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.
Reich’s brand of active therapy ‘meant lying naked on a sofa while he attacked my stiff muscles’, Neill explained: ‘It was a hard therapy and often a painful one.’ Neill would later admit that Reich ‘tore me to pieces on his sofa’, inducing ‘terrible weepings and anger’, but he claimed that ‘in six weeks of therapy’ he got ‘more emotional reaction and relief than in seven years of talkie analysis’. By the summer of 1944, Neill was practising the technique on his pupils at Summerhill: ‘I have given up teaching and am doing only veg.-ther. analysis,’ he wrote to Reich. ‘The more I see the results with adolescents the more I consider that bloody man Reich a great man . . . Marvellous how patients weep so easily when lying on their backs. Some do so in the first hour. Why?’ One former student remembers being instructed to lie down and ‘breathe deeply, as though you’re having sexual intercourse’, while Neill prodded her stomach (she was too young to know what sex was, so she just panted). ‘The repressed ones have stomachs like wooden boards,’ Neill wrote to Reich of his pupils’ resistance, ‘but children begin to loosen up very quickly, and at once begin to be hateful and savage.’
Though his school had already been running for 15 years, Neill found in Reich’s work its ideological justification, and he once referred to himself as Reich’s ‘John the Baptist’. His many books are littered with references to Reich’s concepts of ‘character armour’ and ‘self-regulation’. Reich, in turn, saw Neill’s project as a practical test of his ideas, and he sent his own son to Summerhill for a while. He once threatened to give up his research and come and teach at the school, but Neill laughed and declined his offer, saying that he would frighten the children. Neill did, however, ask him to be the legal guardian of his daughter; and Reich invited Neill to start an Orgonomic Infant Research Center at his research institute in Maine and encouraged Neill to replace his Summerhill staff with people schooled in Reichian practice. Neill rejected both suggestions, but continued to read out Reich’s books at staff meetings.
Reich and Neill shared a belief in the redemptive power of unconstricted development in children. For Reich this had an urgent political significance: he thought that only when children were raised free from sexual repression – the thing that he felt had scuppered the Russian Revolution – would it be possible to lay the foundations of a utopia. Neill thought that a radical reform of the education system was an essential preliminary to the creation of a better world. The child, both believed, was inherently good: it was an authoritarian, sexually repressive upbringing that corrupted them. Summerhill offered children a sanctuary from the moral contamination of the world: ‘We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves,’ Neill wrote. ‘In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction.’ The school’s motto continues to be ‘giving children back their childhood’.
Bertrand Russell, like Neill, preached the benefits of an unconstrained childhood. Neill said that Russell’s On Education (1926) was the only book on the topic he’d read without uttering an expletive, while Russell spent a week at Summerhill in 1927, before opening a school of his own, Beacon Hill, based on similar principles. He was soon disillusioned, however, and left the school after five years. The children in his care, Russell wrote, were ‘sinister’, ‘cruel’, ‘destructive’. The effect of giving them their freedom ‘was to establish a reign of terror, in which the strong kept the weak trembling and miserable’. But for Neill, children’s monstrous behaviour was a stage along the path to liberation: if they were ‘hateful and savage’ it was only because they were sloughing off the final carapace of their repressions.
Reich considered his Orgone Accumulator an almost magical device: it could, he claimed, not only dissolve repressions but cure cancer, radiation sickness and a host of minor ailments (he persuaded Einstein to conduct a series of tests on the machine, which sadly refuted all these claims). As he saw it, the organic material the box was made of absorbed orgone energy, which he believed was the biological essence of the libido; the metal lining stopped this energy escaping, acting as a ‘greenhouse’ and, supposedly, causing a noticeable rise in temperature in the box.
The Accumulator that Reich gave Neill arrived in England on the Queen Elizabeth in April 1947, along with a smaller ‘shooter’ for healing wounds: ‘I use the box daily and read your books in it,’ Neill wrote appreciatively. Neill soon became convinced of the machine’s effectiveness: ‘We used the small Accu on a girl of 15 with a boil on her leg,’ he said. ‘It cleared up in three days, and we are to have her in the big box next term.’ The effects apparently defied scientific explanation: ‘When Lucy had a new lump on her face under the operation scar, she applied the small Accu and it went in a fortnight,’ Neill boasted. He bombarded Reich with questions: was it safe to keep an Accumulator in one’s bedroom? Did you have to be naked inside it? Would it be as effective in the damp English climate? How long could his daughter safely sit in the box?
Neill’s daughter, Zoë Readhead, has run Summerhill since 1985. ‘I remember the Orgone Accumulator vividly,’ she told me when I revisited the school. ‘It was quite chilly in there because of the zinc.’ As a child Readhead was prescribed half an hour a day in the device; she recalls the red plastic cushion she sat on and the funnel or ‘shooter’ she was encouraged to position over her ear to try to cure a recurrent earache. She also remembers that as she grew up Neill lost interest in the machine (he thought he’d been mistaken in putting an extra layer of asbestos around it), and moved it to a corner of the garage.
By the time of Reich’s death in 1957, he and Neill were no longer communicating. In December 1954, Neill wrote: ‘It gave me a great shock to find you believing in visits from other planets. No, I said, it can’t be true; Reich is a scientist and unless he sees a flying saucer he won’t accept it as a reality. I can’t understand it.’ Reich, whose sanity had long been an open question (Sandor Rado, who analysed Reich for a few months in 1931, said that he was ‘schizophrenic in the most serious way’), had started to suffer from paranoid delusions about the world being under attack by UFOs.He built a ‘cloudbuster’, a kind of orgone gun that was designed not only to influence the weather – diverting hurricanes and making it rain in the desert – but to be the first line of defence against an alien invasion.
Reich initiated the break; his young son Peter, a pupil, told Neill that his father had said that the American planes which were passing over Summerhill had been sent to protect him. Neill replied that this was nonsense (there was a large US air base nearby), and when Reich heard of Neill’s response he said that Neill was not to be trusted.
In the early 1950s Reich was investigated by the Food and Drug Administration for making fraudulent claims about the Accumulator, and in 1954 a court ruled that he must stop hiring out and selling his machine. When he broke the injunction he was sentenced to two years in prison. The remaining Accumulators, along with the books and pamphlets that were thought to constitute ‘false advertising’ for them, were incinerated. He died of a heart attack in 1957 at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, eight months into his sentence.
In the American edition of Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, published in 1960, all references to Reich were deleted, because the publishers considered him too controversial. (The book sold two million copies in the US.) But Neill never turned his back entirely on his friend’s quirky philosophy, and long after Reich’s death he persuaded Zoë to go to Norway to have vegetotherapy with Ola Raknes, who had been treated by Reich in the late 1930s. (Reich had for a while considered going into therapy with Raknes, in the hope of being cured of his dependency on Freud.) He thought it might help her in the future to deal with the many difficult children at Summerhill if she were to run the school after him; but, Readhead told me, ‘it didn’t really do it for me at all.’ Neill was 64 when his only child was born; when she was two, Picture Post ran a story saying that of all the children in Britain, she had the best chance of being free.
Bertrand Russell’s children, for whom Beacon Hill was partly created (it only had 12 pupils), were, like their father, traumatised by their time at the school. ‘I learned to get along inside a shell,’ Kate Russell has written, ‘fending off physical and emotional assaults from others and trusting nobody.’ Peter Reich was also disturbed by his supposedly revolutionary upbringing, which he wrote about in A Book of Dreams, an account of his childhood. Readhead’s Summerhill, on the other hand, remains very much a family affair; her four children went to the school (two now teach there), and her grandchildren are currently enrolled.
In the dusty, wood-panelled meeting room of the Victorian house which the school occupies, there is a notice-board covered with rules that the children draw up for themselves at weekly meetings: ‘P. not allowed rubber-band gun. Letting off stink bombs, £2 fine; spitting on tarmac, 70p; harassing naked swimmers, five swimming sessions missed. No downloading porn in the computer room.’ On the day of my visit, the debate at the school meeting is largely about the unwanted and unpaid-for take-away curries that have been arriving in large quantities, ordered by a boy who was recently expelled.
Nothing much seems to have changed at Summerhill since I was first there, just after a documentary was screened which portrayed the students in Lord of the Flies-like abandon; in the film, two pupils were married in a mock ceremony and a group was shown hunting down a rabbit and beheading it with a machete. (The teacher whom we saw giving massage lessons has since left to become a Reichian therapist.) The place still has a temporary feel: classes take place in Portakabins, and some of the teachers live in shabby, overgrown caravans. ‘It’s hard to keep the staff,’ Readhead confesses. The sticks which once held up the tepee are lying in a bundle on the ground.
The school has been hounded by government inspectors. Readhead has compared their visits to ‘having a distant, nosy and somewhat prudish relative poking around your house, looking in the oven, smelling the fridge, and rummaging through your knicker drawer. It can only be described as an imposition.’ In 1999, Ofsted filed a report which complained of staff and pupils sharing ‘unconventional extra-curricular activities’, such as nude bathing, and of low academic standards. The report concluded that the pupils mistook ‘the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty’.
Faced with the verdict that Summerhill was ‘not providing an adequate education’, David Blunkett threatened to shut the school down unless it gave up its philosophy of freedom. After a protracted and costly legal battle, Summerhill held onto its ideological commitment to voluntary lessons – an Independent Schools Tribunal overturned the inspectors’ ruling. The publicity provided by the trial boosted admissions, and Summerhill now has more than ninety pupils. Thirty years after its founder’s death, the £9000-a-year boarding school still appears at the bottom of the league tables, but its students continue to enjoy the wider freedoms allowed by self-government. ‘I’d rather Summerhill produced a happy street sweeper,’ Neill wrote, ‘than a neurotic prime minister.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.