On November 3, 1957, Wilhelm Reich, the mad genius who developed a theory of mental and physical health centered on sexual energy, died in a Pennsylvania jail. He had been imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in 1955 for fraud connected to his “orgone accumulator” – something like the “orgasmatron” featured in Woody Allen’s 1973 film “Sleeper.”
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It is easy to laugh at Reich, whose ideas and inventions became increasingly outlandish as he aged. Sitting in the orgone accumulator, he implied, could cure not only impotence but cancer, too; his “cloudbuster” could make it rain by freeing “orgone energy” in the atmosphere.
He almost invited rejection, whether because he refused to submit his ideas for scientific testing, or because he flouted social convention, especially in his sexual libertinism. But he had an intuitive understanding of human psychology that still has its impact today, even if his insights have been incorporated into the science without recognition for their source.
No Yiddish in this house
Wilhelm Reich’s life was dramatic, and often tragic. He was born on March 24, 1897, in Dobzau, in Poland (today, Dobrianychi, Ukraine). His parents, Leon Reich and the former Cecilie Roniger, were Jews, but they raised both him and his younger brother, Robert, with no religion, forbidding them to even speak Yiddish.
Leon was a cattle farmer, and soon after Willy’s birth, he became the manager of a dairy farm in Jujinitz, Bukovina. According to Reich, he was exposed to sexual behavior from a very young age, among the farm animals and also in his own experience with employees. When he was 12, he witnessed his mother having sex with his tutor. When he told his father, the tutor was dismissed, and Cecilie killed herself.
A few years later, Leon, according to at least one version, deliberately contracted tuberculosis so that his sons could receive his insurance money when he died. (He died, but for some reason, they never got the payout.)
Reich served as an officer on the Italian front in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He then studied law in Vienna but, bored, he switched to medicine during his first year.
Today he'd have been arrested
A lecture he heard about psychoanalysis won him over immediately to the young field, and even before graduating medicine, Reich came to the attention of Sigmund Freud. By age 22, he was permitted to analyze patients himself.
One of his earliest analysands, Lore Kahn, killed herself, apparently after becoming pregnant from him, her therapist.He was criticized for having sex with patients throughout his career, and also for adopting a method that involved him physically probing and massaging disrobed patients.
Freud dissociated himself from Reich in 1933, but during the decade that he was in master’s good graces, Reich was afforded unusual privileges and great responsibility within the psychoanalytic community, despite his relative youth.
Early on, Reich came to see sex,specifically orgasm, as key to health. He also began to connect sexual repression with social and economic oppression, leading him to become involved in left-wing politics.
With the rise of Hitler, Reich fled Germany, and wandered until an American sponsor helped him get a visa to move to the United States in 1939.
In his final two decades, Reich expanded his theory of “orgone energy” to encompass the forces holding the universe together. He bought a piece of land in Maine, and named the compound he established Orgonon. He also built his notorious "orgone accumulator," a box that was supposed to absorb this powerful energy and thus heal any number of maladies when subjects sat inside it.
As he became increasingly erratic, Reich began to suspect that there was a conspiracy afoot to ruin him. The Federal government played into his paranoia by falsely imprisoning him in a case of mistaken identity, and later trying him for mail fraud. (Reich may have been misguided, but he wasn’t making any money off his publications or his orgone accumulator.) After his conviction, the court ordered every copy of all his English-language publications to be burned, at Reich’s expense no less.
He was imprisoned after being entrapped by a sting, in which he was asked to mail a replacement part for an accumulator to a fake follower. He was 62 when he died of a heart attack in jail.