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Wilhelm Reich

Becomes a disciple of Freud, Attacked for unorthodox ideas

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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists