*Record Scratch* “Yup, that’s me. I bet you’re wondering how I wound up in this situation. Well, it all started…” Okay for real now, haha. Wilhelm Reich was born on the 24th of March, 1897 in Austria-Hungary to parents Leon Reich and Cacilie nee Roniger.
His childhood was tumultuous, mainly because of an affair between his mother Cacilie and the live-in tutor. Young Wilhelm had something of an Oedipus complex and by his own admission briefly considered using this information to blackmail his mother until deciding against it, informing his father instead.
This revelation predictably made Cacilie’s remaining life short and brutal. She committed suicide in 1910 following months of frequent beatings at the hands of Wilhelm’s father, Leon. Wilhelm would blame himself for this outcome the rest of his days, and it would make him suspicious of his own lovers later in life.
The tutor was of course banished from the Reich household and as such, Wilhelm’s education continued at a male gymnasium in Czernowitz, what we would today refer to as secondary school. This is when his psoriasis appeared. It would plague him for the rest of his life, making him at times a target of ridicule for his complexion.
Leon Reich contracted tuberculosis and succumbed to it in 1914. Because of the economic collapse underway at that time, the inheritance he left Wilhelm and his brothers was rendered worthless by rampant inflation. They stayed well-fed however as their father also left them his farm.
WW1 saw Wilhelm rise through the ranks, a lieutenant serving on the Italian front with 40 men under his command by the close of the war. The next chapter of his life would see him enroll as a law student in Vienna, but only briefly, as he discovered law bored him. He switched to Medicine during his first semester.
He was not exactly set up for success given his time at university coincided with a national famine. He lived off staples like rice, beans, and oats from the university canteen and lived with his brother and a fellow student in an unheated room. Wilhelm’s solution was simply to wear winter clothing indoors.
Medicine, even at that time, took a materialist and mechanist view of living organisms. Reich became convinced there was more to life, seduced by a then-popular school of thought called Vitalism. Vitalism is to believe in souls what intelligent design is to creationism.
That is to say, it was an attempt to make scientific the conviction that there must exist some supernatural motivating energy or principle that imbues the quality of life onto what would otherwise be dead, inanimate matter. We now understand that principle to be “biochemistry”.
Wilhelm was not content with such a reductionist explanation, however. He first met with Sigmund Freud in 1919, when he requested Freud recommend him a reading list on the topic of sexology. Freud was as impressed with Wilhelm as Wilhelm was with Freud it seemed, as Freud pulled some strings for Wilhelm to get him into lectures normally not available to poor undergraduates.
Sexology became a core component of Wilhelm’s worldview. In particular what causes life, what motivates and organizes the biological processes of living organisms. He initially called this concept “orgastic potency”, attributing spiritual power to orgasms, a conclusion which Freud was unimpressed with.
Given that Wilhelm had a series of affairs with several of his early female patients, eventually marrying one who gave him two children (another died of sepsis some years prior) one might speculate that Wilhelm was simply a very sexually motivated man who overcomplicated his own fixation by building a worldview around it, marrying his own libido to his topic of study.
His theory of orgastic potency did not meet with the same widespread approval by the psychoanalytic community as his publications on character, such as The Mass Psychology of Fascism, the work for which he is most famous. To his colleagues, this turning point in his focus looked very much as if he was beginning to lose his mind.
We might speculate tuberculosis played some part in that shift. Wilhelm’s brother died of it in 1926. Wilhelm contracted it himself in 1927 but survived following several weeks of treatment in Switzerland. Losing two family members to TB wasn’t an anomaly, fully 25% of deaths in Vienna where Reich lived at that time were caused by TB.
Besides whatever effect this may have had on his brain in the biological sense, Wilhelm Reich was also more generally a product of suffering inflicted in his youth. Living through many traumatic experiences influenced the formation of his character and ideas, struggling to become a success by the standards of the day in spite of it all.
It won’t surprise you, given the recurring theme of sex in his studies, that Wilhelm opened a series of free sex counseling clinics serving the working class of Vienna following his recovery from TB. From 1930 onwards, at these clinics, he innovated the psychoanalytic process by having patients strip down to their undergarments and allow him to massage their bodies. Classic Wilhelm, am I right?
This was also when he published “The Function of the Orgasm”, dedicating it to Freud, who upon reading it only further distanced himself from Reich, perhaps sensing something was amiss with this fellow. Leave it to history’s most celebrated psychoanalyst to be a good judge of character, despite the many things we now believe he was wrong about.
Reich would visit the Soviet Union in 1929 and come away, surprise surprise, convinced of a link between sex and class oppression. He saw an urgent need to unify the ideas of Marx and Freud, which led to his publication of “The Sexual Struggle of Youth” in 1932, while he was a member of the German communist party.
Wilhelm and his wife at the time, Annie Reich, moved to Berlin at about the worst possible time. The National Socialist movement was gaining steam by this point and Reich’s “The Sexual Struggle of Youth” predictably drew their ire. Not wanting to be on the receiving end of political violence, Wilhelm and Annie moved back to Vienna the next day. If he thought this was the end of his problems, he was in for a rude awakening.
At the 1934 Lucerne Conference, Reich was surprised to learn how poorly regarded his work was by the psychoanalytic community. Part of this was due to his injection of Marxist ideas into psychoanalysis during a time when parts of Europe were warming to National Socialism and looking to appease it. But there were plenty of reasons outside of political expedience to turn against Reich, given the rumors in circulation by that time.
This led to his own daughter orchestrating his forcible resignation from the International Psychoanalytic Association, a decision she reportedly later regretted. As if he wasn’t already giving a bad enough impression, Wilhelm camped outside of the conference hall for a couple of days in a tent, with a big knife on his belt.
Reeling from this brutal professional rejection, Wilhelm moved to Norway in 1934 where he developed his theories in private for five years, while lecturing on character analysis and vegetotherapy at the University of Oslo. Here he sought to ground his ideas about orgastic energy in biological science, that it might be better received.
In a move reminiscent (or I guess prescient, given the timeframe) of Scientology’s development of the e-meter, Reich began to involve technology in his work, connecting volunteers to an oscilloscope to capture bioelectric readings while they kissed, touched, and were otherwise be intimate with one another.
Reich also performed the “bion experiments” during this time, boiling samples of plant and animal tissue, adding potassium and gelatin. Heating them to the point of iridescence, he claimed he observed glowing blue vesicles in them, which he dubiously identified as a transitional stage between non-life and life that he dubbed “bions”.
The Norwegian scientific community reacted as you might expect, unanimously denouncing him. Reich insisted no bacterial contamination had occurred to explain the presence of the vesicles, that bacterial growth following his observation of bions was best explained by those bions organizing matter around them into living bacteria.
His visa expired in 1938 and was not renewed. Despite taking pride in their intellectual tolerance, the Norwegian scientific community wanted him out. They were unwilling to deliver him into the hands of the Gestapo, being that Reich was Jewish, but agreed that if a humane means of expelling him from Norway could be found, Reich should be gotten rid of.
This controversy is also what led to the requirement that anybody practicing psychoanalysis must have a license. A license, needless to say, that Reich would not be able to obtain. Humiliated by the ordeal, Wilhelm Reich soon left Norway for the United States.
In this instance, his timing could not have been better, as Hitler annexed Austria later that same year. Former students of Reich’s coughed up large sums to secure his Visa, to secure him a teaching position at The New School in New York, and to help him get settled in his new home.
In the United States, Reich enjoyed a great deal more cultural tolerance for pseudoscience, able to hold down a teaching position even while he expounded his newly crystalized theory of Orgonomy. At last unifying all of his prior ideas about orgastic potency, marxism, and bions, Wilhelm identified the human libido as the biological expression or outlet of cosmic life-giving energy he called Orgone.
Orgasms constituting the sudden release of libidinal accumulation should produce a concentration of bions in the womb. It seemed only rational to Reich that this would result in conception, as inorganic materials from the mother’s body were organized by bions into a fetus.
He continued his attempts to technologically harness, capture and study Orgone with the invention of the Orgonic Accumulator, pictured above in both the booth and respiratory apparatus formats. These devices were meant to attract, trap and concentrate Orgone in the human body. Reich’s belief is that doing so would promote healing.
Orgone manifested bions, he reasoned. Bions organize non-life into life, as during conception. Ergo increasing the concentration of Orgone throughout the human body would increase the presence of bions, which would repair damage at the cellular level in a sort of rejuvenating effect. The booth was nothing more than a plywood box lined with sheet iron and rock wool. Naturally, his patients were told they must be naked for the treatment to work.
A few of his patients attempted to raise the alarm that Reich was insane. One based on false rumors Reich had been institutionalized in Utica State Mental Hospital. The other was the father of a young girl under Reich’s care who discovered he did not possess any sort of medical license. Reich’s charisma prevented these complaints from amounting to anything, for the time being.
He also had many ardent, lifelong defenders. Some of whom supported him for his history of groundbreaking psychoanalytic essays. Others were fellow travelers who supported him for his inclusion of Marxist ideas in Orgone Energy Theory.
Orgone, according to Wilhelm Reich, is associated with the color blue. That is to say, the color blue is symptomatic of high Orgonic concentrations. The ocean, then, is jam-packed with Orgone. The sky as well, being rich with water vapor. This reasoning seemed to check out with Reich on account of the dependence of all living things on the water for their survival. The northern lights were also believed by Reich to be caused by Orgone fluctuations in the atmosphere.
Orgone was thought to be partially electrical in nature, after some fashion. Orgonic Accumulators were basically just crude Faraday cages. Reich’s conviction was that Orgone could enter these chambers, but not escape, such that they functioned as the Orgonic equivalent of a greenhouse.
Other innovations from the field of Orgonomy included Orgonic concentrator pyramids and cloudbusters. Orgonic concentrator pyramids consist of the same materials used in the lining of Orgonic accumulators, stratified vertically, with the addition of copper coils.
All of this is encased inside of glass or lucite, with the finished product supposedly serving to attract, store, then radiate Orgonic energy within the home. Blankets were later developed using the same materials as the concentrator pyramids and accumulator booths, so you could concentrate Orgone into your body while you sleep.
It was clear to most then, as it is now, that these devices didn’t really do anything. They were the feverish, desperate attempts of a man convinced of his own brilliance but lacking serious engineering knowledge to syncretize the disciplines he had so far devoted his life to. Unifying them into a single cohesive theory, then applying those findings as technology as best he could given his level of technical experience.
When tweakers do this, you get convoluted contraptions built from stolen car parts based on misunderstandings of hydrolysis and abortive attempts at perpetual motion. When schizophrenics do this, you get elaborate murals invoking religious and political imagery, the futile attempt of a broken mind to make sense of a confusing world. When guys like Wilhelm Reich do this, you get…weird boxes you sit naked in that supposedly cure impotence.
This was just one of a rapidly mounting stack of outrageously audacious claims Wilhelm was now making, including that Orgonic accumulators could kill tumors, insisting he’d documented the remission of cancer in one of his patients following a series of treatment sessions in his goofy wooden booth.
This is where the empire Reich tried to build started to show cracks. The land of the free tolerated all sorts of mystics, psychics, seers, spiritualists, and so on, but not medical quackery. Regulation existed prohibiting anyone from making fraudulent claims concerning the efficacy of medical treatments, drugs, or other products.
You’d think he would have the good sense to lay low, but Reich not only drank his own Kool-Aid, but he was also drowning in it. The man truly believed he’d struck on something revolutionary, and the pushback he received was just the reactionary stubbornness of a dim-witted public against every great man of intellect to come along. So of course, he reached out to none other than Albert Einstein.
Believing Einstein would recognize in him a fellow visionary, Reich mailed Einstein his notes and examples of his inventions for an independent analysis. To his credit, Einstein actually did study the devices. The increase in ambient temperature around Orgonic accumulators pointed out by Reich was attributed by Einstein to measurement error, following replication.
His assistant at one point thought to measure the thermal gradient in the room itself. As heat rises, the temperature was of course lower on the floor than it was on the ceiling. Differences in the vertical positioning of Reich’s thermal sensors, it turned out, explained the apparent temperature increase that Reich had observed.
This was the latest in a long series of repudiations of Reich’s ideas from scientists in various fields who regarded Reich as possessing less comprehension of biology than a first-year student, crediting his own misunderstanding of results from his amateur experimentation as revolutionary discoveries.
Reich’s cloudbusters and Orgone projectors (seen above), his accumulator booths, and concentrator pyramids were nothing more than unintentional outsider art, then. Do-nothing sculptures of wood, metal, glass, and lucite operated on principles totally contrary to physics, working only in Reich’s imagination.
Einstein’s rejection was unacceptable to Reich. He believed it part of a conspiracy of some kind. Even so, Reich continued hopefully reporting results of his experiments to Einstein, who did not respond, now realizing as Freud did that Reich was a nutter it would be unwise to become entangled with.
Reich tried to change Einstein’s mind with a 25-page letter in which he attempted to rule out convection as the cause of the temperature increase. He corrected his methodological errors from the prior experiment, insisting the temperature difference not only persisted but was increased by these new precautions.
Einstein continued to ignore him until Reich threatened to publish their three-year correspondence. Einstein replied only to insist he could devote no further time to this matter and to ask that his name not be attached to Reich’s work or misused for advertising purposes. Reich published their correspondence anyway in 1953 as “The Einstein Affair”.
Reich lost his teaching position at the New School in 1941 after claiming, in a letter to director Alvin Johnson, to have saved several lives in secret using his Orgonic technology. He was also evicted from his home after neighbors complained of his experimentation on animals using his various Orgonic devices.
His supporters bailed him out yet again, shelling out 14 grand for a house at 9906 69th Avenue. It goes to show how far you can get in life if you’re a fascinating, charismatic figure, even if your ideas are nonsense. Often times it’s more lucrative to be interesting than it is to be correct, as many fantasy authors will tell you.
The FBI only caught wind of Reich initially because he shared the same name as the owner of a book store known to distribute communist materials. Five days after Pearl Harbor and one day after Germany declared war on the US, Reich was abducted from his home at 2 am by the FBI.
They would deliver him to a facility on Ellis Island where he was detained for three weeks pending completion of an investigation into his career and activities. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on that wall, as the FBI’s confusion and amusement must’ve grown exponentially the more they discovered about this weird guy they’d mistaken for a communist subversive.
This was Reich’s first run-in with the feds, but it wouldn’t be the last. He was on their radar now. The ponderous Rube Goldberg machine of government had been set in motion. It would take many years from that date to finally become a show-stopping problem for Reich though, during which time he purchased an old farm in Maine for $4,000.
He called it Orgonon, building out a laboratory in the basement between 1942 and 1948 for the continuation of his experiments, among other expansions to the property. While initially he only Summered at Orgonon, by 1950 he was living there year-round, such was his dedication to his work.
This is around when the government began slowly circling back for him. It started with critical press from medical journals concerning his Orgone claims, even while his more conventional writings received praise in American psychoanalytic circles following its translation to English.
More and more journalists, science writers, in particular, started taking notice of Reich. His past was catching up with him, not that he made any attempt to hide it. Some of these detractors wrote to the FDA complaining of Reich’s bogus medical claims, and they tentatively agreed pending investigation. Reich’s days were now concretely numbered.
Wilhelm remained a very busy man despite all of these rumblings, opening an “Orgonomic infant research center” in 1950. That same year, Reich divorced his most recent wife Ilse Ollendorff and established his own press for the promulgation of articles promoting Orgonomy. This is one of the classic cult moves. Getting bad press from the mainstream media? Make your own press.
Reich grew increasingly unhinged during this time. His divorce was motivated by his suspicion that Ilse had been cheating on him, even as Reich himself was having an affair. His background in psychoanalysis bled into his abuse of Ilse as he made her sign confessions about her feelings of fear and hatred towards him, which he filed away in the archives of Orgonon.
1951 is when he shifted gears to meteorology. It was during this stage of his life when he invented the cloudbuster pictured below, the machine he alleged could combat desertification.
The cloudbuster is probably Reich’s most famous invention, introduced to pop culture by the Kate Bush music video titled “Cloudbusting”, which you can watch here.
It recounts in song the story of Reich’s development of so-called cloudbusters, a device resembling small artillery or anti-aircraft cannons, in reality consisting of a cluster of hollow pipes with hoses trailing down into buckets of water. The water contains orgone you see, and by channeling it up at clouds, Reich believed he could cause them to form or disperse as desired.
Despite his rough youth, Reich was a lucky man at times. When a pair of local farmers paid him to bring an end to a drought threatening their blueberry crop, he towed his cloudbuster out to their farm, and…it seemingly worked. He used the cloudbuster on the morning of January 6th, and by evening, it rained. The farmers were impressed and paid Reich the agreed-upon fee for his services.
Good times were just about over for Reich though. The gears of government, turning at their infamously glacial pace, finally did catch up with Reich. The FDA concluded from their investigation of Reich that he was a fraud, and a permanent injunction was granted which prohibited the interstate distribution of Reich’s Orgonic accumulators and other devices, as well as promotional literature.
This brings us full circle to his arrest. Reich believed all of this to be a conspiracy against him and reacted as you might expect, with a lot of name-callings and refusal to cooperate with the investigation while it was ongoing. He violated the injunction against him by sending an Orgonic accumulator through the mail to an FDA inspector posing as a customer. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment on May 7th, 1956.
The injunction had already taken a toll on Reich’s mental health, this latest blow only pushed him further over the edge. It was the period between the injunction and his arrest when he began to claim Earth was under attack by UFOs he called “energy alphas” which of course only his cloudbusters could shoot down. These UFOs, described by Reich as long thin cigar-shaped vessels with windows, were supposedly scattering DOR (Deadly Orgone Radiation) over the Earth.
Reich and his son spent many nights searching for UFOs with telescopes and binoculars. When they spotted a potential UFO candidate they would bring the cloudbuster to bear on it and “suck all the energy out”. From the perspective of a young boy who is helpless but to think the world of his loving father, all of this must’ve seemed a fascinating, magical adventure.
The FDA did not see it that way. They would send officials to supervise the destruction of his cloudbusters, accumulators, and other devices on the fifth of June, 1956, though not many were stored on the property. The officials made Reich and his sons do the actual demolishing with axes, as they were only permitted to supervise the process. Following these events, Reich was taken to prison.
What a baffling horror all this must’ve been to Reich’s son. A boy that age couldn’t understand what his father did that was so terrible, for the government to take him away like that. As far as Reich’s son understood, his dad was a genius who devoted his life to helping people.
On August 23rd six tons of Reich’s confiscated writings were incinerated, including 251 copies of his books. This move was criticized by the ACLU but nothing came of it. Across the country, the FDA instructed and oversaw the dismantling of Orgonic devices which Reich had sold to various buyers.
Reich has psychoanalyzed himself while in prison. At one point transferred to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary where, along with the other who had so far interviewed him, Richard C. Hubbard concluded Reich suffered delusions of grandeur and conspiratorial persecution fantasies.
He applied for a presidential pardon, to the end imagining himself someone respected by great men of power. Of course, he didn’t receive it. Reich died while still imprisoned on the third of November, 1957. The cause of death was ruled as heart failure, and he was buried in a vault under his beloved Orgonon.
Reich left a positive legacy as well as a negative one. Admirers divide his work into the periods before and after his descent into madness, with his critique of sexual repression proving hugely influential for generations of psychoanalysis after him. His analysis of fascist group psychology has likewise continued to be a touchstone of political thought.
The larger conversation surrounding Reich even long after he died was one of the civil rights, though. In retrospect, much about the man makes him an ideal martyr for critics of draconian governmental imposition on the lives of individuals. He was in many respects a charming and fascinating guy, so even today the story of how the government came down on an arguably harmless eccentric like a ton of bricks continues to inspire outrage.
His case can be thought of as the Ruby Ridge of alternative medicine. Had he been more discreet he might’ve flown under the radar for longer. Years, maybe decades. In that time, practicing Orgonic medicine, he might’ve caused lethal harm simply because he truly believed his inventions could cure serious illness. One might argue then that it’s a good thing, for his post-mortem reputation, that the FDA stopped him when they did.
Men like this fascinate me. They’re wrong but in beautifully intricate ways. They’re so charismatic that they tempt us to abandon reason and enter into their world, going on a dream-like journey with them on a ship of imagination they’re the magnificent all-knowing captain of.
Those so enamored become, for a time, like Reich’s son. In awe of this towering figure who seemingly has all the answers, seated at one of his impressive machines, pulling levers and turning dials. Saving farmers from drought. Saving Earth from alien invasion. Yet in the end, unable to save himself from the truth.