Am I a spaceman?

Adam Phillips

  • Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex by Christopher Turner
    Fourth Estate, 532 pp, £25.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 00 718157 5

In a Freud Anniversary Lecture given in New York in 1968, Anna Freud looked back with nostalgia on the early days of psychoanalysis. ‘When we scrutinise the personalities who, by self-selection, became the first generation of psychoanalysts,’ she said,

we are left in no doubt about their characteristics. They were the unconventional ones, the doubters, those who were dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on knowledge; also among them were the odd ones, the dreamers, and those who knew neurotic suffering from their own experience. This type of intake has altered decisively since psychoanalytic training has become institutionalised and appeals in this stricter form to a different type of personality. Moreover, self-selection has given way to the careful scrutiny of applicants, resulting in the exclusion of the mentally endangered, the eccentrics, the self-made, those with excessive flights of imagination, and favouring the acceptance of the sober, well-prepared ones.

In the early days of psychoanalysis ‘self-selection’ meant that if you were interested in psychoanalysis and Freud liked you you could be a psychoanalyst. In 1919, Wilhelm Reich went to see Freud. He was a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Vienna. He had been an infantry officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war; he was an orphan with what Christopher Turner in his riveting book on him calls ‘a past full of damage’. He was ‘intellectually ardent and socially insecure, so poor that he wore his military uniform to lectures because he couldn’t afford to buy civilian clothes’. Freud was immensely impressed by his good looks and his intelligence, and by the fact that he was already, in Freud’s words, a ‘worshipful disciple’. In the same year Freud started referring patients to him – Reich had not yet started his own analysis – and the following October, having presented a paper on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, he became the society’s youngest member. When he completed his medical training in 1922, he was already a qualified analyst. Anna Freud said at the time that her father called Reich ‘the best head’ in the International Psychoanalytic Association.

‘I had come in a state of trepidation,’ Reich wrote of his meeting with Freud, ‘and left with a feeling of pleasure and friendliness.’ The feeling of pleasure and friendliness didn’t last because, in Freud’s view, he was soon misusing psychoanalysis as a method for sexual liberation. And even worse, or quite as bad, he was a Communist who wanted to combine Marxism with psychoanalysis in a bid to free everybody from virtually everything that oppressed them. He was a prime mover in the attempts in Vienna and Berlin to set up the ‘free clinics’ that would make psychoanalytic treatment available to everyone. And he was a pioneer, along with Ferenczi and Rank, of a more active psychoanalytic technique, in which what the analyst wanted for and from the patient became rather more explicit – Reich was known as ‘the character smasher’ by his colleagues. Like several of the so-called second-generation analysts he wanted a more engaged, more ambitious, more socially aware psychoanalysis. He didn’t want merely to turn hysterical misery into ordinary human unhappiness (Freud’s ambition): he wanted people to experience ‘sexual happiness’, to release their ‘orgastic potential’ (though not, it’s necessary to note, their homosexual orgastic potential; Reich was homophobic, something Turner might have made more of). Psychoanalysis had to build a world in which, as he wrote in The Sexual Revolution, ‘natural sexual sociality’ was not ‘replaced by the demands of morality’; a world in which the immediacy of people’s sexual need for each other wasn’t stifled by good intentions or good manners. And he didn’t want psychoanalytic treatment to be a refuge from political engagement. For Freud and many of the first generation of psychoanalysts Reich committed two cardinal sins: he took it for granted that psychoanalysis and politics were inextricable, and he believed that the aim of psychoanalysis was not to provide people with better defences, but to make them less defensive. He thought, in other words, that psychoanalysis had something to do with freedom – a word that has never been fashionable in psychoanalytic circles – and something to do with people being less frightened of each other.

Reich had found in Freud, Turner implies, a less intimidating father than his own: one who, at least to begin with, backed him; indeed Freud and Reich’s wish not to give up on each other is among the most poignant things in Turner’s book. For Freud, who was trying to keep his ‘new science’ respectable despite the dreamers and eccentrics it attracted, it was a struggle. ‘I was regarded very highly from 1920 up to about 1925 or 1926,’ Reich recalled later: ‘and then I felt that animosity. I had touched on something painful – genitality’ (as usual, he wasn’t being ironic). Reich was determined that his patients should be subjected to what he called ‘ultimate involuntary surrender’, and Freud and his loyal followers turned against him. If Reich’s theories about the orgasm and society were correct (that, in brief, the patient was cured when she was able to have the right kind of orgasms, and that a society was as good as the orgasms of its members), he alone would have responsibility for the future of psychoanalysis. That, apparently, was Freud’s last message to him. ‘Immune to the irony in Freud’s farewell comment,’ Turner notes, ‘Reich … arrogated to himself the role of intellectual heir.’ In the years between the wars Reich moved from Vienna to Berlin and then on to Denmark and Norway, more or less on the run from colleagues he had fallen out with, but practising and teaching his own brand of psychoanalysis. ‘Freud’s legacy is a heavy burden!’ he wrote in his diary in 1941. It was a burden, however, that he desperately wanted.

The reason Freud had to distance himself from Reich was that Reich was taking some of Freud’s theories to some of their logical conclusions. If people were using their morality to repress their sexuality, but sexuality made life worth living – was, in fact, life itself – then they needed to change their morality and have more satisfying sex; and psychoanalysts had to use whatever means were necessary to get the patient not merely to see this, but to live it. Armchair psychoanalysis was a contradiction in terms; Reich, his most famous patient, A.S. Neill, reported, ‘tore me to pieces on his sofa’, inducing ‘terrible weepings and anger’. This was not Freud’s style. But Reich had to think of himself as always close to Freud – indeed sometimes closer to Freud than Freud himself was – in order not to feel that he was out on a limb. ‘A bull is mad and destructive when it is frustrated,’ he wrote in Reich Speaks of Freud. ‘Humanity is that way too. That means that before you can get to the real thing – to love, to life, to rationality – you must pass through hell.’ Freud believed that to be human was to be frustrated: Reich believed frustration was superfluous.

Reich was born in 1897 in the village of Dobrzanica, in what is now Ukraine. His father was a wealthy farmer and merchant, a ‘large, sadistic, bruising presence’ who beat his son and abused his wife (‘I cannot remember my father ever having cuddled or treated me tenderly … nor can I recollect feeling any attachment to him.’) There were various sexual encounters in childhood: at five he masturbated his younger brother’s nurse; he lost his virginity to the cook before he was 12; and he repeatedly, as Turner puts it, ‘pleasured the family horse with a riding crop’, but there was one incident that he always thought of as formative. When he was ten his father arranged for him to have a tutor. His mother had an affair with the tutor; and his father forced Reich to confess, in front of his mother, that he knew about the affair. After a year of taunts and beatings she killed herself. Reich was 13. ‘Even into his thirties,’ Turner writes, ‘he would wake abruptly from the recurrent nightmare that he had killed her’. ‘May my life’s work make good for my misdeed,’ he wrote in his late forties. The father made the son expose the mother’s desire: Reich devoted his professional life to exposing everyone’s desire, but in Freud’s name.

When he was 17 his father, having lost a lot of money, died of TB, though Reich always believed that he had committed suicide. The entire family estate was lost in the war; by the time he enlisted he had lost everything. He would never see his homeland again. ‘Of a well-to-do past,’ he wrote, ‘nothing was left.’ The destitute boy who arrived in Vienna had a lot to recover from. When he moved to America in 1939 he had a picture of Freud and a picture of his mother in his study.

As one among many psychoanalytic émigrés from Europe, Reich, with his reputation for wild analysis, was not warmly welcomed by conservative American practitioners. ‘The refugee analysts,’ Turner writes, ‘were all engaged in a hasty project of assimilation; they sought to adjust to, rather than change, their new environment, grateful for a second chance … Reich carried what he saw as Freud’s radicalism in a direction that few analysts could follow.’ Assimilation had never been Reich’s thing and he didn’t endear himself to his colleagues by suggesting that he was now greater than Freud. ‘I have actually discovered life,’ he wrote in his diary at the time. ‘It’s truly incredible. I, a mere nonentity, a non-academician, a sexual scoundrel in the bourgeois sense, have made the discovery of the century’: he believed he had found a link between the libido and cosmic energy. Freud, it turned out, had been too modest in his claims, and this timidity had infected the psychoanalytic profession.

In 1940, soon after arriving in America, Reich built his first orgone box, or ‘orgone energy accumulator’. It was five feet high, made from plywood and lined with sheet iron. According to Reich, orgone energy – or sexual energy – from the cosmos was attracted to the box and if you sat in it naked you would absorb its rays. He made all sorts of claims for his box, believing, as Turner puts it, that ‘in charging oneself with orgone energy one could increase one’s resistance to disease and combat ailments from cancer to varicose veins and psoriasis,’ not to mention the ills of sexual repression. ‘It seems even more unbelievable,’ Reich wrote, ‘when one realises that the accumulator contains no sophisticated components, wiring, buttons or motors.’ The FDA didn’t agree and charged him under the US equivalent of the Trade Descriptions Act. In the words of the three-man committee appointed by the FDA to investigate the theory, it was all ‘a gigantic hoax with no scientific basis’. Trying to be a good man in bad times had made him worse. He was also under investigation by the INS and the FBI: he was a Communist, a sexual libertarian and a scientific fraud. He died in 1957 in a federal penitentiary. Aurora Karrer, his last and devoted wife, wrote after his death that Reich was as ‘ruthless and self-serving as the cult leader Jim Jones. He viewed himself as an absolute ruler – and perfect in every respect.’

By 1968, the year of Anna Freud’s elegiac lecture, student revolutionaries were writing ‘Reichian slogans on the walls of the Sorbonne, and in Berlin they hurled copies of Reich’s book The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police. At the University of Frankfurt 68ers … were advised: “Read Reich and act accordingly!”’ He had captured the imagination of the ‘counterculture’. Norman Mailer, who dismissed psychoanalysts as ‘ball shrinkers’, promoted him in the Village Voice (‘intellectuals,’ he told Turner, ‘never had good orgasms’). For Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs he was the only analyst worth taking seriously (Burroughs used his orgone box for most of his adult life). Paul Goodman said that Reich had written ‘the psychology of the revolution’: ‘Unrepressed people,’ Goodman wrote, ‘will provide for themselves a society that is peaceable and orderly enough.’

There had always been something irrepressible about Reich, or at least about his writing; most human encounters, his follower Fritz Perls said, were ‘either mind-fucking or manipulation’ but Reich’s ‘honest rudeness’ was the real thing. With his Old World credentials, and the New World exuberance and idealism of some of his writing, with the catastrophic losses and disillusionments of his past and his pragmatic mysticism about human relationships in the future, Reich was a man made for the 1960s. Along with Kinsey – with whom, to his regret, he was linked – he was turning up the heat in Cold War America. He seemed to believe that if you looked after the sex the morality would take care of itself, that better orgasms made people kinder. At their ‘cosmic core’ people were fundamentally good. Reich had done the impossible: he had made Rousseau, Marx and Freud fellow-travellers. Freud’s followers, encouraged by Freud himself, had betrayed his message; and they had done this, oddly enough, by undervaluing sex.

More ‘mentally endangered’, as it turned out, than eccentric, though it is often a thin line, Reich was sending telegrams to Eisenhower towards the end of his life, saying he could stop hurricanes. He also frequently ‘observed’ UFOs, and believed that he was harnessing a kind of cosmic energy that could be used to cure cancer and fight fascism (he wrote Einstein a 26-page letter detailing these claims; Einstein didn’t reply). As his grandiosity spiralled, he became lonelier and lonelier – one by one his friends ‘got to the eye-rolling point’ – and a more and more serious drinker. All his relationships with his various wives and mistresses – Turner lets the women, as far as possible, speak for themselves – were a mixture of blissful complicity and enraged disappointment.

If Freud had inquired a little more carefully into his new disciple’s past he would soon have realised just how unprepared Reich was to be anything other than compulsively reparative in his approach to psychoanalysis, determined to cure people of all their woes, however intractable. ‘There were two features of his work and attitude which failed to have any impact on the psychoanalytic movement,’ Charles Rycroft wrote in his book on Reich, ‘his optimism and his therapeutic belligerence.’ How he went from being one of the inspirational figures of the psychoanalytic movement, as a clinician, a teacher and a writer, to being a cult figure on the margins of 1960s America is an extraordinary story, and Turner tells it with subtlety and panache. By dividing his book, and Reich’s stormy life, into two sections, for Europe and America, he makes it clear that there was to be no new world or new life for Reich after the devastations of his past. In Europe, where he lived for the first 42 years of his life, he was a difficult, abrasive and passionately engaged psychoanalyst and Communist. The signs of his instability were there for all to see when he was in his twenties, but it was in America that he became crazy (in Winnicott’s phrase, made too great a claim on the credulity of others). Yet his craziness invalidated his work only for the psychoanalysts: there were many other people for whom it proved that he was on to something.

Turner has interviewed many people who knew Reich well, and he casts his net wide, setting Reich’s quirks and crimes in their historical context so that a portrait of the man emerges rather than a diagnosis. With the notable exception of Charles Rycroft and Philip Rieff, Reich has not been well served by biographers and critics; like all psychoanalytic mavericks he has either been unduly denigrated or too highly prized. Reich as portrayed in Turner’s book is an unusually shrewd, intelligent and driven man who, at great cost to himself, registered something important about his contemporaries and what they were suffering from. Wacky solutions are an acknowledgment of confounding problems and deadlocked frustrations; and Reich, as Turner acknowledges, was one among many people at the time trying to find a way out of something unbearable.

In his idealisation of psychoanalysis Reich had assumed that in a psychoanalytic community a certain leeway would be given to the more difficult and disturbing members (after all, free-association had long since revealed that if you encourage people to speak freely they say very odd things). The first psychoanalysts, though, may have attracted the mentally endangered but they didn’t like them. They wanted more rigour and less originality to stop the profession turning into a gang of quacks. Respectability meant knowing what the rules were and being able to stick to them, and Reich didn’t want to stick to the rules: he wanted to cure people, which meant, as it always does, making up a new set of rules. His psychoanalytic colleagues were right to be wary of what he was up to, but wrong not to have noticed what he was showing them: that psychoanalysis could be bourgeois morality by other means; that at its worst it created a smug, ascetic collusiveness between analysts and patients, and between analysts as a professional group. He may have been forcing his patients to be free, but the orthodox analysts, in his view, were making their patients frightened of what their freedom might involve. It is among the many ironies of the story Turner has to tell that the psychoanalysts who were Reich’s first colleagues were keener to expel and pathologise him than to see what sense he might be making. Being treated as mad tends not to make anyone feel saner.

Reich became a menace, as Turner reveals with the right amount of sympathy and probity; but he was also a sign of the times, and not least of the difficult times ahead for the profession he joined with such enthusiasm. Psychoanalytic groups still divide today around the importance and definition of sexuality, and around the question of how analysts are supposed to behave both inside and outside their consulting rooms. It would not be the first time in the strange history of psychoanalysis that scapegoating was the profession’s treatment of choice for those who might bring the profession into disrepute. Nor the first time that the fate of a ‘wild analyst’ should seem symptomatic of a historical moment. Reich was not a man more sinned against than sinning – as Turner shows in some detail there were reasons why he made so many enemies and was expelled from both the psychoanalytic movement and the Communist Party – but he was a man with a vision, and psychoanalysis gave him the language for it. To be a practising analyst today and not to have read Character Analysis or The Mass Psychology of Fascism would be a shame. He began with a realistic sense of the kind of liberation that psychoanalysis promised, but ended up wondering whether he was a spaceman: ‘A thought of a very remote possibility entered my mind,’ he wrote in 1956, the year before his death in prison, ‘which I fear will never leave me again. Am I a spaceman? Do I belong to a new race on earth, bred by men from outer space in embraces with earth women?’ (There are many moments in this book when the reader feels what Freud called ‘the laughter of unease’.) Reich felt more acutely than most the distance between people, and believed that the only solution was to make new kinds of people (Philip Rieff was right to link him with D.H. Lawrence). Turner never makes Reich sound anything other than a very remarkable man while keeping the ironies intact, the main one being just how tyrannical his demand for worldwide sexual liberation became. The orgone box, as Turner writes, ‘offered a generation of seekers the opportunity to shed their repressions by climbing into a box, which turned out to serve as an apt symbol of their new imprisonment’.