The Tortured Life and Times of Wilhelm Reich

This is the year that researchers of Wilhelm Reich’s discoveries have been waiting for.

Dr. Wilhelm Reich was a scientist whose downfall came when he said a federal court judge can’t rule on the validi­ty of science matters. Reich was convicted on a charge of contempt of court and was escorted to prison. Shortly be­fore he was to be released from prison, he suddenly died of a heart attack.

Before he was imprisoned, Reich made a will, and in it he ordered that his research papers be archived and the ar­chives not opened until fifty years after his death. November 3 of this year is the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

An international Reichean conference will happen July 29 to August 1 at the Wilhelm Reich museum near Range­ley, Maine, and attendees are promised more details about the opening of the archives.

Wilhelm Reich is on my mind for several reasons:

• Wondering how open his archives will really become.

• Meeting a fascinating storyteller who knew Reich during the scientist’s Arizona experiments.

• The current rush toward nuclear power, by leaders ignorant of Reich’s knowledge of certain dangers from radio­activity released into the environment. Among Reich’s many discoveries was an Orgone Motor which apparently tapped into a previously unknown ener­gy that he called orgone. I wonder if archived papers tell exactly how he built his little self-running motor. I asked Mary Higgins, Director of the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust, for more information about the archives’ open­ing. Her reply referred me to Reich’s Last Will and Testament.

“….Reich specifies that his archives are to be put away and stored until 50 years after his death. After November 3, 2007, scholars will be given access to specific materials at the Countway Library of Medicine in Boston. Decisions on access will be made by a committee appointed by the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust.”

Reading that, would you hold your breath waiting for open-sourcing of any notes about Reich’s motor? More than 200 boxes of his belongings are housed in the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard University’s Countway Li­brary, but even after November you can’t just barge through the doors and dig in. Or are you a scholar whose re­search would be approved by Mary Higgins’ committee? She’s been the devoted guardian of Reich’s legacy for nearly fifty years, so it may not be easy.

There’s a question of more importance. Reich had said that the world of his era was not ready for his knowledge and therefore he bequeathed it to the children of the future. The question is—are Material Girl and Consumer Dude ready to grasp Reich’s message about life-energy and the crucial need to understand the ways of that underlying sea of energy?

Before I give a brief rundown of Reich’s story, I have to tell you that many otherwise-educated people swallow mis­information about Reich. For instance, a claim that Reich’s “orgone accumulator” is some sort of sexual device. That claim originated in a 1947 article in New Republic magazine and is still perpetuated by commentators who don’t read Reich’s writings. Reich strongly refuted sexual claims for the accumulator.

Mary Higgins tries to set the record straight. For instance, she and Kevin Hinchey, associate director of The Wil­helm Reich Museum, responded last fall by letter to a National Public Radio show on which a guest cited Reichean therapy as an example of “wacky idea.” The letter is at Reich’s defenders comment that nearly 50 years after Reich’s death, we hear the same distortions and ridicule. They say that situation reinforces the need for bonafide clinical trials of the key tool in Reich’s medical and scientific research.

They told the NPR host that such distortions, perpetuated in the media, led to Reich’s books being banned and burned in the 1950s by order of a federal court injunction. Today there’s no excuse for not checking one’s facts about Reich, with twenty-one book titles by him published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, plus reams of scientific papers in spe­cialized journals.

Reich’s defenders also had to counter misstatements in the January 3, 2005 edition of New Yorker magazine, and ran into other poorly-researched writings stating, for instance, that a court had found Reich guilty of fraud or mail fraud or of defrauding the public with false claims of curing cancer. None of which is true. Reich didn’t cheat people, and never said he could cure cancer.

Brief History of Reich

Wilhelm Reich upset the establishment wherever he went. He pioneered one scientific territory after another, and was kicked out of one country after another because he didn’t bow to academic or other authorities.

Reich was born in Austria. His university education began with study of law then switched to medicine. He spe­cialized in psychoanalysis and was seen as Sigmund Freud’s most brilliant pupil and perhaps successor. Reich, howev­er, began to develop his own therapy systems.

He also was an activist. Resisting Fascism, he joined the German Communist Party. His cell block of writers and artists met in secret while Nazi troopers patrolled the street. The year that Hitler came to power, Reich bravely pub­lished The Mass Psychology of Fascism. During a Nazi crackdown which arrested more than a thousand intellectuals, Reich’s friends either went underground or were jailed or shot. Disguised as a tourist on a ski holiday, Reich escaped to Austria.

His homeland was no refuge either. Austria’s psychoanalytic establishment opposed his views, so he packed up and emigrated to Denmark. There he wrote a controversial article about sex education and argued with officials of the Danish Communist Party. The party formally excluded him, even though he had never joined.

The Danish Minister of Justice refused to renew Reich’s residence permit because of accusations by psychiatrists who disagreed with Reich. (Independent scientist jerked around by bureaucrats who are bullied by academics protect­ing their own turf? Sounds like today, where officials refuse patents to game-changing inventions when the hot-fusion guild kicks up a fuss.)

Wilhelm Reich shuttled over to Malmo, Sweden, but trouble followed. Danish psychiatrists contacted their Swed­ish counterparts, and again his residence permit was not renewed. He slipped back into Denmark as an illegal immi­grant.

Next he was a refugee in Norway, invited by a friendly professor. Soon the 1934 International Congress of Psycho­analysis voted to expel Reich, but he continued with techniques for releasing blocked emotions. Today’s bodywork therapies trace back to Reich. He pioneered bio-electric concepts at Oslo University and showed that we’re holistic; disturbance of one part affects the whole.

Reich forged yet another science. He wanted to see if currents of a biological force work similarly in all creatures, so bought equipment for detecting electrical charges in protozoa. High-magnification time-lapse photography of movements within those primitive forms of life was another new idea from Reich. He found that, under certain condi­tions, substances disintegrate into tiny pulsating vesicles he called “bions.” Certain bions radiated a bluish light that didn’t obey known laws of electricity or magnetism. He learned this energy could charge organic materials.

When he published his results, the scientific community blasted him. After a year of being attacked in the Norwe­gian press, Reich looked to America. He was invited to teach in New York, and sailed on the last ship from Norway be­fore the Second World War erupted.

His experiments took another turn as Reich learned to isolate orgone from bion cultures. He found organic mate­rials attract and absorb the energy. Metals attract and reflect it. So he built boxes with alternating layers and lined with metal. Biological energy radiation appeared inside these orgone accumulators even in the absence of bion cul­tures. Where did orgone come from?

Reich’s “aha!” moment came while on a 1940 camping trip in Maine. Observing night skies, he concluded that orgone energy exists in the atmosphere. He bought a lakeside cabin in that region, for experimenting away from the dirty humid city air, having found that water absorbs and holds orgone energy in the air.

Back in New York, the accumulator gave Reich a tool for his cancer research, a way to test medical effects of expo­sure to orgone. In 1942 he moved his base of operations to 160 rural acres near his cabin in Maine. He named the place Orgonon, built a students’ laboratory, an Orgone Energy Observatory and then further laboratory space and a li­brary.

From motor to cloudbuster

At Orgonon in 1949 Reich discovered a motor force in the energy from the atmosphere. Famous educator A. S. Neill was among those who witnessed a motor, about the size of an orange, turning over when attached to an orgone accumulator. Reich announced to Neill that his motor was “the power of the future,” but apparently didn’t follow up on this invention. Reich was a discoverer who left it to others to precisely validate and replicate his discoveries. (A fu­ture column will report on orgone motor research in our own era. See

Concerned about society’s proliferation of nuclear radiation, Reich did a regrettable experiment. He had noticed antagonism between radioactivity and orgone and thought orgone might somehow defend against radioactivity, so he placed radioactive isotopes into his large accumulator. He was mistaken. Some unknown force went crazy and at­tacked everything in the area. Lab workers developed symptoms like radiation sickness. Limestone near the laborato­ry turned dark. The building had to be quarantined for two years. Weather went weird. Black clouds seemed to get stuck above the area. Trees drooped in the stagnant air.

Had the lively orgone in the local atmosphere morphed into something deadly? Whatever the problem was, he named it DOR—Deadly Orgone Energy. Reich was desperate to disperse the dark clouds and get healthy orgone mov­ing again in the area.

Since water attracts orgone, he wondered if he could draw off some of the stuck energy through long metal pipes connected to a source of water, and trigger movement in the atmospheric stalemate. Clouds that the pipes pointed at did indeed begin to dissipate and a breeze stirred through the area. Further experiments showed that “cloudbusters” worked, and could also draw rainstorms.

Too fantastic. One of his biographers, however, points out that before the time of Benjamin Franklin people would’ve laughed at the idea that a metal spike on a roof could affect electricity in the sky. If you don’t know basic sci­ence behind its invention, a “lightning conductor” on a roof would seem delusional. Similarly, orgonomy basics are not yet known, and therefore anyone who experiments with orgone-conducting hardware is labeled a kook.

Ignoring the growing efforts of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to halt his orgone-accumulator work, Reich traveled to Arizona to do atmospheric experiments in the desert. He was obeying a court order to cease shipping products across state lines, but unknown to him another physician did so and gave the FDA an excuse to ar­rest Reich. Reich ignored an order to show up in court. Some biographers say he was outright paranoid by that time.

Maybe he did crack under the cumulative strain, but his previous accomplishments should be honored.

In Tucson last month I spoke with Joe Blankenship who remembers local excitement in the early 1950s when Wil­helm Reich was doing atmospheric experiments nearby with a “cloudbuster” set up on the roof of a rented house. Blankenship tells stories that aren’t in Reich’s biographies, so I can’t point you to other sources for his anecdotes. I notice, however, that the Tucson man’s wife, Marilyn Blankenship, is a no-nonsense woman with a mind of her own. She doesn’t dispute Joe’s tales of having known famous men, except to add details that she remembers.

Blankenship was the volunteer driver for Reich on occasions including a trip to Roswell, New Mexico. During that time and for several years after Reich’s death, Blankenship says, military officers and even bankers pumped him for information about what Reich was doing.

One anecdote particularly relates to the challenges a science pioneer faces. Dr. Reich, aware that a tiny amount of radioactivity can poison, detected a problem with Tucson’s drinking water. Joe Blankenship recalls Reich courageous­ly investigating and pinpointing the source. In that era of atomic bomb testing, military pilots had been flying into radioactive clouds before returning to their Tucson base. The airplanes were hosed down, and contaminated water ended up in the city’s water supply. Blankenship says local officials at first repeatedly scoffed at Reich’s concern.

Today, engineers know that the safe concentration of radionuclides in drinking water is only picocuries per liter. A curie is a unit of measurement for radioactivity, and a picocurie is one trillionth of a curie. To the locals with the 1950s mindset, whatever concentration Reich cited was too small to worry about. Later, they knew better.

It’s timely to dig more deeply into Reich’s work than this column can, if only because his work sheds light on hid­den dangers of nuclear power plants. Even if officially accident-free, they emit some radioactivity. Nuclear waste threatens the health of rivers, oceans and underground waters, yet nuclearphiles want to build additional thousands of power plants. Meanwhile there are power-dense clean alternatives. When will we wake up?


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