READING MYRON SHARAF's passionate biography of his charismatic mentor and colleague is like being engulfed in an ancient drama about heroic intention. True to its literary analog and human source, Fury on Earth ends in catharsis. I felt like crying upon closing it.
The psychiatrist Joel Kovel places Wilhelm Reich among the "fallen angels." A near miss, I think. Reich seems one of the few truly tragic figures of this century. A prince of the early psychoanalytic movement, acknowledged by Freud as "the best head" among his associates at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Polyclinic, world renowned as theorist and clinician by the age of 35, he fell to the depths. Denied nearly everywhere, diagnosed as suffering from "paranoia manifested by delusions of grandiosity and persecution," Reich died of a heart attack in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1957. He was 60 years old and had served nine months of a two-year sentence.
The crime of which Wilhelm Reich was convicted was of having violated an injunction obtained by the Food and Drug Administration against interstate transportation of his "orgone accumulator," a metal- and-wood cabinet that Reich said restored human physical powers and the FDA declared a medical fraud.
But the larger reality of the proceedings against Wilhelm Reich and his Orgone Institute at Rangeley, Maine, is that he was also convicted of sinning against society. He conspired to remake it. He believed he could free us all from a worldwide "emotional plague" through the fullness of sexual orgasm.
Reich's discovery of "orgone radiation" and invention of the orgone accumulator were only the final thrusts in Reich's decades of self-destructive revolutionary effort to change the world's conception of sex. He had come to believe a cosmic energy he called orgone (from the words "orgasm" and "organism") radiated throughout the universe and in all life, and that enhanced amounts of orgone, gathered in his boxes, could change, well, nearly everything. And if you sat in one of Reich's orgone accumulators, everything included not only enhanced "orgastic potency," but the alleviation of anemia, speedier recovery from burns, and the slower spread of cancer.
But there was still more. With tubes and pipes connected to orgone boxes--as the irreverent called his accumulators--Reich and his followers shot enhanced orgone at clouds in New England and Arizona to relieve droughts and make deserts green.
Reich's orgone compulsion led him into a jungle of acronyms, abbreviations, and delusions. He kept finding new variants and applications--"oranur," "CORE," "Orur," and "DOR"--all postulated as a result of experiments with orgone and radioactive materials conducted by Reich, his wife Ilse Ollendorff, his daughter Eva, son Peter, Myron Sharaf, and others. DOR meant "deadly orgone" and got its name because everyone became ill while fooling with radium and accumulators at Orgonon, Reich's 200-acre retreat and research center near Rangeley.
It was DOR, by the way, that Reich believed in 1952 and 1953 was the cause of the bluish light various observers of flying saucers saw "shimmering through the openings of the machines." Flying saucers were "spaceships," Reich said, powered by orgone energy. DOR was the "slag" or exhaust from these machines as they consumed orgone. He also thought the spaceships' extra-terrestrial pilots might be bombarding the earth's atmosphere in an act of war. Or possibly they were "giving us a cosmic lesson concerning the 'immunization' benefits of DOR sickness."
If such a bizarre vision of the world seems profoundly sad, it's only the massive center of Reich's delusion. The details are worse, and one wonders how an enlightened and democratic society, even in the era of Dwight Eisenhower and hula hoops, could find no resolution except to clamp handcuffs on Wilhelm Reich and send him to jail.
He believed the U.S. Air Force scheduled overflights above Orgonon to protect him, that an international fascist-communist conspiracy plotted against his work (he had been a Communist in Berlin), that orgone held the political potential of world control, and that Eisenhower, whose fatherly countenance and fine German name suggested wisdom, was moving quietly to embrace him when the time was right. When Sharaf observed Reich at night in his laboratory wearing a bandana around his neck and a revolver on his hip, Reich said, "Don't think I'm peculiar. . . . You will learn about these things after a while."
It's a long and winding road that Sharaf follows with Wilhelm Reich, beginning in the rigid Austro-Hungarian Empire, moving through the political convulsion of World War I and its chaotic social aftermath, entering the dawning age of liberation with Sigmund Freud, and climaxing in the expanding universe of Einsteinian physics. The continuing merit of Sharaf's biography is how completely he integrates his subject into shifting history. He demonstrates that the development of Wilhelm Reich and his thought, however detached from reality at the end, were bound to the larger world around him. The stunning insights and terrible delusions were extensions of an ever-changing intelligence. And both were probably inevitable, given Reich's early life, agile mind, and controling personality.
A product of Harvard, where he received his PhD, as well as of Reichian training, Myron Sharaf finds a classical Freudian base to Wilhelm Reich's personality: Oedipus and towering guilt.
Born in Galicia in 1897, Reich was the first child of a beautiful young mother and an older, authoritarian father, a rather cosmopolitan and hardly observant Jewish couple managing a family estate of some 2,000 acres. Oppressed by his father, Reich idealized his mother.
Precocious in more than his studies of science and language, Reich began having sexual intercourse with the family's chambermaid, according to his account, around the age of 12. At almost exactly the same time, the determining event of his life occurred, as Sharaf views it. Adolescent Willy listened from outside the bedroom door over a period of several months when his tutor and mother engaged in sexual intercourse.
Reich remembered that his father had slandered his mother, calling her "whore," but the boy was caught in a tangle of eroticism, anger, and inadequacy, Sharaf suggests, and he told his father. Cecilia Reich drank a lye mixture and died. According to Reich and his younger brother Robert, around five years later their father Leon Reich took out a large life-insurance policy and committed indirect suicide by deliberatly contracting pneumonia; he did it through prolonged exposure standing in a lake on the farm.
Reich was left with what Erik Erikson calls "an account to be settled . . . an existential debt all the rest of a lifetime." Sharaf tells us, "Even into his thirties, Reich would sometimes wake in the night overwhelmed by the thought that he had 'killed' his mother."
Two subsequent experiences, in Sharaf's mind, formed the triad of experiences that would give us the revolutionary zealot who once told Sharaf that "a person like me comes along only once every thousand years."
In 1916, as a young officer in the Austrian army stationed in an Italian village on the front, he began a sexual relationship with a woman from whom he experienced "the full meaning of love." This new and different kind of sexual embrace, carrying with it raptures of physical release in a sea of tenderness, would become the "orgastic potency" Reich identified as the fountain of mental health.
The second experience occurred after Reich switched from law to the faculty of medicine at the University of Vienna in late 1918. A young nursery-school teacher with whom Reiched and had a liaison became pregnant. She underwent an illegal abortion and died. Once again Reich "experienced the disastrous consequences of sex outside marriage."
It's not a great distance to go from these events to Reich's insistence on the sexual sources of social and mental illness, his remedies, and his belief, several years into his career as a Vienna psychoanalyst meeting regularly with Freud and living on the same street, that "the actual goal of therapy" was "making the patient capable of orgasm."
As the late 20th century finds the industrialized West in a miasma of electronic pornography and sexual voluntarism, some of Reich's positions sound almost dated. But we must remember that Reich lived and worked in a Europe where Sigmund Freud's ideas were considered scandalous, and the most common form of birth control was coitus interruptus.
Reich believed that contraceptives should be available to everyone, that childhood sexuality should be affirmed, that sexual relationships between unmarried young adults were healthy, that young people were entitled to shelter for the purpose of engaging in sex, that abortion should be legalized, and that having children to bind a marriage harmed them. He said that traditional marriage could not endure because "sexual dulling" was "the inevitable result of close physical proximity to one partner, and the simultaneous exposure to new sexual stimuli emanating from others." He predicted that the institution of marriage would be replaced by "serial monogamy."
The route to such ideas, as Sharaf shows, was both Reich's own life and his clinical experience. He studied more data than most of his colleagues in the Vienna clinic. Increasingly, he noticed his patients "armored," bound up in muscular tension or moving as automatons. The reason, he said, was that "the psyche cannot discharge the total libidinous excitation in the form of work for any length of time." His mentally ill needed "direct and effective genital gratification." And in his most significant book, Character Analysis, largely written in 1929, he linked his analyses of patients and descriptions of characterological features to a therapy whose explicit goal was "orgastic potency or the unimpeded expression of genitality."
As Sigmund Freud aged he believed that "too great a (sexual) liberalization would lead to social chaos." He thought, says Sharaf, that "considerable frustration of the sexual impulse was necessary for civilization." Reich was challenging Freud, and Freud's attitude toward his dazzling student changed from tolerance to distance. Reich lost his substitute father. When he left Vienna for Berlin in 1930, he began the life of rejection that was to be his condition until death.
In Berlin Reich joined the more liberal psychoanalytic circle there and began relating sexual regulation to totalitarianism. The masses, he said, feared freedom. He joined the Communist party and fought Nazis in the streets. But Reich was too political for the psychoanalysts and too genital for the Communists. He fled Germany for Denmark, then Sweden, and was expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association at the Lucerne congress in 1934. He came to the United States in 1939 churning with ideas drawn from bioelectrical experiments he began conducting in Scandanavia. Reich connected the multiplication of protozoa with the energy released in sexual experience. By this time a number of former associates had written him off as lost.
Sharaf's is the fullest, most moving and charitable biography of Wilhelm Reich yet written. It tells more about his later ventures into fields for which he had little training than anyone except another biographer will want to know. It's superior in nearly every way to Colin Wilson's The Quest for Wilhelm Reich (1981) and its publication underlines growing wonder about his thought.
"I have to chalk up the recent books about him," says Roy M. Whitman, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Cinnd ncinnati College of Medicine, in a letter to the present writer, "to the desperate search in America for an idealized figure with whom everybody can identify, whether taking trips via India or embracing the Reverend Moon or deviant religious groups. . . . If I asked all of our residents (52) in our program to do more than just identify his name (without preparation), not many of them could."
But Sharaf thinks otherwise, and so do I. Reich lived his ideas--three marriages, countless sexual partners, his children reared in sexual freedom. We're living them too. We've made them our property.
Reich conducted therapy in a most unorthodox fashion. His patients were all but naked during treatment. He induced them to shout, cry, gag, and "stream" as they escaped their armor. Many thought he was a cousin of God, he helped so much.
Reich's techniques and ideas became a legacy to Alexander Lowen's bio-energetics, Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, and Arthur Janov's Primal therapy, as Sharaf properly notes. Paul Goodman, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have all helped themselves generously to Reichian postulates, with and without giving credit. Reich was not the genius Sharaf suggests. There's no need for orgone experimentation, as Sharif wishes. He himself cites the tests that went nowhere. But Reich dreamed the human potential movement. He taught psychotherapy to see the soul through the body first. He defined sexual pleasure as birthright.
Looking at the present, it seems Reich won even though he lost. What it means, Sharaf doesn't explore. He's too busy with orgone, which is a pity. We have entered the age of orgastic potency without a scorecard. Whether we're healthier or sicker may be unknowable. But we're living with Reich all right. A mile down from my house, on a side road off I-275, a sign in front of a little motel tells you so. It says, "Have Your Next Affair With Us."