Controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich​ died 59 years ago

Wilhelm Reich​, psychoanalyst, political theorist, pioneer of body therapies and prophet of the sexual revolution died 59 years ago, on November 3, 1957.


Author of several influential books – most notably Character Analysis (1933), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and The Sexual Revolution (1936) – Reich became known as one of the most radical practitioners of psychiatry.

Reich's idea of "muscular armour" – the expression of the personality in the way the body moves – influenced innovations such as body psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetic analysis and primal therapy. His writing influenced generations of intellectuals; he invented the phrase "the sexual revolution". 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.

" ..the astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?" - Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology


Listen, Little Man! ~ Complete text online


Book burning and imprisonment

On August 23, six tons of Reich's books, journals and papers were burned in New York, in the Gansevoort incinerator, the public incinerator on 25th Street. The material included copies of several of his books, including The Sexual Revolution, Character Analysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. It has been cited as one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history. As with the accumulators, the FDA was supposed only to observe the destruction. The psychiatrist Victor Sobey (d. 1995), an associate of Reich's, wrote:
All the expenses and labor had to be provided by the [Orgone Institute] Press. A huge truck with three to help was hired. I felt like people who, when they are to be executed, are made to dig their own graves first and are then shot and thrown in. We carried box after box of the literature.

Reich's record card from the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

On his 60th birthday, he wrote to his son, Peter, then 13:
I am in Lewisburg. I am calm, certain in my thoughts, and doing mathematics most of the time. I am kind of "above things," fully aware of what is up. Do not worry too much about me, though anything might happen. I know, Pete, that you are strong and decent. At first I thought that you should not visit me here. I do not know. With the world in turmoil I now feel that a boy your age should experience what is coming his way – fully digest it without getting a "belly ache," so to speak, nor getting off the right track of truth, fact, honesty, fair play, and being above board – never a sneak ... .

He applied for a presidential pardon in May, to no avail. Peter visited him in jail several times, where one prisoner said Reich was known as the "flying saucer guy" and the "Sex Box man." Reich told Peter that he cried often, and wanted Peter to let himself cry too, believing that tears are the "great softener." His last letter to his son was on 22 October 1957, when he said he was looking forward to being released on 10 November, having served one third of his sentence. A parole hearing had been scheduled for a few days before that date. He wrote that he and Peter had a date for a meal at the Howard Johnson restaurant near Peter's school.

"Man's right to know, to learn, to inquire, to make bona fide errors, to investigate human emotions must, by all means, be safe, if the word FREEDOM should ever be more than an empty political slogan." - Wilhelm Reich, Response to FDA complaint (1954)

Death

Reich failed to appear for roll call on 3 November 1957 and was found at 7 a.m. in his bed, fully clothed but for his shoes. The prison doctor said he had died during the night of "myocardial insufficiency with sudden heart failure."He was buried in a vault at Orgonon that he had asked his caretaker to dig in 1955. He had left instructions that there was not to be any religious ceremony, but that a record should be played of Schubert's "Ave Maria" sung by Marian Anderson, and that his granite headstone should read simply: "Wilhelm Reich, Born March 24, 1897, Died ..."

None of the academic journals included an obituary. Time magazine wrote on 18 November 1957:
Died. Wilhelm Reich, 60, once-famed psychoanalyst, associate and follower of Sigmund Freud, founder of the Wilhelm Reich Foundation, lately better known for unorthodox sex and energy theories; of a heart attack; in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, Pa; where he was serving a two-year term for distributing his invention, the "orgone energy accumulator" (in violation of the Food and Drug Act), a telephone-booth-size device that supposedly gathered energy from the atmosphere, and could cure, while the patient sat inside, common colds, cancer, and impotence.

Wilhelm Reich in the Orgone Box for The New York Times Book Review

Reich's work influenced a generation of intellectuals, including Saul Bellow, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer, and the founder of Summerhill School in England, A. S. Neill. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in 1976 that the effect of Reich's critique of sexual repression had been substantial.

Speaking to Christopher Turner, Reich's son, Peter, said of his father:
He was a nineteenth-century scientist; he wasn't a twentieth-century scientist. He didn't practice science the way scientists do today. He was a nineteenth-century mind who came crashing into twentieth-century America. And boom!




Our selection of Reich's books



Books on Wilhelm Reich



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