How America Interrupted Wilhelm Reich's Orgasmic Utopia
Reich being escorted to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, March 1957.
It was the greatest incidence of scientific persecution in American history.
In July of 1947, Dr. Wilhelm Reich—a brilliant but controversial psychoanalyst who had once been Freud’s most promising student, who had enraged the Nazis and the Stalinists as well as the psychoanalytic, medical, and scientific communities, who had survived two World Wars and fled to New York—was dying in a prison cell in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, accused by the government of being a medical fraud engaged in a “sex racket.”
That “racket” would one day be called the “sexual revolution.” But it was still 1947 in America—an America not even ready for psychoanalysis, still a nascent science that Harper’s and the New Republic had categorized, right alongside Reich’s theories, as being no better than astrology. (Reich, Harper’s had decided, was the leader of a “new cult of sex and anarchy.”)
If the American public wasn’t ready for Dr. Freud, then how much less prepared would they be for Dr. Reich—a man who, at his Orgonon institute near Rangely, Maine, was researching the energetic force of the orgasm itself?
Reich had taken Freud’s theories far. Too far, according to the FDA. Starting with Freud’s connection of sexual repression to neurosis, Reich had theorized that it was the physical inability to surrender to orgasm that underlay neurosis, and eventually turned people to fascism and authoritarianism. Reich migrated from Freud’s simple talking cure to what he called character analysis, a therapy designed to help his patients overcome the physical and respiratory blocks that prevented them from experiencing pleasure. Finally—and most dangerously—he claimed that the orgasm was an expression of orgone, the joy-filled force of life itself. With phone-booth-size devices called "orgone accumulators" he could harness this force to cure neurosis, disease, and even affect the weather and help crops grow.
For these lines of inquiry, the FDA demanded Reich appear in court to defend himself in 1954. He refused, stating that claims of scientific truth should be settled by experiment, not in court. The court responded by issuing an injunction against the sale or transportation of his devices across state lines, and proceeded to systematically burn his books and journals. Not only Reich’s writing, but any written material that contained the word “orgone” was fair game for destruction. (Paranoid and embattled, Reich would refuse offers of help from the ACLU, believing it to be filled with communist subversives.) FDA agents also began destroying his devices and laboratory with axes—but that wasn’t all. The FDA would carry their persecution of the Austrian psychoanalyst much, much further.
What was it about this man and his theories that invoked the wrath of nearly every political and scientific faction of his time? What was it about the “sexual revolution” that earned Wilhelm Reich a 789-page FBI file? What provoked a systematic campaign of attacks hardly suggestive of a sane and rational America that had just won the war against the book-burning Nazis—and more reminiscent of the Inquisition, the incineration of Giordiano Bruno, or the ending of Frankenstein, in which angry villagers with torches and pitchforks burn down the mad scientist’s castle?
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