The Austrian and American psychiatrist, scientist and free thinker Wilhelm Reich, who died 50 years ago this month, continues to stir debate and controversy.
Reich, born to a prosperous farming and ranching Jewish family in Galicia 1897, died Nov. 3, 1957, in a U.S. jail, a year after the U.S. government literally axed his “orgone accumulator” machines and boxes and burned his research in a chilling echo of the Nazis he fled in the 1930s.
Reich’s life can and does fill several books, museums and countless academic and scientific journals. The Jewish Museum of Vienna opened a major exhibit of Reich’s work and devices last week.
The irony of Reich’s being claimed as Jewish 50 years after his death probably would have enraged him. According to various accounts, Reich’s family had abandoned Judaism, and Reich did not receive a religious upbringing. Later in his life, it has been reported, Reich did not want to be identified as Jewish. He was buried simply at his farm and research center, Orgonon (now open to the public as a museum) in Maine, with only a recording of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” being played, according to a 1994 biography.
But as is often the case even when an individual denies his Jewishness, the world at large refuses to think of him as anything but. In 1938, when Reich’s book, “The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life,” was published in Oslo in 1938, he was attacked in the press of the day as a “Jew pornographer” who was daring to meddle with the origins of life.
Reich was years – decades even – ahead of his time in promoting adolescent sexuality, the availability of contraceptives and abortion, sex education the importance for women of economic independence, environmental concerns and more. According to one of Reich’s biographers, his work influenced writers such as Saul Bellow, recently deceased Norman Mailer (See the In My Heart obituary of Mailer here), and William Burroughs.
According to Wikipedia, Reich’s work on the link between human sexuality and neuroses emphasized “orgastic potency” as the foremost criterion for psycho-physical health. He said he had discovered a form of energy, which he called “orgone,” that permeated the atmosphere and all living matter, and he built “orgone accumulators,” which his patients sat inside to harness the energy for its reputed health benefits.
Reich worked with, was affiliated with and eventually alienated Sigmund Freud, the Communist Party and the entire scientific and psychiatric establishments in Europe and the United States. Yet he has followers today and his controversial research into cancer cells, bacteria and other forms of life are being looked at anew as scientific developments inch closer to understanding the connections among life, energy forms and matter.