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Tribute to Joan Erikson

Judith Wallerstein

October 4, 1997 – St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere CA


The last time I saw Joan Erikson was at her home on Cape Cod. A highlight of our visit left me with an unforgettable image. She was demonstrating enthusiastically how she exercised on her new treadmill, which was set at the amazing speed of 2.6 miles per hour. She was ninety-two years old. I commented that I found walking on a treadmill incredibly boring. She explained that she sang, and she proceeded to demonstrate. Raising her head high, she sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Comin’ for to carry me home.” She sang at the top of her lungs, in a high, quavering soprano, as she continued to stride. She was holding on tightly to the treadmill bars, building up her strength, just as, it seemed to me, she was holding on tightly to life, to her love of music, to her love of us, her close friends. And she was striding forward towards the end of her life, advancing towards an end which she knew lay just ahead. As her song suggested, she was preparing to let go. Holding on and letting go simultaneously, she appeared triumphant. Most of all, she seemed unafraid.

She had recently begun to think about holding on and letting go as the central tasks of the last stage of life, perhaps within the context of mourning her late husband. For, after all, holding on and letting go are central to the mourning process. Unfortunately, she did not have time to formulate these thoughts beyond her early reflections. She died too soon, at ninety-four.

Although I had met Joan Erikson several times before, I got to know her well after she and her husband, Erik Erikson, moved to California in 1971. When Erik reached retirement age at Harvard, my husband, Robert, who was then chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, invited him to teach in a new doctoral program that he had established there for training mental health professionals. He also invited Joan to develop an activities program for the in-patient service at Mt. Zion Hospital, modeled after the program she had created so successfully in a major psychiatric facility in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They each accepted; and thus began our close friendship with this remarkable couple whom we came to love and cherish. We were, during the fifteen years they lived in Marin County, privileged to share their joys, their sorrows, and their crises, and to participate in the major decisions of their lives.

Joan stepped into history with her marriage to Erik Erikson in 1930. He was at that time a most unlikely choice. She was a wealthy and very beautiful young woman who had come to Vienna to study dance. Her maternal grandfather was a socially prominent man, who, as she explained it to me, owned his own railroad car. Her mother had met and married an obscure and impecunious minister of a small congregation. Joan’s father died when she was six and she was raised in the affluent ambience of her mother’s family.

When Joan and Erik met and courted in Vienna, he was working as a teacher in a tiny school established by Anna Freud and had become interested in the new field of psychoanalysis. He lacked a university degree. He was beset with conflicts about his own identity, and unsure what to do with his life. Moreover, he was the son of a Jewish mother, the adopted son of a Jewish father, and the biological son of an unknown Danish sailor whom his mother knew briefly before her marriage. Everything about him was irregular. Yet, being Joan, and having resolved at a very early age to listen only to her heart, she married him.

Joan took her marriage as the central challenge of her life. Together, she and Erik created a wondrous relationship that lasted throughout their lives. To her husband, Joan was always bigger than life. Far beyond the lovely and loving woman he married, she represented to him all women–the very essence of the feminine ideals of beauty, compassion, nurturance, and strength. She provided the stable pillars that upheld their private world, and he never ceased to wonder at the great good fortune that had brought her into his life. Over their decades together, he remained charmed by, amused by, and always in awe of her unfailing ability to know her own mind. In his later years, he praised her contribution in creating the architectural blueprint of the human life cycle.

For Joan, Erik was throughout a very human man, whose strengths and frailties she knew well, and whom she loved passionately and cared for devotedly. When I was writing my book about good marriage, I interviewed her. She was then in her eighties. I asked what she thought was the key to her strong marriage, which all of her friends admired, and sometimes envied. Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, laughingly, “Why, a sense of humor, of course. What better way to keep things in their proper perspective?”

Joan was clear-eyed and uncompromising in her core values, and remained faithful to these in her personal life, in her career commitments, and in her personal and professional writing, which included six books of which she was the sole author. She was wary of scholars and formal knowledge. Although she lived much of her adult life within the university community, it was never her natural or comfortable habitat. Instead, she celebrated the human body, the wisdom of the senses, the priority of human feeling over intellect. She trusted her eyes, her ears, her sense of touch, and, above all, her feelings. In place of the traditional philosopher’s formula–“I think; therefore I am”–she proposed an alternative: “I feel, and I am. I do, and I become.”

She was a devout Christian woman, who never doubted the personal presence of God or His divine plan. Yet, she had an almost pagan love of beauty. She greeted each day with the wonder of a child. The sky, the sun, the light–especially the light–were all intensely experienced. She loved the changing moods of the seasons, the contrasting colors and shadows of her home and her garden. She had a passion for the simple, rustic beauty of handwrought things, and she brought her own special skill, talent, and imagination to jewelry making, to weaving, to dance, and to choreography. Joan had a particular fondness for beads, for their place in human history, their presence in every culture, for their symbolic meaning, and for the pleasure they provide both for the wearer and the beholder. Her first book, entitled The Universal Bead, celebrates their history. In it, she reminds us mischievously that the whole island of Manhattan was once traded for a few strands of glass beads. And she suggests that if we ever come upon creatures in outer space, and if they have eyes, we should offer them a strand of beads to open our conversation.

Joan’s ego ideal was Saint Francis, who, of all the religious figures, embodied most the attributes she held dear: those of the artist and the saint. She described his life in elegant, spare lyrical prose in a book entitled Saint Francis and His Four Ladies. She wrote of him as “a troubadour, whose life was a splendid song.” In comparing Saint Francis with Socrates, she restated her values: “Socrates,” she noted, “was a great teacher, who relentlessly challenged the intellectual youth of Athens and of today. But Saint Francis repudiated the intellectual so that he might bring about changed action through released feelings. He turned the established world topsy-turvy by challenging accepted values and embracing poverty, simplicity, and humility. The inspiration of his life helped to move his era towards the flowering of the arts.”

Joan Erikson loved art–not palace art, or even museum art, but the creative, transformative power of artmaking. Describing the child’s spontaneous play, she was able to capture in a few short sentences the very nature of the creative process that she so revered. She wrote: “A new toy is being constructed at this very moment by a little girl sitting in the grass outside my window. She has bound two twigs together, added a shorter third, and separated the lower legs and upper arms, leaving the third with a small cluster of leaves as head. At this moment, she is spreading the soft leaves of a flowering yellow daisy bush into a kind of hula skirt for her new doll. It is charming, and in her hands, it takes on a lively meaningfulness. Her pleasure is also mine, as I watch and wish she might always maintain her inventive relationship to the matter nature provides around her. In this unpredictable and inconsistent world, a creative man or woman is enviable.

Joan fervently believed in the healing power of the arts, not in art therapy, or music therapy, or dance therapy–these she strongly opposed. Rather, she held that participation in the creative processes of art, of music, of drama, and working alongside and with the artist, would heal the mentally ill and relieve their suffering. The activities programs she developed successfully for mental patients were based on this principle.

Finally, Joan wrote and translated poetry throughout her life. More than in any other part of her work, her poems reflected her rich inner world. Written over seven decades, they included love songs, celebrations of the natural world–birds, flowers, the midnight sky–and appreciations of her own children and all children of special friends. In 1994, in a poem which is probably her last, she wrote of “the golden leaves of late November that glitter in the early dawn; and that wait in their glory for their signal to return to the ground.” She concluded: “Our charge is to foster, now and forever, love, joy, beauty, and laughter.”

Joan Erikson was a truly lovely human being as well as one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Loving her and being loved by her has enriched my life and all our lives immeasurably and enhanced our own ability to see and enjoy the world around us. Her passing leaves an empty space, which no one else can fill. But she also leaves a legacy of courage to reach out and embrace life in its fullness and its limitations. She leaves a radiance in our hearts that will brighten our way forever more.


Copyright 1997 by Judith Wallerstein. All rights reserved.