By Nick Opyrchal
Amongst the many important psychoanalysts to emerge in the 20th century perhaps no other has lived a life of such solar grandiosity and controversy as Wilhelm Reich. Reich has been alternately characterized as a schizophrenic, a genius and a ‘quack’, even by fellow psychoanalysts during a time in which they were collectively accused of being unscientific. Living a life which when taken its entirety almost seems mythical, Reich seemed to relentlessly cycle through a selection of the worlds most extreme archetypes: from Marxist revolutionary, to a psychoanalyst in Freud’s inner circle, to outcast ‘sex therapist’, to cloud-busting mad scientist and finally (as well as fatally) an incarcerated criminal dying from a heart attack under the lock and key of the US government.
Delving into Reich’s origins and personal history we can see that there are some interesting parallels as well as jarring differences from his tutor and the father of Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud; Like his mentor Reich grew up in a middle class, Austrian Jewish family and became a medical practitioner – gaining his degree from the University of Vienna. However despite this seemingly similar social and educational backdrop the early experiences of the two men (especially their introduction to sexuality) was radically different. Freud’s sober and bourgeois upbringing within a stern yet respectable patriarchal home was a greyscale contrast to Reich’s highly colorful family, in which his father was by all accounts violent and abusive and within which Reich was enjoying a intense sex life from a very early age. This pronounced difference between the two families perhaps lends some explanation as to the later clashes which developed between Reich and the Freuds around the handling of sexuality within psychoanalytic theory.
he later detailed his sexual encounters with these women, claiming to have regular sex with one of them from the age of eleven years old onwards and even vividly describing attempts to have sex at four years old.
Reich as a young boy shared the family home with a number of female servants and he later detailed his sexual encounters with these women, claiming to have regular sex with one of them from the age of eleven years old onwards and even vividly describing attempts to have sex at four years old. Psychotherapeutic theories often evolve from the life experiences of their creators and in Reich’s case, just as in Freud’s, sexuality and the energy that the body employs in sexual encounters, as well as the psychological dynamics that emerge as a consequence became the focal point of his early work; Unlike Freud however this became less of a theory of sublimation and more a theory of attaining release.
he began to be seen as too political and ‘left wing’ by the psychoanalysts and yet too bourgeois and psychological by the Marxist organizations that he was involved with
As a young medical practitioner fresh from university, Reich gained a lot of clinical experience treating sexual problems. Freud’s work on sexuality and repression was all the rage at the time and this influenced Reich’s decision to commit to study as a psychoanalyst. Owing to his undoubted intelligence and fervor for the work, Reich quickly became one of Freud’s closest understudies and part of the notoriously clannish inner circle of orthodox followers of the great patriarch. Reich was flagged up by his peers as potentially being the next ‘crown prince’ or heir apparent after Jung and Freud suffered their decisive split.
Although today Reich’s work is often employed within more transpersonal or holistic psychotherapeutic perspectives, during his lifetime it should be remembered that like Freud he shared a passion for biological and mechanistic models. He was trained as a doctor and his later work (which attempted to link the psyche to the body) was an attempt at fitting psychoanalysis into a medical model. Ironically considering the later charges which were leveled at him around his discovery of ‘orgone’ he wanted to identify the physical correlates to psychology and remove the mysticism from psychoanalysis altogether.
Parallel to Reich’s interest in psychoanalysis (and perhaps in response to being brought up by an abusive and violent father) Marxist theory also became a driving interest to his work. Unfortunately this left Reich in a position where he began to be seen as too political and ‘left wing’ by the psychoanalysts and yet too bourgeois and psychological by the Marxist organizations that he was involved with – ultimately being expelled from both. This was typical throughout Reich’s life – he found himself as an outsider and ‘fringe’ figure in most societies that he joined, including eventually American society as a whole. Reich’s personal interest in Marxist theory influenced both his psychotherapeutic perspective as well as his more politicised writing later on such as the short polemical text ‘Listen Little Man’ and his excellent psychoanalytic deconstruction of the politics of central Europe of the time in ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’. Reich’s experience of being an outsider was also forefronted in his early life through having to flee Austria as a Marxist Jew during the build up to the Second World War.
Reich and orthodox psychoanalysis
Reich’s books promoted a psychoanalytic model which was radically different to that of Freud’s and it is important in understanding the schism that occurred between him and the Psychoanalytic Society. One of the most original of Reich’s theories (and perhaps not coincidently the one which would be the most damaging to his relationship with orthodox psychoanalysis) was his alternative model of the death instinct in comparison to that which was employed by orthodox Freudians. Freud’s inherent pessimism, clinical experience, as well as the backdrop of two world wars had led to him propose that the death instinct was ‘primary’ along with the libido or life instinct; people were essentially dualistic (being propelled towards death and life) and these two drives shared equal status and genesis in the human being. This dualism Reich could not agree with; his grounding in natural science and medicine (as well as perhaps a more sex-positive optimism) caused him to reject Frued’s dual drive theory as being unscientific ‘metaphysics’ (a term which along with ‘mysticism’ he also deployed pointedly against Jung). Reich defended his view as being more ‘scientific’ – feeling that it made no logical sense to propose a primary drive towards death. His alternative model relegated the death drive to being a frustrated byproduct of an even more fundamental primary libidinal layer. In Reich’s conception eros and libido was primary, the so called ‘instinct’ towards destruction was the byproduct of this love being frustrated.
Reich’s books promoted a psychoanalytic model which was radically different to that of Freud’s and it is important in understanding the schism that occurred between him and the Psychoanalytic Society.
Forever devoted to a holistic view of body and mind, Reich began to design a system of somatic psychotherapy based on this founding principle which began to work directly with blocks in psychological energy. He equated the goal of an unblocked and free flowing libido to what he called ‘orgiastic potency’, a lurid sounding term which signified that should this state be achieved, orgasm as well as psyche would be utterly uninhibited. Becoming the second most notorious ‘sex therapist’ after Freud his ideas were often simplified into ‘full body orgasms = mental health’. A theory which perhaps does not sound far fetched to some of us.
Reich also used his alternative model of the libido to create explanations of sadism and masochism which did not rely on a metaphysical death instinct, but instead on the frustration of a primal love or sexual drive. He proposed an alternative conception of the Id along similar lines; rather than seeing it as a dark, destructive force which had to be reigned in Reich saw this darkness as again being a secondary layer. In many of Reich’s models we can see an optimism about human nature. At the core of uninhibited humanity is a primary energy, which would flow freely in those who had achieved orgiastic potency.
These alternative conceptions of what at the time were becoming pieces of unchallengeable dogma in psychoanalysis contributed greatly to Reich’s fall from grace with the psychoanalytic orthodoxy. It has to be remembered at this time that psychoanalysis was still jockeying for respectability amongst the scientific community and general public – it was being vilified as ‘degenerate’ and ‘Jewish propaganda’ by the fascists, bourgeois by the Marxists and unscientific by academia and the medical establishment. Besides these external enemies, internally within the psychoanalytic world the formidable Anna Freud had become and enemy of Reich – someone who could perhaps generously be called ‘sober’ when it came to sexuality and had a propensity for falling out with those who strayed too far from the accepted line. Words such as ‘crazy’ were thrown around and Reich was eventually exiled from the psychoanalytic community under a dark cloud. This was despite his earlier collaboration with Anna on some of her academic work.
Reich had truly gone rogue; seeming to have transformed into a sex obsessed storm-summoning weather-wizard akin to Prospero from Shakespear’s ‘Tempest’
Perhaps appropriately for a man who had written extensively on the mass psychology of fascism (yet also horrifically considering this occurred outside of Nazi Germany and over a decade after the war) Reich’s books were burnt en masse by the United States government in an incinerator in 1957. This was partly justified in the eyes of his persecutors by his insistence on the discovery of what he termed ‘orgone’ a type of energy which he saw being the biological counterpart to libido – in essence a form of ‘life force’. Reich felt this was as significant as the discovery of electricity and saw it as the key to understanding all psychological dynamics: where orgone flow in the body was impeded, a physical and psychological problem would surely follow. Not surprisingly considering his background Reich particularly focused on orgone blockages in the groin… This provided his detractors with what was held as undeniable proof that he was an insane ‘quack’- a charge which had been leveled at him by the psychoanalytic orthodoxy since before his break with the Freuds.
Reich was arrested by the Food and Drug Administration after promoting claims around his orgone discovery such as the ability to cure cancer or to change the weather with infamous ‘cloud buster’ experiments (the latter of which was surprisingly supported by one of his followers, Charles Kelly who continued his work after his arrest). Always attempting to tie his analytic theories into his background in natural science and medicine, Reich created an ‘orgone institute’ to study what he saw as this new, pivotal discovery, as well as an ‘orgone accumulator’ which he believed had the power to impart ‘orgiastic potency’ upon its user. Reich had truly gone rogue; seeming to have transformed into a sex obsessed storm-summoning weather-wizard akin to Prospero from Shakespear’s ‘Tempest’, his arrest and the subsequent book burnings were only protested by 18 people from the psychiatric community. the claims were never actually refuted methodically by the FDA or the scientific community; Reich was simply accepted as fraudulent and his work was blacklisted without the need to put his theories to the test. The lack of protest showed how isolated he had become from his peers at this time: A man with a profound scientific and psychoanalytic pedigree was imprisoned for claiming to have made new discoveries in human psychology and biology; barely a voice was raised in protest.
Tragically Reich the perennial outsider suffered the fate of ultimate exile and died in US prison of a heart attack. Not content with destroying him physically, for a long time following his death his work was derided as the ramblings of a man afflicted with schizophrenia, instances of paranoia were held up as proof of this: Reich had been chased out of Germany, imprisoned in the USA, attacked by former friends in the psychoanalytic society, exiled by the Marxists and had seen his work outlawed and his books burned.. The phrase ‘just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you’ would be appropriate as a description for Reich’s situation.
It is difficult to say for certain what alienated Reich from modern western society to the greatest degree – his unflinching insistence on a sex-positive view of human nature and healing (with stress on the value of full-body orgasm), his integration of Freudian theory with Marxist philosophy into a truly anti-authoritarian model in an exceptionally fascistic moment in history, or his claim to have discovered ‘orgone’ along with his cloud busting experiments. It is fairly evident though that the orgone phase was what pushed him into a position which was irredeemable in the eyes of the medical establishment and provided the ammunition for his persecution. This hounding by the establishment of the ‘free love’ psychoanalyst did not go unnoticed during the anti-authoritarian 1960’s, and a second rogue psychologist who’s life paralleled Reich’s in many ways (Timothy Leary) – named the burning of his books and the lack of outcry as being a seminal point in his life. Partly through Reich’s rebel image, partly through his insistence on positive sexuality and partly owing to his association with radical left-wing politics Reich’s work regained a cult following in the 1960s. His body based and sexual therapeutic techniques found fertile ground in people encountering yoga and tantra alongside other modalities of mind and body healing.
His body based and sexual therapeutic techniques found fertile ground in people encountering yoga and tantra alongside other modalities of mind and body healing.
Ironically considering the many attacks on what he called ‘mysticism’ (including criticizing Jung for “escaping” into it) and the unflinching adherence to materialism that peppers Reich’s work, his theories provide a bridge between psyche and body that is a hallmark of transpersonal perspectives of psychotherapy. Many holistic therapies which combine bodywork with psychotherapeutic techniques owe a great deal to Reich including bioenergetic analysis and body psychotherapy. The Gestalt psychotherapy of Fritz Perls (who was analyzed by Reich) not surprisingly bears the mark of his influence. Reich’s work with the breaking down of blocks and ‘armoring’ in the body also provides a bridge between western psychotherapies and eastern body and movement based treatments such as yoga and tai chi. Despite his dogmatic love for materialism, Reich begins to sketch out a western interpretation of ‘Chi’ or ‘prana’ the bioenergetic force which is suggested in eastern forms of movement and martial arts – even more ironically one of his students and qualified analysts Israel Regardie became a world famous occultist and was a student of ‘evil magician’ Aleistar Crowley. This association with the ‘fringe’ of psychotherapy has also stuck however and to this day Reich’s discovery of orgone along with his ‘mad scientist’ image has retained a grip on the public imagination and is still satirized in the media…
the popular comedy show ‘Peep Show’ features an episode where two of the central characters are drawn into a cult which focuses on clearing people of their negative orgones.
the popular comedy show ‘Peep Show’ features an episode where two of the central characters are drawn into a cult which focuses on clearing people of their negative orgones. The TV labelled a ‘negative orgone accumulator’ parodying Reich’s actual orgone accumulator project shows how his work is mercilessly lampooned almost a century after his death.
Taking all of this into account although Reich used a materialist and reductionist paradigm to explore this relationship between psyche and soma it does not mean that we have to discard his entire body of work should we want to leave this framework behind, nor do we need to wholeheartedly pledge allegiance to the church of orgone to appreciate his more psychoanalytic theories. Reich’s work is far reaching and with some selective trimming it can easily be fitted in to a more holistic framework – In fact amongst the many prevailing methods of new age healing available as treatments today Reich might seem sober and sensible – we live in an age where spiritual healing and accupuncture are available on the NHS, so perhaps we can see Reich as less of a mad scientist and more of a trailblazer who was unfortunately persecuted for being ahead of his time and whose work has held up and continued to gain strength despite the weight of pressure leveled against it.
About the Author
Nicholas Opyrchal can be reached for psychotherapy at firstname.lastname@example.org please visit his website https://nickopsychotherapycounselling.wordpress.com/ for more information
Reich, W (1980). Character Analysis, Farrar, Strauss & Giroud, New York, 3rd Edition
Reich, W (1989). The Function of the Orgasm, Souvenir Press, New Edition
Reich, W (1979). Listen! Little Man, Farrar, Strauss & Giroud, New York
Reich, W (1975). The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Penguin Books Ltd; New edition
Sharaf, M (1994). Fury on Earth – A Biography of Wilhelm Reich, De Capo Press, Boston
Regardie, I (2012) The Middle Pillar: A Co-Relation of the Principles of Analytical Psychology and the Elementary Techniques of Magic, Martino Fine Books, CT