This biography is written by Jay Haley and is included here with permission of the Erickson Foundation.
Milton H. Erickson: Sketch of a Youth
by Jay Haley, M.S. La Jolla, CA
Milton Erickson was always delighted to recount that he was one of the few people who traveled East in a covered wagon. His love of doing things differently was a theme in his life as well as in the way he practiced psychotherapy. His unique approaches have impacted and changed psychotherapy in a pivotal way.
Born in 1901, in Aurum, Nevada, a long vanished silver-mining town, he was Albert and Clara Erickson's second child. When he was five, the family moved to Lowell, Wisconsin, and began farming on 80 acres. The family eventually grew to 7 girls and 2 boys, which was a distinct disadvantage in the epoch of clear male and female work roles. The family frequently "loaned out" a girl for kitchen duties in exchange for an extra hand at crop time.
Even as a child, Milton was recognized as different. His schoolmates called him "Pat" because he always had his lessons "down pat." There was a paucity of printed material in his farm community and he already had an insatiable appetite for reading. He amused himself by reading the dictionary. While still a teenager, he began his prolific publishing career, writing an article about the problems of youths on farms for a national magazine. He enjoyed writing for newspapers as a student and continued to contribute to newspapers for many years. His submissions ranged from serious editorials to humorous anecdotes.
He admired the wise country doctor, as a youngster, and planned that career for himself. Then at 17, he was stricken by poliomyelitis. He spent a great deal of time analyzing the intricacies and hidden messages of the conversations in rooms adjacent to his bedroom as he lay paralyzed. His examination of minute details of the relationships between thinking and healing and the effects of the mind on the body proved to be key elements in his recovery.
As a transition back to physical well-being, Milton planned a camping trip by canoe from the Wisconsin River in Milwaukee down the Mississippi to St. Louis. A friend who was going with him canceled at the last minute. As Milton's parents were already uncomfortable with this trip, he decided not to tell them it would be a solitary venture. He began his trip with $5.00 in his pocket and being carried to the river because he couldn't walk far. There would be many portages with his canoe, but he decided he could depend on his wits until he could develop the muscles he needed. He was confident that even alone he would manage.
He paddled home after six weeks. He still had his $5.00, was tanned and had developed enormous shoulder muscle strength. He had learned to walk again, supported only by a cane. The trip impacted him and his thinking for the rest of his life. Many nights, he had "earned" his supper by telling stories to fishermen along the river and he recognized the power of stories the rest of his life. He became even more appreciative of the power of nature to soothe and teach. Erickson always relished learning and on this trip, he was able to see other ways of living. He talked to and learned from the company of people whose life styles were totally outside his experiences.
In Erickson's youth was marked with times of isolation and solitude as well as intervals of physical hardship. His life philosophy was shaped by the resulting appreciation of the values of observation, patience, perseverance, and hard work. All surroundings provide solutions, whether the circumstances are sparse, filled with adversities or teeming with yet-to-be discovered possibilities for the navigation of life. This life philosophy, this different view of the resources available within each person and the environment shaped his professional views and created a broader spectrum for psychotherapy.