Wilhelm Reich  

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Wilhelm Reich (24 March 1897 – 3 November 1957) was an Austrian psychoanalyst, a member of the second generation of psychoanalysts after Sigmund Freud, and one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry.

He is chiefly remembered for three things. He tried to synthesize Marxism and psychoanalysis in studies of fascism, producing the book The Mass Psychology of Fascism and inventing Freudo-Marxism. He claimed discovery of what he called orgone energy, which many scientists still dispute and call pseudoscience. The persecution of him and his theories by the Nazi Gestapo in Germany, and later the US government (which burned his books) until his death in a US prison.

Reich continues to influence popular culture. Yugoslavian director Dušan Makavejev made a film about him, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Kate Bush's single "Cloudbusting" (1985) describes Reich's arrest through the eyes of his son, Peter, who wrote his father's story in A Book of Dreams (1973); the video for the song features Donald Sutherland as Reich and Bush as Peter.

He was featured in the documentary The Century of the Self (2002) by Adam Curtis.



He was the author of several influential books and essays, most notably Character Analysis (1933), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), and The Sexual Revolution (1936). His work on character contributed to the development of Anna Freud's The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), and his idea of muscular armour – the expression of the personality in the way the body moves – shaped innovations such as body psychotherapy, Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, Alexander Lowen's bioenergetic analysis, and Arthur Janov's primal therapy. His writing influenced generations of intellectuals: during the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and Berlin, students scrawled his name on walls and threw copies of The Mass Psychology of Fascism at the police.

After graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Reich studied neuropsychiatry under Julius Wagner-Jauregg and became deputy director of the Vienna Ambulatorium, Freud's psychoanalytic outpatient clinic. Described by Elizabeth Danto as a large man with a cantankerous style who managed to look scruffy and elegant at the same time, he tried to reconcile psychoanalysis with Marxism, arguing that neurosis is rooted in physical, sexual and socio-economic conditions, and in particular in a lack of what he called "orgastic potency." He visited patients in their homes to see how they lived, and took to the streets in a mobile clinic, promoting adolescent sexuality and the availability of contraceptives, abortion and divorce, a provocative message in Catholic Austria. He said he wanted to "attack the neurosis by its prevention rather than treatment."

From the 1930s onwards he became an increasingly controversial figure; from 1932 until four years after his death no publisher other than his own published his work. His promotion of sexual permissiveness disturbed the psychoanalytic community and his associates on the political left, and his vegetotherapy, in which he massaged his disrobed patients to dissolve their muscular armour, violated the key taboos of psychoanalysis. He moved to New York in 1939, in part to escape the Nazis, and shortly after arriving there coined the term "orgone" – derived from "orgasm" and "organism" – for a cosmic energy he said he had discovered, which he said others referred to as God. In 1940 he started building orgone accumulators, devices that his patients sat inside to harness the reputed health benefits, leading to newspaper stories about sex boxes that cured cancer.

Following two critical articles about him in The New Republic and Harper's, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration obtained an injunction against the interstate shipment of orgone accumulators and associated literature, believing they were dealing with a "fraud of the first magnitude." Charged with contempt in 1956 for having violated the injunction, Reich was sentenced to two years in prison, and in June and August that year over six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court, one of the most notable examples of censorship in the history of the United States. He died in jail of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.

Reception and legacy

He is known for three things

In psychoanalysis

The psychologist Luis Cordon writes that Reich's slide from medical and scientific respectability concluded with the consensus inside and outside the psychoanalytic community that he was at best a crackpot, and at worst was suffering from a serious illness. The psychoanalyst Richard Sterba (1898–1989) wrote that Reich was a brilliant clinician during the 1920s, but he was viewed by other analysts, according to Sharaf, as paranoid and belligerent; there were rumours from the late 1920s that he was mentally ill and inaccurate accounts of his having been hospitalized. Paul Federn became Reich's second analyst in 1922; he later said he had detected "incipient schizophrenia" and called Reich a psychopath. Sandor Rado (1890–1972) had Reich as an analysand in 1931 and later declared him schizophrenic "in the most serious way." Reich's daughter Lore, a psychiatrist, believed that he was bipolar.

According to Sharaf, psychoanalysts tended to dismiss as ill anyone from within the fold who had transgressed, and this was never done so relentlessly as with Reich. His work was split into the pre-psychotic "good" and the post-psychotic "bad," the date of the illness's onset depending on which parts of his work a speaker disliked. Psychoanalysts preferred to see him as sane in the 1920s because of his work on character, while political radicals regarded him as sane during the 1930s because of his Marxist-oriented research.

Despite Reich's precarious mental health, his work on character and the idea of muscular armouring contributed to the development of what is now known as ego psychology, gave rise to body psychotherapy, and helped to shape the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls (1893–1970), the bioenergetic analysis of Reich's student, Alexander Lowen (1910–2008), and the primal therapy of Arthur Janov (b. 1924).

In the humanities and popular culture

His early psychoanalytic work, his writing about fascism, and his later writings about orgonomy influenced several generations of intellectuals, including the writers Saul Bellow (1915–2005), William Burroughs (1914–1997) and Norman Mailer (1923–2007), and the founder of Summerhill School in England, A. S. Neill. Sharaf wrote in 1983 that Paul Mathews and John M. Bell started teaching a course on Reich in 1968 at New York University through its Division of Continuing Study, and it was apparently still being taught at the time Sharaf was writing, making it the longest-running course ever taught in that division.

Reich's pursuit by the FDA arguably made him more popular than he would otherwise have been. The Austrian-American philosopher Paul Edwards (1923–2004) said that the opposition to Reich intensified Edwards' attachment to him, writing in 1977 that "for some years many of my friends and I regarded him as something akin to a messiah."

Several well-known figures used orgone accumulators, including Orson Bean (b. 1928), Sean Connery (b. 1930), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), Paul Goodman 1911–1972), Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), Isaac Rosenfeld (1918–1956), J. D. Salinger (1919–2010), William Steig (1907–2003), and Robert Anton Wilson (1932–2007). An accumulator made an appearance as the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's film Sleeper (1973). Turner writes that the evil Dr Durand Durand in Barbarella (1968) seems to be based on Reich; he places Barbarella (Jane Fonda) in his Excessive Machine so that she dies of pleasure, but rather than killing her the machine burns out.

Mailer – who owned several orgone accumulators, including some in the shape of eggs – wrote about Reich enthusiastically in The Village Voice, as a result of which Orgonon became a place of pilgrimage and the orgasm a symbol of liberation. He told Christopher Turner:

The Function of the Orgasm was like a Pandora's box to me. It opened a great deal because to me personally, I'd been struck with an itch in my own orgasm. So much was good in it; so much was not good in it. And his notion that the orgasm in a certain sense was the essence of the character, gave me much food for thought over the years. So there were many, many years when I felt that to a degree when your orgasm was improving, so were you improving with it ... What was important to me was the force, and clarity, and power of [Reich's] early works, and the daring. And also the fact that I think in a basic sense that he was right.

Reich continues to influence popular culture. Yugoslavian director Dušan Makavejev made a film about him, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Patti Smith's "Birdland" on her album Horses (1975) is based on Reich's life, Hawkwind's song "Orgone Accumulator" (1973) is based on Reich's invention. He is also a character in the opera Marilyn – Scenes from the Fifties (1980) by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero.

Kate Bush's single "Cloudbusting" (1985) described Reich's arrest through the eyes of his son, Peter, who wrote his father's story in A Book of Dreams (1973); the video for the song features Donald Sutherland as Reich and Bush as Peter. Robert Anton Wilson's musical Wilhelm Reich in Hell (1987) is about Reich's confrontation with the American government. The Australian designer Marc Newson produced a range of orgone furniture, most famously his Orgone Chair (1993).

In the sciences

The mainstream scientific community dismissed Reich's orgone theory as pseudoscience. Physicians and other researchers with an interest in him began in the 1960s to organize study groups. In 1967 one of Reich's associates, Dr. Elsworth Baker (1903–1985), set up the bi-annual Journal of Orgonomy, which is still published, and in 1968 founded the American College of Orgonomy in Princeton, New Jersey, to train physicians in orgonomic therapy.

From 1961 the New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux began republishing all his major works, leading to renewed interest in his research in the 1970s. The Orgone Biophysical Research Lab was founded in 1978 by Dr. James DeMeo, a geographer, and the Institute for Orgonomic Science in 1982 by Dr. Morton Herskowitz. Sharaf wrote in 1983 that contributors to the Journal of Orgonomy who worked in academia often used a pseudonym in case their careers suffered, leading to what he called the "self-fulfilling prophecy" that orgonomy was not a valid area of study because so few researchers had shown an interest in it. In 2007 the Associated Press reported that a conference at Orgonon discussed seeking FDA approval for clinical trials of orgone accumulator blankets to treat burn victims. There was renewed interest again in 2008, when the Reich archives at the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University were unsealed; Reich had left instructions that his unpublished papers be stored for 50 years after his death.

Speaking to Christopher Turner, Peter Reich said of his father: "He was a nineteenth-century scientist; he wasn't a twentieth-century scientist. He didn't practice science the way scientists do today. He was a nineteenth-century mind who came crashing into twentieth-century America. And boom!"


German-language books
  • Der triebhafte Charakter : Eine psychoanalytische Studie zur Pathologie des Ich, 1925
  • Die Funktion des Orgasmus : Zur Psychopathologie und zur Soziologie des Geschlechtslebens, 1927
  • Dialektischer Materialismus und Psychoanalyse, 1929
  • Geschlechtsreife, Enthaltsamkeit, Ehemoral : Eine Kritik der bürgerlichen Sexualreform, 1930
  • Der Einbruch der Sexualmoral : Zur Geschichte der sexuellen Ökonomie, 1932
  • Charakteranalyse : Technik und Grundlagen für studierende und praktizierende Analytiker, 1933
  • Massenpsychologie des Faschismus, 1933 (original Marxist edition, banned by the Nazis and the Communists)
  • Was ist Klassenbewußtsein? : Über die Neuformierung der Arbeiterbewegung, 1934
  • Psychischer Kontakt und vegetative Strömung, 1935
  • Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf : Zur sozialistischen Umstrukturierung des Menschen, 1936
  • Die Bione : Zur Entstehung des vegetativen Lebens, 1938
English-language books
  • American Odyssey: Letters and Journals 1940-1947 (posthumous)
  • Beyond Psychology: Letters and Journals 1934-1939 (posthumous)
  • The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety
  • The Bion Experiments: On the Origins of Life
  • The Function of the Orgasm, 1942, translated by Theodore P. Wolfe
  • The Cancer Biopathy (1948)
  • Character Analysis (translation of the enlarged version of Charakteranalyse from 1933, translated by Theodore P. Wolfe)
  • Children of the Future: On the Prevention of Sexual Pathology
  • Contact With Space: Oranur Second Report (1957)
  • Cosmic Superimposition: Man's Orgonotic Roots in Nature (1951)
  • Early Writings
  • Ether, God and Devil (1949)
  • Genitality in the Theory and Therapy of Neuroses (translation of the original, unrevised version of Die Funktion des Orgasmus from 1927)
  • The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality (translation of the revised and enlarged version of Der Eindruch der Sexualmoral from 1932)
  • Listen, Little Man! (1948, translated by Theodore P. Wolfe)
  • The Mass Psychology of Fascism (translation of the revised and enlarged version of Massenpsychologie des Faschismus from 1933, translated by Theodore P. Wolfe)
  • The Murder of Christ (1953)
  • The Oranur Experiment
  • The Orgone Energy Accumulator, Its Scientific and Medical Use (1948)
  • Passion of Youth: An Autobiography, 1897-1922 (posthumous)
  • People in Trouble (1953)
  • Record of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Wilhelm Reich and A.S. Neill (1936-1957)
  • Reich Speaks of Freud (Interview by Kurt R. Eissler, letters, documents)
  • Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy
  • Sexpol. Essays 1929-1934 (ed. Lee Baxandall)
  • The Sexual Revolution (translation of Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf from 1936, translated by Theodore P. Wolfe)
  • The Einstein Affair (1953)

See also


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