Bio: Wilhelm Reich

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Wilhelm Reich
Reich in his mid-20s
Born24 March 1897
Dobzau, Austria-Hungary (present-day DobzauUkraine)
Died3 November 1957 (aged 60)
United States Penitentiary, LewisburgPennsylvania, United States
Cause of deathHeart failure
Resting placeOrgononRangeley, Maine, United States
44.991027°N 70.713902°W
Medical career
EducationM.D. (1922), University of Vienna
InstitutionsVienna City Hospital
Vienna Ambulatorium
University of Oslo
The New School, New York
Known forCharacter analysismuscular armourorgastic potencyvegetotherapyFreudo-Marxismorgone
Notable workCharacter Analysis (1933)The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933)The Sexual Revolution (1936)
Partner(s)Annie Reich, née Pink (m. 1922–1933)Elsa Lindenberg (1932–1939)Ilse Ollendorf (m. 1946–1951)Aurora Karrer (1955–1957)
ChildrenEva Reich [de] (1924–2008)Lore Reich Rubin (b. 1928)Peter Reich (b. 1944)
Parent(s)Leon Reich, Cecilia Roniger
RelativesRobert Reich (brother)

Wilhelm Reich (/raɪx/German: [ʁaɪç]; 24 March 1897 – 3 November 1957) was an Austrian doctor of medicine and psychoanalyst, a member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud.[1] The author of several influential books, most notably Character Analysis (1933), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), and The Sexual Revolution (1936), Reich became known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry.[2][n 1]

Reich’s work on character contributed to the development of Anna Freud‘s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), and his idea of muscular armour—the expression of the personality in the way the body moves—shaped innovations such as body psychotherapyGestalt therapybioenergetic analysis and primal therapy.[6] His writing influenced generations of intellectuals; he coined the phrase “the sexual revolution” and according to one historian acted as its midwife.[7] During the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and Berlin, students scrawled his name on walls and threw copies of The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police.[8]

After graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Reich became deputy director of Freud‘s outpatient clinic, the Vienna Ambulatorium.[9] Described by Elizabeth Danto as a large man with a cantankerous style who managed to look scruffy and elegant at the same time, he tried to reconcile psychoanalysis with Marxism, arguing that neurosis is rooted in sexual and socio-economic conditions, and in particular in a lack of what he called “orgastic potency“. He visited patients in their homes to see how they lived, and took to the streets in a mobile clinic, promoting adolescent sexuality and the availability of contraceptives, abortion and divorce, a provocative message in Catholic Austria.[10] He said he wanted to “attack the neurosis by its prevention rather than treatment”.[11]

From the 1930s he became an increasingly controversial figure, and from 1932 until his death in 1957 all his work was self-published.[12] His message of sexual liberation disturbed the psychoanalytic community and his political associates, and his vegetotherapy, in which he massaged his disrobed patients to dissolve their “muscular armour”, violated the key taboos of psychoanalysis.[13] He moved to New York in 1939, in part to escape the Nazis, and shortly after arriving coined the term “orgone“—from “orgasm” and “organism”—for a biological energy he said he had discovered, which he said others called God. In 1940 he started building orgone accumulators, devices that his patients sat inside to harness the reputed health benefits, leading to newspaper stories about sex boxes that cured cancer.[14]

Following two critical articles about him in The New Republic and Harper’s in 1947, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration obtained an injunction against the interstate shipment of orgone accumulators and associated literature, believing they were dealing with a “fraud of the first magnitude”.[15] Charged with contempt in 1956 for having violated the injunction, Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and that summer over six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court.[n 2] He died in prison of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.[18]

Early life


Reich in 1900

Reich was born the first of two sons to Leon Reich, a farmer, and his wife Cäcilie (née Roniger) in DobzauGalicia, then part of Austria-Hungary, now in Ukraine. Wilhelm Reich’s parents were married by Rabbi Schmelkes on June 4, 1895.[19] There was a sister too, born one year after Reich, but she died in infancy. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Jujinetz, a village in Bukovina, where his father ran a cattle farm leased by his mother’s uncle, Josef Blum.[20]

His father was described as a jealous man.[21] Both parents were Jewish, but decided against raising the boys as Jews. Reich and his brother, Robert, were brought up to speak only German, were punished for using Yiddish expressions and forbidden from playing with the local Yiddish-speaking children.[22]

As an adult Reich wrote extensively, in his diary, about his sexual precocity. He maintained that his first sexual experience was at the age of four when he tried to have sex with the family maid (with whom he shared a bed), that he would regularly watch the farm animals have sex, that he used a whip handle sexually on the horses while masturbating, and that he had almost daily sexual intercourse from the age of 11 with another of the servants. He wrote of regular visits to brothels, the first when he was 15, and said he was visiting them daily from the age of around 17. He also developed sexual fantasies about his mother, writing when he was 22 that he masturbated while thinking about her.[23]

It is impossible to judge the truth of these diary entries, but Reich’s second daughter, the psychiatrist Lore Reich Rubin, told Christopher Turner that she believed Reich had been a victim of child sexual abuse, and that this explained his lifelong interest in sex and childhood sexuality.[24]

Death of parents

Reich was taught at home until he was 12, when his mother was discovered having an affair with his live-in tutor. Reich wrote about the affair in 1920 in his first published paper, “Über einen Fall von Durchbruch der Inzestschranke” (“About a Case of Breaching the Incest Taboo”), presented in the third person as though about a patient.[25] He wrote that he would follow his mother when she went to the tutor’s bedroom at night, feeling ashamed and jealous, and wondering if they would kill him if they found out that he knew. He briefly thought of forcing her to have sex with him, on pain of threatening to tell his father. In the end, he did tell his father, and after a protracted period of beatings, his mother committed suicide in 1910, for which Reich blamed himself.[25]

With the tutor ordered out of the house, Reich was sent to an all-male gymnasium in Czernowitz. It was during this period that a skin condition appeared, diagnosed as psoriasis, that plagued him for the rest of his life, leading several commentators to remark on his ruddy complexion. He visited brothels every day and wrote in his diary of his disgust for the women.[26] His father died of tuberculosis in 1914, and because of rampant inflation the father’s insurance was worthless, so no money was forthcoming for the brothers.[27] Reich managed the farm and continued with his studies, graduating in 1915 with Stimmeneinhelligkeit (unanimous approval). The Russians invaded Bukovina that summer and the Reich brothers fled, losing everything. Reich wrote in his diary: “I never saw either my homeland or my possessions again. Of a well-to-do past, nothing was left.”[28]

1919–1930: Vienna

Undergraduate studies

Reich joined the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War, serving from 1915 to 1918, for the last two years as a lieutenant at the Italian front with 40 men under his command. When the war ended he headed for Vienna, enrolling in law at the University of Vienna, but found it dull and switched to medicine after the first semester. He arrived with nothing in a city with little to offer; the overthrow of the Austria-Hungarian empire a few weeks earlier had left the newly formed Republic of German-Austria in the grip of famine. Reich lived on soup, oats and dried fruit from the university canteen, and shared an unheated room with his brother and another undergraduate, wearing his coat and gloves indoors to stave off the cold. He fell in love with another medical student, Lia Laszky, with whom he was dissecting a corpse, but it was largely unrequited.[29]

Myron Sharaf, his biographer, wrote that Reich loved medicine but was caught between a reductionist/mechanistic and vitalist view of the world.[30] Reich wrote later of this period:

The question, “What is Life?” lay behind everything I learned. … It became clear that the mechanistic concept of life, which dominated our study of medicine at the time, was unsatisfactory … There was no denying the principle of creative power governing life; only it was not satisfactory as long as it was not tangible, as long as it could not be described or practically handled. For, rightly, this was considered the supreme goal of natural science.[30]

Introduction to Freud

Sigmund Freud

Reich first met Sigmund Freud in 1919, when he asked Freud for a reading list for a seminar concerning sexology. It seems they left a strong impression on each other. Freud allowed him to start meeting with analytic patients in September that year, although Reich was just 22 years old and still an undergraduate, which gave him a small income. He was accepted as a guest member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association, becoming a regular member in October 1920, and began his own analysis with Isidor Sadger. He lived and worked out of an apartment on Berggasse 7, the street on which Freud lived at no. 19, in the Alsergrund area of Vienna.[31]

One of Reich’s first patients was Lore Kahn, a 19-year-old woman with whom he had an affair. Freud had warned analysts not to involve themselves with their patients, but in the early days of psychoanalysis the warnings went unheeded. According to Reich’s diaries, Kahn became ill in November 1920 and died of sepsis after sleeping in a bitterly cold room she had rented as a place for her and Reich to meet (both his landlady and her parents had forbidden their meetings). Kahn’s mother suspected that her daughter had died after a botched illegal abortion, possibly performed by Reich himself. According to Christopher Turner, she found some of her daughter’s bloodied underwear in a cupboard.[32]

It was a serious allegation to make against a physician. Reich wrote in his diary that the mother had been attracted to him and had made the allegation to damage him. She later committed suicide and Reich blamed himself.[32] If Kahn did have an abortion, Turner wrote, she was the first of four of Reich’s partners to do so: Annie, his first wife, had several, and his long-term partners Elsa Lindenberg and Ilse Ollendorf (his second wife) each had one (supposedly) at Reich’s insistence.[33]

First marriage, graduation

Two months after Kahn’s death, Reich accepted her friend, Annie Pink (1902–1971), as an analysand. Pink was Reich’s fourth female patient, a medical student three months shy of her 19th birthday. He had an affair with her too, and married her in March 1922 at her father’s insistence, with psychoanalysts Otto Fenichel and Edith Buxbaum as witnesses.[34] Annie Reich became a well-known psychoanalyst herself. The marriage produced two daughters, Eva (1924–2008) and Lore (b. 1928), both of whom became physicians; Lore Reich Rubin also became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.[35]

Because he was a war veteran, Reich was allowed to complete a combined bachelor’s and M.D. in four years, instead of six, and graduated in July 1922.[36] After graduating, he worked in internal medicine at the city’s University Hospital, and studied neuropsychiatry from 1922 to 1924 at the hospital’s neurological and psychiatric clinic under Professor Julius Wagner von Jauregg, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1927.[37]

Vienna Ambulatorium

Staff of the Vienna Ambulatorium, 1922. Eduard Hitschmann is seated fourth from the left, Reich fifth, and Annie Reich first on the right.

In 1922 Reich began working in Freud’s psychoanalytic outpatient clinic, known as the Vienna Ambulatorium, which was opened on 22 May that year at Pelikangasse 18 by Eduard Hitschmann. Reich became the assistant director under Hitschmann in 1924 and worked there until his move to Berlin in 1930.[38]

Between 1922 and 1932 the clinic offered free or reduced-cost psychoanalysis to 1,445 men and 800 women, many suffering from shell shock after World War I. It was the second such clinic to open under Freud’s direction; the first was the Poliklinik in Berlin, set up in 1920 by Max Eitingon and Ernst Simmel.[39]

Sharaf writes that working with labourers, farmers and students allowed Reich to move away from treating neurotic symptoms to observing chaotic lifestyles and anti-social personalities.[37] Reich argued that neurotic symptoms such as obsessive–compulsive disorder were an unconscious attempt to gain control of a hostile environment, including poverty or childhood abuse. They were examples of what he called “character armour” (Charakterpanzer), repetitive patterns of behaviour, speech and body posture that served as defence mechanisms. According to Danto, Reich sought out patients at the Ambulatorium who had been diagnosed as psychopaths, believing that psychoanalysis could free them of their rage.[40]

Reich joined the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute in Vienna in 1924 and became its director of training.[41] According to Danto, he was well-regarded for the weekly technical seminars he chaired at the Ambulatorium, where he gave papers on his theory of character structure, arguing that psychoanalysis should be based on the examination of unconscious character traits, later known as ego defences.[42] The seminars were attended, from 1927, by Fritz Perls, who went on to develop Gestalt therapy with his wife, Laura Perls.[43] Several commentators remarked on how captivating the seminars were and how eloquently Reich spoke. According to a Danish newspaper in 1934:

The moment he starts to speak, not at the lectern, but walking around it on cat’s paws, he is simply enchanting. In the Middle Ages, this man would have been sent into exile. He is not only eloquent, he also keeps his listeners spellbound by his sparking personality, reflected in his small, dark eyes.[44]

Der triebhafte Charakter

Reich’s first book, Der triebhafte Charakter: eine psychoanalytische Studie zur Pathologie des Ich (“The Impulsive Character: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Pathology of the Self”), was published in 1925.[45] It was a study of the anti-social personalities he had encountered in the Ambulatorium, and argued the need for a systematic theory of character.[46] The book won him professional recognition, including from Freud, who in 1927 arranged for his appointment to the executive committee of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.[47] The appointment was made over the objection of Paul Federn, who had been Reich’s second analyst in 1922 and who, according to Sharaf, regarded Reich as a psychopath.[n 3] Reich found the society dull and wrote that he behaved “like a shark in a pond of carps”.[50]

Orgastic potency

Further information: Orgastic potencyReich lived for a time on Berggasse in Vienna (seen here in 2010), where Freud lived at number 19

Beginning in 1924 Reich published a series of papers on the idea of “orgastic potency”, the ability to release the emotions from the muscles and lose the self in an uninhibited orgasm, an idea that Freud came to call Reich’s “Steckenpferd” (hobby horse).[51] Reich argued that psychic health and the ability to love depended on orgastic potency, the full discharge of the libido: “Sexual release in the sex act must correspond to the excitement which leads up to it.”[52] He wrote: “It is not just to fuck … not the embrace in itself, not the intercourse. It is the real emotional experience of the loss of your ego, of your whole spiritual self.”[53] He argued that orgastic potency was the goal of character analysis.[54]

Whereas Reich’s work on character was well received by the psychoanalytic community, Sharaf writes, his work on orgastic potency was unpopular from the start and later ridiculed. He came to be known as the “prophet of the better orgasm” and the “founder of a genital utopia”.[55]

Rest cure in Switzerland

Reich’s brother died of tuberculosis (TB) in 1926, the same disease that had killed their father. Turner writes that a quarter of deaths in Vienna were caused by TB in the 1920s. Reich himself contracted it in 1927 and spent several weeks in the winter of that year in a sanitorium in Davos, Switzerland, where TB patients went for rest cures and fresh air before antibiotics became widely available around 1945. Turner writes that Reich underwent a political and existential crisis in Davos; he returned home in the spring angry and paranoid, according to Annie Reich. Some months later he and Annie were on the streets during the July Revolt of 1927 in Vienna, when 84 workers were shot and killed by police and another 600 were injured. It seems that the experience changed Reich; he wrote that it was his first encounter with human irrationality.[56] He began to doubt everything, and in 1928 joined the Communist Party of Austria:

As if struck by a blow, one suddenly recognizes the scientific futility, the biological senselessness, and the social noxiousness of views and institutions, which until that moment had seemed altogether natural and self-evident. It is a kind of eschatological experience so frequently encountered in a pathological form in schizophrenics. I might even voice the belief that the schizophrenic form of psychic illness is regularly accompanied by illuminating insight into the irrationalism of social and political mores.[57]

Sex-pol movement

Partly in response to the shooting he had witnessed in Vienna, Reich, then 30, opened six free sex-counseling clinics in the city in 1927 for working-class patients. Each clinic was overseen by a physician, with three obstetricians and a lawyer on call, and offered what Reich called Sex-Pol counseling. Sex-Pol stood for the German Society of Proletarian Sexual Politics. Reich offered a mixture of “psychoanalytic counseling, Marxist advice and contraceptives”, Danto writes, and argued for a sexual permissiveness, including for young people and the unmarried, that unsettled other psychoanalysts and the political left. The clinics were immediately overcrowded by people seeking help.[58]

He also took to the streets in a mobile clinic, driving to parks and out to the suburbs with other psychoanalysts and physicians. Reich would talk to the teenagers and men, while a gynaecologist fitted the women with contraceptive devices, and Lia Laszky, the woman Reich fell in love with at medical school, spoke to the children. They also distributed sex-education pamphlets door to door.[59]

Die Funktion des Orgasmus

Further information: Die Funktion des Orgasmus

Reich published Die Funktion des Orgasmus (“The Function of the Orgasm”) in 1927, dedicating it to Freud. He had presented a copy of the manuscript to Freud on the latter’s 70th birthday on 6 May 1926.[60] Freud had not appeared impressed. He replied, “That thick?” when Reich handed it to him, and took two months to write a brief but positive letter in response, which Reich interpreted as a rejection.[61][n 4] Freud’s view was that the matter was more complicated than Reich suggested, and that there was no single cause of neurosis.[62] He wrote in 1928 to another psychoanalyst, Dr. Lou Andreas-Salomé:

We have here a Dr. Reich, a worthy but impetuous young man, passionately devoted to his hobby-horse, who now salutes in the genital orgasm the antidote to every neurosis. Perhaps he might learn from your analysis of K. to feel some respect for the complicated nature of the psyche.[63]

Visit to Soviet Union

In 1929 Reich and his wife visited the Soviet Union on a lecture tour, leaving the two children in the care of the psychoanalyst Berta Bornstein. Sharaf writes that he returned even more convinced of the link between sexual and economic oppression, and of the need to integrate Marx and Freud.[64] In 1929 his article “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis” was published in Unter dem Banner des Marxismus, the German Communist Party journal. The article explored whether psychoanalysis was compatible with historical materialism, class struggle and proletarian revolution. Reich concluded that they were compatible if dialectical materialism was applied to psychology.[65] This was one of the central theoretical statements of his Marxist period, which included The Imposition of Sexual Morality (1932), The Sexual Struggle of Youth (1932), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), “What is Class Consciousness?” (1934) and The Sexual Revolution (1936).

1930–1934: Germany, Denmark, Sweden

Verlag für Sexualpolitik

Plaque on Schlangenbader Straße 87, Berlin-Wilmersdorf, the house in which Reich lived, 1931–1933.

Reich and his wife moved to Berlin in November 1930, where he set up clinics in working-class areas, taught sex education and published pamphlets. He joined the Communist Party of Germany, but grew impatient over their delay in publishing one of his pamphlets, Der Sexuelle Kampf der Jugend (1932), published in English as The Sexual Struggle of Youth (1972). He set up his own publishing house, Verlag für Sexualpolitik, and published the pamphlet himself.[66]

His subsequent involvement in a conference promoting adolescent sexuality caused the party to announce that it would no longer publish his material. On March 24, 1933 Freud told him that his contract with the International Psychoanalytic Publishers to publish Character Analysis had been cancelled. Sharaf writes that this was almost certainly because of Reich’s stance on teenage sex.[66]

Character Analysis

Further information: Character Analysis

Reich published what Robert Corrington called his masterpiece, Charakteranalyse: Technik und Grundlagen für studierende und praktizierende Analytiker, in 1933. It was revised and published in English in 1946 and 1949 as Character Analysis. The book sought to move psychoanalysis toward a reconfiguration of character structure.[67]

For Reich, character structure was the result of social processes, in particular a reflection of castration and Oedipal anxieties playing themselves out within the nuclear family.[67] Les Greenberg and Jeremy Safran write that Reich proposed a functional identity between the character, emotional blocks, and tension in the body, or what he called character (or muscular/body) armour (Charakterpanzer).[68]

Reich proposed that muscular armour was a defence that contained the history of the patient’s traumas.[69] For example, he blamed Freud’s jaw cancer on his muscular armour, rather than his smoking: Freud’s Judaism meant he was “biting down” impulses, rather than expressing them.[70] Dissolving the armour would bring back the memory of the childhood repression that had caused the blockage in the first place.[68]

End of first marriage

Reich had several affairs during his marriage to Annie Reich, which ended in 1933 after he began a serious relationship in May 1932 with Elsa Lindenberg, a dancer and pupil of Elsa Gindler.[71] He was living with Lindenberg in Germany when Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. On March 2 that year the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an attack on Der Sexuelle Kampf der Jugend.[72] Reich and Lindenberg left for Vienna the next day. They moved from there to Denmark, where Reich was excluded from the Danish Communist Party in November 1933 (without ever having joined it) because of his promotion of teenage sex and the publication that year of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which they regarded as “counterrevolutionary”. There were multiple complaints about his promotion of abortion, sex education, and the attempted suicide of a teenage patient. According to Turner, when Reich’s visa expired, it was not renewed.[73]

He tried to find support among psychoanalysts in the UK so that he could settle there, and was interviewed in London by Ernest JonesMelanie KleinJoan Riviere and James Strachey. They decided that he had been “insufficiently analysed” and had an unresolved hostility toward Freud.[74] Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter—whom Jones had contacted about Reich’s desire to relocate to England—wrote in 1938: “There is a wall somewhere where he stops to understand the other person’s point of view and flies off into a world of his own … He is an unhappy person … and I am afraid this will end in sickness.”[75]

Reich and Lindenberg moved instead to Malmö in Sweden, which Reich described as “better than a concentration camp”, but he was placed under surveillance when police suspected that the hourly visits of patients to his hotel room meant he was running a brothel, with Lindenberg as the prostitute.[76] The government declined to extend his visa, and the couple had to move briefly back to Denmark, Reich under an assumed name.[77]


Further information: Vegetotherapy

From 1930 onwards, Reich began to treat patients outside the limits of psychoanalysis’s restrictions. He would sit opposite them, rather than behind them as they lay on a couch (the traditional psychoanalyst’s position), and begin talking to them and answering their questions, instead of offering the stock, “Why do you ask?” analyst’s response. He had noticed that after a successful course of psychoanalysis his patients would hold their bodies differently, so he began to try to communicate with the body using touch. He asked his male patients to undress down to their shorts, and sometimes entirely, and his female patients down to their underclothes, and began to massage them to loosen their body armour. He would also ask them to simulate physically the effects of certain emotions in the hope of triggering them.[78]

He first presented the principles of what he called character-analytic vegetotherapy in August 1934, in a paper entitled “Psychischer Kontakt und vegetative Strömung” (“Psychological Contact and Vegetative Current”) at the 13th International Congress of Psychoanalysis at Lucerne, Switzerland.[79] His second wife, Ilse Ollendorf, said vegetotherapy replaced the psychoanalytic method of never touching a patient with “a physical attack by the therapist”.[80]

The method eliminated the psychoanalytic doctrine of neutrality. Reich argued that the psychoanalytic taboos reinforced the neurotic taboos of the patient, and that he wanted his patients to see him as human.[79] He would press his thumb or the palm of his hand hard (and painfully) on their jaws, necks, chests, backs, or thighs, aiming to dissolve their muscular, and thereby characterological, rigidity.[81] He wrote that the purpose of the massage was to retrieve the repressed memory of the childhood situation that had caused the repression. If the session worked, he would see waves of pleasure move through their bodies, which he called the “orgasm reflex”. According to Sharaf, the twin goals of Reichian therapy were the attainment of this orgasm reflex during sessions and orgastic potency during intercourse. Reich briefly considered calling it “orgasmotherapy”, but thought better of it.[82]

Just before the crucial August 1934 Lucerne conference (13th International Congress of Psycho-analysis), Reich was (perhaps naively) ignorant of the ground-swell of opinion against him. At the meeting, he was asked to resign from the International Psychoanalytical Association, where Anna Freud was the “acknowledged leader” at the time, for prioritizing his revolutionary political-social (Communist) agenda over Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas. Besides the theoretical differences, there was also, by that time, a significant level of “appeasement” to the increasing power of National Socialism. Reich had protested to Anna Freud (Secretary of the International Association) about the omission of his name from the list of German members of the Association, apparently on the spurious grounds that he was going to join the Scandinavian branch. Ernest Jones was the President of the International Association and he had also turned against Reich, combined with Paul Federn and Max Eitingon, who had all levelled personal attacks against Reich.[83]

According to Lore Reich Rubin, Reich’s daughter, Anna Freud was responsible for destroying her father’s career: “She got rid of him”.[84][85] However, there is also some evidence that she later regretted this. He arrived at the conference, relatively unconscious about his future treatment. He presented a significant paper and was then informed that he was to be excluded. Turner writes that he cemented his reputation as a madman, camping in a tent outside the conference hall and reportedly carrying a large knife in his belt.[86] According to the psychiatrist Grete L. Bibring, Paul Federn declared, “Either Reich goes or I go.”[87]

1934–1939: Norway


Willy Brandt

In October 1934 Reich and Lindenberg moved to Oslo, Norway, where Harald K. Schjelderup, professor of psychology at the University of Oslo, had invited Reich to lecture on character analysis and vegetotherapy. They ended up staying for five years.[88] During his time in Norway, Reich attempted to ground his orgasm theory in biology, exploring whether Freud’s metaphor of the libido was in fact electricity or a chemical substance, an argument Freud had proposed in the 1890s but had abandoned.[89] Reich argued that conceiving of the orgasm as nothing but mechanical tension and relaxation could not explain why some experience pleasure and others do not. He wanted to know what additional element had to be present for pleasure to be felt.[90]

Reich was influenced by the work of the Austrian internist Friedrich Kraus, who argued in his paper Allgemeine und Spezielle Pathologie der Person (1926) that the biosystem was a relay-like switch mechanism of electrical charge and discharge. Reich wrote in an essay, “Der Orgasmus als Elektro-physiologische Entladung” (“The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge”, 1934), that the orgasm is just such a bioelectrical discharge and proposed his “orgasm formula”: mechanical tension (filling of the organs with fluid; tumescence) → bioelectrical charge → bioelectrical discharge → mechanical relaxation (detumescence).[91]

In 1935 Reich bought an oscillograph and attached it to friends and students, who volunteered to touch and kiss each other while Reich read the tracings. One of the volunteers was a young Willy Brandt, the future chancellor of Germany. At the time, he was married to Reich’s secretary, Gertrude Gaasland, and was living in Norway to organize protests against the Nazis. Reich also took measurements from the patients of a psychiatric hospital near Oslo, including catatonic patients, with the permission of the hospital’s director.[92] Reich described the oscillograph experiments in 1937 in Experimentelle Ergebnisse über die elektrische Funktion von Sexualität und Angst (The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety).[93]

Bion experiments

Further information: Spontaneous generation and AbiogenesisCancer specialist Leiv Kreyberg (third from right; picture circa 1937) dismissed Reich’s work.[94]

From 1934 to 1939 Reich conducted what he called the bion experiments, which he published as Die Bione: zur Entstehung des vegetativen Lebens in Oslo in February 1938 (published in English in 1979 and later called The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life).[95] He examined protozoa and 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 wrote that he had seen bright, glowing, blue vesicles. His photographs and films of his experiments were taken by Kari Berggrav. He called them “bions” and believed they were a rudimentary form of life, halfway between life and non-life. He wrote that when he poured the cooled mixture onto growth media, bacteria were born, dismissing the idea that the bacteria were already present in the air or on other materials.[96]

In what Sharaf writes was the origins of the orgone theory, Reich said he could see two kinds of bions, the blue vesicles and smaller red ones shaped like lancets. He called the former PA-bions and the latter T-bacilli, the T standing for Tod, German for death.[97] He wrote in his book The Cancer Biopathy (1948) that he had found T-bacilli in rotting cancerous tissue obtained from a local hospital, 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”. 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.[98]

Opposition to his ideas

Bronisław Malinowski wrote to newspapers in Norway in support of Reich.[99]

Scientists in Oslo reacted strongly to Reich’s 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.[100] Between March and December 1938, more than 165 articles or letters appeared in 13 Norwegian newspapers denouncing him.[101][102]

In 1937 the Norwegian pathologist Leiv Kreyberg was allowed to examine one of Reich’s bion preparations under a 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.[103]

Reich sent a sample of the bacteria to a Norwegian biologist, Theodor Thjøtta of the Oslo Bacteriological Institute, who also blamed airborne infection. Kreyberg and Thjøtta’s views were published in the country’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, on 19 and 21 April 1938. Kreyberg alleged that “Mr. 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.[103]

By February 1938 Reich’s 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.”[104] The writer Sigurd Hoel asked: “When did it become a reason for deportation that one looked in a microscope when one was not a trained biologist?” Reich received support from overseas, first from the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who in March wrote to the press in Norway that Reich’s sociological works were “a distinct and valuable contribution toward science”, and from A. S. Neill, founder of Summerhill, a progressive school in England, who argued that “the campaign against Reich seems largely ignorant and uncivilized, more like fascism than democracy”.[99]

Norway was proud of its intellectual tolerance, so the “Reich affair”, especially following the country’s 1936 expulsion of Leon Trotsky, put Nygaardsvold’s government on the spot. A compromise was 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 understood that Reich would not be given one. Throughout the affair Reich issued just one public statement, when he asked for a commission to replicate his bion experiments. Sharaf writes that the opposition to his work affected his personality and relationships. He was left humiliated, no longer comfortable in public, and seething with bitterness against the researchers who had denounced him.[105]

Personal life

Reich’s home in Frogner, Oslo. A blue plaque, in Norwegian, reads: “The physician and psychoanalyst WILHELM REICH (1897–1957) lived and worked here 1935–39. Developed character analysis and the body-oriented therapy.”

According to Sharaf, 1934–1937 was the happiest period of Reich’s personal life, despite the professional problems. 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 saw the future as too unsettled. To Lindenberg’s great distress, Sharaf writes, Reich insisted on an abortion, at that time illegal. They went to Berlin, where the psychoanalyst Edith Jacobson helped to arrange it.[106]

In 1937 Reich began an affair with a female patient, an actress who had been married to a colleague of his. According to Sigurd Hoel, the analysis would stop because of the relationship, then the relationship would end and the analysis would start up again. The patient eventually threatened to go to the press, but was persuaded that it would harm her as much as it would Reich. Around the same time, Reich also had an affair with Gerd Bergersen, a 25-year-old Norwegian textile designer.[107]

Despite the affairs, Sharaf writes that, as the newspaper campaign against Reich gained pace, he developed an intense jealousy toward Lindenberg, demanding that she not have a separate life of any kind. He even physically assaulted a composer with whom she was working. Lindenberg considered calling the police but decided Reich could not afford another scandal. His behaviour took its toll on their relationship, and when Reich asked her to accompany him to the United States, she said no.[107]

1939–1957: United States

Teaching, second marriage

When Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, Reich’s ex-wife and daughters had already left for the United States. Later that year, Theodore P. Wolfe, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, traveled to Norway to study under Reich. Wolfe offered to help Reich settle in the States, and managed to arrange an invitation from The New School in New York for Reich to teach a course on “Biological Aspects of Character Formation”. Wolfe and Walter Briehl, a former student of Reich’s, put up $5,000 to guarantee his visa.[108] Wolfe also pulled strings with Adolph Berle, an official in the State Department.[109] Reich wrote in his diary in May 1939:

I am sitting in a completely empty apartment waiting for my American visa. I have misgivings as to how it will go. … I am utterly and horribly alone!

It will be quite an undertaking to carry on all the work in America. Essentially, I am a great man, a rarity, as it were. I can’t quite believe it myself, however, and that is why I struggle against playing the role of a great man.[110]

He received the visa in August 1939 and sailed out of Norway on 19 August on the SS Stavangerfjord, the last ship to leave for the United States before the war began on 3 September.[109] He began teaching at The New School, where he remained until May 1941, living first at 7502 Kessel Street, Forest Hills, Queens, where he conducted experiments on mice with cancer, injecting them with bions. He built a small Faraday cage to examine the vapors and lights he said the bions were producing.[111] In October 1939 his secretary Gertrud Gaasland introduced him to Ilse Ollendorf, 29 years old at the time. Reich was still in love with Lindenberg, but Ollendorf started organizing his life for him, becoming his bookkeeper and laboratory assistant.[112] They began living together in the Kessel Street house on Christmas Day 1939. She was eight weeks pregnant, but according to Turner he insisted that she have an abortion.[111] Five years later, in 1944, they had a son, Peter, and were married in 1946.[112]

Sharaf writes that Reich’s personality changed after his experience in Oslo.[102] He became socially isolated and kept his distance even from old friends and his ex-wife. His students in the United States came to know him as a man that no colleague, no matter how close, called by his first name. In January 1940 he wrote to Lindenberg to end 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.[113]

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