Erikson on Dreams: Remarks on the Occasion of Eriksonís 100th Birthday

M. Gerard Fromm

[Paper presented on June 15, 2002, at the Annual Meeting of the Rapaport-Klein Study Group]


One hundred years ago today, a baby was born to a young woman in Denmark. It was a complicated moment, given that the pregnancy was out of wedlock, from which emerged a very strong bond between this little boy and his mother, her prohibition on his knowing his true father, and the seeds of what was to become and eventually be called an "identity crisis". From this problematic beginning, Erik Erikson was to become the most influential psychoanalyst of mid-century America, by way of another strong bond with a woman, Anna Freud, and his sense of her prohibiting him from fully coming to know her real and his transferential father.

Toward the latter part of August, we will be mounting - if all things fall into place - an exhibit in our Activities Department on Main Street highlighting Eriksonís Vienna years. Besides celebrating the Erikson Centennial, the exhibit links the Center to the "Vienna Project" organized by a number of local cultural institutions. I invite any of you who might be here in Stockbridge during the week of August 17 to visit the exhibit.

Erikson arrived in Vienna at age 25, the proverbial struggling artist. As you probably know, he was hired through his friend, Peter Blos, to be a nursery school teacher in a very unusual nursery school, a school organized by Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham for the children of the adults who had come to Vienna to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud. Erikson discovered, and was discovered for, his knack with children, and invited by Anna Freud into training as a child analyst. Six years later, he escaped the gathering storm as a fully accredited member of the International Psychoanalytic Society, this without any advanced degree.

Itís a remarkable story and there is much more to it. I recommend (the other) Larry Friedmanís comprehensive, but also intimate, biography. For today, given the program, I thought a fitting tribute in recognition of Eriksonís birthday would be a few comments on his two dream papers, both of which were completed during his 10 years on the Riggs staff.

To begin with the second one, Erikson wrote "The Nature of Clinical Evidence" as a teaching paper on the subject of its title. The centerpiece of the paper is an anxiety dream brought by his patient in a state of quasi-crisis - the same patient who inspired Eriksonís understanding of Martin Luther. In this paper, Erikson coins the phrase "disciplined subjectivity" to describe the cognitive-affective play within the therapist in developing clinical hypotheses and testing these hypotheses against each other, against the history and against the therapistís immediate experience of the patient, including the therapistís own feelings. I have not come across a more lucid and yet grounded elaboration of the thought processes - which in reality occur so quickly as to be almost intuitive - leading up to and then evaluating an interpretation.

The dream in this paper has a blank face at its center. "Iím not sure it wasnít my mother", the patients says. And this ever so tentative hypothesis proves fruitful, as does Eriksonís considering his own face as filling in that absent place. The ease of movement between Eriksonís identifications with the mother, the patient, and himself - without losing boundaries - seems especially Eriksonian to me: perhaps an adaptive strength of this creative but always wandering - both geographically and intellectually - adoptee. Itís a strength he brought to his study of Freudís Irma dream.

Eriksonsí re-consideration of this "dream specimen", published in the Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association in 1954, has been thought of by many, including Robert Wallerstein, as the most important contribution on dreams since The Interpretation of Dreams. It is truly a tour de force. Erikson finds it "an attractive task" to return, not only to the first dream Freud offered in his masterpiece, but to the task of "exhaustive analysis" as a learning exercise. He then goes through an "inventory" of manifest "dream configurations" - verbal, sensory, interpersonal, etc. - illuminating dimensions of the dream well beyond Freudís more narrow interpretation and showing us quite persuasively how "psychoanalysis (gives) new depth to the surface."

I would like to highlight two of these configurations. First, the compelling illustration of Freudís unconscious dependence on his professional group for his authorization, and the way in which "infantile wishes to belong to and believe in organizations providing for collective reassurance against individual anxietyÖ easily join other repressed childhood temptations - and force their way into dreams." Connected to this is Freudís unconscious relatedness to his community as he boldly moves toward the heretofore unknown identity of psychoanalyst. "The ambition of uniqueness in intellectual achievement" was for Freud "not only ego-syntonic; it was ethno-syntonic, almost an obligation to his people." Both of these points open up a consideration of the dream as a window onto what I have thought of as "unconscious citizenship." Gordon Lawrence has developed a group methodology, called the Social Dreaming Matrix, through which to use dreams collectively in exactly this way.

Secondly, I want to highlight Eriksonís startling discussion of Freudís transference to the dream-interpretation quest itself. Anticipating by 20 years the important paper by Pontalis on "The Dream as an Object", Erikson argues from the data that "the Dream as a mystery had become to our dreamer one of those forbidding maternal figures who smile only on the most favored among young heroesÖ" This may eventually pose technical problems in the clinical situation:

"In spurts of especially generous dream production, a patient often appeals to an inner transference figure, a permissive and generous mother, who understands the patient better than the analyst does, and fulfills wishes instead of interpreting them. Dreams, then, can become a patientís secret love life and may elude the grasp of the analyst by becoming too rich, too deep, too unfathomable. Where this is not understood, the analyst is left with a choice of ignoring his rival, the patientís dream life, or of endorsing its wish fulfillment by giving exclusive attention to it, or of trying to overtake it with clever interpretations. The technical discussion of this dilemma we must postpone."

To my knowledge, Erikson did not return to this discussion, but, again drawing on the identificatory fluidity I mentioned earlier, and on the data Freud provides, Erikson argues that "the mouth which opens wide", which is the physical center of the Irma dream, "may well represent... the dreamerís (i.e., Freudís own) unconscious, soon to offer insights never faced beforeÖ" Following this point, I have occasionally felt that patients sometimes bring to their treatment a dream which includes a representation of the Dream itself and almost a holographic picture of how the two participants are situated in relation to it.

All of this is by way of saying that I find in Eriksonís work, as though it were an extension of the artistís quickly dashed-off sketches, an ongoing source of ideas. And that Erikson himself carried throughout his life an inner relationship to a smiling mother, who also forbade him from knowing, simply adds another layer to the pleasure of studying him. As he once said, "Some of my friendsÖ insist that I needed toÖ see (the problem) in everybody else in order to really come to terms with myself."

He did indeed have an interesting "way of looking at things". In 1959, David Rapaport wrote that Eriksonís work represented the "culmination" of the project of ego psychology to that time because it provided the first truly psychoanalytic theory of social reality with which the developing ego is always in interaction. And of course, some of us may recall that a few years ago Margaret Brenman-Gibson formally proposed that this group include Erikson as a named partner, so to speak. Without going that far, I would like to re-commend him to you. Erikson read the Irma dream as a complicated birthday dream - the birthday of psychoanalysis - and he of course knew something about complicated births. Todayís birthday is far less complicated and indeed a very fine occasion for a new beginning of interest in what Eriksonís work represents for psychoanalysis.

[Note: This paper appeared in the Austen Riggs Center Review, 2002, vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter), pp. 10-11. We thank for the permission.]

M. Gerard Fromm, Ph.D.
Austen Riggs Center
25 Main Street
Stockbridge, MA 01262-0962
Tel. 413-298-5511
E-Mail <>

Web Editor: Paolo Migone. For suggestions or corrections, please e-mail to: