Erikson, Joan (c. 1902–1997)

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Erikson, Joan (c. 1902–1997)

Canadian-born collaborator and wife of Erik Erikson . Born Joan Mowat in Canada, around 1902; died on August 3, 1997, in Brewster, Massachusetts; graduated from Barnard College; master's degree from Columbia University Teachers College; married Erik Erikson (a psychologist), in 1930 (died 1994); children: two sons and a daughter.

The daughter of an Anglican priest, Canadian-born Joan Erikson was in Vienna doing research on her doctoral dissertation on dance, when she met Erik Erikson, a young psychologist who was there to help set up a progressive school with Anna Freud and to study with Anna's father, Sigmund Freud. Joan was so smitten with Erik that she gave up her own research and took a job with him at the school. The couple married in 1930, and two years and two children later they moved to the United States, living first at Harvard University, then at Yale (where they had a third child), while Erik finished his studies. They eventually settled at the University of California at Berkeley, where Erik taught until 1951. (He resigned rather than sign a loyalty oath imposed during the hysteria of the McCarthy Era.)

It was while the couple was at Berkeley that the eight-cycle theory of human development was formulated. Although it has been credited solely to Erik, the concept was in fact a collaborative effort with Joan. She helped formulate some of the language of the theory, including the term "basic trust," to describe the relationship an infant gains from the mother. Joan also had input into the formulation of an additional cycle, the child-bearing years, to what Erik had initially conceived as a seven-cycle theory. After her husband's death in 1994, Joan Erikson continued their work, adding yet a ninth stage of development which appears in a recent reissue of the book Life Cycle Completed.

Joan also had an ongoing passion for weaving and jewelry making, and wrote a book on beading in 1969, The Universal Bead. In 1951, when her husband took a job treating severely disturbed children and young adults at the Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Joan helped expand the facility's occupational therapy program by bringing in painters, sculptors, weavers, potters, and dancers to help provide a wider range of therapeutic outlets. Her work resulted in the 1976 publication Activity, Recovery and Growth.

The Eriksons spent the 1960s at Harvard, and in the 1980s conducted joint classes at the Joan and Erik Erikson Center. As a couple, they were the ideal embodiment of their own theories, reaching a graceful and productive old age. They also remained lovers throughout their long relationship, walking hand-in-hand and unabashedly kissing in public even in their later years.


Thomas, Robert McG., Jr. "Obituaries," in The New York Times. August 8, 1997.

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