2004, p. 34). He connected this with Erikson by saying: “Through preoccupations with Erikson, I was drawing insight into the inevitable frailties and limitations that would occupy my own life in the years ahead and ways of dealing with them. More than ever before, I asked myself quite a few questions about how I wanted to spend my emerging old age” (p. 34). To summarize, he said: “…I cannot help but think that the biographer’s experience is often an eminently introspective, indeed therapeutic one” (p. 34).

These are lessons that I have taken to heart in my own writing. I continue to feel that I am falling short. Perhaps accepting that intellectual humility and restless curiosity can inform what still must be accomplished is the greatest lesson that Larry has taught

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me through his books, conversation, and friendship.

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References:

  • Friedman, Lawrence J. (2004). Erik Erikson: A biographer’s reflections on a decade-long process. In K. Hoover (Ed.), The Future of Identity: Centennial Reflections on the Legacy of Erik Erikson. Lexington Books.

Authors:

Jim Clark

Jim Clark, LCSW, PhD, is Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs as well as Professor of Social Work at Florida State University. He has also been on the faculty at the University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati. Jim has published in the areas of forensic behavioral health, student resilience, clinical ethics, and personology. He is currently writing about the life and work of Robert Coles. Jim can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Clark, J. (2023). Making truths: Erik Erikson, Robert Coles, and Larry Friedman. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 289-294.

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