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Wilhelm Reich

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Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)


Wilhelm Reich was born to a Jewish farming family in what is now the Ukraine. His first language was German and until the rise of Hitletr he was an Austrian Citizen. His mother committed suicide when he was thirteen, and his father ded four years later, leaving him to run the farm alone. Farming awakened his interest in biology and the natural sciences and he was familiar with sexuality from his earliest years, and until the death of his mother he was home educated by tutors. He was forced to flee his home when the First World War began and enlisted in the Austrian army. After the war, homeless and penniless he enrolled in the Vienna University Medical School. He graduated with a medical degree four years later with top grades in all subjects. His internships saw him working at the Neurological and Psychiatric Clinic and in the disturbed wards of the mental institute. He also studied hypnotherapy. In 1922 at the age of 25, he joined the Vienna Psychoanalytic Circle, whose main star was Sigmund Freud and whose theories of sexual repression interested him most. Reich was one of the most active members of the group and soon became one of the most promising members of Freud's inner circle. He became the First Clinical Assistant at Freud's Psychiatric Clinic. It was widely assumed that Reich would take over the leadership of the Vienna Ciircle when Freud retired.

Over the next few years Freud placed less and less emphasis upon the libido (the sexual energy of the organism)as an actual physical energy. Reich, on the other hand, saw it increasingly as an actual physical force that, through repression, lay at the heart of most of societyy's ills. He saw that sexual gratification could erase neurotic symptoms, and he came to believe that its functionwas to maintain energy equilibrium by discharging excess energy that builds up naturally in the body. The real cause of neurosis was, for Reich, the structures and limitations imposed upon the individual by social controls. In this, he began to diverge markedly from the theories held by his colleagues.

  1. Work

Reich was a respected analyst for much of his life, focusing on character structure, rather than on individual neurotic symptoms. He promoted adolescent sexuality, the availability of contraceptives and abortion, and the importance for women of economic independence. Synthesizing material from psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, economics, sociology, and ethics, his work influenced writers such as Alexander Lowen, Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, A. S. Neill, and William Burroughs. (Wikipedia)

His researches led him to develop theories of body armouring that is formed as an organism's own means of protection against trauma and repression. Body amouring operates in bands around the body -much like the segments of a worm, and the memory of trauma is locked into the musculaure of the increasingly rigidified tissues. His book Character Analysis offers a detailed analysis and description of the role of the body in the development of neuroses. Reich's theories diverged increasingly from Freud's who continued to maintain his psychoanalytic modelling and treatments to the exclusion of physical manifestations. In other words, he ignored the actual functioning of the body in the psychoanalytic process, and attemppted to "manage" the neurosis without addressing (for Reich) the root social causes. Reich was interested in changing society. Freud was interested in adapting to it. This difference eventually led to a permanent break in their friendship. Furthermore, Reich repudiated Freud's postulation of a "Death Instinct", which he accused Freud of using to explain the failure of his psychanalysis with a number of patients. For Reich, the biological energy form he was discovering was entirely positive. The negativity which Freud was describing resulted not from an inherent instinct, but from the repression of this energy, giving even more power to his argument for the need for social change.

Reich's insistence on social change led him increasingly to embrace Socialism and Communism and he ran six clinics in Vienna, offering sex education and counselling to the thousands of the poor. Eventually he moved to Berlin, where, (alone amongst his colleagues who shunned "political involvement") he was vociferous in denouncing the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. Eventually he was expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Society as well as the Communist Party. He fled Germany for Scandinavia with the rise of Hitler in 1933. He settled in Oslo and continued his work for the next six years, conducting biological experiments to discover the nature of the "bionic" energy that he had uncovered. His published results were condemned by the psychoanalytic establishment, and with the outbreak of War in 1939 he moved to New York to teach at the New School for Social Research - the American extension of the Frankfurt School for Social Research.

Reich settled in Maine, where he established what later became known as the Orgone Institute. There, he continued to conduct experiments into ways to harness and use the biological energy to cure diseases, including cancer. He built what he called Orgone Accumulators - boxes made of alternating layers of organic material and metal, and verified through the measurement of differing elecroscopic discharges in organic material both inside and outside the accumulators. He introduced cancerous mice into his accumulators and the results were so prominsing that he decdided to experiment with human subjects - building orgone accmulators large enough to sit inside. In 1941 he started to experiment with terminally ill cancer patients. While the patients showed significant improvements in critical areas - blood counts, tumor size etc., the patients still died. He became more convinnced than ever that the tumors were the symptom rather than the cause of cancer - which he attributed to a diminutionn of the bionic or orgone energy. In 1942 he began to build his clinic, called the Organon in upsate New York.


There, for five years, he continued with his experiments, until, in 1947, following a vicious article in the New Republic ("The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich”) by Mildred Edie Brady, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began an investigation into Reich's orgone energy accumulator. The Brady article claimed that Reich was conducting a sex racket, and the FDA assumed that his books must be pornographic literature. The FDA gestapo were uninterested in scientific information concerning the accumulator, and when Reich refused to cooperate with their witch hunt, the investigation bogged down, lacking any evidence against the accumulator. Then, in 1954, during the Joe McCarthy era, the Federal Government decided to go after Reich again. They gained an injunction ion Federal Court. Reich refused to appear and instead sent a lengthy letter explaining his reasons - that his appearance would legitimate the Court's judgement of scientific research, He included inj his letter a long and detailed exposition of all of his scientific writings and research findings. The judge found againjst him as though he had not made any submission. Without proof, the Food and Drug Administration succeeded in having a Federal court brand the accumulator a fraud, with the added dictum that orgone energy does not exist, and the order that all accumulators be destroyed and all literature even mentioning orgone energy should be burned. The FDA placed a ban on transporting or using Reich's orgone boxes. Because one of Reich's co-workers continued to transport the orgone boxes, Reich was imprisoned for two years for contempt of court. He died of a heart attack in prison at the age of 60 in 1957, the day before he was to go up for parole.

The destruction of Reich's writings and research results constitutes one of the most blatent and disgraceful episodes of censorship in American history. Fortunately, Reich's writings survived elsewhere, and since his death have provided profound insights and fruitful avenues of psychoanalytic research and therapy for future generations.

His most significant books include:

  • Character Analysis (1933 tr.1945)
  • The Sexual Revolution.(1936 tr. 1945?)
  • Listen Little Man (1948)
  • The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality (1932 tr.1972)
  • People in Trouble (1953)
  • The Function of the Orgasm (1942)
  • The Murder of Christ (1953)
  • The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933 tr. 1972)
  • The Sex-Pol Essays 1929-1934. (1972)
  • The Sex-Pol Essays 1934-37. (1972)
There is little doubt that in the repressive times of the 1950s, when Macarthyism was rampant, Wilhelm Reich was persecuted for his avowed Communism. Since that time, Reich's theories have been taken up by Alexander Lowen and others in the field of what they now call Bioenergetics. It is now a well-established and recognised field of study and therapeutic treatment.


To view a comprehensive online biography of Reich click here

See also The Secret History of the Sexual Revolution: The Repression of Wilhelm Reich. Click here.

To view a related PDF The Body of Knowledge: Challenging the Intellectual click here 

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