Awesome Men Throughout History: Wilhelm Reich

Happy new year, everyone! I hope all of your holidays were pleasant, and that none of the Mayan calendar bullcrap we’ve been hearing about for months now will amount to anything in 2012. Dear god has that gotten old.

Anyway, since no one important has died recently, I can resume my normal habit of writing about people who’ve been dead for a while, and if there’s one thing you could say about Austrian-American psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, it’s that he’s been dead for a while. If there’s another thing you could say about him, it’s that he was a sex-obsessed weirdo with bad hair.

Reich, who worked with Sigmund Freud in the 1920s, was one of the most radical figures in psychoanalysis. Not only was he an avowed Marxist (which wasn’t so uncommon then), he was also convinced that sexual energy directed most of the body’s physical reactions and processes. He even had a name (?orgone?) for the energy generated by the human libido, and built large accumulator boxes that patients could sit in. I’m still not sure what the purpose of that was, but Reich was pretty sold on its therapeutic effects. Then again, he also thought he could harness free-floating sexual energy to manipulate the weather and gravity, so he was hardly unbiased.

Most other scientists thought Reich was insane, including Albert Einstein, who tried out one of Reich’s orgone accumulators and thought the whole thing was stupid. They also disapproved of his behavior with patients, which included sitting next to them during analysis, directly answering their questions, and stripping them down to their underpants and touching them to relieve their ?body armor,? aka physical manifestations of unreleased sexual tension. Honestly, up until that last one he was sounding okay.

But Reich’s, um, intense focus on sexuality wasn’t all pervy and sad; coupled with his lifelong Marxism, his social attitudes were remarkably sane (especially considering the era in which he lived). Reich’s books and papers, six tons of which were burned by the US government in 1956, argued that neurosis had as much to do with socio-economic conditions as anything else, and promoted women’s rights and widespread access to sexual health and contraceptives. A generation of intellectuals, including Saul Bellow and William S. Burroughs, was influenced by his work.

And while his own methods have fallen out of favor (to the extent anyone besides him really favored them), he was an undeniable influence on Gestalt therapy, bioenergetic analysis, and primal therapy, all of which are still in practice today. This all might seem esoteric, but the ways in which we perceive the world around us, and how we are affected by it, come from these people and their work. Even the crazy ideas can be developed into good, productive ones down the road. Reich is proof of that, if nothing else.

Besides, even if much of Reich’s work has been doomed to obscurity, his cool factor still holds strong; both Hawkwind and Turbonegro have referenced him in songs. Can’t say that about, say, Gerd Binnig, now can you?

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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