Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)
Wilhelm Reich was born in 1897 in the north-east part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now Ukraine. His native tongue was German; his cultural/ethnic background was secular Jewish. Reich was raised on a farm and educated at home by tutors. Following his mother’s suicide when he was twelve, he boarded in the regional capital of Czernowitz where he attended the gymnasium, from which he was graduated in 1915. Following his father’s death, Reich managed the family farm until it was overrun by Russian troops. He enlisted in the Austrian Imperial Army, was sent to officer’s training school, and before long, as a lieutenant, commanded his own company, fighting on the Italian front.
In June of 1918 Reich was sent to Vienna on medical leave; he never returned to his post. Rather, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Vienna; soon thereafter he switched to medicine. After joining a student run seminar on sexology, he met Freud for the first time (1919), requesting literature for the seminar. Freud obliged, and soon a relationship developed that lasted throughout the twenties. Reich began an intensive study of psychoanalytic literature, and while still in medical school, Freud gave Reich permission to begin to practice psychoanalysis, and referred patients to him.
Soon Reich became an active member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, where he gave numerous papers, beginning in 1920 with his analysis of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. In 1922 he worked as the First Clinical Assistant at Freud’s Ambulatorium, the free polyclinic opened that year, and later, in 1928, became its Vice-Director. In 1922 Reich started the seminar on technique, and became its leader in 1924. He was regularly attended Freud’s Wednesday night meetings where he often spoke; he gave his last paper to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in December 1929.
In addition to his clinical activities, Reich was a prolific writer. Through 1927, he wrote two books, Der triebhafte Charakter (The Impulsive Character) and Die Funktion des Orgasmus (The Function of the Orgasm), both published by the International Psychoanalytic Publishing house; twenty-one articles; and over fifty book reviews, mostly in the major psychoanalytic journals of the day. It was during this period that Reich developed what became his major contributions to psychoanalysis–the movement from individual symptoms to character structure, and his emphasis on working through resistance, especially as it manifests as negative transference. Less well accepted were Reich’s continued insistence, following the early Freud, that all neuroses are sexual in origin, and his commitment to the centrality of the function of the orgasm in understanding human psychology.
On July 15, 1927 a large demonstration of workers in Vienna was met with gunfire from the local police force, killing nearly a hundred and wounding upwards of a thousand people. Reich witnessed this assault first-hand. The following day he secretly joined the small Austrian Communist Party, while remaining publically a member of the Social Democratic Workers Party. From then until his increasing conflicts with the German Communist Party early in 1933, Reich was politically active both as a speaker and writer.
Towards the end of 1928 together with communist physician Marie Frischauf, Reich founded the Sozialistische Gesellschaft für Sexualberatung und Sexualforschung (Socialist Society for Sex Counseling and Research, hereafter SgSS). The SgSS marks the beginning of what Reich would later call “Sexpol,” meaning an organization that brought together a commitment to a liberatory human sexuality, one freed from the constraints of religious moralism and compulsive patriarchal monogamy, but where full sexual freedom was seen as achievable only within the context of an end to capitalist exploitation–that is, an organization that brought together sexuality and socialism. The SgSS opened free clinics, which provided psychoanalytic treatment and sexual counseling; sponsored public lectures; engaged in scientific research on sexual dysfunction; and published a number of pamphlets, including Reich’s Sexual Excitation and Sexual Satisfaction (1929), and his Adolescence, Abstinence, Marital Morality: a Criticism of Bourgeois Sex-reform (1930).
During this time period Reich wrote “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis” published in Russian in Moscow and in German in Berlin in 1929. In September of that year Reich and his wife, Annie Pink Reich, who was also a communist and psychoanalyst, traveled to Moscow, where they visited factories, schools, and kindergartens. While there, Reich lectured at least twice; his main lecture was at the Communist Academy. Upon his return to Vienna, he spoke of his trip to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and published a report about it in The Psychoanalytic Movement.
In December of 1929 Reich gave his last lecture to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society on the prevention of neuroses through radical social and sexual reform. He also started a left opposition group within the Social Democratic Party called “The Revolutionary Social Democrats,” and sponsored a newspaper by that name; in January of 1930 he was expelled from the Social Democratic Party. In the spring of 1930 Reich spoke a number of times in rallies sponsored by the Austrian Communist Party in an attempt to recruit Social Democrats; he proved himself to be an effective and charismatic public speaker. That September Reich spoke at a huge congress of the World League for Sexual Reform held in Vienna. There he delivered a paper entitled, “The Sexual Misery of the Working Masses and the Difficulties of Sexual Reform.” This essay includes Reich’s claim that sexual neurosis cuts across class lines and can be found in the proletariat as well as the bourgeoisie. This comment surely did not endear him to his doctrinaire Communist comrades. Finally, in November 1930, he ran for a seat in Parliament on the Communist Party ticket.
At the end of 1930 Reich moved to Berlin; he was joined soon thereafter by his family (by this time he and Annie had two daughters, Eva and Lore). In Berlin he continued to see patients, to train new psychoanalysts, and to work for radical social change within the German Communist Party. He developed a list of demands which were published anonymously in a pamphlet called Forbidden Love; over 100,000 copies of this publication were circulated. This pamphlet announced the formation of the Communist Party’s Einheitsverband für proletarische Sexualreform und Mutterschutz (Unity Association for Proletariat Sexual Reform and the Protection of Mothers); Reich published at least six articles in the group’s organ, Die Warte (The Lookout), more than any other identifiable author. In addition, he taught at the MASCH, the Marxist Workers’ School in Berlin, and spoke out against the legal prohibition of abortion and for the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Early in 1932 Reich self-published Der Einbruch der Sexualmoral: Zur Geschichte der sexuellen Ökonomie (The Invasion of Sexual Morality: On the History of Sexual Economy). He also wrote and prepared for publication Der sexuelle Kampf der Jugend (The Sexual Struggle of Youth). Originally to be printed by the Party’s publishing house, Reich self-published this text after long delays awaiting approval from Moscow. Initially the Communist Party distributed Sexual Struggle of Youth, but in the December issue of Red Sport, a Party publication for its younger members, an order appeared prohibiting the distribution of this and other books by Reich. Soon thereafter, in January and February of 1933, extensive Communist Party hearings were held that eventually led to his ouster from the Party later that year.
Reich fled Berlin shortly after the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933, beginning a period of transience. Though now through with Party politics, he continued to write within a Marxist framework, and his Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (Mass Psychology of Fascism), was dedicated to “the fallen Austrian fighters for a Socialist Future.” Also in 1933 Reich published the first edition of his Charakteranalyse (Character Analysis); it was originally to be published by the International Psychoanalytic Publishing House, but after the contract was withdrawn Reich self-published this as well.
Reich lived briefly in Denmark, and then Sweden. Towards the end of 1933, he traveled to Zurich, Paris and London, considering each location as a possible new residence in exile.
Reich returned illegally to Denmark for the summer of 1934, where he wrote Was ist Klassenbewußtsein? (What is Class Consciousness?) and published second editions of both Mass Psychology of Fascism and “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.” In August of that year, at the Lucerne Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association, Reich discovered that he had been expelled from the IPA. After the conference, at the invitation of Harald Schjelderup to lecture at the University of Oslo, Reich moved to Norway where he lived until his emigration to the United States in August, 1939.
Reich continued to write politically oriented treatises:
- a second edition of Der Einbruch der Sexualmoral (1935);
- a new document, Masse und Staat. Zur Frage der Rolle der Massenstruktur in der sozialistischen Bewegung (The Masses and the State: On the Question of the Role of the Structure of the Masses in the Socialist Movement) (1935), the first of Reich’s writings not for public distribution with limited circulation (two more will follow later);
- Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf. Zur sozialistischen Umstrukturierung des Menschen (Sexuality in the Cultural Structure: on the Socialist Restructuring of People) (1936), later translated into English as The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure.
He also started a new journal, the Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie (The Journal for Political Psychology and Sexual-economy) (1934-1938), the articles in which were, initially, mainly politically oriented. In addition, Reich’s natural scientific and empirically oriented mind-set led him to initiate controlled scientific investigations of biological functions; these inquiries were facilitated by his position at a university, and further supported by Schjelderup, who wanted to place psychoanalysis in the context of academic psychology. In the new journal he published three articles of importance; the first two were:
- “Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge” (1934). (In addition to appearing in the journal it was also distributed as a stand-alone pamphlet.) This article is devoted to the four-beat orgasm formula, mechanical tension leading to electrical charge leading to electrical discharge, leading to mechanical relaxation. (Here Reich used the term “electrical,” which was later replaced by bio-energetic or orgone charge.)
- “The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life” (1934). (Again, this first appeared in his journal and in 1935, in an expanded form, as a free-standing pamphlet.) In this article Reich postulates that energy moves from the core to the periphery of the organism in pleasure (expansion) and the withdrawal of energy from periphery to core is experienced as anxiety (contraction). These basic feelings of pleasure and anxiety correlate with the parasympathetic effects of the autonomic nervous system on the bodily organs in sexual arousal and the sympathetic effects of the autonomic nervous system on the bodily organs in anxiety. He also speculated on the possible chemical correlates of such movements.
Both of these articles were a prelude to a direct inquiry into the flow of energy. Reich began his first direct laboratory experiments in 1935 and into 1936, summarized in the third article, “Experimental Results on the Electrical Function of Sexuality and Anxiety” (1937), published as a free-standing pamphlet. Without going into too much detail, the experiments were designed to measure the variations of electrical potential on the in feelings of pleasure and anxiety. In effect, Reich set out to show that Freud’s libido was not just a hypothetical explanatory concept, but real and measurable “electrical” energy. But what remained unclear was the nature of this energy.
Reich now turned to exploring micro-organisms, to see if the energy measured in humans could also be detected on the cellular level. By this point Reich had left the university for a well-funded private laboratory. He first published the results of his experiments in “Dialectical Materialism in Life-Research. Report on the Bion Experiments” (1937). This was followed by the book, Die Bione – Zur Entstehung des vegetativen Lebens (The Bions: On the Origin of Vegetative Life) (1938).
Briefly, bions are microscopic vesicles, seen as transitional entities between the non-living and the living; these vesicles move in ways that cannot be explained by purely mechanical movement (Brownian movement); they form more readily if the solution is heated in a way that should kill any spores or “air germs”; and they are often seen to have a blue edge to them–those with the strongest electrical charge have the greatest motility, pulsation and bluish color. Bions prepared under sterile conditions with a strong electrical charge chould also be successfully sub-cultured.
This description of bions is in no way complete, but should give the reader a rudimentary idea of their nature. Their discovery played a central role in Reich’s realization that the energy phenomenon he was observing was not electricity as conventionally understood, but a distinct biological energy, which he came to call orgone energy in 1939.
Reich then explored a possible medical application of his bion work. In addition to observing bions in packet-shaped forms, which he called PA bions, he also observed smaller rod shaped bions, which he dubbed “t-bacilli.” These two forms of bions seemed antithetical, in that PA bions would render t-bacilli immobile, and could do this without direct physical contact, suggesting some sort of radiation. He then began injecting solutions of the different bion forms into mice. Those given t-bacilli died, but those first given PA bions and then t-bacilli lived. Of those that died following inoculation with t-bacilli, upon autopsy, most were revealed to have cancer or other fatal growths. Reich now had the basis for a possible approach to cancer. In 1938 he gave a lecture to medical students in Oslo entitled, “Bion Experiments on the Cancer Problem,” and later, once in the United States, devoted an entire book to the problem of cancer, which we will discuss below.
One particular form of bion, derived from heating sand to incandescence, called SAPA bions (from Sand Packets), were stronger than others, more energized, and showed a clear blue outline. Observing them through the microscope produced conjunctivitis, suggesting that they were emitting some form of radiation. If a quartz slide with SAPA bions was put next to the skin, the skin would redden and when Reich held a test tube of these bions to a wart on his check after some time the wart vanished. When SAPA bion preparations were observed in complete darkness they gave off a grayish blue lumination; unexposed film left near these bions became fogged. Also a rubber glove exposed to the SAPA bion solution showed a charged effect on an electroscope. Gloves would also cause a deflection on the electroscope if left in direct sunlight or on the abdomen of a vegetatively lively (sexually healthy) individual. This gave rise to a series of experiments directly on the energetic properties of bion preparations, reported in a pamphlet entitled Drei Versuche am statischen Elektroskop (Three Experiments at the Static Electroscope) (1939).
Since it seemed clear to Reich that the energy observed visually was radiation of some sort, Reich decided to place bionous solutions in a Faraday cage, a screened enclosure whose stated purpose was to eliminate the influence of external “static electricity” and other forms of energy. The observed radiation effects of the bionous solutions did not diminish in the enclosure; indeed, they seemed enhanced. Later Reich’s work in Oslo with the Faraday cage yielded the insight that led to his orgone energy accumulator, an enclosure consisting of a metal lined inner core (a Faraday cage), surrounded by layers of non-conducting material (such as wool). Eventually multiple layers were used of alternating metal and non-metallic material.
Reich’s bion experiments did not go unnoticed in Oslo. Soon the medical establishment began an extended campaign against Reich in local newspapers, aided by fascistic elements that referred to Reich as a “Jewish pornographer.” Reich tended not to respond to the attacks in the letters section of these newspapers, though a number of his friends and colleagues did. These attacks, along with his daughters having come to the United States, and the possibility that Nazi Germany might eventually over-run Norway (this happened in April 1940, roughly six months after Reich left for America), all led Reich to leave Oslo for New York.
In addition to the incredibly important scientific work accomplished by Reich while living in Oslo, work that would shape the rest of his life and ultimately lead to his imprisonment and death in the United States, Reich did not neglect the treatment of neuroses. Indeed, he expanded his understanding of character structure to incorporate what is often called “somatic psychology” or “body work.” Here too Reich was a pioneer.
Scholars do not agree on what first led Reich to the idea that character armor–a person’s typical way of dealing with undischarged sexual energy–was in some way related to the musculature and other aspects of a person’s neurophysiology. Otto Fenichel, an early friend of Reich’s, wrote an article in 1928 which included references to a number of different psychoanalysts’ observations of patterns of muscular rigidity in neurotic patients. Reich himself noted that Sándor Ferenczi, aware of the limitations of standard psychoanalysis, looked to the “somatic sphere” for a new approach to therapy. Others refer to Reich’s interest in the work of Elsa Gindler, who had developed a form of therapeutic movement and breath. Still others insist that Reich’s second long-term partner, Elsa Lindenberg, a dancer, influenced Reich to turn to the body as an avenue to increased therapeutic success. Whatever its sources, in Oslo Reich began using a new form of therapy, based on the assumption that character armor was identical (in one sense) to muscular armor. In Function of the Orgasm Reich reports that he observed deep vegetative reactions in his patients as he worked on their resistance, and out of this observation came the assumed identity. The new therapy, which he called “character-analytic vegetotherapy,” had deep breathing as an integral component. He first described both the theoretical basis and the practice in Orgasmusreflex, Muskelhaltung und Körperausdruck. Zur Technik der charakteranalytischen Vegetotherapie (Orgasm Reflex, Muscular Posture, and Bodily Expression: On the Technique of Character-analytic Vegetotherapy) (1937). In this article Reich speaks generally of the relevance of bodily expression to understanding neuroses, the typical chronic tension in the abdominal musculature, and the goal of restoring full and natural breath, while also working on the “dead pelvis.” Reich used this form of therapy on patients and trained a handful of Norwegian colleagues to do the same. All manner of current bodily therapies, including primal scream, bio-energetics, and other so-called “somatic psychologies,” owe a continuing debt to Reich’s pioneering work; sometimes this debt is acknowledged, but often it goes unmentioned.
Finally, before leaving Oslo for the United States Reich wrote a second pamphlet meant for limited circulation among friends and colleagues, Die natürliche Organisation der Arbeit in der Arbeitsdemokratie (The Natural Organization of Work in Work-Democracy) (1939). That is to say, in the midst of his ground breaking laboratory work and his newly formed therapeutic modality, Reich was still interested in the social dimension that undergirds the sexual dysfunction of society.
Reich’s exit visa from Norway was based on the guarantee of employment as a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Reich taught three semesters there, and slowly began to build a following in the United States, began seeing patients, trained a few doctors in his new form of therapy, and continued his laboratory work with orgone energy. But, interestingly, the very first thing he published while living in the United States was in the realm of his social thought, Weitere Probleme der Arbeitsdemokratie (Further Problems in Work-Democracy) (1941). This pamphlet, like its companion piece, The Natural Organization of Work in Work-Democracy, was also not meant for public sale and distribution but rather for colleagues and other interested parties; it was written in 1940 and published in Rotterdam. The analysis in both work-democracy pamphlets was still Marxist, arguing for the need for a socialist economy in order for the insights of his work to be realized fully.
By January 1941 Reich was living with his third major partner, Ilse Ollendorff (they were legally married some years later), working on what would become his first English language book, and continuing his investigations of orgone energy phenomena. At this time, he contacted Albert Einstein, hoping that, with Einstein’s insight, he could better understand the energy found in the accumulator. The two met at Einstein’s home in Princeton. Reich brought with him an ‘orgonoscope’, a simple device which permitted visual observations of orgone energy in the atmosphere, and a small orgone energy accumulator, set to show that under clear weather conditions the temperature inside the accumulator was slightly higher than the temperature outside or in a control enclosure, a temperature difference unexplainable by standard physics. Of the orgonoscope, Einstein later said that he could not rule out “subjective” impressions, but with regards to the accumulator, Einstein first confirmed the temperature difference but then explained it away with a reference to air convection in the room. Reich’s extended reply included showing that the temperature difference could be achieved by putting the accumulator into the ground–no air convection would be possible–and other alternations to the experimental set-up to rule out air convection, but Einstein did not respond to this and subsequent letters.
Einstein’s refusal to pursue something about which he seemed initially quite excited–he and Reich conversed for nearly five hours at their initial meeting–puzzled Reich and soon led to his speculation about anxiety generated in people on learning of orgone energy and its connection with sexuality. As he met with more and more rejection or ridicule, reminiscent of the press campaign in Oslo, Reich developed a greater understanding of the full extent of human irrationality, which informed his later writings in the social realm.
1941 was a significant and challenging year. It began with the disappointing dismissal by Einstein and ended with Reich’s first arrest and imprisonment, the very form of governmental interference that Reich hoped to avoid by immigrated to the United States. In December, after the United States declared war on Germany, Reich was arrested as an enemy alien and held for nearly a month. Judging from his journal entries, his detainment left Reich angry and disheartened, and it has been argued that it led him to exercise caution about his former Marxist allegiances in subsequent publications.
Still his work continued. In 1942 he published his first book in English, a scientific autobiography whose full title is The Discovery of the Orgone–Volume One: The Function of the Orgasm: Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy. It was translated from the German by Theodore P. Wolfe, a medical doctor who would be Reich’s translator through the 1940s, and also the editor of Reich’s first English language journal, the International Journal of Sex-Economy and Orgone-Research, the first issue of which also came out in 1942. (The International Journal was published through 1945.) Initially articles in this journal were written mainly by Reich himself, and his former Norwegian colleagues, all forced to use pseudonyms because of the war. But with time, articles began to appear by Reich’s new American trained students and colleagues.
Beginning early in the 1940s Reich spent his summer months on a lake near Rangeley, Maine. Here he was able to purchase a large farm (over 150 acres) in 1942. Eventually a laboratory was constructed, and still later an observatory, which today houses the Wilhelm Reich Museum, and is on the National Registry of Historical Places. The entire property was named “Orgonon.”
In addition to continuing his laboratory work, therapy practice, and training new practitioners, throughout this period Reich continued to write and also to revise works already published in German, preparing them for English translations. These were never simply translations but also included changes to make the works more consonant with his current thinking, and to diminish their former political terminology and analyses. In 1945 Reich published in English Character Analysis: Principles and Technique for Psychoanalysts in Practice and in Training, based on the 1933 German text but with additional material; that same year, he published The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure, labeling it the third edition, treating the aforementioned Adolescence, Abstinence, Marital Morality: A Criticism of Bourgeois Sex-reform (1930) and Sexuality in the Cultural Structure: On the Socialist Restructuring of People (1936) as the first two editions. Then in 1946 he published his English language version of the 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism, greatly expanding the text to include an edited version of the 1935 Masses and the State, and newly written articles on work-democracy; the text was also freed of the former use of Marxist language, on the grounds that it no longer had any clear meaning, given the distortions of it under Stalin.
In 1947 Reich brought out what a new serial, The Annals of the Orgone Institute. Volume I, again edited by Wolfe, included a new article on work-democracy, and a number of articles on child-rearing. The Annals was advertised as continuing the role played by the International Journal, but would not be committed to a regular schedule of publication. Only two issues were published: the one just described and, in 1949, the second volume, devoted entirely to Reich’s Ether, God and Devil; this manuscript was later published as a cloth-bound companion to the 1951 Cosmic Superimposition.
Of far greater consequences, the year 1947 brought with it two inflammatory articles about Reich and his work written by Mildred Edie Brady. The first one, “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy,” appeared in Harper’s; but far more damaging was her “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” which appeared in The New Republic. Previously, in 1946, The New Republic had published a very dismissive review of Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism; both articles were at least in part politically motivated: though Reich’s work was often attacked from the political right, these two articles came from the Left. Brady’s article was repeated in whole or in part in numerous other publications, and eventually gave rise to an investigation of Reich’s work by the Food and Drug Administration to determine that the use of the orgone energy accumulator was an instance of medical quackery. The Brady article and its spin-offs also became the basis for a second separate investigation, this time by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, to determine if there were grounds for the removal of Reich’s naturalized citizenship.
In 1948 Wolfe wrote a response to the attacks on Reich published in The New Republic and elsewhere entitled, Emotional Plague Versus Orgone Biophysics: The 1947 Campaign. This pamphlet included the first public reference to the FDA’s investigation. But none of this deterred Reich. That same year, Reich brought out what some believe to be his most significant work with reference to orgone energy, The Discovery of the Orgone Vol. II: The Cancer Biopathy. This volume, drawing upon previously published work and an abundance of new experimental data, aimed at proving definitively the existence of a specific measurable biological energy.
In this book Reich reviewed some of the fundamental theoretical assumptions which informed his experimental work, and then described in detail his discovery of bions, now described as “orgone energy vesicles,” and met some of the common objections concerning their motility. He then devoted a section of the text to the discovery of orgone energy, its presence in the atmosphere, and a detailed defense of his claims, dealing with commonly raised objections, including those voiced by Einstein. He also briefly discussed a possible “motor force” of orgone energy, and experimental designs of an operative motor were constructed; this is one of the many discoveries of Reich’s that remains to be put into practical application.
The section of the book from which its title derives concerns cancer, now seen not as the presence of a tumor, but rather as a systemic disease, the “carcinomatous shrinking biopathy,” an illness that can be present in an organism, even in the absence of a detectable tumor. Reich discusses the origin of the cancer cell, placing it within the context of bionous disintegration, and connecting the syndrome, the biopathy, to the consequences of the lack of a robust sexual life, and a pattern of felt resignation. He then describes the experimental use of the orgone energy accumulator in treating people with cancer. While he never refers to his work as curing these patients (almost all of whom were terminal), in every case their tumors shrank or disappeared. Yet, almost all of them died, due at least in part of the inability of their organisms to eliminate the “detritus” left over from their dissolved tumors.
Had the FDA been serious in its investigation and had its representatives carefully studied The Cancer Biopathy, it is very difficult to see how they could rationally come away from the text thinking that Reich was peddling a false “cancer cure,” or that he was a fraud. But no such serious investigation occurred.
At the same time Reich prepared The Cancer Biopathy for publication, he also published a radically different kind of book, Listen, Little Man!, listed as a “document from the Archives of the Orgone Institute.” This text, superbly illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist, William Steig (who also wrote children’s books, including Shrek!), was an emotional venting of Reich’s frustrations and anger towards the “little man” in humanity, including the “little man” in himself. The text can be read as a history of his encounters with irrational responses to his work from its very beginning in psychoanalysis.
When Reich began publishing his work in English, his over-all theory was dubbed “Sex-Economy.” By the mid-forties, he used the term “Orgonomy” to refer to his work in its entirety. Orgonomy was defined as the natural science of orgone energy phenomena. By 1948 Reich had attracted many physicians as trainees, and that summer the first Orgonomic Conference was held at his summer home, Orgonon.
In 1949, while continuing his explorations of the orgone energy motor and other biophysical manifestations of orgone energy, Reich returned to his reflections on therapy and published the third expanded edition of Character Analysis. This edition includes material devoted, at least in part, to orgone therapy as it had developed from character-analytic vegetotherapy. It is worth emphasizing that Reich was always working on multiple levels, the experimental scientific, the therapeutic, and the social, and any complete understanding of his work must include all three.
That same year Reich began publishing a new periodical, The Orgone Energy Bulletin (1949-1953), which included articles by his recently trained colleagues on their experiences with orgone therapy, both psychiatric and medical. In addition, beginning in 1950, a new journal in German appeared, edited by Dr. Walter Hoppe in Israel, Internationale Zeitschrift für Orgonomie (The International Journal for Orgonomy), which continued through 1953.
Around this time Reich began two very important projects with future generations in mind. One was the Orgonomic Infant Research Center, a study intended to uncover exactly what is “natural” in a child free of muscular armor. Although the formal study did not last very long, it gave rise to continued interest and explorations of what it would mean for a child to be free and natural, capable of self-regulation. Here it must be noted that A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill School, devoted to participatory democracy and the natural happiness of children, was a close friend of Reich’s. The two met in Oslo, and while Reich was living in Norway, Neill would come in the summers for therapy and conversation. Once Reich left for the States, the two carried out an extensive correspondence. Summerhill School and Reich’s perspective on self-governance have spawn numerous schools world-wide, exploring in their own ways the “natural child.”
The second project from this time period was prompted by the looming Korean War, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviets. Reich wanted to explore the possible use of orgone energy as an antidote to nuclear radiation. The intended experiment was described in a special publication, the Orgone Energy Emergency Bulletin and named the “Oranur” project. The actual experiment began in January 1951 with near disastrous results.
The experiment involved placing a small amount of radioactive material in a highly charged orgone energy environment. Rather than the hoped for neutralization of the radioactive material, the radium had a dramatic affect on the orgone energy in the laboratory. (The details are far too complex to explore here, but photocopies of The ORANUR Experiment. First Report (1947-1951), and other relevant materials, are available.) Out of this experiment came two newly recognized derivatives of life-affirming orgone energy: an oranur effect, which refers to the over-excitation of energy both in the atmosphere and the organisms exposed to it, and a stagnant form of orgone energy, which Reich called “deadly orgone radiation,” or DOR.
Following the initial experiment, which left the laboratory at Orgonon unusable for months, grayish clouds hovered over the area, and Reich wondered if they might be due to the Oranur experiment. If they were in some ways connected to atmospheric orgone energy, they might be affected by a modified “lightning rod.” (Lightning and other forms of ‘static’ electricity were conceived as orgone energy phenomena or in some way closely related to such phenomena.) Reich had a device constructed that consisted of an array of hollow metal tubes, grounded the tubes in water via flexible pipes, and aimed the hollow tubes at the clouds, now called DOR clouds. When the clouds dissipated, Reich realized that clouds and other atmospheric conditions were not only related to orgone energy, but might be manipulated though the use of his device, which he came to refer to as a “cloudbuster.” At this time the Orgone Energy Bulletin was renamed CORE (Cosmic Orgone Engineering), and included numerous reports on the work with the cloudbuster.
It should be noted, in keeping with the pattern shown above, Reich continued to function on multiple fronts. A new activity, thanks to a holiday gift of an art set from his daughter Eva, was painting. Throughout this period, Reich painted numerous canvases; today his work is on display at the museum devoted to his work located in his former Observatory, built between 1948-1949, and opened in 1950. After Reich moved to Orgonon permanently in May 1950 (prior to that he spent his summers in Maine and the rest of the year in New York City), the Observatory housed his library, his study, and laboratory equipment.
Reich discovered orgone energy on the microscopic level, soon came to realize that this energy flowed through whole systems, including all living organisms, and as the use of the cloud buster dramatically showed, in the atmosphere as well. This led Reich to speculate that orgone was not limited to the planet and had galactic dimensions as well. In short what was initially viewed as a biological energy was now reconceived as cosmic energy. In 1951, along with publishing the results of the oranur experiment, and an extensive pamphlet on the use of the orgone energy accumulator, he brought out Cosmic Superimposition: Man’s Orgonotic Roots in Nature; in this text Reich explores the parallels between hurricane formation and the formation of galaxies, noting the common functioning principle of both, namely the superimposition of two orgone energy streams. He then suggests that the orgasm function itself could be understood as such superimposition.
During this period and previously Reich edited a number of his earlier publications, writing new prefaces and preparing them for publication, texts which eventually appeared only after his death. They include: Der Einbruch der Sexualmoral, now entitled The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality (new Preface dated 1951), published in 1971; a revised version of the original 1927 Function of the Orgasm with a new foreword dated 1944, and now published under the title, Genitality in the Theory and Practice of Neurosis, 1980; The Bioelectrical Investigations of Sexuality and Anxiety, which brought together three separate publications from the 1930s, with editorial notes dated 1945, published in 1982. Other texts published after his death include The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life (1979), from the German Die Bione, Children of the Future: On the Prevention of Sexual Pathology (1983), and Reich Speaks of Freud (1971).
In 1953 Reich published a two volume collection, labeled The Emotional Plague of Mankind, initially sold only as a set. Volume one consisted of a text ostensibly on Jesus entitled, The Murder of Christ, written in the summer following the oranur disaster. Volume two was drawn from a long autobiographical text, written while Reich was still in Norway, now published as People in Trouble, edited in the mid-forties and with further additions in 1952. In The Murder of Christ, Reich uses the Biblical narrative as an extended metaphor for the ways in which society destroys the ‘Christ’ in each of us, that is, the living productive healing force with which we are born. People in Trouble is devoted to a very different aspect of social life; it consists of the retelling of Reich’s political involvement, and covers his life from the mid-twenties through the Lucerne conference in 1934. In short, in the midst of dealing with the devastating medical and scientific consequences to both his person and his work due to the oranur experiment, Reich never stopped thinking about the broader social issues, the wider context of orgonomy.
Finally, after his continued success with weather modification using the cloudbuster, he designed a smaller version to use on patients, the medical DOR buster. At one point he speculated that armor and its accompanying neurotic ways of thinking and acting could be addressed solely by its use. Subsequent experience showed this not to be the case.
The Food and Drug Administration’s inquiry into Reich’s use of the orgone energy accumulator, an investigation that cost millions of dollars, culminated with a Complaint for Injunction filed in Federal Court in February 1954. The complaint’s fundamental assumption, that the accumulator was a ‘fraudulent’ device, had to be contested in court to prevent the complaint from becoming an injunction. But rather than appear, arguing that matters of scientific inquiry could not possibly be settled in a court of law, Reich responded by sending the presiding judge a letter of response. (It should be noted in Reich’s very first legal case, a complaint filed in Germany in 1930 to have his publication, Sexual Excitation and Sexual Satisfaction, branded as pornography, his submitting a letter to the court was recognized as a legitimate response; it is unclear if this had any additional influence on Reich’s decision not to appear.) Reich’s written response was dismissed by the Court, and the Complaint by default became a legally binding Injunction. This federal statute required that accumulators be destroyed and none be shipped through interstate commerce. In addition, all of Reich’s books and journals that mentioned the word “orgone,” were now branded as ‘labels’ for the ‘fraudulent’ device, and were also to be destroyed. Reich’s books and journals were burned in a New York City incinerator in 1956 and again as late as 1960.
Despite this obvious massive setback, Reich continued his work. Late in 1954 he went to Arizona with a cloudbuster to see if an arid desert environment could be affected by manipulating atmospheric orgone energy. Again, the details are too complicated to explore here, but suffice it to say that January 1955 brought with it more moisture in the Tucson area than recorded for many years. (For more, see Reich’s Contact with Space: ORANUR Second Report 1951-1956). While in Arizona, and without his knowledge, one of Reich’s assistants, Dr. Michael Silvert, defied the Injunction and shipped some accumulators between New York and Maine. Reich and Silvert together with the Wilhelm Reich Foundation were charged with contempt of court, and ordered to appear in the federal court in Portland, Maine, May 1st, 1956. During the short trial that followed, Reich represented himself and attempted to show that orgone energy was real and his work of urgent planetary importance. But from a legal point of view his defense was irrelevant to the charge of violating the Injunction. Reich and Silvert were convicted and the Foundation fined. Following appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, the two men were sent to federal prison in the Spring of 1957, first in Connecticut, and then in the case of Reich, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. A week before a scheduled parole hearing that November, Reich was found dead in his cell, due to heart failure, or as his daughter Eva Reich said, “he died from a broken heart.”
For further reading:
A complete bibliography of Reich’s writings is maintained by Peter Nasselstein of Hamburg, Germany. It is a necessary source for any serious scholarship on Reich’s work, and was used in the preparation of this document.
Reich’s own bibliography, Bibliography on Orgonomy, published in 1953, is available in photocopy from The Wilhelm Reich Museum Bookstore; most of the books mentioned below are also available from the Museum. The online bookstore is part of the website maintained by the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust:
This website also includes a factually accurate biography.
The most substantial print biography, one that many assume to be authoritative, is Fury on Earth by Myron Sharaf. While Sharaf as a young man worked for Reich, and after Reich’s death interviewed many people for his biography, the book is terribly flawed, revealing deep, perhaps unconscious, hatred towards his subject on the part of the author. It must be read with caution. The same is true for the biography by Reich’s wife, Ilse Ollendorff Reich, Wilhelm Reich: A Personal Biography. At times this intimate portrait is engaging and helpful; at other times, readers who knew Reich well feel that she was quite bitter towards Reich after their marriage ended, and used her biography to air “dirty laundry.” Similar cautions apply to many other biographies. The best of the lot, at least up until the final chapter, is David Boadella’s Wilhelm Reich: The Evolution of his Work.
For an overall biography of Reich in German, there is Bernd Laska’s Wilhelm Reich : mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, published by Rowohlt, in 1981. More recent and encyclopedic in detail is Andreas Peglau’s Unpolitische Wissenschaft? Wilhelm Reich und die Psychoanalyse im Nationalsozialismus, published in 2013 by Psychosozial-Verlag. Focusing on the years 1927-1939, and drawing upon previously unused archival material, this book establishes Wilhelm Reich as the most important exemplar of a politically and socially critical form of psychoanalysis; the author shows Reich to be the outstanding antifascist writer and researcher among the psychoanalysts of this period.
Apart from these secondary sources, the best way to get to know Reich is through his own writings. As for the details of his life, Mary Boyd Higgins, the Trustee of Reich’s estate, has edited a series of texts that are very helpful. They are, in historical order:
- Passion of Youth: An Autobiography, 1897-1922;
- Beyond Psychology: Letters and Journals 1934-1939;
- American Odyssey: Letters & Journals, 1940-1947;
- Where’s the Truth?: Letters and Journals, 1948-1957.
These and all other books by Reich are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, unless otherwise noted.
In addition to these books, there is a collection of the extensive correspondence between Reich and A. S. Neill, A Record of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Wilhelm Reich and A.S. Neill. Here too we are afforded insights into Reich’s life and work through his own words.
Much the same can be said of the volume entitled, Reich Speaks of Freud: Wilhelm Reich Discusses His Work and His Relationship with Sigmund Freud. This consists of a transcript of an interview of Reich conducted for the Freud Archives in 1952; the interview is supplemented by archival material.
The best source for this period is Passion of Youth.
The Impulsive Character (1925), along with other early psychoanalytic papers, is available in Early Writings, Volume One. The original Function of the Orgasm (1927) is available under the title Genitality In the Theory and Therapy of Neurosis, so as to avoid confusion with the more popular English text first published in 1942.
Reich’s own writings about his political activities in this period are in People in Trouble, but it should be noted that this text reflects editing designed to diminish some of its political implications. For example, in the original German manuscript written in 1937 from which this book is derived, Reich clearly states that he joined the Communist Party in July 1927. But in People in Trouble, as published in 1953, during the height of the Cold War, this clear statement is modified to read that he joined Medical Help, a front organization, made up largely of “people who were not party members but sympathized openly with the Russian Revolution.”
Both Sexual Excitation and Sexual Satisfaction (1929), and his Adolescence, Abstinence, Marital Morality: a Criticism of Bourgeois Sex-reform (1930) are currently unavailable in English. “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis” is reprinted in Sex-Pol: Essays 1929-1934, edited by Lee Baxandall (Vintage Books, 1972), as is his report about his trip to the Soviet Union, “Psychoanalysis in the Soviet Union.” The lecture Reich gave to the World League of Sexual Reform is in New German Critique, I (1973).
The final chapter of The Sexual Struggle of Youth is in the Baxandall collection; there is a pirated English translation of the entire work published in London in the early 70s. An edited version of it, The Sexual Rights of Youth, is included in Reich’s Children of the Future. An edited version of the 1932 Der Einbruch der Sexualmoral is available as The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality. The 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism is available in edited form as the first eight chapters of the English 3rd enlarged edition of the book by that same title. Parts I and II of the currently available Character Analysis are the English translations of the original 1933 text.
What is Class Consciousness? is available in the Sex-Pol essay volume. An edited version of the 1935 The Masses and the State is included in the 3rd enlarged edition of The Mass Psychology of Fascism. “Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge” (1934), “The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life” (1934), and “Experimental Results on the Electrical Function of Sexuality and Anxiety” (1937) are all reprinted in The Biological Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety. Orgasm Reflex, Muscular Posture, and Bodily Expression: On the Technique of Character-analytic Vegetotherapy, from 1937, is included in the English Function of the Orgasm. The English translation of Reich’s 1938 Die Bione is The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life.
While generally limiting ourselves in this section to Reich’s own writings, we must acknowledge and recommend a book on Reich’s bion work that will soon be published by Harvard University Press: James E. Strick’s Wilhelm Reich, Biologist. Many believe that the publication of this book by Harvard will force scholars and other interested parties to re-evaluate their attitude towards Reich’s work, and give it the serious attention it deserves.
There is an unpublished English translation of Reich’s The Natural Organization of Work in Work-Democracy (1939) in Reich’s archives, The Archives of the Orgone Institute, located at the Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.
There are two unpublished English translations of Further Problems in Work-Democracy (1941) in Reich’s archives; it is clear that Reich intended to publish a good portion of this pamphlet in 1956, but his court case and other matters prevented it from appearing. The correspondence between Reich and Einstein about their meeting in 1941 is in an archival volume entitled, The Einstein Affair, first published in 1953, and is available from the Wilhelm Reich Museum. The four annual volumes of the International Journal of Sex-Economy and Orgone-Research are also available in photocopy form from the Wilhelm Reich Museum Bookstore, as are photocopies of The Annals of the Orgone Institute, Volume I, the Orgone Energy Bulletins, and other publications. See:
One can also purchase translations of Reich’s books and, in some cases, copies of the original German manuscripts from the Museum Bookstore as well.
Wolfe’s Emotional Plague Versus Orgone Biophysics: The 1947 Campaign is currently unavailable. The ORANUR Experiment. First Report (1947-1951) is available from the Wilhelm Reich Museum Bookstore; a good portion of the report is also included in Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy, originally published in 1960, the first book that Farrar, Straus and Giroux published, in apparent defiance of the FDA’s Injunction; the volume includes Reich’s response to the Complaint and the Injunction itself.
Copies of all of Reich’s legal documents are available from the Museum Bookstore, along with a number of short pamphlets Reich published during this period not discussed in the body of the biography. Also Contact with Space: ORANUR Second Report (1951-1956), published after Reich’s death, is also available from the Museum Bookstore.