Wilhelm Reich, in my opinion, was one of the great minds of the 20th century, but great minds aren’t always appreciated. And after a tragedy in his teenage years it’s surprising he was able to function as well as he did.
He was educated by tutors, and in his early teens realized one tutor was having an affair with his mother. Just how it happened is unclear, but his father became aware through Reich, and confronted his mother, who took poison and died. This was an earthquake within the family, not least for the father, who set the tragedy in motion with jealous behavior toward his wife. About two years later he too committed suicide, leaving Reich and his younger brother destitute.
Just at that time World War I began. After fighting in it, Reich obtained his education in Vienna, where he was introduced to psychoanalysis, which became the foundation of his career. Myron Sharaf, his biographer, who worked with him much later, says Reich was extremely ambitious, and felt it necessary to live like a hero to make up for his part in the family tragedy. In a number of ways he was heroic, though he was also a flawed person who could be very destructive when experiencing stress.
Reich favorably impressed the psychoanalytic community with his theoretical work on character armor. This was a term for the resistance analysts found in patients who were reluctant to talk about painful subjects. Reich expanded the definition, including not only reluctance to talk, but also talking about things that were beside the point. He included transference, in which the patient transfers feelings he’s had about important figures like parents to his therapist. Reich pointed out that these feelings weren’t only inappropriate feelings of love, but also feelings of anger. One of his aims was always to get patients to express their feelings with emotion. He felt doing so would open their emotional blockages.
Reich had the intelligence to understand his patients in therapy according to previous psychoanalytic theory, but to also see what was happening without preconception. His perceptions were subtle,and Sharaf emphasizes a certain naivete inherent in lack of ideology. He was able to use criticism to reexamine issues and refine his perception and explanation of them. Not everyone liked his explanations, and he alienated some of his colleagues because he wanted all his friends to be as enthusiastic as he about the subjects that fascinated him, and many were not.
In 1927 he witnessed a riot in Vienna in which police fired into a crowd, killing 89 people. He was struck by capitalists not struggling with their employees directly, but that naivete probably allowed him to experience the riot more deeply than others. The other thing that impressed him was the mechanical nature of the police. This was similar to the behaviors of the patients he was analyzing, and he realized that there was a catastrophic number of people with sexual troubles, which enabled the Nazis, among others, to manipulate ordinary people.
Reich joined both the Socialists and Communists in an effort to combat Hitler’s masterful propaganda, realizing that criticizing Hitler’s inconsistencies was beside the point. It was his very inconsistencies that attracted people. Promising that men would dominate women, that the family would be protected from women obtaining contraception and abortion, and that the German nation (portrayed as a larger family) would be protected from alien groups by punishing Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, etc. This deflected anger from the powerful groups actually causing many people unhappiness. The Communists, third largest party in Germany had no idea how to appeal to people in language they could understand. Hitler promised both excitement and security. The Communists delivered boring analyses of government policies.
Progressives make essentially the same mistake today in criticizing conservatives today. Radical conservatives follow the same gameplan as the Nazis: tell the big lie often enough, and many people will believe it. Their politicians promise to sadistically punish anyone with darker skin, of the wrong gender, or with the wrong opinions. These are the scapegoats who are “responsible” for ordinary people being unhappy.
Reich found similar patterns in Europe in the years before the Nazis took over power in Germany. Hitler’s propaganda was essentially distorted sexuality to manipulate frightened people. Reich tried to counter this propaganda by counseling people (especially young people) who had questions about sexuality. He didn’t have enough people or resources to match what the Nazis were doing, and when the Communists (through whom he was working) found out his message they were appalled, and expelled him from the party. Just as now, knowledge about sexuality was seen as “dirty”, as something negative, though Reich attracted many young people in particular who wanted to achieve healthy sexuality. He didn’t have an effective way to combat Hitler’s propaganda, but he felt bound to try, hoping that an effective technique would emerge to help large numbers of people. He later commented that at least when people with sexual problems met in groups they didn’t feel alone, and might gain some benefit from that by itself. He realized, though, that much of the trouble of the world was caused by the average person’s fear of freedom, as a result of dysfunctional sex lives allowing them to be manipulated. Making a large enough effort to free people sexually scared a lot of people (who tended to see sexuality as worse than violence) besides being logistically impossible.
As Reich continued to improve his psychotherapeutic skills, he came to see sex as a bioelectric phenomenon, in which the organism builds up an electric charge, then discharges it in the orgasm. Reich was able to correlate electrically the buildup of electricity with increasing pleasure. Pleasure he correlated with the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, which oversees the organism’s expansion in pleasure. The sympathetic division controls the fight or flight reflexes, and comes into play when pain (or anticipated pain) causes the organism to contract. Reich was also concerned about the QUALITY of orgasm, since it was possible for the male to attain erection without experiencing pleasure. It was also possible for the male to have an orgasm without entirely discharging the built-up energy, which could remain static and cause neurotic symptoms. He didn’t see better sex as “curing” neurosis, but of taking away the energy on which neurosis feeds. When energy flows freely throughout the body, people are generally happier. At this point Reich had begun physically loosening some of the areas of the body in his patients whose muscles were in chronic spasm as sexual repression manifested not only as emotional neurosis, but as physical “armoring” against threatening feelings.
Such feelings are generated in a culture that feels generally negative about sex. Thus some groups are more concerned about people’s sexual behavior than anything else. They dislike big government everywhere but in other people’s bedrooms.
As Reich put it:
“Suppression of the natural sexuality of the child, particularly of its genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyzes the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties. In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; that makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure take place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and sexual anxiety.” (Quoted from Myron Sharaf’s Fury on Earth.)
The above explains why people in Hitler’s time, just as people today, vote against what many of us think is their best interest. They don’t see it that way because their natural feelings have become distorted.
So in the 1930s Reich was burning bridges with the psychoanalytic community (in which he thought he’d found a second home) who didn’t like his political allegiance and disagreed with his view of sexuality, though it echoed what his mentor, Sigmund Freud, had once thought. The Communist parties in Germany and Denmark feared that his views on sexuality would alienate their constituents, and Germany, Denmark, and Norway (where he settled for several years before immigrating to the USA) saw him as being a con man. People take sexuality very personally, and find it a difficult subject to be rational about.
At that point, in the mid 1930s Reich’s interest began to change from psychoanalysis to natural science. He was still interested in mental illness and its manifestations in general, but had become more interested in its physical expression in terms of electricity and the nervous system.