Wilhelm Reich

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Wilhelm Reich (March 24, 1897 – November 3, 1957) was an Austrian born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. He was the author of several notable textbooks, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Character Analysis, both published in 1933.

Reich worked with Sigmund Freud in the 1920s and was a respected analyst for much of his life, focusing on character structure rather than on individual neurotic symptoms. He tried to reconcile Marxism and psychoanalysis, arguing that neurosis is rooted in the physical, sexual, economic, and social conditions of the patient, and promoted adolescent sexuality, the availability of contraceptives, abortion, and divorce, and the importance for women of economic independence. His work influenced a generation of intellectuals, including Saul Bellow, William S. Burroughs, Paul Edwards, Norman Mailer, and A. S. Neill, and shaped innovations such as Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, Alexander Lowen's bioenergetic analysis, and Arthur Janov's primal therapy.

Later in life, he became a controversial figure who was both adored and condemned. He began to violate some of the key taboos of psychoanalysis, using touch during sessions, and treating patients in their underwear to improve their "orgastic potency." He said he had discovered a primordial cosmic energy, which he said others called God, and which he called "orgone." He built "orgone energy accumulators" that his patients sat inside to harness the reputed health benefits, leading to newspaper stories about "sex boxes" that cured cancer.

Reich was living in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. On March 2, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an attack on one of Reich's pamphlets, The Sexual Struggle of Youth. He left immediately for Vienna, then Scandinavia, moving to the United States in 1939. In 1947, following a series of articles about orgone in The New Republic and Harper's, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) obtained an injunction against the interstate sale of orgone accumulators. Charged with contempt for violating it, Reich conducted his own defense, which involved sending the judge all his books to read and arguing that a court was no place to decide matters of science. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and in August 1956, several tons of his publications were burned by the FDA, arguably one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history. He died in jail of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.


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