The Strange Life of Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich / Image courtesy
Wilhelm Reich / Image courtesy

By Christopher Zoukis

On a 200 acre estate near Rangely, Maine is a cemetery.  Indeed, the entire estate is now a museum and cemetery.  There is only one grave.  The headstone is granite.  A medallion with a human face is affixed to the granite.  It is the face of the man in the grave.

The grave provides an unobstructed view of Rangeley Lake.  Its still waters, flat and gun metal blue, stretch out in the distance.  Incongruously, like a six-pronged fork placed upright on a swivel-mounted brace, with cables siphoning off in every direction, a machine sits next to the grave.  It was called a Cloudbuster.  This one is a replica and non-functional.  Along with the headstone, it marks the grave.

The grave is that of a man, who died in his sleep of heart failure on November 3, l957.  On that last night, while he slept, he was incarcerated in the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  He was to have applied for parole very soon.

His name was Wilhelm Reich.

Time Magazine ran one of the few obituaries about him after his death:  “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 which supposedly gathered energy from the atmosphere, and could cure, while the patient sat inside, common colds, cancer and impotence.”

Wilhelm Reich was born in Dobrzanica, Galicia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Today, it is part of the Ukraine.  A Jew by race, Reich was not raised as a Jew, nor as a child was he allowed to play with Jewish children.  As an adult, Reich refused to be described as a Jew.  In effect, he was a Jewish anti-semite.

When he was 12 years old, Reich’s mother killed herself by drinking a liquid cleaning product, something akin to swallowing Drano.  Her suicide, a reaction to the discovery of her ongoing affair with another man, left Reich alone and guilt-ridden. 

Reich’s father sent him to an all-male school.  At school Reich developed chronic psoriasis, which was treated with an arsenic-laced ointment which exacerbated the condition.  Without a doubt the disease was brought on by the emotional stress of his mother’s suicide.

When Wilhelm was 17, his father, a walking zombie since his wife’s suicide, attempted to emulate his dead wife.  He tried to freeze himself to death.  It didn’t work.  Indirectly, though, he was successful in killing himself as he contracted pneumonia and tuberculosis as a result of his attempted suicide.  He died in the hospital a short while later. 

Upon the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, Reich and his younger brother abandoned everything and went to Vienna.  After a three-year stint in the Austrian Army, Reich attended the medical school of the University of Vienna.  Here he became a student and associate of Freud.

While working as a neuropsychiatrist at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute he met and married Annie Pink.  They had two children and the marriage ended after nine years.

Reich was fascinated by human sexuality and its attendant emotional forces.  So, naturally, he devised a theory based on what he called “orgastic potency.”  Orgastic potency stated that the feeling of sexual love has its foundation in the physical ability to make love.  He actually tried to quantify the male orgasm, measuring four physiological phases, one of which involved electromagnetic energy.

Reich called the electromagnetic discharge “orgone.”  He believed that orgone energy existed in all life forms.  Reich took his theory to the next level – the physical-psychosexual reality.  Unreleased psychosexual energy – orgone – manifested itself in neuroses.  Thus an active and guilt-free sex life went hand in hand with mental health.

In 1930, Reich relocated his medical practice to Berlin, which he abandoned when Hitler came to power.  Reich relocated to Norway.  While living in Oslo, Norway, Reich, by means of so-called scientific experiments, declared orgone energy to be the source of life.  This nuttiness resulted in his portrayal in the press as a “Jew pornographer.” 

Not content to have discovered the origin of life, he next declared that cancer was caused by diminished levels of orgone energy in the human body.  When the orgone levels were low enough, organisms called T-bacilli formed.  Cancer was the result of T-bacilli.  Put simply, cancer was the direct result of a gaunt sex life. 

He moved to the United States in 1939, settling on Long Island.  He later married Ilse Ollendorf and had a son.