The Scientific Assassination of a Sexual Revolutionary: How America Interrupted Wilhelm Reich's Orgasmic Utopia
Did the U.S. kill the man who wanted to take the stress out of sex and use orgasms to heal the world?
It was the greatest incidence of scientific persecution in American history.
In July of 1947, Dr. Wilhelm Reich—a brilliant but troubled psychoanalyst who had once been Freud's most promising student, who had enraged the Nazis and the Stalinists as well as the psychoanalytic, medical and scientific communities, who had survived two World Wars and fled to New York—was dying in a prison cell in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, accused by the government of being a medical fraud engaged in a "sex racket."
That "racket" would one day be called the "sexual revolution." But it was still 1947 in America—an America not even ready for psychoanalysis, still a nascent science that Harper's and The New Republic had categorized, right alongside Reich's theories, as being no better than astrology. (Reich, Harper's had decided, was the leader of a "new cult of sex and anarchy.")
If the American public wasn't ready for Dr. Freud, then how much less prepared would it be for Dr. Reich—a man who, at his Orgonon institute near Rangely, Maine, was researching the energetic force of orgasm itself?
Reich had taken Freud's theories far. Too far, according to the FDA. Starting with Freud's connection of sexual repression to neurosis, Reich had theorized that it was the physical inability to surrender to orgasm that underlay neurosis, and eventually turned people to fascism and authoritarianism. Reich migrated from Freud's simple talking cure to what he called character analysis, a therapy designed to help his patients overcome the physical and respiratory blocks that prevented them from experiencing pleasure. Finally—and most dangerously—he claimed that the orgasm was an expression of orgone, the joy-filled force of life itself. With phone-booth-sized devices called orgone accumulators he could harness this force to cure neurosis, disease and even affect the weather and help crops grow.
For these lines of inquiry, the FDA demanded Reich appear in court to defend himself in 1954. He refused, stating that claims of scientific truth should be settled by experiment, not in court. The court responded by issuing an injunction against the sale or transportation of his devices across state lines, and proceeded to systematically burn his books and journals. Not only Reich's writing, but any written material that contained the word "orgone" was fair game for destruction. (Paranoid and embattled, Reich would refuse offers of help from the ACLU, believing it to be filled with communist subversives.) FDA agents also began destroying his devices and laboratory with axes—but that wasn't all. The FDA would carry their persecution of the Austrian psychoanalyst much, much further.
What was it about this man and his theories that invoked the wrath of nearly every political and scientific faction of his time? What was it about the "sexual revolution" that earned Wilhelm Reich a 789-page FBI file? What provoked a systematic campaign of attacks hardly suggestive of a sane and rational America that had just won the war against the book-burning Nazis—and more reminiscent of the Inquisition, the incineration of Giordiano Bruno, or the ending of Frankenstein, in which angry villagers with torches and pitchforks burn down the mad scientist's castle?
The Sexual Struggle of Youth
Reich was born on March 24, 1897, on a farm in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, in what is now Ukraine. He embraced sexuality early, unsuccessfully attempting to have sex with his brother's nurse at the age of 4 1/2 and successfully with the family cook at 11. At the age of 12, Reich discovered his mother having sex with one of his tutors. When he told his father, the man repeatedly beat Reich's mother until she committed suicide. Reich blamed himself.
From the age of 15-17, he would pay visits to brothels, and recorded sexually fantasizing about his mother in his diary at the age of 22 (during the same year he met Sigmund Freud, whose theories on the Oedipus complex may have influenced this confession). Lore Reich Rubin, Reich's second daughter, would later tell the journalist Christopher Turner that she believed Reich was a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
Sent into the Army during WWI, Reich saw "man's inhumanity to man" first-hand at the Italian front. Afterwards, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, where he became dissatisfied with what he considered the "mechanistic" approach to life he saw in his fellow students' cold dissection of corpses. He instead began a quest for the creative energy he felt must underlie life. It was then, in 1919, that he met Sigmund Freud. Welcomed into the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, Freud allowed Reich to begin seeing patients at the age of 22—he was soon earmarked as Freud's star pupil, perhaps even destined for leadership.
Freud had identified the root of neurosis in repressed sexuality, and the driving force of life to be the libido—stating that "no neurosis is possible with a normal vita sexualis." His two greatest students, Jung and Reich, were to take his theory further. But while Jung would move into the realm of mythology, symbolism and the occult, Reich would venture in a completely different direction: into the body.
Moving beyond the realm of psychic repression, Reich postulated that trauma was also repressed physically. A child who was abused, for instance, and who lacked the emotional development to process such an event, would "store" the trauma as muscular tension, which could become chronic pains in later life and form the individual's general physicality and character, their approach to existence. Reich believed that the fascist character was created by early trauma and a repressive or abusive attitude towards sexuality that would manifest as physical and emotional "rigidity" in later life—and Reich was concerned with nothing less than the eradication of fascism and authoritarianism.
Reich's approach to therapy would therefore go beyond the simple talking cure: He would also use deep and often extremely painful tissue massage on the patient's areas of muscular tension to release the buried trauma, and work with clients to deepen their constricted breathing and express buried emotions, even their repressed anger and rage. It was this approach, combined with Reich's pro-sexuality attitude, that scandalized the public and put his career on a rocket to nowhere. (Though quite sexually conservative in some ways—he opposed pornography and homosexuality—Reich conducted affairs with patients early in his career, after their therapy had ended. This was not uncommon in the early days of psychoanalysis; even Freud discussed the inevitability of affairs. In his quest to free the life energy, Reich would later have patients partially or totally undress, breaking analytic neutrality totally.)
Yet Reich soon found that working through blocks in both the psyche and musculature would create immense emotional release in his patients, even feelings of bodily elation and bliss. (Reich called these physical sensations "orgonotic streamings.") As his practice continued, he came to theorize that underneath the layers of muscular repression lay what he called "orgiastic potency," and that it was the muscular repression which armored his patients from full orgasmic release—or a full experience of life.
In 1948, he would codify his theory in his major work, The Function of the Orgasm, in which he stated that the orgasm exists not only as a reproductive function but as a way for the body to regulate tension and achieve emotional release. Full orgasmic release—in which the individual holds nothing back and does not seek to repress the function psychically or physically—was seen by Reich as a key to mental health. As he wrote in the book, "Psychic illnesses are the result of a disturbance of the natural capacity for love." (Reich would be married and divorced three times—to psychiatrist and former patient Annie Pink from 1924 to 1934, with whom he had two daughters; to dancer Elsa Lindenberg, with whom he had an open marriage from 1933 to 1939; and to Ilse Ollendorff, with whom he had a son, Peter, from 1946 to 1951. Paradoxically, Reich is recorded as being cruel, unfaithful and jealous in his relationships.)
Freud was ambivalent about his disciple's ideas. In 1926 he wrote that "I am in no way opposed to your attempt to solve the problem of neurasthenia by explaining it on the basis of the absence of genital primacy." But he withheld support for Reich's more extreme theories within the broader psychoanalytic community, perhaps with one eye on preserving his own hard-won cultural victories on the issue of sexuality. Without Freud's support, the psychoanalytic community soon washed their hands of the young analyst.
Things began to take a turn for the worse for Reich. Struggling with the reaction against him throughout 1926, he asked to be psychoanalyzed by Freud. His mentor and father figure turned down his request for help. Reich was deeply hurt. Soon afterwards his brother died of tuberculosis; Reich contracted the disease too and spent a year in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. Shocked by the sequence of events, he became radicalized and soon joined the Communist Party. Witnessing first-hand the police indiscriminately shoot and kill 84 workers and injure 600 in the July Revolt of 1927 in Vienna further convinced Reich that something was very wrong with the world. The police weren't only brutal, he observed, but they were robotic, as if in a trance—armored.
Working in the streets, Reich now connected sexual repression with the economic repression he saw all around him. He opened a series of clinics throughout Vienna, offering analysis as well as sexual education and contraceptives to young and working-class people. (At the time, liberals advocated contraception only for the married.)
He argued forcibly against monogamy, advocating "lasting love relationships" that were not encoded by law but held together through love.
Reich moved to Berlin in 1930, just in time to witness the rise of the Nazis—the apex of character armoring. But though he continued to develop his theories and write, even the Communists showed little interest in his material. His contract with the International Psychoanalytic Publishers was cancelled after he began advocating sexual education and contraceptives for teenagers instead of abstinence—and even suggesting that healthy, demystified sexual expression by children might be crucial to raising healthy adults, and that their questions should be answered frankly. In 1932, in a booklet called "The Sexual Struggle of Youth," Dr. Reich railed against the mixed messages under which adolescents struggled to understand their sexuality.
"Young people are contaminated on the one hand by moralizers and advocates of abstinence and, on the other hand by pornographic literature," he wrote. "Both influences are extremely dangerous, the former no less than the latter." At that moment in Germany, the stakes were high, the 27-year-old psychiatrist observed.… "The sexual misery of modern youth is immeasurable, but most of it is out of sight, beneath the surface." His opponents took his statements to mean that children should be able to watch parental intercourse, though Reich never advocated that.
He persisted, arguing forcibly against monogamy, and advocating "lasting love relationships" that were not encoded by law but held together through love; anything else would instead lead to "sexual dulling." He lashed out at the economically dependent status of women that kept them trapped in forced marriages. Most radically of all, he suggested that children should be raised by an extended community, thereby freeing them from the neuroses of their biological parents. (These attitudes were to some extent influenced by similar social experiments occurring in the Soviet Union.)
Dr. Reich was entering taboo territory that few dared to breach, territory that would remain taboo long after he was gone. But his experimentation—and particularly the response it engendered—left him a changed man, for better or worse. When he met with Freud again in 1930, his former mentor now seemed diminished. Dr. Freud, he wrote, was a "caged animal."
In 1933, Dr. Reich's sexual stance provoked the Nazis to action. He and his mistress escaped for Denmark—only to be thrown out of the Danish Communist Party. They relocated to Sweden, where Dr. Reich was placed under surveillance; after the police saw a string of patients coming and going from his hotel, they became convinced he was a pimp. The authorities denied him a longer stay. More shocks were to follow: not only was the contract to publish his book Character Analysis cancelled, but upon arrivingin 1934, when he showed up at the 1934 conference of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Lucerne, he was informed that he has been expelled the previous year. He delivered a paper at the conference as a guest, but the episode marked the very end of his ties to the mainstream scientific community.
"I was told that my work on mass psychology, which was directed against the irrationalism of fascism, had placed me in a much too exposed position," he later wrote. "Hence, my membership... was no longer tenable. Four years later, Freud had to flee Vienna for London, and the psychoanalytic groups were crushed by the fascists... Subsequently, I avoided contact with my earlier colleagues. Their behavior was neither better nor worse than is usual in such cases. It was low and uninteresting. A good dose of banality is all that is needed to hush up a matter."
"Got an Orgone Accumulator—And It Makes Me Feel Greater"
It was in Norway, where he settled for the next five years, that Dr. Reich developed a new theory: he came to believe that orgasm carried an actual energy, which he termed orgone, that was expressed not only by the orgasm response but was, in fact, the energy of life itself. This energy, in his view, permeated nature and the cosmos, expressing itself in atmospheric phenomenon like the aurora borealis. (Freud had actually posited a similar theory in the 1890s, but scrapped it.) Dr. Reich further stated that the orgone could be observed objectively, and that it was composed of blue-colored particles called bions that he had seen under a microscope. This was perhaps Dr. Reich's most controversial theory—an attempt to move psychoanalysis beyond the realm of soft "science" and directly into the realm of hard physics and biology. For the psychoanalytic community, this was pure heresy.
Having enraged the psychoanalysts, the communists, and the fascists, Dr. Reich now prepared to come under direct attack from the entire scientific community. Norwegian scientists waged war against him in the liberal press, rejecting his research out of hand (while refusing to submit it to a detailed control study) and seeking to deport him. The Norwegian government, which had come under criticism for deporting Trotsky, compromised and allowed Dr. Reich to stay—but arranged that he would be unable to practice psychoanalysis.
When World War II erupted, Dr. Reich, then 36 years old, fled to America, taking up residence in Forest Hills, Queens, and experimenting by injecting cancerous mice with bions. But Reich continued to be a magnet for misfortune. On December 12, 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor and the day after Germany's declaration of war with the United States, he was arrested and jailed by the FBI on Ellis Island. It later turned out to be case of mistaken identity with a communist bookstore owner in New Jersey also named Wilhelm Reich—but the bureau wouldn't acknowledge its mistake until two years later, in November, 1943. For the rest of December, however, Reich was left to sleep on a floor next to imprisoned members of the German American Bund, an American Nazi organization that Reich was convinced would kill him.
The FBI released Reich after he threatened a hunger strike, but Reich remained on the "key figures list" of the Enemy Alien Control Unit, and was kept under state surveillance. The incident demonstrated to Reich that he might have left Europe behind, but there was no escaping the mass psychology of fascism.
Reich became more committed to the cause of breaking down mankind's armoring than ever. Next, he would begin the project that would prove to be his most controversial: an attempt to harness and concentrate orgone with adapted steel Faraday cages he called orgone accumulators. Insulated with organic materials like wood and paper, which Reich believed forced the orgone energy to oscillate back and forth inside, the accumulator, he claimed, could heal mental and physical disturbances—potentially even cancer. On January 13, 1941, Reich brought the devices to Albert Einstein, who tested them enthusiastically, noting that the accumulators created a rise in heat. But when Einstein's assistant, the Polish physicist Leopold Infeld, suggested that the orgone accumulator was producing heat simply because of the temperature gradient in the room, as it was elevated off the floor, Einstein rejected the boxes and refused completely to admit them to further experiment. For Reich, it was a bitter echo of his rejection by Freud, a dismissal by another establishment gatekeeper and potential father figure.
Reich purchased land in Rangely, Maine and opened his "Orgonon" institute, where he would continue his research into orgonomy. Beyond orgone, he now identified a secondary force—DOR or "Deadly Orgone Radiation," a kind of orgasmic anti-matter present in (and responsible for) environmental degradation, that he believed blanketed the world. He soon came to see his work as standing in direct opposition to what the US government had done at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: he was in an arms race for life energy, not death energy.
It was then that Reich began to build massive orgone guns he called "cloudbusters"; these, he claimed, could reverse desertification and create rain. While the government had been using cloud seeding technology since the 1940s to coax water from clouds with silver iodide or dry ice, Reich took a less conventional approach. His cloudbusting technique purported to draw "orgone" energy directly out of the atmosphere through a series of hollow pipes, and into the ground or a body of water, much like a lightning rod, creating clouds in the wake of the channeled orgone. Farmers began paying him to produce rain for their crops—allegedly with success, at least by their own reports.
During this time, Reich claimed that his experiments with cloudbusters had generated interest from some unexpected visitors: he believed that alien UFOs, or "energy alphas" in Reich's terminology, were attacking the earth with Deadly Orgone Radiation. Reich purported to have seen a number of alien craft over Orgonon; once, he said, he and his son had used a cloudbuster to fight a "full scale interplanetary battle" in Arizona.
The FDA's response to Reich's endeavors was to declare him a "fraud of the first magnitude" and obtain an injunction preventing the interstate shipment of orgone accumulators and any related literature. When one of Reich's associates broke the injunction against Reich's wishes, and transported an accumulator across state lines, Reich was arrested on contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison.
At Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, Reich was known by other prisoners as the "sex box man." On November 3, 1957, at the age of 60, he died of a heart attack. It was days before he was scheduled to be paroled. Not a single psychiatric or scientific journal covered his passing. Beyond a few anarchist newspapers, his work merited only a paragraph obituary in Time:
Died. Wilhelm Reich, 60, once-famed psychoanalyst, associate and follower of Sigmund Freud, founder of the Wilhelm Reich Foundation, lately better known for unorthodox sex and energy theories; of a heart attack; in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, Pa; where he was serving a two-year term for distributing his invention, the "orgone energy accumulator" (in violation of the Food and Drug Act), a telephone-booth-size device that supposedly gathered energy from the atmosphere, and could cure, while the patient sat inside, common colds, cancer, and impotence.
A decade later, in the mid 1960s, Time would muse that "Dr. Wilhelm Reich may have been a prophet," and "For now it sometimes seems that all America is one big orgone box." But in 1957, the world could care less. Instead of testing his theories or simply dismissing him, the FDA had effectively burned Reich at the stake.
I Still Dream of Orgonon
In his quest to dig mankind's sexual neuroses out by the roots, Reich challenged or broke nearly every taboo of Western civilization, angered almost every establishment force of the time, and died in prison for his efforts. But his influence may be far greater than he is generally given credit for.
While Reich was languishing in prison, the sexual revolution he had helped initiate was beginning to manifest itself. Elvis made his television debut in 1956, shaking his hips in a decidedly orgone-radiating way, demonstrating the type of freedom from character armor that Reich might have wanted for his patients. By the mid-sixties, and the release of the birth control pill, the sexual revolution was in full swing. ("Sexual revolution," by the way, is a phrase Reich coined.)
"When I went into the accumulator and sat down I noticed a special silence that you sometimes feel in deep woods... My skin prickled and I experienced an aphrodisiac effect similar to good strong weed. Orgones are as definite a force as electricity." —William S. Burroughs
Students in the 1968 protests in Paris and Berlin threw copies of Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism at helmeted police. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg embraced Reich's theories; William S. Burroughs investigated the orgone accumulators for years and wrote about them extensively in his work. He even constructed his own accumulator box, which he would sit inside to write (while smoking kif).
"When I went into the accumulator and sat down I noticed a special silence that you sometimes feel in deep woods, sometimes on a city street, a hum that is more rhythmic vibration than a sound," he wrote in Junky. "My skin prickled and I experienced an aphrodisiac effect similar to good strong weed. No doubt about it, orgones are as definite a force as electricity. After using the accumulator for several days my energy came back to normal. I began to eat and could not sleep more than eight hours. I was out of the post cure drag." As he did with ayahuasca, Burroughs had attempted to cure himself of heroin addiction, and withdrawal sickness, with the accumulator. (Despite trying nearly every heroin cure on the planet, Burroughs was never able to remain fully clean for long, and died on a methadone maintenance program.)
Kurt Cobain visited William Burroughs in 1993. "I sat in this orgone machine, and there were black widows in there, he [Burroughs] still has one and I was afraid because I have arachnophobia. He had to kill all of the spiders for me."
Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, Michel Foucault and Norman Mailer also dug Reich; like Burroughs, Mailer built his own accumulators and went on an epic quest to free himself through what wrote of as an "apocalyptic orgasm"—in his essay "The White Negro," Mailer spoke of the anti-authoritarian as one who "seeks love... love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it." Even Sean Connery was soaking up orgone in his own accumulator while filming some of his Bond movies.
The New York Times, in a 1971 review of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, called for a serious reappraisal of his work. Reich soon became so fashionable with intellectuals that in 1968, Roger Vadim tormented Jane Fonda on-screen with a pleasure-creating orgone machine in Barbarella, and Woody Allen would parody the orgone accumulator as the "Orgasmatron" in his 1973 film Sleeper. Over a decade later, Kate Bush and Terry Gilliam would tell Reich's story in Bush's video for "Cloudbusting," in which Donald Sutherland portrayed Reich, and Bush played the part of his son Peter.
Kate Bush's 1986 video for "Cloudbusting," directed by Julian Doyle, and conceived by Bush and Terry Gilliam.
The psychoanalytic discipline's understandable ambivalence about Reich hadn't changed, but as the broader culture changed, Reich's ideas were meeting with wider interest. As Norman Mailer would later summarize his analyst to Walter Kendrick. "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's ideas have never been reassessed by the scientific community—nor by psychoanalysts, who still consider him a black mark on their history. Yet his therapeutic ideas did filter out into the wider psychoanalytic community and took new form under different names, contributing to body psychology, ego psychology, Fritz Perls' Gestalt therapy (which seeks to treat the patient as a whole, complex organism instead of only individual symptoms) and Janov's primal scream therapy (which, like Reich's therapy, utilizes screaming and loud vocalization to open up the patient's armoring).
In many ways, nowhere can Reich's influence be detected more than in the vast array of "feel good" body therapies, and even the mass popularity of massage and yoga. Reich's idea that man is caught in the "trap" of his own character armoring found a ready home in the nascent New Age and Human Potential Movement.
Reich's books are kept in print by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, and the American College of Orgonomy, in Princeton, NJ continues his lines of inquiry, publishing the Journal of Orgonomy, hosting public lectures and offering outreach classes. Reichian therapists, though increasingly limited in number, continue to practice. The world of the Reichians, however, remains a closed shop, whether through public disinterest or the siege mentality of Reich's remaining proponents. A few rogue Reichians, like James DeMeo, continue to attempt new experiments and generate minor publicity. Dr. Reich's archives are maintained by the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust at Orgonon. His final resting place is on the 175-acre, forested property. The estate welcomes visitors.
Only fifty years after the sexual revolution that Reich foresaw, we live in a hypersexualized society—a place where we're constantly barraged by the opposite of sexual repression. Everything around us seems to be hard at work accumulating our orgone—advertising, pop stars, television, magazines, Internet porn.
But while 21st century humanity perhaps seems more sexually liberated, Reich probably would have seen media overstimulation as just a new form of "running" a way of escaping loving contact with another human being. Fervently against pornography, Reich might have seen a civilization hunched over at computers and sweatshop benches, trading connection with the physical for connection to a smartphone, and concluded that the "emotional plague" was alive and kicking. He may have seen a population more armored than ever, immersed in an environment full of some variant of Deadly Orgone Radiation, out of contact with life, and in need, perhaps, of a completely new sexual liberation—a return to the physical world.