Wilhelm Reich Trial: 1956

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Wilhelm Reich Trial: 1956

Defendants: Wilhelm Reich, Michael Silvert, the Wilhelm Reich Foundation
Crime Charged: Criminal contempt of court
Chief Defense Lawyers: Wilhelm Reich and Michael Silvert, representing themselves; William Moise, representing the Wilhelm Reich Foundation; on appeal, Charles Haydon
Chief Prosecutors: Joseph L. Maguire, Peter Mills
Judge: George C. Sweeney
Place: Portland, Maine
Date of Trial: May 3-7, 1956
Verdict: Guilty
Sentences: Reich: two years imprisonment; Silvert: one year and one day imprisonment; Foundation: $10,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: The judge in this case told the jury, "It's probably the first time in the annals of jurisprudence that the government has presented a case only to have the defendants come in and say they did it." The fact is that, while the Food & Drug Administration succeeded in proving that its injunction had been violated, it has never brought further legal action against the defendants' Public Orgonomic Research Exchange (PORE), which continues to function.

Born on a farm in Austria in 1897, Wilhelm Reich early developed an interest in natural science. Following service in World War I (1914-1918), he entered medical school and soon caught the attention of the well-known psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, who welcomed him into his Viennese Psychoanalytic Society and, in 1922, made Reich his clinical assistant.

While administering clinics on sexual hygiene, Reich became sensitive to the problems of working-class people. His interest in the social causes of neurosis led him to activity in the Socialist Party. Over a decade, he published papers that compared Marxian and Freudian concepts, married a patient and produced two daughters, and became vice director of Freud's clinic.

Discovers "Orgone"

Before 1930, Reich published his book, The Function of the Orgasm. It theorized that physical and mental health were founded on the circulation through the body of a biological energy he called "orgone," repression of which led to physical or mental disease. While Freud's theory of libidinal energy established the libido only as a metaphorical concept, Reich insisted that the orgone was a physical reality.

Reich broke with Freud in 1930. Moving to Berlin, he established a lucrative psychiatric practice and became involved with the German Communist Party until its leadership declared his books, which emphasized sexual health rather than the class struggle, counter-revolutionary. Then, as the Nazis included his articles and books in their public book-burning in 1933, Reich fled to Vienna. There his wife dissolved the marriage, taking the children with her.

Reich moved to Norway, establishing an open marriage with Elsa Lindenburg, who had been in his Berlin Communist cell. There he conducted seminars in psychotherapy and published his findings on biogenesis. The year 1937 brought vicious attacks by the press on his "Bion Experiments," which he said revealed building blocks of lifepulsating microscopic materialthat came from inorganic matter. Leaving Lindenburg, Reich next accepted an offer from the New School for Social Research in New York City to teach medical psychology. He sailed in August 1939, two weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland to start World War II (1939-1945).

Invents "Accumulator"

On Christmas day, 1939, Reich married Ilse Ollendorf. She became his laboratory assistant as he experimented further, labeling the bion energy with his earlier name, "orgone." This energy, he theorized, existed not only within living organisms but also in the atmosphere. In 1940, he devised a six-sided box for a person to sit in. Its alternating layers of organic material (plywood or cotton) and metallic material (sheet metal or steel wool) would, he said, attract the energy and radiate it to the box's center. The human sitting in the box, added Reich, would absorb the energy, with a resultant healing effect. Reich called the box the "orgone accumulator."

For nearly 10 years, Reich developed and tested his theories. He created smaller boxes and blanket-like orgone accumulators that could enwrap a human arm or leg. His reports announced that the accumulator could reduce and eliminate cancer tumors, relieve heart and arthritis pain, heal burns, reduce or eliminate the need for prescription medication, and tone up the immune system against disease.

Reich and Ilse moved to Rangeley, Maine, building a laboratory and research center called Orgonon. There they supervised the manufacture and nationwide sale, by mail order, of the orgone accumulator. Meantime, Reich had his attorney, Peter Mills, incorporate The Wilhelm Reich Foundation to own the Orgonon laboratory.

Word of Reich's work reached journalist Mildred Brady. In 1947, in Harper's Magazine, she published an article that condemned the orgone accumulator as ineffective and fraudulent. Only weeks later, The New Republic published her second piece, "The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich." In Washington, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dispatched an agent to Rangeley to investigate.

Builds "Cloud-buster"

For nearly five years, while the FDA was compiling a case, the laboratory sold and rented accumulators. Meanwhile, Reich built a devicehis "cloud-buster"that some credited with causing severe rain in the Arizona desert and with diverting a New England hurricane.

February 10, 1954, brought a Complaint for Injunction, a formal civil action by the FDA against Reich, his wife, and the foundation. It charged them with violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by making false and misleading claims and delivering misbranded and adulterated devices in interstate commerce. As plaintiff, the FDA requested the U.S. District Court to "perpetually enjoin" the defendants from continuing to manufacture, distribute, or publicize the orgone accumulator. Peter Mills, formerly Reich's attorney but now U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine, signed the complaint.

Reich decided not to appear in court to contest the complaint. Rather, he wrote a letter to District Court Judge John D. Clifford, Jr. "I shall not appear," he said, "against a plaintiff who by his mere complaint already has shown his ignorance in matters of natural science."

On March 19, Judge Clifford issued a sweeping injunction ordering the destruction of all orgone accumulators owned by Reich or leased to others, as well as all printed and graphic material related to the device.

Ignores Injunction

Reich took his cloud-buster to Arizona and allegedly produced rain that, in turn, produced 12-inch-high grass wherethe locals saidnone had ever sprouted. During his absence from Rangeley, his assistant, psychiatrist Michael Silvert, shipped orgone accumulators to New York City and the foundation continued distributing its books and other printed material. By early 1955, the FDA accused Reich, Silvert, and the foundation of criminal contempt for failing to comply with the injunction.

The trial opened before George C. Sweeney, senior judge of the U.S. District Court, on Thursday, May 3, 1956. Reich and Silvert both served as their own lawyers. Prosecutor Peter Mills first presented witnesses who had built and shipped the accumulators. A Brooklyn, New York, customer testified that he had rented an accumulator after the March 1954 injunction. Ilse Ollendorf testified that income from accumulators in the first four months after the injunction was the same as earlier. Thomas Mangravite told of repairing used accumulators and reshipping them to other customers after the injunction ordered them destroyed. Two Orgonon laboratory office employees testified that literature was distributed and accumulators rented after the injunction.

Reich's opening defense statement emphasized that he had indeed violated the injunction order. Judge Sweeney warned him, "You're practically pleading guilty."

Reich insisted that the injunction "had to be violated." He then introduced witnesses who established that he and his colleagues "were armed constantly" with rifles "to protect our work against espionage."

Defense witness Thomas Ross testified that his orders were to be armed and admit no one to the Orgonon laboratory. "Tell the jury," Reich said to Ross, "if I was ready to die last summer."

"He can't possibly know that," said the judge.

"Did you prepare a grave for me during the time we were armed?" Reich asked the witness.

The prosecution objected, "That is ridiculous."

"It's not ridiculous if you're in it," said Reich.

The judge permitted Ross to say he did dig a grave. But he refused to permit testimony on the defendants' motives in arming themselves and employees, saying the only question for the jury was whether the injunction had been violated.

The three women and nine men of the jury deliberated for 20 minutes before finding Reich, Silvert, and the foundation guilty. Reich was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, Silvert to one year and a day. The foundation was fined $10,000.

On December 11, 1956, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the district court verdict, and on February 25, 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept the case. Reich was incarcerated in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, federal prison, where he was found dead on his cell cot on November 3, 1957. An autopsy reported "myocardial insufficiency with sudden heart failure."

Silvert was released on December 12, 1957, after serving three-quarters of his sentence. In 1958, he committed suicide.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bean, Orson. Me and the Orgone. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971.

Boadella, David. Wilhelm Reich, the Evolution of His Work. London: Vision Press, 1973.

Greenfield, Jerome. Wilhelm Reich vs. the U.S.A. New York: Norton, 1974.

Higgins, Mary, and Chester M. Raphael, M.D., eds. Reich Speaks of Freud. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.

Mann, W. Edward, and Edward Hoffman. The Man Who Dreamed of Tomorrow. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1980.

Ollendorf, Ilse. Wilhelm Reich: A Personal Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969.

Reich, Wilhelm. The Discovery of the Orgone. New York: Noonday Press, 1970.

. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.

. The Sexual Revolution. New York: Noonday Press, 1970.

Sharof, Myron. Fury on Earth. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Wilson, Colin. The Quest for Wilhelm Reich. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981.

Reich, Wilhelm

views updated May 08 2018

Wilhelm Reich

Austrian psychoanalyst whose unorthodox ideas contributed to the development of psychoanalytic theory.

Although Wilhelm Reich is remembered primarily for his legal battle with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over their outlawing of his "orgone energy accumulator," his earlier works were influential in the development of psychoanalysis . In The Function of the Orgasm, published in German in 1927 and in English in 1942, Reich placed the drive for sexual fulfillment at the center of human psychology and argued that neuroses resulted from sexual repression. In his Character Analysis, published in Vienna in 1933 and in the United States in 1949, he described how defensive character traits were developed to cope with specific emotions, and he argued that the goal of therapy was to remove these repressive traits. These ideas have become mainstays of psychoanalytic theory.

Born in 1897 in Dobrzcynica, in the region of Galacia that was part of the Austrian Empire, Reich's family soon moved to Jujinetz in Bukovina in the Ukrainian region of Austria. There his father, Leon Reich, raised cattle on a large estate. Reich was educated at home by tutors until age 14, when he entered the German gymnasium at Czernowitz. At 12, Reich told his father about an affair between his mother, Cecile Roniger, and one of his tutors. After a year of brutal beatings by her husband, Reich's mother committed suicide. Following his father's death in 1914, Reich managed the farm and cared for his younger brother while attending school. After graduating in 1915, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army, becoming an officer on the Italian front.

Becomes a disciple of Freud

With the end of World War I in 1918, Reich entered medical school at the University of Vienna. There he encountered Sigmund Freud , joined the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and began practicing psychoanalysis. He earned his M. D. in 1922 and married a fellow medical student and psychoanalyst, Annie Pink. The couple had two daughters. Reich continued to study psychiatry for two more years at the Neurological and Psychiatric Clinic in Vienna. When Freud established the Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in 1922, Reich was his first clinical assistant. In 1928, Reich became vice-director. Between 1924 and 1930, he was also director of the Seminar for Psychoanalytic Theory. During this period, Reich developed his theories of "character analysis" and his controversial theory of "orgastic potency," that defined orgasm as the basis for mental health .

In 1928, Reich joined the Communist Party and cofounded the Socialist Society for Sex Consultation and Sexological Research, a clinic that provided workers with sex education and birth control information. Reich's increasing interest in reconciling Marxism and psychoanalysis, culminating with his Dialectic Materialism and Psychoanalysis, first published in Moscow in 1929, was a factor in his break with Freud. Freud's rejection left him deeply depressed. He developed tuberculosis, which had killed both his father and his brother, and spent several months in a sanitarium in Switzerland.

Attacked for unorthodox ideas

Reich moved to Berlin, Germany, in 1930, where he continued to write prolifically and organize "mental hygiene" clinics for workers. In 1933 he published The Mass Psychology of Fascism, an attack on Nazism which emphasized the connections between personal and sexual issues and political issues. He found himself expelled from the German Communist Party for his sexual and psychoanalytic views, and from the International Psychoanalytic Association for his political views. His marriage also ended in 1933, and he entered into a marital relationship with Elsa Lindenberg, a dancer and fellow communist. In 1934 Reich began moving across Europe, first to Denmark, then Sweden, and finally settling in Oslo, Norway. During this period, he developed his theory of "muscular armor," the outward bodily attributes that represent character traits; for example, a stubborn person might develop a stiff neck. Reich used physical methods in his therapy to break these patterns, methods that were adopted by other therapies, including bioenergetics and Gestalt psychology . He published The Sexual Revolution (1936), an indictment of conventional sexual morality, and undertook experiments on energetic particles that he called "bions." Reich believed that he had discovered and could measure a new form of energy, the "orgone," which controlled sexual drive and love.

In Norway, Reich came under attack by both the medical establishment and the press. In 1939, as a Jew living under the growing Nazi threat, he emigrated to the United States. Reich moved his laboratory from Oslo to Long Island and lectured at the New School for Social Research in New York City for the next two years. In 1940, he built his first "orgone energy accumulator," or "orgone box." Reich claimed that this telephone booth-sized machine trapped orgone energy, which could be used to prevent and treat mental and physical illnesses, particularly cancer. He described his research in The Cancer Biopathy, published in 1948. In 1944, Reich had a son with the German-born socialist, Ilse Ollendorff, and the following year the family moved to Rangeley, Maine, where Reich founded the Orgone Institute, with research laboratories and a publishing house.

Reich and Ollendorff were divorced in 1954, the same year that the FDA obtained an injunction against his energy accumulator. The injunction made it a crime not only to build or use the orgone box, but to even mention the term "orgone" in print. Reich defied the order. He was found in contempt and, in March, 1957, sentenced to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. The following November, he died of a heart attack in the psychiatric wing of the prison. The FDA destroyed his remaining accumulators, as well as many of his books on a variety of subjects. However in recent years, Reich's contributions to psychoanalysis have been re-examined and many of his books have been translated and reprinted.

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Reich, Wilhelm. Passion of youth: an autobiography, 1897-1922. Edited by Mary Boyd Higgins and Chester M. Raphael; translations by Philip Schmitz and Jerri Tompkins. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988.

Reich, Wilhelm. Beyond psychology: letters and journals, 1934-1939. Edited by Mary Boyd Higgins; translations by Philip Schmitz, Derek Jordan, and Inge Jordan. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

Reich, Wilhelm. American odyssey: letters and journals, 1940-1947. Edited by Mary Boyd Higgins; translations by Derek Jordan, Inge Jordan, and Philip Schmitz. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.

Sharaf, Myron. Fury on earth: a biography of Wilhelm Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Wilson, Colin. The quest for Wilhelm Reich. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Reich, Wilhelm (1897-1957)

views updated May 17 2018

REICH, WILHELM (1897-1957)

Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian physician and psychoanalyst. He was born March 27, 1897, in Dobrzcynica, a part of Galicia belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now a part of Poland. He died November 3, 1957, at the Lewisburg penitentiary in Connecticut. Reich's parents were assimilated middle-class Jews, who had emigrated after his birth to Jujinetz, in the Ukrainian region of Austria-Hungary. His father owned an extensive tract of land, on which he raised cattle. Two teachers were responsible for the young Reich's education. At the age of fourteen he entered the local high school in Czernowitz. He was an officer in the Austrian army during the war and began his medical studies upon his return to Vienna.

In 1919 he was admitted to the local psychoanalytic society. In 1921 he married Annie Pink, a brilliant student who became a famous psychoanalyst. Reich had important responsibilities as a teacher and in clinical psychoanalysis, and in 1924 ran a seminar on psychoanalytic technique. At the same time he was working with Austrian socialists. In 1927 he published The Function of the Orgasm, which established the existence of a sexual economy focused on the power of the orgasm and genitality. He enrolled in the communist party in 1928 and, the following year, created the Socialist Society of Sexual Advice and Sexual Research. In 1929 he traveled to the USSR, where he familiarized himself with the work of Vera Schmidt, a Russian teacher who made use of psychoanalysis in her school for children.

In 1930 he left Vienna for Berlin, where he continued working to promote communism and psychoanalysis. In 1931 he founded the German Association for a Proletarian Sexual Policy, known as SEXPOL for short, which at one point had several thousand members. In a 1931 brochure, The Sexual Struggle of the Young, he promoted a radical liberation of individual behavior. In 1932 he published The Invasion of Compulsory Sexual Morality, a sociological study based on the work of the ethnologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Reich lived with Elsa Lindenberg, a dancer who was active in the same cell as he.

In 1933 Hitler was in power and Reich was thrown out of the German communist party. He fled to Denmark, where he published two of his most important works, Character Analysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. In 1934 he settled in Malmö, Sweden, and founded the Review of Political Psychology and Sexual Economy. At the Lucerne Congress a decision was made to exclude Reich from the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). He took refuge in Oslo, Norway, where he continued to train psychoanalysts and conducted research on organic electricity. A campaign of defamationhe was referred to as a "Jewish pornographer"led by a man named Quisling, led Reich to accept the invitation of Theodore Wolfe to move to the United States to teach "character-analytic vegetotherapy."

He arrived in New York in 1939, rented a cabin in Maine and had several buildings constructed, which he called the "Orgonon." Here he conducted research, taught, and performed clinical work. It was a period of intense creative activity for Reich. In politics he denounced the "emotional plague," the source of fascism, and developed the principles for a "democracy of work." He also became interested in newborns following the birth of his son Peter to his third wife Ilse Ollendorff in 1944. He investigated the problem of cancer and, at the same time, struggled to determine orgone formations in the atmosphere and the cosmos. He successfully practiced vegetotherapy. Preoccupied by the problems of the environment, he explored the Arizona desert ("operation Orop Desert"). He continued to publish and republish at a steady rate: in 1948 The Function of the Orgasm, an autobiographical work, and the Biopathy of Cancer, The Sexual Revolution, and Listen, Little Man ; in 1951 Ether, God, and Devil, and Cosmic Superimposition ; in 1953 The Murder of Christ and People in Trouble, published by the Orgone Institute Press.

A campaign of lies and vilification in the tabloid press resulted in Reich being called in for questioning by the police. After refusing to cooperate with the court he was convicted and sent to prison, where he died. A year earlier, as a result of a court decision, nearly all of Reich's books were burned at the Gansevoort Street incinerator in Manhattan (New York City).

Roger Dadoun

See also: AllgemeineÄrztliche Gesellschaft fürPsychotherapie; Berliner Psychoanalytisches Institut; Character; Denmark; Lehrinstitut der Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereinigung; Marxism and psychoanalysis; Norway; Orgasm; Politics and psychoanalysis; Psychic causality; Reich, Annie; Sociology and psychoanalysis/sociopsychoanalysis; Wiener psychoanalytische Vereinigung.


Dadoun, Roger. (1975). Cent Fleurs pour Wilhelm Reich. Paris: Payot.

De Marchi, Luigi. (1973). Wilhelm Reich, biographie d'une idée. Paris: Fayard.

Reich, Wilhelm. (1933). Character-analysis; principles and technique for psychoanalysts in practice and in training (Theodore P. Wolfe, Trans.). New York: Orgone Institute Press.

. (1933). The mass psychology of fascism (Theodore P. Wolfe, Trans.). New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946.

. (1940). The function of the orgasm: Sex-economic problems of biological energy (Theodore P. Wolfe, Trans.). London: Panther, 1968.

. (1948). The cancer biopathy. New York: Orgone Institute Press.

. (1988). Passion of youth: An autobiography 1897-1922. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Sharaf, Myron. (1983). Fury on Earth: A biography of Wilhelm Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Sinelnikoff, Constantin. (1970). L'Œuvre de Wilhelm Reich. Paris: Maspero.

Reich, Wilhelm (1897-1957)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Reich, Wilhelm (1897-1957)

Austrian psychoanalyst, whose later ideas on life energy had analogies with occult and mystical concepts. Reich was born on March 24, 1897, in Dobrzcynica, Galicia. The son of a farmer, he was tutored at home for entrance to the German Gymnasium at Czernowitz (Cernauti) at the age of 14. He boarded with a family in Czernowitz and helped out on his father's farm during vacations. Reich passed his Abiturium in 1915 just as World War I was heating up. He joined the Austrian army and served on the Italian front.

In 1918, he returned to study in Vienna. He matriculated in law at the University of Vienna, then went on to study medicine. He obtained his M.D. in 1922 and after graduate studies in neurology and psychiatry became the first clinical assistant at Sigmund Freud 's Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in 1922 and vice-director in 1928. He joined the Austrian Socialist Party in 1924 with the hope of reconciling Freudian and Marxist theories. He had become convinced that much neurosis was caused by poverty, bad housing conditions, and various social ills. His actions alienated him from orthodox psychoanalysts and doctrinaire Marxists.

He joined the Communist Party in 1928 and became a pioneer in advocating health centers, but after a visit to Russia in 1929 he was disappointed with Russian bureaucracy and bourgeois moralistic attitudes toward sexuality. He was expelled from the Communist party in 1933 because of his advocacy of sexual politics. Later, the International Psychoanalytic Association excluded him because of his Communist associations.

He moved to Berlin in 1930 and the following year helped establish Verlag für Sexualpolitik (Sexpol-Verlag) for the sexual education of young people. He followed the logic inherent in the original Freudian concept of the overriding importance of the sexual urge in human affairs. A vicious newspaper smear campaign centered in Scandinavia hounded him through the mid-1930s (1933-39). He left Germany to escape the Nazis in 1939, after exposing what he considered the sham Socialism and perverse character of the Hitler regime.

He escaped to the United States and settled in Forest Hills, Long Island, but moved to Oregon, Maine, in the 1940s, where he established the Orgone Institute Research Laboratories. He was once again the subject of attacks from journalists and was persecuted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on charges arising from a tragi-comic misunderstanding of Reich's theories of cosmic "orgone" energy in relation to a cure for cancer.

He developed what he called an "orgone accumulator," a large box-like arrangement of materials that, he claimed, trapped orgone energy, which entered the device more rapidly than it exited. Reich believed that this energy had a tonic effect on individuals sitting in the accumulator, and that it was particularly beneficial for cancer sufferers.

He supplied this device only to individuals who would use it experimentally under the guidance of a qualified physician. But the FDA proceeded against Reich as if he were a common charlatan peddling a worthless cancer cure. Reich refused to comply with a court injunction banning the use of his "orgone accumulator" and insisting on the removal of the word "or-gone" from all his books, and he was eventually sentenced to two years imprisonment for contempt of court. Most of his books (some of which had been burned in Nazi Germany) were seized by the American authorities and burned at the Gansevoort Incinerator, New York, August 23, 1956.

Reich was a brilliant if eccentric thinker who continually ran up against intense social and government forces. Many of his ideas, especially those concerning sexuality, would be quite acceptable today. His championing of the importance of sexual expression in Freudianism was rejected by most psychoanalysts, although they used many of his therapeutic insights. His reconciliation of psychic and somatic aspects of psychoanalysis, long desired by Freud, was regarded with suspicion and mistrust by Freud himself. Reich's teachings on "sexual revolution," as opposed to authoritarian repression, were grossly mis-interpreted after his death by cranks, pornographers, and hippies on one hand, and by a humorless orthodoxy of authoritarian Reichian physicians on the other.

Reich died in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, November 3, 1957.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Constable, T. J. "Orgone Energy Engineering through the Cloudbuster." In John White and Stanley Krippner, eds. Future Science. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.

Reich, Ilse Ollendorff. Wilhelm Reich: a Personal Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969.

Reich, Peter. A Book of Dreams. New York: Harper & Row,1973.

Reich, Wilhelm. Character Analysis. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1949. Reprint, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1961.

. The Discovery of the Orgone. Vol. 1, The Function of the Orgasm; Sex-economic Problems of Biological Energy. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1942.

. The Discovery of the Orgone. Vol. 2, The Cancer Biopathy. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1948.

. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946.

Sharaf, Myron. Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Reich, Wilhelm

views updated May 14 2018

Reich, Wilhelm


Wilhelm Reich was born in 1897, in what was the Austrian part of Poland, and died in 1957 in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He was a psychoanalyst and social philosopher, originating one of the dissi dent trends of thought derived from Freudian psychoanalysis. His early contributions to the clinical field are accorded general esteem, while his later ideas (which encompass virtually all the sciences from physics to psychology), his social philosophy, and his attempts to translate this philosophy into large-scale social action are generally considered grandiose, the products of a passion that gradually gave way to schizophrenic deterioration.

Reich became a dissident from Freudian orthodoxy by following Freud’s original path to its logical end, as he saw it. His productive thought took off from two of Freud’s early hypotheses. The first maintains the existence of a type of neurosis (Aktualneurose) caused by an actual physiological disturbance of sexuality. According to this view, frustrated excitement, coitus interruptus, etc., can independently of any mental factors produce this kind of neurosis. Although Freud himself continued to consider the hypothesis correct, he did not pursue this trend of thought once he became involved in the investigation of psychological conflicts. The second hypothesis maintains that the characteristics of a person’s sexuality determine the characteristics of his personality. This is an oversimplification that Freud implicitly withdrew when he hypothesized the ego as an entity to be studied in its own right.

Reich extended Freud’s hypothesis of the Aktualneurose. He held that not only the Aktualneurose but also the psychoneuroses are characterized, indeed caused, by a damming up of undischarged and, in this state, noxious sexual energy. The dissipation of noxious sexual energy is the irreplaceable function of the orgasm. Extending Freud’s hypothesis that sexuality determines personality, Reich declared that psychic health depends upon orgastic potency. The orgastically potent individual is free of destructive aggression and will spontaneously, without the pressure of a moral conscience, enjoy doing what is right and socially beneficial (1927, vol. 1).

The goal of psychoanalytic therapy for Reich, therefore, is to free the orgastic function of the neurotic. Reich became convinced that in order to achieve this goal, psychoanalytic therapists must above all attack the patient’s resistances rather than interpret unconscious contents, as they typically did at that time. Taking a productively fresh and wide view of character resistances, he perceived them not only in symptoms, inhibitions and anxieties, attitudes and values, but also in such less obvious guises as habits, mannerisms, and particularly muscular tensions. These last he came to regard as materialization of the “character armor,” which function to prevent the outbreak of neurotic anxiety caused by the undischarged sexual tensions (1933–1935).

If the neuroses are maintained by the “muscular armor,” then a direct attack may be made on them by melting down the “armor.” This can be done by encouraging a patient to relax strategic groups of muscles. The analyst then has to assist the patient in the assimilation and mastery of emotions presumably thus liberated. Reich designated such treatment “vegetotherapy” and for a while thought that it provided him with a simple technique for the sexual liberation of individuals (1933–1935).

But by the late 1920s his interest had already gone beyond therapy merely for individuals. He sought—and believed he had found—a theory that justified large-scale social action. As a radical interpreter of the early Freud he had no doubt that suppression of the sexual impulses in children and adolescents is responsible for the high incidence of neurosis. This suppression he saw as bound up with the institution of the authoritarian family, on which the entire authoritarian structure of society in turn depended. Reich hoped he could destroy authoritarianism both in the family and in society at large by encouraging the young victims of the system to revolt and to win sexual freedom (1932). He attempted in vain to gain acceptance for these views, first in the socialist, then in the communist parties of Europe, and finally founded his own organization to propagate them.

Eventually Reich’s interests took a different direction. He believed he had discovered the physical reality corresponding to “psychic energy.” He called it “orgone” (1927) and claimed that the surface of the healthy human body radiated this form of energy, whereas bodies of the neurotics and those suffering from a great variety of other illnesses, including cancer, were deficient in it. In the United States, where he lived from 1939 until his death, he constructed and sold “orgone boxes” and recommended them for cancer therapy. Patients seated in them presumably absorbed life-enhancing rays, which the boxes gathered from the surrounding abundance of orgone in the universe. An agency of the U.S. government, ignorant of Reich’s background and assuming his orgone to be simple commercial quackery, eventually caused him to be sent to prison, where he died of a heart attack.

During his years in America, Reich was followed and supported by devoted believers, including physicians, laymen, and artists. At the time of this writing, 1965, the Reich cult seems to be in decline but not extinguished.

Paul Bergman

[For the historical context of Reich’s work, seePsychoanalysis, article onclassicaltheory; and the biography ofFreud. For discussion of the subsequent development of Reich’s ideas, seeSexual behavior, articles onsexual deviation.]


(1927) 1948 The Discovery of the Orgone. 2d ed., 2 vols. New York: Orgone Institute Press. → First published in German. Volume 1: The Function of the Orgasm.Volume 2: The Cancer Biopathy.

(1930) 1945 The Sexual Revolution. 3d ed. New York:Orgone Institute Press. → First published as Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf.

1932 Der sexuelle Kampf der Jugend. Copenhagen: Verlag fűr Sexualpolitik.

(1933–1935) 1961 Character-analysis. 3d ed., enl. New York: Noonday Press. → First published in German. Contains the translations of Charakteranalyse andPsychischer Kontakt und vegetative Strömung.

Reich, Wilhelm

views updated May 14 2018


REICH, WILHELM (1897–1957), Austrian psychoanalyst. In his earlier years Reich made significant contributions to psychoanalytic theory. He broke away from the orthodox Freudian approach, believing that neurosis is due to undischarged sexual energy and that any blocking of sexual discharge causes actual physiological disturbance of sexuality (Die Funktion des Orgasmus, 1927). According to Reich, mental health is the ability to achieve full orgasm. The sexually satisfied person would have already released his aggressions and thus behave in a socialized manner. He related these ideas to the prognosis of treatment in his paper "Concerning genitality from the standpoint of psychoanalytic prognosis and therapy" (1924, Eng., 1925). Another important contribution was Reich's focus on character and character formation. Previously psychoanalyses dealt mainly with the interpretations of unconscious material. In his study of character resistances he concentrated on the whole person, his habits, tensions, and mannerisms. He went to the U.S. in the 1930s.

He died in prison after he was convicted of fraud. He had sold "orgone boxes" which according to Reich attracted "orgone," a material found in the air that had therapeutic powers. His books which deal with character are Der triebhafte Charakter (1925) and Charakteranalyse (1933, Eng., 19452), his most important work.


Wilhelm Reich Biographical Material (1953); iess, 13 (1968), 396–8; W. Briehl, in: F. Alexander et al. (eds.), Psychoanalytic Pioneers (1966), 430–8, incl. bibl.; C. Rycroft, Reich (1971).

[Miriam Gay]

Reich, Wilhelm

views updated Jun 27 2018

Reich, Wilhelm (1897–1957) A controversial Marxist neo-Freudian whose work stressed the importance of the physical body, especially the functions of the orgasm; the mechanisms of repression found in the authoritarian family leading to the creation of a character armour, and a rigid conforming personality; type and the role of society in structuring this conformity and a compulsive morality (see, for example, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1942, and The Sexual Revolution, 1972
). He anticipated many of the ideas of the Frankfurt School (see critical theory) on mass society, became a guru of the Free Love counter-culture movement, but died in the United States dismissed as a crank.

Reich, Wilhelm

views updated May 11 2018

Reich, Wilhelm (1897–1957) Austrian psychoanalyst, clinical assistant to Sigmund Freud (1922–28). In the USA from 1939, he claimed to have discovered ‘orgone’ energy, a primal force in the atmosphere. The function of the sexual orgasm was to discharge orgone energy. In 1950, he was imprisoned for fraud and died in jail.

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Wilhelm Reich

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