I first visited Summerhill, the ‘free’ school in Suffolk founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, when I was an anthropology student. I asked whether I could stay for a while as a participant-observer, and was offered a large tepee as a place to sleep. I liked the idea of living in it: a wigwam seemed a suitable home for a backyard anthropologist. However, everything at Summerhill – where lessons are voluntary and the pupils invent their own laws – is put to a vote, and the children decided they wanted to keep the tepee for themselves. So for the summer of 1993 I lived in a bed and breakfast in Leiston. All the other guests worked for Sizewell B: every piece of crockery and all the towels and cutlery were stamped with the nuclear power station’s logo. The owner of the BampersandlandB had been given a free jumper after one of his own, hung out on the line, had tested dangerous during a random Geiger counter inspection.
While I was there I discovered that an Orgone Energy Accumulator had once been used at the school. The machine – essentially a wooden cupboard, about the size of a telephone box, lined with metal and insulated with steel wool – had been invented in 1940 by the eccentric Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich for the purpose of improving its users’ ‘orgastic potency’ and by extension their general, and above all mental, health. It became fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s, and was used by such countercultural figureheads as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs – who claimed to have had a spontaneous orgasm in his. Woody Allen parodied it as the ‘Orgasmatron’ in Sleeper.
I wondered what place such a machine would have in a school. What was it that united Neill and Reich, whose close friendship is recorded in their extensive correspondence? And why would such enlightened sexual thinkers engage in a practice similar to the 18th-century ‘forbidden experiment’: rearing a child in a cupboard, away from civilisation? Reich could be said to have thought up the ‘sexual revolution’: a Marxist analyst, he coined the phrase in the 1920s in order to illustrate his belief that a political revolution would only be possible once sexual repression was done away with. But why would you throw off your repressions by climbing into a closet? Why was the symbol of liberation a box?
Neill met Reich in Oslo in 1936 and soon afterwards became his analysand, fitting in a dozen sessions with him on a return trip. Reich had by that time been expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association (Freud had once called him the ‘best head’ in the Association, but his attempts to reconcile psychoanalysis and Marxism ended up alienating practitioners of both), and pioneered a new form of analysis called ‘vegetotherapy’, a repudiation of the talking cure. Reich’s third wife, Ilse, described it as ‘doing away with the psychoanalytic taboo of never touching a patient’, and substituting for it ‘a physical attack by the therapist’. Reich would relax the patient’s taut muscles with deep breathing exercises and massage, until the patient broke down in involuntary convulsions, which Reich called the ‘orgasm reflex’. ‘There is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients,’ he concluded in The Function of the Orgasm (1927): ‘the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction’ – the italics are his.
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[*] A new biography of Reich, Wilhelm Reich: Psychoanalyst and Radical Naturalist by Robert Corrington, the first for twenty years, goes to great lengths to assert that he was ‘a genius of the highest order’ who never went insane (Farrar, Straus, 320 pp., $27, July 2003, 0 374 25002 2).