Wilhelm Reich — Imperfect Master
The challenging ideas of this visionary psychiatrist led to the burning of his books, in America, in 1956.
On August 23, 1956, six tons of the printed works of psychologist Wilhelm Reich were burned, by court order, in a New York incinerator.
Reich, an Austrian, had fled to American after being put on Hitler’s death list in the late 1930s. One of the books burned in New York was The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich’s psycho-social analysis of the rise of Hitler. Ironically, stocks of this book had been burned in Nazi Germany as well. What kind of man wrote books that earned the distinction of being burned in both Nazi Germany and postwar America?
I the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was deeply influenced by this brilliant and flawed thinker. I spent five years in a form of therapy developed by Reich — something which helped me recover the ability to experience my own life and to live more in my body. I read everything of his in print. I took workshops from practitioners who were influenced by Reich. I even completed a form of training to become a Reichian therapist and, for several more years, practiced it with a handful of clients. Ultimately, Reich’s work helped me to become, not a Reichian, but more of the person I am.
Reich has had many devoted followers and many dismissive critics, but few have come to terms with him in a way that honors both his genius and his limitations. I offer this article as an attempt to do just that.
Freud and the 1920s
Born in Austria in 1897, Reich became, after WWI, one of Sigmund Freud’s most brilliant students. Reich developed Freud’s early emphasis on the role of sexuality and repression in mental illness, at a time when Freud’s growing conservatism carried him in another direction. This, and Reich’s belief in social action, led to an early break between teacher and student.
Reich tried to apply his discoveries to improving the world — becoming, for a while, a Communist, traveling to Russia, meeting idealistic, creative, naive people of all kinds who hoped that the fundamental goodness of human beings could be liberated by social reform.
During this period, he set up “mental hygiene” clinics in Germany, which dispensed free advice on contraception, sex education, and abortion, with the mission of improving the quality of adolescents’ love life. In this work, Reich was ultimately opposed both by his Marxist former supporters and by conservative therapists.
He had a gift for choosing issues that offend.
Soon disillusioned with Communism, Reich focused on his discoveries about the connection between body and mind in psychotherapy. In a time when patients talked and therapists listened, Reich worked actively with his patients’ tensions and the emotion held in those tensions.
In 1933, Reich published his most traditional psychoanalytic work, Character Analysis, which continued to receive favorable reviews in psychological journals until he expanded it in the third edition to include his later concepts of cosmic energy.
During the 1930s Reich developed a theory of how energy and emotion flow through the body, how this flow can become blocked to create physical and emotional problems, and how it can be released to promote well-being. Today, many practitioners work with energy flow in the body; acupuncture, kundalini yoga, and qigong show us that it is an ancient art; but when Reich developed this idea in Europe in the 1930s, it was a radical concept — and he hurled it like a torch toward the status quo.
Reich published several works in which he explored the function of sexuality in human health. The most accessible of these, The Function of Orgasm, earned him the reputation of being obsessed with sex, although it is a thoughtful, humane book that ranges from physiological theory, through the treatment of clinical cases, to passages of poetic intensity.
Primary and Secondary Emotions
Around this time, Reich’s distinction between “primary” and “secondary” emotions became central to his thinking. He came to consider some emotions as “primary:” Originating deep in the organism, these emotions are part of the way we stay healthy and sane.
Reich saw that emotions like desire, rage, disgust, fear, and joy could be meaningful responses to real life experiences, and their expression could serve to balance a person’s energy — or as we would call it today — a person’s neurochemistry. Reich called primary emotions “spontaneously decent” — they connect us to other people with warmth and love, protect us from losing that love, and help us grieve our losses.
“Secondary” emotions, on the other hand, arise when primary emotions are blocked. Secondary emotions, when expressed, do not lead back to balance, but serve to maintain the imbalance they are based upon. Primary emotions tend toward simplicity, resolution, contact, community, and self-regulation; secondary emotions tend toward complexity, self-absorption, frustrated relationships, and addiction.
With this distinction, Reich challenged the Western opposition of “passion” and “reason.” In his view, most of what passed for “reason” in our world was an isolated rationality, artificially polarized by its opposition to artificially induced secondary emotions.
This split is typical of Reich’s dialectical thinking — in which both cold rationality and irrational secondary emotions could be united, at a deeper level, in a holistic functioning in which thought and feeling fill and shape one another. The challenge, as Reich saw it, was for each person to work through secondary emotions in order to arrive at the primary emotions and rekindle one’s life from that spark. This concept fuelled Reich’s theraputic work of the 1930s.
In the 1930s, Reich described what would later be called the Type A personality — the driven, tense workaholic — and its corresponding emotional and physical problems. He also described what was later called the Type C personality, and connected its emotional tone of despair with cancer. He accounted for emotional stress as an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system and developed a treatment for it that he briefly called “vegetotherapy,” based on an earlier name for the autonomic nervous system.
He found the way smoldering memories are held in muscular tensions and learned to release them with direct touch, freed breathing, expressive gestures, and emotional sounds. Unlike Freud, who believed that repressed conflicts need to be brought to consciousness and worked through, Reich believed that the entire dynamics of neurosis would collapse if its source of fuel — blocked energy, especially sexuality — could be removed.
In the 1930s, Reich belonged to several political organizations that opposed the Nazis. His lengthy analysis of the rise of Hitler, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, ultimately led to a death warrant, and Reich was forced to flee Germany to Norway in 1933, and to America in 1939.
Reich as Visionary
Reich always represented himself as a scientist, but he had too passionate an interest in his work to be objective. Rather than subject his findings to rigorous challenges, Reich leapt from conclusion to conclusion, with more faith in his intuitive insight than in systematic investigation.
In many ways, Reich can be understood as a visionary; he spent his life on an almost solitary quest for the cure to the human condition. And by the end of the 1930s Reich believed had discovered the ultimate secret in the form of cosmic life energy — which he called “orgone.” From this point on, Reich’s work reads like the product of an ongoing visionary experience.
Unfortunately, the word “mystic” had an intensely negative meaning for Reich — for he was arguably a genuine mystic. He reserved “mystic” as a term of contempt for those who pursue a heady spirituality at the expense of denying their bodies and, especially, their sexuality. His dislike of the term may also be related to Marx’s use of similar terms in describing how ideologies take over people, alienate them from their own experience, and do their living for them. The passionate idealism of early Marx finds echoes in Reich’s work.
America — the 1940s and ’50s — Orgone
In the 1940s, working in New York and at his isolated research center in Rangeley, Maine, Reich pursued his concept of life energy — the pulsating rhythms that throb in our arteries, move though the life-cycles of animals, preside over the birth and death of stars, flow through us in moments of profound tenderness, and find expression in love.
He explored ways of unblocking this energy to flow more freely in patients. He experimented with using orgone to treat disease, and he developed a theory explaining cancer in terms of this energy, and also in terms of distinct emotional patterns in patients. Reich grew convinced that he had made one of the greatest discoveries in history; he believed he had literally discovered the nature of God:
I have disclosed to mankind the cosmic primordial mass-free energy which fills the universe. This energy rules all living processes and the lawful behavior of celestial functions. It determines our emotions, our first sense of orientation, judgment and balance. [It is] the basic force in nature which for millennia was called “God.” — My Unlawful Imprisonment, 1957
Understandably, psychiatric organizations no longer wanted Reich as a member.
During the 1940s, Reich became more and more isolated, working with a small circle of trainees and close supporters, along with a wider circle of kindred spirits, including A. S. Neill, founder of Summerhill school, and William Steig, the cartoonist. (Steig illustrated Listen, Little Man!, one of Reich’s later books). Like many charismatic figures, Reich could be overbearing (Sharaf reports that Reich warned one student: “Keep away from me. I am overwhelming. I burn through people.”), and his faith in his creative thinking repeatedly led him beyond what some considered to be sanity.
Reich’s work with cosmic energy included experiments intended to concentrate it, to drive motors, to make it visible, to explain its relation to radioactivity, even to create living cells from inorganic material.
Reich built a set of telescoping tubes to point at the sky and make rain (some claim they worked); he later converted those tubes into defensive weapons against the effects of a destructive form of orgone energy, and against the UFOs he believed to be invading the earth. Some of Reich’s experiments would be easy to test, but, understandably, this kind of work does not attract the attention of serious scientists who have solid institutional backing. Other experiments by Reich remain a mystery, because his will ordered them sealed for 50 years after his death, so his unpublished papers did not become available until late in 2007, and they have not been fully examined and discussed.
Focus on Children
By the late 1940s, Reich began to doubt that he could rekindle enough adults to make a difference, so he increasingly directed his efforts toward children. Reich was an early advocate of progressive child-rearing, breast-feeding, home births, natural foods, discipline through natural consequences, a trust of the child’s inborn feelings, and other practices that today seem quite contemporary. He worked increasingly to preserve the spark that children are born with, in the faith that when such children grew up, they would bypass the evils of the fallen condition and bring light to a new world.
All you have to do is continue what you have always done and always want: to do your work, to let your children grow up happily, to love your wife. If you did this clearly and unflinchingly, there would be no war. — Listen, Little Man! 116–7
Accumulators and the FDA
In the late 1940s, Reich designed metal-lined boxes called “orgone accumulators” and used them to treat a variety of mental and physical illnesses, including cancer. (I built and tried one. Something happens inside it; I don’t know what.)
Some of this time, he wrote like a prophet in a scorched land, denouncing society’s invisible oppressions, pursued by unseen opponents, pursuing the ignis fatuus of a perfectly natural life.
It was at this point that he ran afoul of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To summarize a complicated story, in the early 1950s the FDA accused Reich of practicing medicine without a license (though Reich had an M.D., he had never become formally licensed in this country); he was also charged with using the orgone accumulator as an unlicensed medical device.
A judge issued an injunction against the use of the accumulators. Later, possibly without Reich’s knowledge, an assistant shipped an accumulator to a desperate patient in another state, and Reich was charged with breaking the injunction. At the trial, he defended himself badly, appealing to high principles instead of addressing the legal issues.
Though he wrote with a fiery brilliance, few would consider Reich’s state of mind at this time to be entirely rational. Apparently, Reich considered the FDA one of his growing list of enemies — even while he believed that President Eisenhower was ordering secret planes to fly overhead for Reich’s protection.
He was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
The orgone accumulators were destroyed by court order. And here is the strange part — along with the accumulators, also destroyed were all pamphlets and “labeling materials,” as well as any printed material that contained references to Reich’s concept of life-energy. Reich’s books were ordered to be withheld from further sale until all such references were “deleted.” Nearly all his published works contained such references, for he had been developing this idea since the late 1920s.
Along with Reich, the idea of orgone energy was convicted — and the idea was sentenced to death.
On August 23, 1956, under the supervision of federal officials, six tons of Reich’s publications, including many of journals and hardcover books, were removed from the New York storehouse of his publishing firm, trucked to the municipal incinerators, and burned — inexplicably including all unsold copies of The Mass Psychology of Fascism; Character Analysis; The Sexual Revolution; The Murder of Christ; The Function of the Orgasm; Listen Little Man; The Cancer Biopathy; People in Trouble; Ether, God and Devil; and Cosmic Superimposition, along with copies of several journals including The Annals of the Orgone Institute.
A little over a year later, on November 3, 1957, this brilliant, eccentric, creative, tormented thinker died in the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, of what he would no doubt have diagnosed as a broken heart. He was 60.
Fortunately, copies of Reich’s burned works have been preserved and many have been reprinted — starting with a series by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in the late 1960s. They are readily available today.
It is tempting to accept the prison psychiatrist’s diagnosis of “paranoia;” it may be more accurate to think of Reich as someone who so often went beyond what was known that he lost track of the way back.
It would be cheap to think of this as a failure. Reich got lost in the same vibrant, dangerous territory that claimed Nietzsche and van Gogh — and, like them, he brought back thrilling (and unsettling) accounts of what lies beyond our certainties.
With his larger-than-life energy, Reich burned through doors and knocked down walls that others had considered impenetrable — particularly in opening the West’s cultural discussion of sexuality and ways to work directly with the mind through the body.
At times, you want to laugh at Reich for inventing yet another Austrian method for transforming Germans into Italians. It would be easy to dismiss Reich as warmed-over Marx and Rousseau, or D. H. Lawrence piled on William Blake (all authors Reich admired), but his outlook was close to the belief in natural innocence, sexuality, spontaneity, and the mating of physicality with spirituality that fueled the flower revolt of the 1960s.
It is a pity Reich did not live to see that great social experiment, or to witness the fireworks when large numbers of flawed young people tried to live out similarly innocent ideals. Like some revolutionaries of the 1960s, Reich tended to see people in absolute terms: They were either trapped in neurotic structures, or they were free. There was no middle ground.
Neither Reich nor the ’60s found a way to create institutions that give stability and meaning to life without imprisoning us. It is as if we were to live without bones to support us, endlessly fluid and responsive, but without real form or strength.
When the earliest Buddhists gathered as a group of people who had reclaimed a similar sense of original innocence, they soon found that they needed more than 200 formal rules (the “precepts”) before they could live peaceably together. Reich, like the 1960s, developed few of the precepts that help community endure.
Though his ideas could be strange, though he had a nearly monomaniacal faith in his own theories, reading Reich gives you a glimpse of a brilliant mind at work. His intuitions are amazingly good — especially on the connection between blocked emotions and muscular tensions. His clinical cases still yield insights into the ways people make themselves crazy. His work repeatedly deals with topics of fundamental importance and mystery.
Reich singlehandedly invented several of the key insights that flicker through innovative methods of therapy today. His works, though built on a detailed knowledge of how people drive themselves mad, contain one of the 20th century’s great visions of the happiness possible if people could open themselves fully to the passionate, intelligent, tender, sexy, vibrant flow of life inside them.
And the unfolding of his fate — as well as his complicity in his own destruction — reads like a Greek tragedy.
Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. Photoillustration by the author.
Selected works by Wilhelm Reich
The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1933. Reprinted 1969. A psychosocial interpretation of the interrelationship between the authoritarian family structure, the personality it produces, and the fascist state.
Character Analysis, 1933. Reprinted 1972. The first part of this book gives psychoanalytical descriptions of the primary methods people use to defend themselves against hurtful experiences. The second half introduces Reich’s concepts of muscular armor and energy flow.
The Function of the Orgasm. German edition, 1927. Greatly expanded in the English edition of 1942. Reprinted 1972. Perhaps Reich’s most accessible book, summarizing his thought up to the beginning of his theory of orgone energy.
The Cancer Biopathy, 1948. Reprinted 1973. Reich’s account of the discovery of orgone energy and his unorthodox theory of cancer.
All titles were reprinted by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Selected works about Wilhelm Reich
Bauer, Henry H. “Beyond Psychology: Letters and Journals, 1934–1939, by Wilhelm Reich.” Review in The Skeptical Inquirer, September 19, 1995, Vol. 19, №5, p. 43. A thoughtful portrayal of Reich as drifting into the isolation and distortions of a “hermit scientist.”
Boadella, David. 1973. Wilhelm Reich, Chicago: Henry Regnery. A favorable, thoughtful biography by a practitioner of the therapy Reich developed. A major source for this article.
Gardner, Martin. 1957. “Orgonomy,” in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, New York: Dover. A scathing denunciation of Reich as a quack and true believer, this book shaped many people’s views of Reich.
Greenfield, Jerome. 1974. Wilhelm Reich vs. the U.S.A., New York: W. W. Norton. A thorough, helpful account of the case leading to Reich’s conviction. A source for this article.
Sharaf, Myron. 1983. Fury on Earth, New York: St. Martin’s Press. A detailed, favorable but balanced biography by a close associate. A major source for this article.
Gerald Grow’s Home Page
Quotations from some of Wilhelm Reich’s burned books
“‘Nordic’ [in Fascist ideology] is equivalent to bright, heavenly, exalted, pure, asexual; ‘Asiatic’ to instinctual, demoniacal, ecstatic, sexual, orgiastic.” — The Mass Psychology of Fascism, p. 73
“For some peculiar reason, the masses of people do not want to get to the bottom of the secret of what makes wars; they are afraid of the truths which might bring the cure.” — The Mass Psychology of Fascism, p. 271
“As a result of thousands of years of social and educational warping, the masses of the people have become biologically rigid and incapable of freedom. They are no longer capable of organizing a peaceful living-together.” — The Mass Psychology of Fascism, p. 271
“Hitler as a political genius was a magnificent unmasking of the essence of politics in general. With Hitler, politics reached the peak of its development.” — The Mass Psychology of Fascism, p. 340
“Mental illness is a result of a disturbance in the natural capacity for love” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. xxii
“The individual brought up in an atmosphere which negates life and sex acquires a pleasure-anxiety (fear of pleasurable excitation) which is represented physiologically in chronic muscular spasms.” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. xxiii
“Why can a person not perceive his own innermost self? Since it is he himself! Gradually I began to see that it is just this ‘he himself’, this character make-up, which forms the compact tough mass that stands in the way of analytic endeavors. The total personality, the character, the whole individuality resisted. But why? Obviously, because it served a secret function of defense and protection.” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. 123
“Beneath these neurotic mechanisms, behind all these dangerous, grotesque, irrational phantasies and impulses, I found a bit of simple, matter-of-fact, decent nature.” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. 148
“The capacity of tolerating unpleasure and pain without fleeing disillusioned into a state of rigidity goes hand in hand with the capacity to take happiness and to give love.” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. 174
“Every muscular rigidity contains the history and the meaning of its origin.” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. 267
“The inhibition of respiration, as it is found regularly in neurotics, has, biologically speaking, the function of reducing the production of energy in the organism, and thus, of reducing the production of anxiety.” — The Function of the Orgasm, p. 276
“A pedantic concern for orderliness is a typical trait of the compulsive character. His whole life, in all its major and minor aspects, runs according to a preconceived, inviolable program.” — Character Analysis, p. 193
“Typical masochistic character traits are the following: subjectively, a chronic sensation of suffering, which appears objectively as a tendency to complain; chronic tendencies to self-damage and self-deprecation and a compulsion to torture others which makes the patient suffer no less than the object.” — Character Analysis, p. 219
“Your taking, basically, has only one meaning: You are forced continuously to gorge yourself with money, with happiness, with knowledge, because you feel yourself to be empty, starved, unhappy, not genuinely knowing nor desirous of knowledge. For the same reason you keep running away from the truth, Little Man: it might release the love reflex in you.” — Listen, Little Man! p. 44
Wilhelm Reich: A Chronology
1920s — Reich studied psychotherapy under Freud, began social action during his Marxist phase, set up sex education clinics, visited Russian revolutionary idealists, and developed his classic psychoanalytic work on character analysis.
1930s — Reich analyzed the rise of Hitler in terms of the German authoritarian family structure and the resulting psychological patterns. He developed his first original theraputic method of working directly with the body to free emotions held by muscular tensions. Always considering himself a scientist, Reich conducted experiments on the physiology of sex and developed an analysis of psychosomatic disease in terms of an imbalance in the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. In the late 1930s, Reich’s experiments convinced him that he had discovered life energy, which he named “orgone,” and that under the microscope he had observed life emerging from inert matter.
1940s — Arriving in America after fleeing to Norway to escape a Nazi death sentence, Reich set up a practice and laboratories in New York and in Maine. He developed a following of dedicated young therapists, artists, and intellectuals, continued his experiments with orgone energy, and wrote a book explaining cancer in terms of orgone theory. Gradually, Reich turned his attention more to preserving the liveliness of children than to redeeming adults through therapy. He continued, as he had all his life, to have a series of passionate and turbulent love relationships.
1950s — Reich sometimes wrote like a prophet in a strange land, a natural visionary in the desert of civilization. His experiments with orgone in motors, weather, the atmosphere, and minerals led him to conclude that there was also a destructive form of orgone. His writings sometimes echoed the pessimism of late Freud. Treating cancer patients with orgone accumulators led to his arrest and imprisonment. Reich died in federal prison in 1957.
Why Reich’s Books Do Not Appear
In Your Library’s Banned Books Week
Wilhelm Reich’s books were never challenged or censored by a court, school board, or other official government agency, and they were not officially removed from libraries and schools. Thus, they do not meet the technical requirements to be included in the Banned Books Week, which is commemorated each year by libraries around the U.S. — even though they were literally burned by court order.