Taboo Science: The Story of Wilhelm Reich

Part I: 1896-ca. 1935

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY
March 25, 2012

Last revised October 22, 2012

Wilhelm Reich was born in 1896 the son of a prosperous Jewish farmer at the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He served in World War I in the Austrian army, then went to medical school in Vienna, where he became interested in human sexuality and discovered Freud. He thoroughly mastered Freud's work and moved beyond it for scientific reasons. He insisted that attaining orgastic potency— roughly, full capacity for sexual gratification—was needed for overcoming psychological misery. This eventually put him at odds with the Freudians, as did his challenge to Freud's claim that alongside the Love or Life Instinct (the libido), psychology had to assume a basic destructive drive called the Death Instinct.

Expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association, blacklisted by leftist movements with whom he had cooperated to bring sex-counseling to large working class audiences, and hunted by the Nazis, he moved from Austria to Germany to Scandinavia. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, where he lived and, until the mid-1950's, conducted cutting-edge biological and physical research. I shall say a few words about this at the end of the talk.

Because it is impossible in a single brief talk to do justice to both phases of his career, I shall focus today on the European phase up to 1935.

The Freudian background

Sigmund Freud (b. 1856) was trained as a medical doctor. At the end of the 19th century, his work with neuroses—a class of emotional disorders that interfere with work or human interaction—led him to study mental life. Freud realized that mental life is mostly unconscious, although the unconscious affects feelings we are aware of and manifests itself in dreams and behavior. He also developed a technique to access it.

Freud realized early on that the energy involved in neuroses is sexual. The term "sexual" is not limited to things relating to the sexual organs in the narrow sense, which may be labeled "genital." We should avoid calling these organs "reproductive" because this reinforces the error that the sole justification for using these organs is reproduction. Freud already challenged this error, as did Reich later.

The movements of this energy can be experienced as pleasure in various parts of the body: the mouth, the anus, the genitals, and the skin almost anywhere. The paths this energy takes can also be affected by how natural mother-son and father-daughter attachments are processed by the child in the course of development.

Freud's insight concerning this energy, which he called libido, is naturalistic. What I mean is that motivation does not come from outside of nature in a pure will, as some religions and dualistic psychologies teach, but from natural human bodies similar to those of other animals. Not only are we akin to the rest of the living world. The energy for all our activities derives from a common pool in our bodies.

This energy is quantifiable in principle—there can be more or less of it present in a living being; it can be bottled up or released. Freud did not try to measure it empirically but postulated its existence to explain observed behavior and experiences reported by patients.

He theorized that the source of sexual misery was sexual repression, sex-negative teachings by parents as well as religious and educational authorities, internalized at an early age. You've got to be taught, before it's too late.

He understood that young children are already sexual beings, contrary to what conservative moralists wish us to believe. How children process their early sexual experiences (not always genital experiences) makes a big difference for the presence or absence of neurosis in later life.

Freudian therapy

This was the famous talk therapy. The patient is on the couch. The therapist does not touch the patient, but primarily listens. The therapist may even sit behind the patient. The session is private, consisting only of the therapist and the patient.

The patient is encouraged to share her dreams and to free associate about their possible meaning. The goal is to let the patient regress ("go back" mentally) to infantile situations where she was traumatized or suffered a loss. Becoming conscious of the cause of one's current misery in early life is supposed to be liberating. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." However, such cures often fail to last; relapsing is a big problem.

Freud's retreat

Radical in its beginnings, Freudian psychoanalysis became a profession made up of persons requiring special training and certification; unavoidably composed of middle-class people subject to pressures from their peers and social superiors, it turned increasingly conservative.

Freud originally thought that since sexual misery was caused by repression, happiness might be promoted by stopping repression. But it soon became clear that powerful institutions were committed to this repression. He back-peddled; he decided that sexual repression is necessary for civilization, i.e. the problem was not repression but too much repression.

Around 1920 he made another modification, undermining what had been a unified theory of human motivation based on the libido or life instinct. He introduced the Death Instinct. But if this instinct drives us as much as the libido, then we are by nature as destructive as we are creative. The Death Instinct seems to explain the 20th century, the era of world wars, totalitarianism, and genocide, but it also makes these evils seem unavoidable—a profoundly pessimistic result.

Reich and Freud

Wilhelm Reich was a young medical student at the University of Vienna in the early 1920's, when Freud was at the top of his influence. Reich recognized a gap in medical education about sexuality and joined a student discussion group on the topic. This study led him to Freud. He quickly emerged as one of the brightest stars among the younger psychoanalysts. Freud became a sort of father figure to him. With Freud's moral support Reich organized what came to be called the technical seminar— where analysts could share their clinical experiences and technical challenges and learn from each other.

From Defense Mechanisms to Body Armor

At this time, analysts were discovering the importance of defense mechanisms, strategies that people unconsciously develop to prevent themselves from discovering the unconscious (ultimately sexual) roots of their neuroses. Reich gradually concluded that, for purposes of a cure, undoing defense mechanisms was more important than uncovering the original painful scene that analysis held lay at the root of people's neuroses. Reich figured that beneath the defense mechanisms were physical realities that, although produced by past events in one's childhood, may no longer be tied closely to the precise causal situation. So what were the defense mechanisms in physical terms? Reich concluded that they were muscular rigidities observable in the way a person moves or is unable to move, feels or is unable to feel. He called these rigidities, taken collectively, body armor, to indicate that they can block the person's feeling, or accepting as his own, biological currents in parts of his body.

The body armor results from sex-negative teaching in the patient's past. Individuals in the person's intimate environment are the direct source of that teaching. A parent may sternly prohibit even touching one's "private parts." But the parent's mindset likely results from teaching by their own parents when they were young; and the teaching is reinforced by sex-negative messages deriving from other educators, including spokespersons of patriarchal religions.

Dismantling Body Armor

When such energy builds up and cannot be released, given the patients' training to avoid perceiving or accepting their sexuality, the pressure can be unbearable; they feel miserable.

Reich came up with techniques to help patients dismantle the body armor— it happens that armor tends to develop at specific places in the body and the dismantling has to be performed in a certain order to be effective. Lack of time prevents saying much more about this. (Orson Bean has written a highly readable account of what it is like to experience the type of therapy developed by Reich in his book Me and the Orgone published in 2000.)

Refutation of the Death Instinct and the Break with Freud

A by-product of Reich's work in this period was a refutation of Freud's hypothesis of the Death Instinct. Freud had cited suicide among youth as evidence for the hypothesis. Reich showed that there was a more reasonable explanation of youthful suicide. When young people commit suicide, they are not being driven to it by the newly hypothesized Death Instinct; they are trying to escape pain arising from a build-up of sexual tension that their culture indirectly, and their body armor directly, prevent them from releasing. This also means that they are denied sexual gratification, the conscious experience of the release of such tension.

Reich concluded from his work in the 1920's and early 1930's that neuroses cannot be eliminated until people are able to attain "orgastic potency"—the capacity to fully experience orgasm. Freud had once been attracted to this view, but by the 1920's he had backed away from this position: its consequences were too radical for a psychoanalytical profession trying to establish respectability in a culture still pervaded by sex-repressive moralism.

The Sexual Rights of Youth

To give you a further sense of Reich's views, I turn to a booklet he published in German in 1932, "The Sexual Struggle of Youth." (translated into English as "The Sexual Rights of Youth," in Reich 1983, Children of the Future).

This booklet was written to give young people answers to their questions about their maturing sexuality:

What is involved in the process of sexual maturing?

Why are sexual matters treated in such a secretive manner…?

What is the significance of the moodiness, states of excitation, compulsive daydreams, isolation, and sexual fears that occur at this age?

What is the way out of this situation? (161)

He promises to show that "the dilemma facing young people" is very different from its usual description.
The choice is not between a[n]…abstinent life…and sexual smut…, but between a healthy and a pathological sexual life… (162)
The key issue is that of sexual intercourse in adolescence and society's attitude toward it.
Young people have more than…a right to be 'enlightened'; they are fully entitled to their emotional health and their sexual joy in life. …This right has been taken away from them. Countless young people have lost all awareness of their sexuality," although this has led to serious psychic disturbances during puberty. (162)

…Many will have…problems…absorbing the contents of the following pages. …[O]thers…have been so badly led astray by compulsory morality and education that they will at first reject what is said because it embarrasses or enrages them. Many a young person approaching puberty must develop a…defensive attitude against the unconscious urges of his sexuality, as well as against any knowledge from outside, …in order to give himself a…prop to cling to. He is unaware of the relationship between his sexuality and the daydreams that torture him, his moodiness, his states of excitation, and other plights; he acts and thinks under the… authority of a … will [foreign to his own] that forbids him to obtain sexual knowledge.…The question of adolescents and sex is not just a difficult one but may in many cases prove to be explosive. (163)

…We must decide: either we go on facing psychic misery, suffering, suicide, and pregnancies without end, or we choose the truth… (163-64)

…The main problem causing young people so many headaches is how to cope with sexual excitation and the forbidden pleasure of gratifying sexual desires…it is precisely this point…around which the tender-hearted 'educators' so gingerly skirt. The Church, the school system, and science would all like to make us believe that the only purpose of the sexual act is to produce children.… In reality people have sexual intercourse because they are driven to it by sexual tension and because of the sexual gratification that comes from it.…[164]

The healthy person on average experiences the desire…about one to three times a week, therefore they have intercourse on several thousand occasions, but generally only on two or three occasions is intercourse performed for…creating a child. And it is even more strange, seen from the standpoint of the [conservative] Church…, procreation is associated with a high degree of sexual pleasure, i.e., with precisely that element which is most condemned and on which our young people have probably been given the least amount of information. Anyone who discusses the problem of sex without mentioning …sexual pleasure is…misleading [his or her audience]. (165)

Reich's pamphlet discusses the changes that take place at puberty, on average between ages of 14 and 16. At this point, sexual desire appears: "sexual excitation that seeks an outlet." (167) He defends masturbation as "a transitional stage in the development toward a mature sexual life" challenging the conservative church's view that it is necessarily a vice "dangerous and potentially damaging to a person's health." (ibid.) This practice, he says, "is simply the expression of physical and emotional tension in the adolescent organism…" (168) But he warns that "by the time a person attains sexual maturity, [the practice] is no longer a natural form of sexual activity, as shown by the fact that among primitive tribes [such as those observed by anthropologists in the Trobriand Islands—J.G.] which place no barrier in the way of young people wishing to have intercourse masturbation plays an insignificant role." (169)

"As soon as masturbation no longer …[provides] gratification…," he wrote,

the young person should not be afraid of moving on to sexual intercourse. However, as young people know from their own experience, most of them are not really in a position to follow this …medical advice, because the existing sexual rules of our society make intercourse between adolescents difficult. (171)

The vast majority of…problems that we encounter in the sex-counseling centers (about 80 percent of the people seeking advice have such problems) can be traced to disturbances of sexual life during childhood, to suppression of sexual activity during puberty, or to long periods of abstinence following a… period of masturbation during puberty.… (174)

[A]s long as people's sexual lives are suppressed there will of necessity be sexual crime, anguish, and misery…. Among those primitive peoples who lead satisfactory, unimpaired sexual lives, there is no sexual crime, …no sexual brutality between man and woman; rape is unthinkable… Their sexual activity flows in normal, well-ordered channels. …They do not understand why young men and women should not enjoy their sexuality. (192-93)

Only the person…incapable of gratification, the person whose sexual life is impeded and disturbed and…contaminated by moral inhibitions, becomes sexually dangerous, while the sexually gratified and healthy person, no matter how many and what relationships he has, poses no risk to social coexistence. (193)

He lists "the basic conditions of a natural, pleasurable sex life":

We must

(1) organize and structure our work on the basis of the natural pleasure we have in that work; …(2)… create the…preconditions for a natural and healthy life, destroy…hypocrisy among us, create adequate housing, reach an understanding with the older members of society about what young people need in life and remind them of their own youth; …[and] create a natural relationship between work and happy, sensibly spent leisure hours; …(3)…no longer [experience] the sex act as a valueless event on the same level as [defecation] and [replace] the craving and lust in ourselves with a natural desire for love. (194)
The Mass Psychology of Fascism

A most fascinating application of Reich's analysis of the human psyche and character to emerge from his work in Europe just before the victory of Nazism in Germany is his analysis of the psychosexual basis of fascism. He knew that fascism had roots in the lower middle class and the economically ruined peasantry, as the Marxists claimed, but saw this class as a purveyor of sex-negative ideology based on centuries of patriarchal religion and sexual repression. Persons raised under these conditions learn to deny the evidence of their own feelings, as well as the right to gratify their most pressing needs. These traditions prepared the way for an authoritarian personality: ready to follow a strong leader; looking for someone to tell them what to do— and it didn't immediately matter that he didn't have a reasonable plan for solving the problems facing society.

A person—especially a young person—suffering from sexual repression has ungratified longings for something-he-knows-not-what and he can attach that to a variety of mystical solutions, to an otherworldly deity or to the Fatherland and its Führer. Then and now, adolescents felt sexual yearnings and were prevented by limited economic means as well as conservative teachings from finding opportunities to release these tensions with willing partners.

Reich also knew that sex-repressive traditions were not limited to the lower middle class: they infected the workers as well, even though young workers in Germany just prior to the Nazi seizure of power had flocked to his popular lectures about the sexual rights of young people.

The victory of fascism was partly explained by the failure of non-fascist movements, including but not limited to the socialist left, to answer the needs of the masses suffering from psychological misery as well as economic distress of the depression years. Many people had resolved their Oedipal conflicts by identifying with a strong Father figure in their own families. Now Hitler offered himself as a strong Father figure in the national family. People responded to the sexiness of Hitler's uniformed goose-stepping storm troopers, the patriotic pageantry that the Nazis were good at staging, and the mobilization of hatred that the Nazis knew how to evoke. Having been brainwashed to repress the sexual energies that were moving within them, young people channeled these energies to follow an aggressive myth of national and ethnic superiority. Even many members of left parties opposed to the Nazis prior to 1933 became willing accomplices once the left parties had been removed from the scene—something the Nazis did as soon as they could.

The Excommunication and Persecution of a Scientist

By 1934 Reich was forced out of the International Psychoanalytical Association and expelled (though he had not been a member) from leftist movements with whose help he had earlier opened up sex-counseling clinics for working class clientele. Soon he was to be hunted by the Nazis, who took power in Germany in 1933. He left Germany and moved from one Scandinavian country to another until, at the beginning of World War II, he got out of Norway in the last ship to leave for the United States. There he continued a line of research begun in Scandinavia. Experimental work led him to new conclusions that also came to be considered taboo: there was a form of energy distinct from those identified by mainstream physics and chemistry, an energy, which Reich called orgone, that could be collected, empirically studied, and employed for human health benefits.

In neither of the two main periods of Reich's life were his chief ideas accepted by official science—that is something that often happens with creative scientists. What was unusual was how major attempts were made to discourage others from taking his claims, especially those related to orgone, seriously enough to subject them to fair testing. He was dismissed as a fraud or a quack. Stories were concocted and spread to discredit him. Careers of doctors and scientists were put in jeopardy if they pursued research inspired by his work. In the mid-1950's he and a colleague were imprisoned at the instigation of the Food and Drug Association essentially for their work on orgone energy and—hard to imagine but a fully documented fact— many of his publications were burnt by order of the federal government. He died in prison in 1957 shortly before he was scheduled to be released.

Sources Consulted

Books by Reich

(Most were translated from the German.)

Mostly Written before 1936

Reich, Wilhelm, 1988. Passion of Youth. An Autobiography 1897-1922. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. (Parts of this were written in 1919, part in 1937.)

Reich, Wilhelm, 1980. Genitality. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. A translation of Die Funktion des Orgasmus published in 1927.

Reich, Wilhelm, 1966. Sex-Pol Essays, 1929-34. Ed. Lee Baxandall. New York: Random House.

Reich Wilhelm, 1945. Character Analysis. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. Parts I and II were published in German in 1933.

Reich Wilhelm, 1974. The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Regulating Character Structure. Rpt. of 1945 English edition. (First German edition seems to have been published in 1935) New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

Reich, Wilhelm, 1976. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Simon and Schuster Pocket Books; rpt. of 1970 edition published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

Mostly Written after 1935

Reich Wilhelm, 1976. People in Trouble. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. Rpt. of 1953 edition published by Orgone Institute Press. (Although written in the early 1950's, it is chiefly an autobiographical reflection on the earlier period in Reich's life.)

Reich, Wilhelm, 1942, 1948, 1961. The Discovery of the Orgone: The Function of the Orgasm. Noonday Press. (Very different from Reich 1980.)

Reich, Wilhelm, 1973. The Cancer Biopathy. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. New translation; original English translation published in 1948.

Reich, Wilhelm, 1949. Ether God and the Devil. Rpt. 1973 in a combined publication with Cosmic Superimposition: New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

Reich, Wilhelm, 1953. The Murder of Christ. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

Reich, Wilhelm, 1967. Reich Speaks of Freud. Rpt. 1972. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. (Largely about Reich's pre-1934 period.)

Reich, Wilhelm, 1983. Children of the Future: On the Prevention of Sexual Pathology. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux. (A collection of Reich's writings on the topic of children, youth, and sexuality.)

Other Materials

Bean, Orson, 2000. Me and the Orgone. Princeton, NJ: American College of Orgonomy Press. Highly readable account of what it is like to experience Reichian therapy aimed at dismantling "body armor."

Corrington, Robert S., 2003. Wilhelm Reich: Psychoanalyst and Radical Naturalist. Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

DeMeo, James, 2010. The Orgone Accumulator Handbook. Third Revised and Expanded Edition. Ashland OR: Natural Energy Works. Although I would like more direct personal experience of the evidence for the orgone, I tend to take DeMeo seriously when he discusses it. I am less willing to follow him when he strays from this topic and Reich-related materials that I can check for myself.

Gay, Peter, 1988. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton.

Sharaf, Myron, 1983. Fury on Earth. A Biography of Wilhelm Reich. Da Capo Press.

Southgate, Leon, 2003. "Traditional Chinese Medicine and Reichian Theory." European Journal of Oriental Medicine. Vol. 4, no. 4 (Winter 2003), 31-41. Explores the many similarities and a few differences between chi in traditional Chinese medicine and orgone as described by Reich.