On This Day … 03 November

People (Deaths)

  • 1957 – Wilhelm Reich, Ukrainian-Austrian psychotherapist and author (b. 1897).

Wilhlem Reich

Wilhelm Reich (24 March 1897 to 03 November 1957) was an Austrian doctor of medicine and a psychoanalyst, along with being a member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud.

The author of several influential books, most notably The Impulsive Character (1925), Character Analysis (1933), and The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), he became known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry.

Reich’s work on character contributed to the development of Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), and his idea of muscular armour – the expression of the personality in the way the body moves – shaped innovations such as body psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetic analysis and primal therapy. His writing influenced generations of intellectuals; he coined the phrase “the sexual revolution” and according to one historian acted as its midwife. During the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and Berlin, students scrawled his name on walls and threw copies of The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police.

After graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Reich became deputy director of Freud’s outpatient clinic, the Vienna Ambulatorium. During the 1930s, he was part of a general trend among younger analysts and Frankfurt sociologists that tried to reconcile psychoanalysis with Marxism. He is credited for establishing the first sexual advisory clinics in Vienna, along with Marie Frischauf. He said he wanted to “attack the neurosis by its prevention rather than treatment”.

He moved to New York in 1939, after having accepted a position as Assistant Professor at the New School of Social Research. During his five years in Oslo, he had coined the term “orgone energy” – from “orgasm” and “organism”—for the notion of life energy. In 1940 he started building orgone accumulators, modified Faraday cages that he claimed were beneficial for cancer patients. He claimed that his laboratory cancer mice had had remarkable positive effects from being kept in a Faraday cage, so he built human-size versions, where one could sit inside. This led to newspaper stories about “sex boxes” that cured cancer.

Following two critical articles about him in The New Republic and Harper’s in 1947, the US Food and Drug Administration obtained an injunction against the interstate shipment of orgone accumulators and associated literature, believing they were dealing with a “fraud of the first magnitude”. Charged with contempt in 1956 for having violated the injunction, Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and that summer over six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court. He died in prison of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.

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