Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich
Wilhelm Reich
Born March 24, 1897(1897-03-24)
Dobzau, Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (present-day Dobrzanica, Ukraine)
Died November 3, 1957(1957-11-03) (aged 60)
Lewisburg, PA, USA
Cause of death Heart failure
Resting place Orgonon, Rangeley, Maine
Nationality Austrian-American
Alma mater University of Vienna
Occupation Psychoanalyst
Known for Freudo-Marxism, body psychotherapy, orgone
Influenced by Max Stirner, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx
Influenced Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Gilles Deleuze, Paul Edwards, Arthur Janov, Paul Goodman, Alexander Lowen, Norman Mailer, A.S. Neill, Fritz Perls, Robert Anton Wilson
Spouse Annie Pink, Ilse Ollendorf
Partner Elsa Lindenburg
Children Eva (1924), Lore (1928), Peter (1944)
Parents Leon Reich and Cecilia Roniger
Relatives Robert (brother)
Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust

Wilhelm Reich (March 24, 1897 – November 3, 1957) was an Austrian-American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. He was the author of several notable books, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Character Analysis, both published in 1933.[1]

Reich worked with Sigmund Freud in the 1920s and was a respected analyst for much of his life, focusing on character structure rather than on individual neurotic symptoms.[2] He tried to reconcile Marxism and psychoanalysis, arguing that neurosis is rooted in the physical, sexual, economic, and social conditions of the patient, and promoted adolescent sexuality, the availability of contraceptives, abortion, and divorce, and the importance for women of economic independence. His work influenced a generation of intellectuals, including Saul Bellow, William S. Burroughs, Paul Edwards, Norman Mailer, A.S. Neill, and Robert Anton Wilson, and shaped innovations such as Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, Alexander Lowen's bioenergetic analysis, and Arthur Janov's primal therapy.[3]

Later in life he became a controversial figure who was both adored and condemned. He began to violate some of the key taboos of psychoanalysis, e.g. developing body psychotherapy, thus using touch during sessions. After some years of microbiological research ("bions") he said he had discovered a primordial cosmic energy, which he called "orgone". He built orgone energy accumulators that his patients sat inside to harness the reputed health benefits, leading to newspaper stories about sex boxes that cured cancer.[4]

Reich was living in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. On March 2 that year the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an attack on one of Reich's pamphlets, The Sexual Struggle of Youth.[5] He left immediately for Vienna, then Scandinavia, moving to the United States in 1939. In 1947, following a series of articles about orgone in The New Republic and Harper's, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) obtained an injunction against the interstate sale of orgone accumulators.[6] Charged with contempt for violating it, Reich conducted his own defense, which involved requesting the judge to read all his books and arguing that a court was no place to decide matters of science. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and in August 1956 several tons of his publications were burned by the FDA - a notable example of censorship in U.S. history.[2] He died in jail of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.[7]


Early life


Reich was born the first of two sons to Leon Reich, a prosperous farmer, and Cecilia Roniger, in Dobrzanica, a village in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was by all accounts strict, cold, and jealous. He was Jewish, but Reich was later at pains to point out that his father had moved away from Judaism and had not raised his children as Jews; Reich wasn't even allowed to play with Yiddish-speaking children.[8] As an adult, Reich corrected anyone who referred to him as a Jew. His biographer, Myron Sharaf, writes that this was in part because of his rejection of what he called "Jewish chauvinism," in part because he disliked being forced into any position he had not chosen for himself, and in part because he never wanted to be an outsider.[9]

Shortly after his birth, the family moved south to a farm in Jujinetz, near Chernivtsi, Bukovina, where Reich's father took control of a cattle farm owned by his mother's uncle, Josef Blum. Reich attributed his later interest in the study of sex and the biological basis of the emotions to his upbringing on the farm where, as he later put it, the natural life functions were never hidden from him.[10] He also spoke of having witnessed the family maid having intercourse with her boyfriend, and asking her later if he could "play" the part of the lover. He said that, by the time he was four years old, there were no secrets about sex for him;[8] in his early memoirs, Passion of Youth, he writes that he had intercourse for the first time at the age of 11½, though elsewhere said that he was 13.[11]

I had read somewhere that lovers get rid of any intruder, so with wild fantasies in my brain I slipped back to my bed, my joy of life shattered, torn apart in my inmost being for my whole life! — Wilhelm Reich.[12]

He was taught at home until he was 12, when his mother committed suicide after she was discovered having an affair with Reich's tutor, who lived with the family. Her death was particularly brutal: she drank a common household cleaner, which left her in great pain for days before she died.[13][14]

Reich wrote in 1920 about how deeply his mother's affair had affected him. Night after night he followed her as she crept to the tutor's bedroom. He stood outside listening, feeling ashamed, angry, and jealous. He wondered if they would kill him if they found out, and briefly thought of forcing her to have sex with him too. Torn between wanting to protect her, but also to tell his father, he later blamed himself for her death, waking in the night overwhelmed by the thought that he had killed her. The tutor was sent away, leaving Reich without a mother or a teacher, and with a powerful sense of guilt.[13]


He was sent to the all-male Czernowitz gymnasium, excelling at Latin, Greek, and the natural sciences. It appears to have been during this period that a skin condition developed that plagued him for the rest of his life. When it began is unclear, but it was diagnosed as psoriasis; Sharaf speculates that it may have been triggered by his mother's suicide. He was given medication that contained arsenic, now known to make psoriasis worse.

His father was devastated by his wife's suicide.[15] In or around 1914, he took out a life insurance policy, then stood for hours in a cold pond, apparently fishing, but in fact intending to commit slow suicide, according to Reich and his brother, Robert.[16] He contracted pneumonia and tuberculosis, and died in 1914. Despite the insurance policy, no money was forthcoming.[16]

Sigmund Freud and Reich met in 1919.

Reich managed the farm and continued with his studies, graduating in 1915 mit Stimmeneinhelligkeit (unanimous approval). In the summer of that year, the Russians invaded Bukovina and the Reich brothers fled to Vienna, losing everything. In his Passion of Youth, Reich wrote: "I never saw either my homeland or my possessions again. Of a well-to-do past, nothing was left."

Reich joined the Austrian Army after school, serving from 1915–18, for the last two years as a lieutenant. When the war ended in 1918, he entered the medical school at the University of Vienna. As an undergraduate, he was drawn to the work of Sigmund Freud. The men first met in 1919 when Reich visited Freud to obtain literature for a seminar on sexology, Freud making a strong impression on him. He became one of Freud's favorite students.[17] Freud allowed him to start seeing analytic patients in 1920, when Reich was accepted as a guest member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association, becoming a regular member in October that year at the age of 23.[18] He was allowed to complete his six-year medical degree in four years because he was a war veteran, and received his M.D. in July 1922.[19]

Early career and first marriage

Reich worked in internal medicine at University Hospital, Vienna, and studied neuropsychiatry from 1922-24 at the Neurological and Psychiatric Clinic under Professor Julius Wagner-Jauregg. In 1922, he set up private practice as a psychoanalyst, and became a clinical assistant, and later deputy director of Freud's Psychoanalytic Polyclinic. He joined the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute in Vienna in 1924, conducted research into the social causes of neurosis, and became Deputy Director of Training.[17]

A plaque on the house Reich lived in with his wife and children at Schlangenbader Straße 87, Berlin-Wilmersdorf, from 1931 until February 1933.

It was in Vienna that he met Annie Pink, a medical student who came to him for analysis, and who later became an analyst herself. They married on March 17, 1922, when she was 20 and Reich one week short of 25, with Otto Fenichel as a witness.[20] The marriage produced two daughters, Eva in 1924 and Lore in 1928.[21] They moved to Berlin in 1930, where he set up clinics in working-class areas, taught sex education, and published pamphlets. He joined the Communist Party of Germany, and his book, The Sexual Revolution, was published in Vienna, but he became too outspoken for the communists, and was expelled from the German party in 1933 and a year later from its Danish counterpart. He was also expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1934 for political militancy.[22]

Reich had several affairs during his marriage, including one with his wife's friend, Lia Lasky, in 1927. He and his wife finally separated in 1933 after he began a serious relationship in May 1932 with Elsa Lindenburg, a choreographer and dance therapist, trained in Laban movement analysis, and a pupil of Elsa Gindler. He and Lindenburg were living in Germany when Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. On March 2, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an attack on Reich's Der Sexuale Kampf der Jugend (The Sexual Struggle of Youth).[5] He was derided as a womanizer, a communist, and a Jew who advocated free love. He and Lindenburg left for Vienna the next day. They moved to Scandinavia, first to Denmark where Reich was accused of corrupting Danish youth with German sexology, then to Sweden, and in the fall of 1934 to Norway.[23]

1934–1939: Oslo

Vegetotherapy and the orgasm

Reich's home in Drammensveien near Olaf Kyrres plass at Frogner, Oslo. A blue plaque reads: "The physician and psychoanalyst WILHELM REICH (1897-1957) lived and worked here 1935–39. Developed character analysis and the body-oriented therapy."

Reich stayed in Norway for five years, working under the auspices of Professor Schjelderup of the Psychological Institute at the University of Oslo. He first presented the principles of his vegetotherapy in a paper called "Psychic contact and vegetative current" in August 1934 at the 13th International Congress of Psychoanalysis at Lucerne, Switzerland, and went on to develop the technique between 1935 and 1940. Vegetotherapy involves the patient physically simulating the effects of certain emotions in the hope of triggering them. Reich argued that the ability to feel sexual love depended on a physical ability to have sexual intercourse with what he called "orgastic potency". He tried to measure the male orgasm, noting that four distinct phases occurred physiologically: first, the psycho-sexual buildup or tension; second, the tumescence of the penis, with an accompanying electrical charge that Reich measured; third, an electrical discharge at the moment of orgasm; and fourth, the relaxation of the penis. He believed the force that he measured was a distinct type of energy present in all life forms.[24]

He was a prolific writer for psychoanalytic journals in Europe. Originally, psychoanalysis was focused on the treatment of neurotic symptoms. Reich's Character Analysis was a major step in the development of what today is called ego psychology. In Reich's view, a person's entire character, not only individual symptoms, could be looked at and treated as a neurotic phenomenon. The book also introduced his theory of body armoring. Reich argued that unreleased psycho-sexual energy could produce actual physical blocks within muscles and organs, and that these blocks act as a body armor preventing the release of the energy. An orgasm was one way to break through the armor. These ideas developed into a general theory of the importance of a healthy sex life to overall well-being, a theory compatible with Freud's views. His idea was that the orgasm was not simply a device to aid procreation, but was the body's emotional energy regulator. The better the orgasm, the more energy was released, meaning that less was available to create neurotic states. Reich called the ability to release sufficient energy during orgasm "orgastic potency," something that very few individuals could achieve, he argued, because of society's sexual oppression. A man or woman without orgastic potency was in a constant state of tension, developing a body armor to keep it in. The outer rigidity and inner anxiety is the state of neurosis, leading to hate, sadism, greed, fascism and antisemitism.[23]

He agreed with Freud that sexual development was the origin of mental illness. They both believed that most psychological states were dictated by unconscious processes, that infant sexuality develops early but is repressed, and that this repression has important consequences for mental health. At that time a Marxist (see Freudo-Marxism), Reich argued that the source of sexual repression was bourgeois morality and the socio-economic structures that produced it. As sexual repression was the cause of the neuroses, the best cure was an active, guilt-free sex life. He argued that such a liberation could come about only through a morality not imposed by a repressive economic structure.[25] In 1928, he joined the Austrian Communist Party and founded the Socialist Association for Sexual Counseling and Research, which organized counseling centers for workers.

Bion experiments

From 1934-39, Reich conducted experiments looking at vegetative energy in the body, especially the Galvanic skin response, which became research into the origins of life. These he called the "Bion Experiments". He examined protozoa, single-celled creatures with nuclei. He grew cultured vesicles using grass, sand, iron, and animal tissue, boiling them, and adding potassium and gelatin. Having heated the materials to incandescence with a heat-torch, he noted bright, glowing, blue vesicles, which, he said, could be cultured, and which gave off an observable radiant energy. He named the vesicles "bions" and believed they were a rudimentary form of life, halfway between life and non-life. When he poured the cooled mixture onto growth media, bacteria were born, he said, dismissing the idea that the bacteria were already present in the air or on other materials.[26]


In 1936, Reich wrote that "[s]ince everything is antithetically arranged, there must be two different types of single-celled organisms: (a) life-destroying organisms or organisms that form through organic decay, (b) life-promoting organisms that form from inorganic material that comes to life."[27] This idea of spontaneous generation led him to believe he had found the cause of cancer. He called the life-destroying organisms "T-bacilli," with the T standing for Tod, German for death. He described in The Cancer Biopathy how he had found them in a culture of rotting cancerous tissue obtained from a local hospital. He wrote that T-bacilli were formed from the disintegration of protein; they were 0.2 to 0.5 micrometer in length, shaped like lancets, and when injected into mice, they caused inflammation and cancer. He concluded that, when orgone energy diminishes in cells through aging or injury, the cells undergo "bionous degeneration," or death. At some point, the deadly T-bacilli start to form in the cells. Death from cancer, he believed, was caused by an overwhelming growth of the T-bacilli.

Nudity and touch during sessions