One hundred fifteen years ago today, in what is now the Ukraine, Dr Wilhelm Reich was born.
Dr Reich has interested me for many years, and I’ve considered him before as a topic for this blog, but I’ve always felt that he was just too large and complex a subject to squeeze into a few hundred words. You who are reading this, be aware that I’m barely scratching the surface of a vast and difficult story: Dr Reich may or may not have been a bit of a loon, but if he was crazy, it was a great and wonderful craziness.
Dr Reich first achieved fame as an early exponent of psychotherapy; he was an associate of Sigmund Freud, and something of a pioneer in the field. His early work was highly regarded, and influenced a great deal of the social and psychological thought of the early twentieth century. He was particularly interested in the relationship between psychology and politics, ideas that were considered revolutionary at the time.
The idea, however, that will always be attached to his name, and the one that eventually led to his downfall, was the concept of “orgone”. Orgone was defined as a cosmic force, underlying all of existence: Reich believed that life originated from orgone, and that the force of orgone in living things was the source of the sexual energy that Freud had labeled “the libido”. Opposing the life-giving orgone was the “deadly orgone radiation”, which weakened and destroyed life. By filtering out the “DOR” and concentrating the positive orgone in a human body, Reich believed, sexual dysfunction could be cured and even diseases such as cancer could be suppressed. He created “accumulators” of varying sizes and types to treat illness and boost sexuality.
The press, predictably, seized upon the sexual aspect of Reich’s orgone treatment and some hysteria developed in the media: the orgone accumulators were dubbed “sex boxes” in American newspapers.
In 1947 serious resistance to his ideas began to emerge out of the general confusion. He had built a sort of scientific commune in Maine that he called “Orgonone” to study and develop orgone medical treatments. A freelance writer name Mildred Brady published a story in the The New Republic that accused Reich of establishing a cult, and demanded action from federal officials. The FDA investigated her claims that he was building and marketing medical equipment without the appropriate government testing and approval, and in 1956 a federal court issued an injunction allowing the FDA to destroy all of the orgone accumulators, all printed instructions for using or building them, and any of Reich’s books or publications that referred to orgone or orgone treatment. Reich fought back, and decisive action was delayed for several more years.
“I still dream of Orgonone.
I wake up crying.
You’re making rain,
and you’re just in reach,
when you and sleep escape me.”
– Kate Bush, “Cloudbusting”
Meanwhile, in spite of the ongoing battle with the United States government, a group of blueberry farmers in Maine, facing a drought that threatened to devastate their crops, offered to pay Reich to bring down the rains. Reich built a device he called a “cloudbuster” that he claimed would focus the local orgone, and set it up at a location near Bangor, Maine, on July 6, 1953. He and his assistants operated the device for a little over an hour, and then declared the operation complete. Late that evening, rain began to fall, and by morning almost a quarter-inch of rainfall had been measured. The blueberry crop was saved, and farmers paid the fee.
In 1956, the FDA finally brought Reich to trial, and he was found guilty of contempt of court (as part of his defense he arranged to have copies of some of his books sent to the judge) and sentenced to two years in jail. While he was arranging his appeal, the FDA sent agents to the Orgonone compound to destroy his machines and writings. The FDA agents did not have the authority to actually touch the materials themselves, but they were able to force a group of Reich’s friends, including his young son, to break up the accumulator boxes and burn his books. His publisher and his scientific foundation were likewise forced to destroy materials, at their own expense.
Reich died in prison a year later, at the age of 60.
I am not a believer in Reich’s strange science, nor do I generally approve of people who take advantage of the general gullibility of the human animal. On the other hand, there is a magic to Reich’s ideas that persists long after his death, and that occasionally penetrates my stubborn empiricism. I think there is a part of me that would love for the universe to be organized the way Reich believed it was; for drought to be eased by a system of wires and pipes aimed at heaven; for diseases to be cured by focusing some sort of cosmic creativity on the sufferer.
It’s foolishness, but it’s a grand foolishness, and I think there may be just enough room in my well-organized and scientifically-explained world to give Dr Reich the benefit of the doubt, at least on his birthday.
* * *