Exhaustive biography of Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), the renegade Freudian who championed the therapeutic powers of the orgasm and, for better or worse, helped transform America’s views on sexuality.
At the age of 22, Reich became a member of Freud’s inner circle, and was clearly the leader of the second generation of psychoanalysts. Yet his insistence that sexual repression was the key to all neuroses soon alienated him from Freud and his more orthodox followers. This alienation accelerated when Reich joined the Communist Party and laid out the theory that sexual repression was at the root of social disorder as well. None of this sat well with either Marxists or Freudians, and with the intentions of the Nazis clear, Reich left Europe for the United States in 1939. In America, Reich found a more receptive audience for his unorthodox views, especially among the artistic and political avant-garde of the early post–World War II years, who were alienated from Marxism but hardly aligned with the status quo. Of particular interest was Reich’s invention, the orgone energy accumulator, basically a wooden box lined with steel wool. The box gathered and concentrated a mysterious and sexually charged life force, orgone, and by sitting in the box one could improve his or her orgasm, general health, even be cured of cancer. Notables such as Norman Mailer championed Reich, and among his followers were William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Sean Connery. However, Reich’s behavior became increasingly erratic. Turner writes that he was clearly schizophrenic, seeing enemies everywhere including aliens from outer space. Imprisoned for violating an FDA injunction on building or using the orgone box, Reich died in 1957. Yet in death his influence grew, in ways he would have abhorred. He championed sexual liberation, not the promiscuous narcissism that flourished in the 1960s. As Reich had intimated and Marcuse and Foucault confirmed, sexual freedom can become a commodity and blunt radical impulses toward social change.
Fair, accessible story of a strange man and strange times.