Wilhelm Reich - biography
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 textbooks, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Character Analysis, both published in 1933. 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. 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, and A. S. Neill, and shaped innovations such as Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, Alexander Lowen's bioenergetic analysis, and Arthur Janov's primal therapy.
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, using touch during sessions, and treating patients in their underwear to improve their "orgastic potency." He said he had discovered a primordial cosmic energy, which he said others called God and that 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.
Reich was living in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. On March 2, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an attack on one of Reich's pamphlets, The Sexual Struggle of Youth. 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. Charged with contempt for violating it, Reich conducted his own defense, which involved sending the judge all his books to read 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, arguably one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history. He died in jail of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.
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. 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.
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. 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; 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.
“ 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. ”
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.
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.
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. 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. He contracted pneumonia and tuberculosis, and died in 1914. Despite the insurance policy, no money was forthcoming.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. The marriage produced two daughters, Eva in 1924 and Lore in 1928. 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.
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). 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.
Vegetotherapy and the orgasm
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.
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 (character armor). 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.
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. In 1928, he joined the Austrian Communist Party and founded the Socialist Association for Sexual Counseling and Research, which organized counseling centers for workers.
The 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.
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." 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
From 1930 onwards, Reich became more interested in his patients' physical responses during therapy sessions, and toward the late 1930s, he began to treat patients outside the limits of psychoanalysis's restrictions, though well within the scope of general medicine. He began to sit next to his patients, rather than behind them, in order to make stronger 'contact.' He started touching them, to both increase awareness of tension and contraction and to relieve it directly. He would ask his male patients to undress down to their shorts, and sometimes to undress entirely, and his female patients down to their underclothes. He began talking to them, answering their questions, rather than the stock, "Why do you ask?" analyst's response. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this undermined the position of neutrality. The analyst is meant to be a blank screen onto which the patient projects his old desires, his loves, his hates, his neurosis—a process known as transference. Reich wrote that the psychoanalytic taboos reinforced the neurotic taboos of the patient. He slowly broke away from them, writing that he wanted his patients to see him as human. He would press hard on their "body armor," his thumb or the palm of his hand pressing on their jaws, necks, chests, backs, or thighs, aiming to dissolve their muscular, and thereby characterological, rigidity. He wanted to see their movements soften, their breathing ease. This dissolution of the "body armor" also brought back the repressed memory of the childhood situation that had caused the repression, he wrote. If the session worked as intended, he wrote that he could see waves of pleasure move through their bodies, a series of spontaneous, involuntary movements. Reich called these the "orgasm reflex." The two goals of Reichian therapy became the attainment of this orgasm reflex during therapy, and orgastic potency during intercourse. Reich called the flow of energy that he said he observed in his patients' bodies, "bio-electricity," and considered calling his therapy "orgasmotherapy," but thought better of it for political reasons.
Opposition to his ideas
Scientists in Oslo reacted strongly to his work on bions, deriding it as nonsense. Tidens Tegn, a leading liberal newspaper, launched a campaign against him in 1937, supported by scientists and other newspapers. Between September 1937 and the fall of 1938, over 100 articles denouncing him appeared in the main Oslo newspapers.
In 1937, Leiv Kreyberg, the country's top cancer specialist, was allowed to examine one of Reich's bion preparations under the microscope. Kreyberg wrote that the broth Reich had used as his culture medium was indeed sterile, but that the bacteria were ordinary staphylococci. He concluded that Reich's control measures to prevent infection from airborne bacteria were not as foolproof as Reich believed. Kreyberg accused Reich of being ignorant of basic bacteriological and anatomical facts, while Reich accused Kreyberg of having failed to recognize living cancer cells under magnification. Thus, Sharaf writes, an opportunity for scientific exchange degenerated into name-calling.
Reich sent a sample of the bacteria to another Norwegian biologist, Professor Thjötta of the Oslo Bacteriological Institute, who also said they resulted from air infection. Kreyberg and Thjötta had their views published in Aftenposten on April 19 and 21, 1938, Krayberg referring to him as "Mr. Reich," alleging that Reich knew less about bacteria and anatomy than a first-year medical student. When Reich requested a detailed control study, Kreyberg responded that his work did not merit it.
Reich's The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life was published in 1938, leading to attacks by the scientific and lay press that he was a "Jew pornographer," who was daring to meddle with the origins of life. Alan Cantwell writes that Reich's detractors focused on one paragraph in which Reich wrote that his research had "proved particularly fruitful for an understanding of cancer," which led to the claim that he was promoting a quack cancer cure.
By February 1938, his visa had expired. Several Norwegian scientists argued against an extension, Kreyberg saying, "If it is a question of handing Dr. Reich over to the Gestapo, then I will fight that, but if one could get rid of him in a decent manner, that would be the best." The writer Sigurd Hoel wondered when it had become a crime to perform amateurish biological experiments. "When did it become a reason for deportation that one looked in a microscope when one was not a trained biologist?" Reich received influential support from overseas, first from Bronisław Malinowski, who wrote to the Norwegian press in March 1938 that Reich's sociological work was a "distinct and valuable contribution to science," and from A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill in England, a progressive school known throughout the world. Neill also wrote to the Norwegian press, arguing that "the campaign against Reich seems largely ignorant and uncivilized, more like fascism than democracy ..." Norway was proud of its intellectual tolerance, so the "Reich affair" put the government on the spot. A compromise was therefore found. Reich was given his visa, but a royal decree was issued stipulating that anyone wanting to practice psychoanalysis needed a licence, and it was widely understood that Reich would not be given one.
Throughout the affair, Reich had issued just one public statement, when he asked for a commission to replicate his bion experiments. Sharaf writes that the scientific opposition to his work affected his personality and relationships. He was angered and humiliated by the notoriety he had inadvertently achieved. His self-confidence undermined, he felt like a marked man, hunted and tormented, no longer comfortable in public, and seething with bitterness against the researchers who had denounced him.
Sharaf writes that, at a personal level, 1934–1937 had been the happiest period of Reich's life. His relationship with Elsa Lindenberg was good and he considered marrying her. When she became pregnant in 1935, they were initially overjoyed, buying clothes and furniture for the child, but doubts developed for Reich, who felt the future was too unsettled. Sharaf writes that, to Elsa's great distress, Reich insisted on an abortion, at that time illegal. They went to Berlin, where Edith Jacobson, a psychoanalyst, helped to arrange it.
In 1937, Reich began an affair with a female patient, an actress who was the ex-wife of a colleague. She had entered therapy with the explicit intention of seducing him, which he told her was impossible, but she succeeded. The analysis stopped because of the relationship, then the relationship ended and the analysis began again. She eventually threatened to go to the press, but was persuaded that it would harm her at least as much as him. When a colleague asked him why he had behaved this way, he replied, "A man must do foolish things sometimes." He also had an affair with Gerd Bergersen, a 25-year-old Norwegian textile designer.
During the same period, as the newspaper campaign against him gained pace, he suddenly developed intense jealousy toward Elsa, demanding that she share his work with him, and not have a separate life of any kind. He even physically assaulted a composer she was working with on some choreography. Elsa briefly considered calling the police but decided Reich couldn't afford another scandal. His behavior took its toll on their relationship, and when Reich asked her to accompany him to the U.S., she said no, writing later that it was the hardest "no" she had ever had to say.
1939: Move to the U.S.
Teaching; meeting his second wife
In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. Reich's ex-wife and daughters had already left Austria for the U.S. Later that year, an American psychiatrist at Columbia Medical School, Theodore P. Wolfe, traveled to Norway to study under Reich. Wolfe offered to help Reich settle in the U.S., and managed to arrange an official invitation from The New School in New York. Wolfe and Walter Briehl, an old student of Reich's, put up several thousand dollars to guarantee Reich's salary. Wolfe also pulled strings with Adolph Berle, an official in the U.S. State Department. He finally received his visa in August 1939, and sailed out of Norway on August 19 on the Stavenger Fjord, the last boat to leave for the States before the war began on September 3.
He began teaching at The New School, where he remained for two years, living first at 75-02 Kessel Street, Forest Hills, Queens, then settling into a two-story brick house at 9906 69th Avenue in the same area. It had a basement that he used for animal experiments, a large room on the first floor that served as an office, dining room, living room, and a place for his seminar students every other week. The dining room became his laboratory. Two bedrooms on the top floor were shared by his maid and his secretary, Gertrud Gaasland, and three rooms on the second floor became Reich's bedroom and therapy rooms.
It was Gertrud Gaasland who introduced him to Ilse Ollendorf, 29 years old at the time. Reich was still in love with Elsa, but Ilse threw herself into organizing Reich's life for him, taking over the secretarial and bookkeeping tasks, learning laboratory techniques, and showing herself willing to mold herself completely to his lifestyle, something Elsa had been unwilling to do. They began living together on Christmas Day 1939, and she began to work for him on January 2, 1940. They had a son, Peter, in 1944, and were married in 1946.
Reich's personality changed after the onslaught of the press in Oslo. He became socially isolated, and decided to keep his distance even from old friends and his ex-wife. He told a friend he was going to follow the "remarkable law": be distant, even a little haughty, withhold love, and then people will respect you. His students in the U.S. came to know him as a man that no colleague, no matter how close, called by his first name. He wrote to Elsa in January 1940 breaking off their relationship once and for all, telling her that he was in despair, and that he believed he would end up dying like a dog.
Allegations of mental illness
Rumors had been rife since the late 1920s that he was mentally ill in some way, and had even been hospitalized, though Sharaf writes that he had not. He was seen as paranoid, remote, belligerent, and fanatical. Sharaf writes that psychoanalysts have had a tendency to dismiss as ill anyone from within the fold who has digressed, and that never was this done so relentlessly or destructively as with Reich. His work was split into the pre-psychotic "good" Reich, and the post-psychotic "bad," the date of the illness's onset depending on which parts of his work a speaker disliked. Psychoanalysts wanted to see him as sane in the 1920s because of his solid work on character; political radicals regarded him as sane during the 1930s because of his Marxist-oriented psychology research.
Reich posited a conjugate, life-annulling energy in opposition to orgone, which he dubbed Deadly Orgone or DOR. He wrote that accumulations of DOR played a role in desertification, and he designed a "cloudbuster" with which he said he could manipulate streams of orgone energy in the atmosphere to induce rain by forcing clouds to form and disperse. It was a set of hollow metal pipes and cables inserted into water, which Reich argued created a stronger orgone energy field than was in the atmosphere, the water drawing the atmospheric orgone through the pipes. Reich conducted dozens of experiments with the cloudbuster, calling the research "Cosmic Orgone Engineering." In 1953, a drought threatened Maine's blueberry crop, and several farmers offered to pay Reich if he could make it rain. The weather bureau had reportedly forecast no rain for several days when Reich began the experiment on at 10 a.m. on July 6, 1953. The Bangor Daily News reported on July 24: Dr. Reich and three assistants set up their "rain-making" device off the shore of Grand Lake, near the Bangor hydro-electric dam ... The device, a set of hollow tubes, suspended over a small cylinder, connected by a cable, conducted a "drawing" operation for about an hour and ten minutes ...
According to a reliable source in Ellsworth the following climactic changes took place in that city on the night of July 6 and the early morning of July 7: "Rain began to fall shortly after ten o'clock Monday evening, first as a drizzle and then by midnight as a gentle, steady rain. Rain continued throughout the night, and a rainfall of 0.24 inches was recorded in Ellsworth the following morning." A puzzled witness to the "rain-making" process said: "The queerest looking clouds you ever saw began to form soon after they got the thing rolling." And later the same witness said the scientists were able to change the course of the wind by manipulation of the device.
The blueberry crop survived, the farmers declared themselves satisfied, and Reich received his fee.
Orgone experiment with Einstein
On December 30, 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein saying he had a scientific discovery he wanted to discuss, and on January 13, 1941 went to visit Einstein in Princeton. They talked for five hours, and Einstein agreed to test an orgone accumulator, which Reich had constructed out of a Faraday cage made of galvanized steel and insulated by wood and paper on the outside. Einstein agreed that if, as Reich suggested, an object's temperature could be raised without an apparent heating source, it would be a "bombshell" in physics.
Reich supplied Einstein with a small accumulator during their second meeting, and Einstein performed the experiment in his basement, which involved taking the temperature atop, inside, and near the device. He also stripped the device down to its Faraday cage to compare temperatures. In his attempt to replicate Reich's findings, Einstein observed a rise in temperature, which Reich argued was caused by the orgone energy that had accumulated inside the Faraday cage. However, one of Einstein's assistants pointed out that the temperature was lower on the floor than on the ceiling. Following that remark, Einstein modified the experiment and, as a result, concluded that the effect was simply due to the temperature gradient inside the room. He wrote back to Reich, describing his experiments and expressing the hope that Reich would develop a more skeptical approach.
Reich responded with a 25-page letter to Einstein, expressing concern that "convection from the ceiling" would join "air germs" and "Brownian movement" to explain away new findings. The correspondence between Reich and Einstein was published by Reich's press as The Einstein Affair in 1953, possibly without Einstein's permission.
Arrested by the FBI
On December 12, 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor, Reich was arrested at his home at 2 a.m. by the FBI, and taken to Ellis Island, where he was held for over three weeks, because he was an immigrant with a communist background. He was furious, and blamed his first wife, with whom he had a very poor relationship, for having reported him in some way, though there is no evidence that she was involved. His psoriasis erupted, and his doctor persuaded the authorities to transfer him to the hospital ward, where Ilse was allowed to visit him twice a week. Wolfe and a lawyer did their best to find out what the charge was, Wolfe traveling several times to Washington to protest, but it was not until December 26 that a hearing was held, and still it remained unclear why he had been picked up. He was questioned about several books the FBI had found in his home, including Hitler's Mein Kampf, Trotsky's My Life, and a Russian alphabet book for children. Eventually Reich threatened to go on hunger strike, and he was released on January 5, 1942. The FBI released 789 pages of its files on Reich in 2000, which said:
This German immigrant described himself as the Associate Professor of Medical Psychology, Director of the Orgone Institute, President and research physician of the Wilhelm Reich Foundation and discoverer of biological or life energy. A 1940 security investigation was begun to determine the extent of Reich's communist commitments. A board of Alien Enemy Hearing judged that Dr. Reich was not a threat to the security of the U.S.
Purchase of Orgonon
Using money from his income as a therapist, and contributions from students, Reich purchased an old farm near Dodge Pond, Maine in November 1942. He called the 160 acres (0.65 km2) of fields, forests, and hills "Orgonon". He built a laboratory there in 1945, and in 1948 began construction of the Orgone Energy Observatory, which included another laboratory, a library, and observation decks to study atmospheric orgone.
947: The Brady article and the FDA
Until 1947, Reich enjoyed a largely uncritical press in the U.S. His psychotherapy practice was flourishing, his psychoanalytic theories were taught in universities and discussed in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Psychiatry. He was listed in American Men of Science, and The Nation gave his writing positive reviews. Only one science journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, had criticized him, calling his ideas about orgone a "surrealist creation."
His reputation took a sudden downturn in May 1947. On May 26, an article by freelance writer Mildred Edie Brady appeared in The New Republic entitled, "The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich," with the subhead, "The man who blames both neuroses and cancer on unsatisfactory sexual activities has been repudiated by only one scientific journal." Brady wrote: "Orgone, named after the sexual orgasm, is, according to Reich, a cosmic energy. It is, in fact, the cosmic energy. Reich has not only discovered it; he has seen it, demonstrated it and named a town—Orgonon, Maine—after it. Here he builds accumulators of it, which are rented out to patients, who presumably derive 'orgastic potency' from it." Sharaf writes that the implication was clear: the accumulators gave orgastic potency, the lack of which causes cancer. Therefore, the claim for the accumulators was that they cured cancer. Brady argued that the "growing Reich cult" had to be dealt with.
The regulation and advertising of medical devices is shared and coordinated by the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. On July 23, Dr. J.J. Durrett, director of the Medical Advisory Division of the Federal Trade Commission, wrote to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking them to look into Reich's claims about the health benefits of orgone. The FDA assigned an investigator to the case, who learned that Reich had built 250 accumulators; the FDA concluded that they were dealing with a "fraud of the first magnitude." Sharaf writes that the FDA suspected a sexual racket of some kind; questions were asked about the women associated with orgonomy and "what was done with them."
“ I would like to plead for my right to investigate natural phenomena without having guns pointed at me. I also ask for the right to be wrong without being hanged for it. — Wilhelm Reich, November 1947 ”
In November, Reich wrote in Conspiracy. An Emotional Chain Reaction: "I would like to plead for my right to investigate natural phenomena without having guns pointed at me. I also ask for the right to be wrong without being hanged for it ... I am angry because smearing can do anything and truth can do so little to prevail, as it seems at the moment." Sharaf writes that Reich came to believe that Brady was a Stalinist acting under orders from the Communist Party, a "communist sniper," as Reich called her.
Over the years, the FDA interviewed physicians, Reich's students, and his patients, asking about Reich's use of orgone accumulators. On July 29, 1952, an unannounced inspection was conducted at Orgonon. One inspector was a regular FDA inspector, another an FDA medical expert, and a third an FDA device expert. Reich was known to abhor unannounced visitors; he had once chased some people away with a gun just for looking at an adjacent property. He shouted at the FDA men, told them they had to read his writings before he would interact with them, and ordered them to leave.
The visit began a period of investigation by the FDA, triggering belligerent responses from Reich, who called them "higs," hoodlums in government, and the tools of red fascists. He developed a delusion that he had powerful friends in government, including President Eisenhower, who he believed would protect him, and that the U.S. Air Force was flying over Orgonon to make sure that he was all right.
On February 10, 1954, the U.S. Attorney for Maine filed a complaint seeking a permanent injunction under Sections 301 and 302 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, to prevent interstate shipment of orgone accumulators and to ban some of Reich's writing promoting and advertising the devices. Reich refused to appear in court, arguing that no court was in a position to evaluate his work. In a long letter to Judge Clifford, he wrote:
My factual position in the case as well as in the world of science of today does not permit me to enter the case against the Food and Drug Administration, since such action would, in my mind, imply admission of the authority of this special branch of the government to pass judgment on primordial, pre-atomic cosmic orgone energy. I, therefore, rest the case in full confidence in your hands.
Maine was granted the injunction by default on March 19, 1954. His ruling was more extensive that the original complaint. He ordered that all accumulators and their parts were to be destroyed. All written material of promotional information and instructions for use (labeling) on the accumulators was also to be destroyed. This included ten of Reich's books that mentioned orgone energy, until such time as references to orgone were deleted; the list included Character Analysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
May 1956: Trial
In May 1956, Reich traveled to Arizona to experiment with the cloudbuster. In his absence, and without his knowledge, one of his students, Dr. Michael Silvert, moved some accumulators and books from Rangeley, Maine to New York, in violation of the injunction. Reich and Silvert were both charged with contempt of court. Once again, he refused to arrange a legal defense. He was brought in chains to the courthouse in Portland, Maine. Representing himself, he admitted to the violation and, in his defense, arranged for the judge to be sent copies of his books. He was found guilty of contempt of court on May 7, 1956, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Silvert was sentenced to a year and a day. The Wilhelm Reich Foundation, which Reich's students and friends had set up in 1949, was fined $10,000.
Dr. Morton Herskowitz, a fellow psychiatrist and friend of Reich's, wrote of the trial: "Because he viewed himself as a historical figure, he was making a historical point, and to make that point he had conducted the trial that way. If I had been in his shoes, I would have wanted to escape jail, I would have wanted to be free, etc. I would have conducted the trial on a strictly legal basis because the lawyers had said, 'We can win this case for you. Their case is so weak, so when you let us do our thing we can get you off.' But he wouldn't do it." Reich appealed in October 1956, but the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision on December 11. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided on February 25, 1957 not to review the lower courts' decisions. Reich and Silvert then asked for a suspension or reduction of their sentences; a hearing was set for March 11, to be followed by jail if the request did not succeed. The judge later wrote to the U.S. Board of Parole that he had been inclined to suspend or reduce the sentence, but the government established that Reich would not discontinue promoting the orgone accumulator. Reich then appealed to the President, to no avail.
1957: Book burning
On June 5, 1956, as Reich was arranging his first appeal, two FDA officials traveled to Orgonon to supervise the destruction of Reich's accumulators. Most of them had been sold at that point, and another 50 were with Silvert in New York. Only three were at Orgonon. The FDA agents were not allowed to destroy them, only to supervise the destruction, so Reich's friends, and his son Peter, chopped them up with axes as the agents watched. On June 26, the agents returned to supervise the destruction of the promotional material, including some of his books. On July 9, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release criticizing the book burning, although coverage of the release was poor, and Reich ended up asking them not to help him because he was annoyed that they failed to criticize the destruction of the accumulators. In England, a letter of protest signed by A.S. Neill and Herbert Read also failed to find a publisher. On July 23, the remaining accumulators in New York were destroyed by S.A. Collins and Sons, who had built them.
On August 23, six tons of his books, journals, and papers were burned in the 25th Street public incinerator in New York's lower east side, the Gansevoort incinerator.Among the material destroyed were titles that were supposed only to be banned, including 12,189 copies of the Orgone Energy Bulletin, 6,261 copies of the International Journal of Sex Economy and Orgone Research, 2,900 copies of Emotional Plague Versus Orgone Biophysics, 2,976 copies of Annals of the Orgone Institute, and hardcover copies of several of his books, including The Sexual Revolution, Character Analysis, and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. This action has been cited as one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history.
As with the accumulators, the FDA was supposed only to observe the destruction, while his colleagues carried it out. One of them, Victor Sobey, wrote: "All the expenses and labor had to be provided by the [Orgone Institute] Press. A huge truck with three to help was hired. I felt like people who, when they are to be executed, are made to dig their own graves first and are then shot and thrown in. We carried box after box of the literature."
1957: Imprisonment and death
On February 10, 1957, Reich signed his last will, naming his daughter, Eva, as his executrix. On March 12, he was sent to Danbury Federal Prison, where Richard C. Hubbard, a psychiatrist who admired Reich, examined him, recording paranoia manifested by delusions of grandiosity, persecution, and ideas of reference: The patient feels that he has made outstanding discoveries. Gradually over a period of many years he has explained the failure of his ideas in becoming universally accepted by the elaboration of psychotic thinking. "The Rockerfellows (sic) are against me." (Delusion of grandiosity.) "The airplanes flying over prison are sent by the Air Force to encourage me." (Ideas of reference and grandiosity.) On March 22, he was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where there were better psychiatric facilities, and was examined again. This time, it was decided that he was mentally competent, and that his personality appeared intact, though he might become psychotic under stress. Two days later, on his 60th birthday, he wrote to his son, Peter, then 13:
I am in Lewisburg. I am calm, certain in my thoughts, and doing mathematics most of the time. I am kind of "above things," fully aware of what is up. Do not worry too much about me, though anything might happen. I know, Pete, that you are strong and decent. At first I thought that you should not visit me here. I do not know. With the world in turmoil I now feel that a boy your age should experience what is coming his way—fully digest it without getting a "belly ache," so to speak, nor getting off the right track of truth, fact, honesty, fair play, and being above board—never a sneak.
Peter did visit him at Lewisburg several times. Reich told him that he cried a lot, and wanted Peter to let himself cry too, believing that tears are the "great softener." His last letter to his son was on October 22, when he said he was in good spirits, and looking forward to being released on November 10, when he would have served one third of his sentence; a parole hearing had been scheduled for just a few days before. He wrote that he and Peter had a date for a meal at the Howard Johnson restaurant near Peter's school.
Reich failed to appear for morning roll call on November 3, and was found dead in his bed at 7 a.m., fully clothed but for his shoes. The prison physician said he had died during the night of "myocardial insufficiency with sudden heart failure." He was buried in a plot of land he had chosen in the woods at Orgonon, in a coffin he had bought a year earlier from a Maine craftsman. He had left instructions that there was to be no religious ceremony, but that a record should be played of Schubert's "Ave Maria" sung by Marian Anderson, and that his granite headstone should read simply: "Wilhelm Reich, Born March 24, 1897, Died ..." Dr. Elsworth F. Baker, a physician friend, said at his funeral, "Once in a thousand years, nay once in two thousand years, such a man comes upon this earth to change the destiny of the human race. As with all great men, distortion, falsehood, and persecution followed him. He met them all, until organized conspiracy sent him to prison and then killed him." A replica of a cloudbuster stands next to his grave, and the building that housed his laboratory is now the Wilhelm Reich Museum.