Wilhelm Reich: The person, his work and his significance for contemporary psychotherapy. A short introduction

 4 July 2020 by Dirk Marivoet

Wilhelm Reich in Orgonon (Maine)

By Dirk Marivoet, MSc, PT, PMT, ECP, CCEP

Wilhelm Reich, born in 1897 in Dobrzanica, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in Ukraine, started his medical studies at the Vienna University in 1918, and joined the Sexological Seminary founded by Otto Fenichel in 1919. In 1920 at age 23, he was admitted to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society after reading a treatise on libido conflicts and delusions in Peer Gynt. He was considered one of his most brilliant students by Freud. In 1922, Reich became Assistant Doctor at the Vienna University Clinic for Neurology and Psychiatry, under Wagner Jauregg.

Reich’s interest in sexology

Reich’s earliest interest in sexology, which led to the publication of a number of articles in the Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft, was an extension of the Freudian libido theory into an understandable theory of orgasmic potential, which Reich first proposed at the 8th Congress of International Psychoanalytic Society in Salzburg in 1924. The orgasm theory stated that a disorder of orgasmic satisfaction is at the root of every neurotic disorder and laid the foundation of what Reich called as an energetic stasis. Instead of joy, deep satisfaction, and what Reich called “calm arousal,” neurotic sexuality was characterized by either phrenetic over-arousal, or by apathy, loss of sexual charge, and problems of frigidity or loss of desire.

A technical seminar for analysts

In parallel with his sexological work, Reich proposed in 1921 the creation of a Technical Seminar for analysts where they would study their most difficult clients. In the Technical Seminar, Reich studied processes of the neurotic resistance, gradually developing a systematic view of character defenses as a form of frozen history, a type of psychic economy, based on orgasmic impotence, that lies beneath the specific neurotic symptoms. In 1925, Reich published the first study in the psychoanalytic literature on the impulsive nature, or what is known today as the borderline personality, based on very early disorders with a weakness in border formation. In 1927 at the 10th Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association, he presented the fruits of his work in the Technical Seminary, which led to a systematic presentation of his character analysis techniques, which partly formed the basis of Anna Freud’s later book about the Ego and the Defense Mechanisms. In 1930 he presented his theory of character analysis for the German Psychoanalytic Company at a conference in Dresden.

Reich was aware that character building reflects cultural conditioning, and Reich, along with Otto Fenichel, quickly became a key figure in the radical left wing of psychoanalysis, with a clear understanding of the social causes of neurosis. Reich became a socialist, applying Marxist dialectical thinking to the relationship between character and culture, the psychological structure of the individual and the mass psychology of the social group. In 1928, Reich became Vice Director of the Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in Vienna, offering free counseling to those unable to afford analysts’ fees. Reich wanted to expand this by creating a center for free sexual counseling, assistance with marital problems, and pregnancy consultations, and with Freud’s encouragement, he founded the Sozialistische Gesellschaft für Sexualberatung und Sexualförschung in Vienna in 1928. It had nine socially engaged counselors in addition to Reich himself. Reich presented the work of this center at the 4th Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform in Vienna in 1930.

Reich’s period in Berlin

At the end of 1930 Reich moved to Berlin and accepted an invitation from the Berliner Sozialistische Ärztebund to give a lecture on character analysis. Erich Fromm and Karen Horney learned from Reich during this period. Reich continued his “sex-political” work by founding the Deutsche Reichsverband für Proletariat Sexualpolitik, which pioneered the creation of human rights related to sexuality, and attempted to change the social climate towards perversion of the neurosis by emphasizing children’s right to life-affirming upbringing. On January 30, 1933, Hitler became a Reichskanzler, and Reich began work on his book “Die Massenpschychologie des Fascismus” which gave a bold and detailed critique of the Nazi ideology, its racist basis, and its anti-human principles and practices. Reich diagnosed the roots of the authoritarian personality three years before Adorno, but is barely mentioned in the literature. The German Psychoanalytic Association pursued a policy of compromise and secret alliance with the Nazi government, and the Deutsche Institut für Psychologisch Forschung und Psychotherapie was under the direction of a cousin of Hermann Göring. On March 1, Reich could no longer guarantee his own or that of his family in Berlin, and moved to Copenhagen. In November 1933, Reich was expelled from the German Psychoanalytic Society so that they could distance themselves from his radical views.

Reich in Scandinavia

Copenhagen

In Copenhagen, Reich began to deepen his character’s analytical work to understand how character was physiologically anchored in bodily defenses, particularly respiratory rhythm and muscle tone disorders. He found that any character neurotic state involved a form of diaphragmatic spasticity, and a disturbance in normal stress balance and relaxation in the vegetative nervous system. With his Danish students, he began to develop the theory and techniques of “vegetotherapy”, a way of working directly and indirectly with the somatic foundations of character resistances. He was influenced in this focus on the body by his second wife, Elsa Lindenburg, who was trained in Laban movement work, and was a student of the German movement therapist Elsa Gindler. In 1934 at the 13th Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Lucerne, Switzerland, Reich first presented his new principles in an important article: Psychischer Kontakt und Vegetative Strömung “. At this meeting, however, the International Psychoanalytic Association voted to banish Reich on the basis of the fascist decision of the German Association that had become a supporter of Nazi psychopolitics.

Oslo

Reich moved to Oslo in the fall of 1935 at the invitation of the Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Association and Harald Schjelderup, the first professor of Psychology at the University of Oslo, where he continued his work in vegetotherapy. During that time, his work became the basis for what is now known as “body psychotherapy” and is practiced worldwide today. (Body psychotherapy is currently a recognized mainstream in the field of psychotherapy within the World Council for Psychotherapy (WCP), and within the European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP)).

Reich became interested in studying the biological processes that were part of the clinical findings in vegetotherapy, and in 1935 he had the opportunity to conduct experiments on the bio-electrical aspects of sexuality and anxiety in the University’s Physiological Laboratory from Oslo. What he then called bioelectricity, he later called “bioenergy”, paving the way that would later be followed by the Hungarian biologist, Albert Szent Györgi, who studied bioenergetic processes in cells and tissues and was awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1936, Reich founded the “Institut für Sexualökonomische Lebensforschung” in Oslo, and began to study bioenergetic processes in blood and tissues. He was able to confirm Otto Warburg’s discovery that healthy cells are vitalized by good oxygenation, where unhealthy cells, especially cancer cells, are deficient in primary respiration. Otto Warburg received the Nobel Prize for his work. Reich was able to go further and made connections between the deficient respiration in cancer cases and the processes of sexual deprivation, emotional capitulation, and reduced breathing that he found in some of his vegetotherapy clients. At that time, Reich developed simple tests to detect the tendency to cancer by microscopic observations of luminescence and clot states in red blood cells.

Reich's bion research

Reich did not give up his neurosis prevention work in Scandinavia, but founded a new magazine: Die Zeitschrift für Politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. In it, he published research findings, his sociological critiques, and a new concept of “labor democracy” (work democracy) that he saw as being associated with involving the worker in decision-making, in production, and in political responsibility.

To the USA

Two weeks before World War II broke out, Reich emigrated to the USA, where he took up the Assistant Professor at the New School for Social Research. Here his work took on a new dimension: he became intrigued by the relationship between bioenergetic processes and the energy in the atmosphere. Without knowledge of the extensive work that already existed in many countries in the clinical application of ionization studies, Reich made his own independent investigations of the charge states in the atmosphere that could be registered with electroscopes, thermometers, and fluoroscopes, and which showed connections between processes of climatic and weather changes, and states of physical and emotional-mental health in humans. Reich spoke to Einstein about his findings in January 1941. Einstein confirmed the experimental findings, but drew a different conclusion from Reich. Reich seems to have rediscovered an energy in the atmosphere and in the human body, which was traditionally known as prana, mana, chi, etc. Reich had found this energy through his work on the orgasm, and the organism, and so he called the “orgone”. His findings parallel many studies in medical acupuncture, and formed one of the foundations of the new science of energy medicine. Reich had a strong ecological awareness, and his climatic work showed a very clear awareness of problems of planetary pollution, including atomic energy pollution – themes that are now engaging the Green Parties of the world.

Prevention of the neuroses: eye contact and skin contact

Reich’s work on neurosis prevention continued with a renewed emphasis on the importance of good energetic contact between the mother and her baby during pregnancy, and in the early years of upbringing. He formed an Infant Research Center in Maine, USA, to study early infant bonding situations the same year John Bowlby. Maternal care and child health for WHO examined. Reich’s research focus was on the importance of eye contact and skin contact, alignment and resonance, a quarter of a century before these became themes of interest in modern developmental psychology. He understood the “source of the human no” and was able to demonstrate how schizophrenia develops when early binding is deeply disrupted, and was able to treat this condition with remarkable success through the techniques of vegetotherapy.

Wilhelm Reich in his office in Orgonon Rangeley Maine

Opposition and end

Reich’s findings were constantly challenging paradigms within each of the disciplines he mastered. This was not without opposition, and in America the opposition took the form of interests of the medical industry that felt threatened by its advances in energy medicine. The Food and Drug Administration – a notoriously restrictive organization – issued a verdict forbidding him from practicing what was an unauthorized form of medicine for them, and refusing to give up his job sentenced him to two years in prison for reproach from the court, where he died of cardiac arrest in November 1957.
Wilhelm Reich was a paradigm breaker and a paradigm maker. His ideas about birth, upbringing, alternative education, women’s rights, self-fulfillment and his view of our place in the cosmos are as revolutionary today as they were in the first half of the last century.

Legacy

His work often opened new horizons within and between many disciplines in which he worked, from psychiatry, through psychoanalysis, to sociology, biology and ultimately energy medicine and biophysics. Reich’s insights and discoveries were ahead of their time in many ways. He predicted the crumbling of monogamy, and the separation from the nuclear family, he predicted the end of laws against abortion, birth control and homosexuality, he demonstrated how body language exposes emotional suppression and pioneered bodywork therapy, he linked individual health to emotional factors and suggested adopting naturopathy, experimenting with weather control and creating rain in the desert.
He believed he left an important legacy for what he called “the children of the future,” those who would help a generation after his death help reform the worldviews we live with.

My conclusions

After reading his body of work, I have come to the conclusion that much wisdom can be found in just about everything Reich has written, including the sometimes ridiculous philosophical texts of the early 1950s. Reich had enormous theoretical power, and even Freud’s writings, although often stylistically better, seem much more tame compared to those of Reich.

Both the Nazis and the US government burned his books at some point. Reich’s books were controversial in many ways, and ahead of their time. His findings constantly challenged existing paradigms in the disciplines he mastered. Today they are still references for many body-oriented psychotherapists and certain psychoanalysts. I can recommend his reading to anyone interested in the bodymind from a professional point of view.

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About the author

Dirk Marivoet psychotherapist in Belgium

Dirk Marivoet, MSc is European certified psychotherapist (ECP). He is the director of the International Institute for Bodymind Integration (IBI) and an international teacher in several Body Oriented Psychotherapy Schools and diverse training programs. After more than 30 years of working and teaching in the field of integrative therapy, he created his own comprehensive synthesis and approach : Core Strokes™, which he offers worldwide in the form of professional trainings, workshops and individual sessions.

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