Growing Up In The Lab Of My Mad Genius Father: A True Story
Do you remember when you first realized that your dad was a fallible human being? Maybe he got all drunk and weepy over the holidays, maybe he lost his temper at something silly like a video game, or maybe you finally found out that his Ryu defense was weak to air attacks. That moment is a part of growing up. Everybody's had it, including Peter Reich. It's just that Peter's father, Wilhelm Reich, happened to be a famous and controversial psychoanalyst who was thrown in jail by the U.S. government. That made his formative moment somewhat more complicated.
Wilhelm Reich Was Both A Psychology Pioneer And A Little Crazy
Reich's approach to psychoanalysis was ... unique. He was born in 1897 in Austria-Hungary to a well-off family, but when he was 12, he discovered that his mother was having an affair with his tutor. He told his father, his father beat his mother, and she committed suicide. Four years later, his father died of tuberculosis, and soon after, World War II's gritty prequel forced him and his brother to flee the advancing Russian Army, losing all of their money and possessions in the process. He had a much rougher childhood than the one that got ruined by the Ghostbusters reboot, is all we're saying.
Reich fought in the war, then studied at the University of Vienna while the city was gripped by a brutal famine, making him one of the few college students who didn't choose to have a terrible diet. He soon began studying under some guy named Sigmund Freud, then knocked up one of his patients, because the medical industry was rather fast and loose with ethics back then. The 19-year-old girl died -- possibly after a failed illegal abortion which was possibly conducted by Reich -- and her mother killed herself out of grief. Reich was fixated on sex, and one of his daughters speculated that he was molested as a child. On the lighter side, he could rock the fuck out a bow tie.
That's a small cherry atop a flaming shit sundae, but you take what you can get.
Reich promoted openness in sexuality, especially among teenagers, and would later coin the phrase "sexual revolution." He also pushed for easy access to contraception, abortion, and divorce. That wouldn't go over well in parts of America today, and this was conservative Catholic Austria in the '20s and '30s. His therapy methods included stripping patients down to their underwear and massaging them ... to uh, get them comfortable with expressing their emotions. That's the ticket.
Reich produced a lot of studies and was highly influential, although opinions were split over whether he was a mad genius or just the first part. Reich moved to the U.S. in 1939, in part because he had written a book called The Mass Psychology Of Fascism, which blamed the rise of the Nazis on sexual repression, and he figured they wouldn't have a terribly good sense of humor about it. He eventually built a home and research center in Maine called Orgonon.
Maine may be a little dull, but it does have the advantage of not being populated with Nazis.
It's named after his most famous theory: orgone energy. It's essentially an invisible form of energy, closely associated with sexuality, which, in sufficient quantities, can do anything from cure cancer to manipulate weather. To Reich, orgone was a fundamental building block of life.
See that haircut? Orgone.
Reich started making orgone accumulators -- boxes which supposedly attracted and concentrated orgone, and would improve your health and energy levels if you spent time in them.
"We need some colorful furniture for this that really says 'Please ignore the grim, featureless cell.'"
The fact that neither you nor anyone you know has ever been medically prescribed time in a sex box should tell you how scientifically valid orgone turned out to be. But accumulators proved popular, like The Secret of their day. Sean Connery swore by his, J.D. Salinger used one, the author of Shrek was a fan, and Reich convinced no lesser scientist than Albert "I'm Albert Goddamn Einstein" Einstein to experiment with it, although Big Al was ultimately unimpressed. William S. Burroughs even built his own, and claimed that he once achieved orgasm merely by sitting in it. Here's Kurt Cobain in Burroughs' cosmic cum-booth, hopefully after he cleaned it.
Seen here smiling in an attempt to forget that machine was full of black widows minutes before (NSFW).
Peter was born to Reich and his second wife in 1944, and spent much of his childhood at Orgonon, helping his father with his research. Hey, guess what? It wasn't entirely normal!
Peter Spent His Childhood Controlling Weather And Fighting Aliens
A big focus of Peter's childhood memoirs (and the hit Kate Bush song they inspired) were the cloudbusters. They're one of Reich's inventions:
While cooler-looking than his previous invention, it failed to offer a private place to get off on science.
The theory was that they drew orgone energy out of the atmosphere like a lightning rod, and in doing so, allowed for weather manipulation. Again, the fact that we aren't summoning rain clouds with sexy energy from the sky shows how well they worked. But in 1953, local blueberry farmers offered Reich money if he could end a drought that was devastating their crop. So he operated his cloudbuster for an hour, and it rained the next morning. The blueberries were saved.
Here's Peter (top) on that assignment.
It was a coincidence, but the satisfied farmers paid Reich. And to a young Peter, it was proof that his father was magic. "Picture the scene in Star Wars in which Obi Wan-Kenobi tells Luke about the Force, and you might gain a sense not only of Dr. Reich's immense, charismatic person, but also an appreciation for what it might have been like for a 12-year-old boy to literally cause the wind to rise on a still summer afternoon, to make it rain, to, in a terrestrial mode, invoke the Force."
With something which looked like a truck-mounted rocket launcher.
From 1954 on, Reich would enlist his son's help in using the cloudbusters to fight UFOs over Orgonon because, well, are you really surprised by that development? Reich called the UFOs "energy alphas," and thought that his experiments had attracted aliens who were attacking the Earth with Deadly Orgone Radiation. The cloudbusters would shoot them down by sucking the energy out of them. At one point, Reich packed up two cloudbusters and drove with Peter to Arizona, where they rented a house and fought a "full-scale interplanetary battle."
So that was Peter's childhood: helping his dad make rain and fight aliens as a "Lieutenant in the Corps of the Cosmic Engineers." Peter is still ambivalent about what happened, at one point referring to their time in Arizona as the moment he drew the line between fantasy and reality. But imagine being a kid who only knows that he loves his dad, and then he tells you that he can make it rain -- and it does. You might take his word about the aliens, too.
Wilhelm May Have Been Paranoid, But They Really Were Out To Get Him
Reich had been a member of the communist parties of Austria and Germany before abandoning communism in light of Stalin's "anti-sex" attitudes, but the FBI still kept an eye on him from the moment he stepped foot in America. They accumulated a 789-page file on Reich, and detained him as a possible subversive for over three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His troubles were compounded once the media learned about orgone accumulators. One local paper described them as "Sex boxes that cure cancer," and that got people's attention. How could it not?
Because the "one weird trick" ads of the 1940s knew how to deliver.
The media grew increasingly critical of Reich, which turned the FDA's attention toward him. It issued an injunction to keep Reich from selling orgone accumulators, arguing that he was committing fraud by claiming that they had health benefits. And that investigation is why official government records present this glowing testimony from a university professor who bought one because "My wife sits in it four hours a day and keeps her mouth shut."
Anyway, Reich defiantly kept selling his accumulators, and after an FDA official posing as a customer caught him, he was charged with contempt of court. FDA officials showed up at Orgonon and made Reich and Peter chop up the remaining accumulators. They later burned six tons of his books, some of which had nothing to do with orgone, and some of which had previously been burned by the Nazis for criticizing them.
If you're going to do something colossally stupid, might as well learn from the best.
Now, to be clear, accumulators were scientific gibberish that offered about as many health benefits as covering yourself in angry turtles. But the FDA spent two million dollars going after Reich, and the accumulators were only a side business -- the '50s equivalent of running an Etsy store. The ACLU, consumer advocates, and prominent writers all protested the FDA's act as overkill and censorship. Because dammit, in America, you're free to be a quack.
The prevailing theory is that, amidst a wave of sketchy products trying to take advantage of America's newfound fear of cancer, the FDA saw Reich as an easy, high-profile target. But he never actually made money from his accumulators, nor had he claimed that they cured cancer (although he did dance around that implication). Again, they were nonsense, but they weren't any worse than the dozen goofy health fads that half your Facebook friends are trying right now. So it was also probably overkill to send Reich to prison for two years.
Because apparently there wasn't enough real crime in the mid-'50s to take priority over the war on sex cannons.
When a parole application was imminent, Reich wrote a letter to a then-13-year-old Peter making plans to have a meal with him. Two weeks later, Reich was found dead in his cell of a heart attack. He was 60.
Reich left behind an enormous body of work, and much of his early work was regarded as insightful. He wasn't exactly a mad scientist working alone in a fortress in Maine -- he had a history of success, he hosted conferences, and kept in touch with colleagues. But one by one, his associates began to abandon him. Peter described an "eye-rolling moment" that eventually prompted every disciple to move on.
Not that the late 20th Century was particularly kind to any psychoanalyst.
"Many of Dr. Reich's ardent co-workers and colleagues were young psychiatrists who had been trained in state mental asylums where, at that time, cruel and unusual therapies were being applied. Dr. Reich's non-invasive, non-pharmacological, but hands-on therapy drew them to Dr. Reich in the first place. The later science-fiction-like aspect of his work drew skepticism, and finally, most everyone abandoned ship when the FDA filed an injunction against him in 1953."
Reich's later years, before his arrest, were still isolated and sad. His eccentricities were considered worth putting up with for a time, but his supporters could only cling to that for so long in face of all the UFO hunting. Human beings are complicated -- you can make significant contributions to the field of psychotherapy and believe that you're using an orgasmic life force to battle aliens. They're not mutually exclusive. In fact, combining them might make for a hell of a screenplay ...
Wilhelm Reich's Valid Contributions Shouldn't Be Invalidated By His Crazy
Most of Reich's theories have been rejected as rambling pseudoscience, although they still have their supporters -- Natural News, for example, is happy to teach you how to build your very own health-boosting orgone accumulator. But some of his work had a significant influence on modern psychoanalysis, and his attitudes toward sex also played a huge part in the sexual revolution of the '60s. As ridiculous as the orgone accumulator sounds today, it was a potent symbol of its time.
Time named him one of the 20th Century's 100 most influential people. During student uprisings in France and Germany in the '60s, students threw copies of The Mass Psychology Of Fascism at police, and scribbled "Read Reich and act accordingly" on walls. Orgone energy is even still studied today by The Journal Of Orgonomy -- although honestly, with a name like that, their options were pretty limited. The Orgasmotron from Sleeper was based on orgone accumulators, the evil doctor from Barbarella who tries to kill Jane Fonda with an overload from an orgasm-inducing machine was based on him, there's been music in addition to Bush's "Cloudbusting," there have been plays about him, and a designer made a line of furniture inspired by his work (although we're not entirely comfortable sitting on them, for some reason). It's also common for the media to trot out lazy stories portraying Reich as a mad scientist, because seriously -- cancer-curing sex boxes. That will always make for a good headline.
It's been 65 years, Wired. Let it go.
"For the past 50 years or so, 99 percent of the time in the press, Dr. Reich is made to look foolish or crazy, and a mockery is made of him. I am always hopeful that someone will get it right ... or at least not treat it as a joke."
Someone can have a touch of mad scientist in them and also be a loving father whose children are sick of seeing smeared for decades. Peter also noted an appropriate irony in a site that pays the bills with boner jokes writing about his father, whose sense of humour was legendary ... for its total absence: "With Dr. Reich, there was little humor, and work with Dr. Reich was serious business. A. S. Neill, Scottish educator author, who knew Reich well and attended some of the conferences at Orgonon, said 'No one ever laughed at Orgonon.'"
Even with the hair thing?
Peter also has mixed feelings about how his own memoirs have contributed to Reich's cartoonish legacy. "In many ways, I deeply regret that memories have likely enhanced Reich's image as a mad scientist, chasing flying saucers and changing the weather, toying with cosmic energy. But I did not make this up. What I witnessed was only the final, terribly sad act in a drama that began in vibrant Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s and ended in a U.S. federal penitentiary in 1957."
Well, sometimes telling the whole story means telling the ridiculous parts, too.
In The End, This Is A Complicated Father/Son Story
Reich's personal life was often unhappy, and he only had himself to blame for it. He would drink too much, his marriages were tumultuous, and he beat Peter's mother. In another interview, Peter said, "He would get drunk -- he did have a bad drinking problem. And he beat my mother up. But it's funny, that doesn't detract in my mind. He would get drunk because he was so lonely."
We asked Peter if his views on his father's drinking and domestic abuse have changed in the four years since, and his only response was, "Still working on this one."
As for orgone energy, an earlier preface to his memoirs said that he was "hedging" his bets on its existence. In his most recent preface, he says that he's open to the possibility of the existence of something beyond what scientists can measure. It's a debate humanity will be having in one form or another until the end of time, so reach your own conclusion. Peter told us:
"Living for, by, and with the 'facts' has endowed my daily emotional life with a capacity for love, work, and knowledge. What I learned from Dr. Reich about life and living has stood the test of time better than anything else, and still holds in my heart and mind more promise, fulfillment, and gratification than any other teaching I have encountered. Everything I needed to know, I learned at his side."
Now we need an accumulator for tears.
Well, the sex energy stuff may not have worked out for Wilhelm, but at least Peter himself seems like a good legacy to leave behind.
Peter's memoir, A Book Of Dreams, can be bought here. Mark is on Twitter and also has a book.
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