Wilhelm Reich Making a Life in America


After Wilhelm Reich settled in America his view of psychiatric therapy became something more tangible than abstract analyses of dreams, resistance, etc. He saw health as the free flow of energy in the body, and unhealthiness as anything blocking that flow. This view is similar to that of Chinese medicine, and acupuncture in particular is supposed to facilitate energy flow. On superficial research, though, I don’t see anything as deep or as systematic in it as Reich’s view.
Reich saw chronic muscular spasms as blocking uncomfortable or unacceptable emotional energy, which would then remain trapped in the body, unable to be discharged, which would create sexual dysfunction to greater or lesser extent.
The greater the dysfunction, he thought, the more rigid the personality, and the more liable to cooperation with and submission to tyrannies. He saw people in general as being unable to accept freedom and responsibility, which made them easy to manipulate by master propagandists like Hitler. This is no less obvious today.
Myron Sharaf, his biographer, who had previously worked with him, says that he resented the system which made effective treatment available only to a small elite who could afford to pay for it. By this time he was less interested in therapy than in research, but had to continue treating patients to finance his research. He tried various educational initiatives, hoping that some other method would emerge that could treat people on a large scale, but was unable to find any.
His view of sexuality was threatening to many ordinary people, but especially to people in positions of power. The director of the hospital in which Dr. Elsworth Baker ( a student and associate of Reich’s) worked turned against him (though previously considering Baker a particularly fine psychotherapist) when he discovered Baker’s interest in Reich’s methods of treatment. Still, he managed to conduct some research in areas that he thought would help people.
One area of research was with children, instigated by the birth of his son, Peter. He loved to observe Peter’s behavior, and noted that his primary energetic area was his mouth: when it sucked on his mother’s nipple, and the nipple responded by becoming erect, he saw the excitement manifested by the nipple becoming a unit with the infant’s mouth. Obviously, from his perspective, this was a highly important source of contact for the infant in particular, but probably also for the mother.
He also saw the infant’s eyes as highly sensitive and charged. Infants, he said, preferred lively colors, and if able to watch their surroundings while riding in carriage or car, would do so avidly. They also liked eye-contact with their mothers, but if the mother’s eyes weren’t “alive” enough, this could cause a withdrawal.
His experience with Peter prompted him to start a program to study the interaction between mothers and infants. The program never got too large, and other efforts got in its way, but Reich gleaned some insights from it that were ahead of his time. He was a proponent of natural childbirth, though he also wanted the safety of birth in hospitals. He didn’t want the infant separated from the mother after birth, unless absolutely necessary. He wanted to be very careful about medicines and other substances ingested by the mother during pregnancy too.
He also noted a behavior in which Peter shook slightly, and his eyes rolled up in his head after nursing. He called this “oral orgasm”, and saw it as analogous to adult genital orgasm. Again, the stimulus would come from the mother’s nipple. This is another of his observations which has been scantily researched since, if at all.
Another of his projects was treatment of a young woman with schizophrenia. He saw schizophrenia as being much different in manifestation from neurosis, but stemming from similar causes. The main difference was a split between sensation and perception, he thought. He found the young woman almost embarrassingly honest, in contact with her deep experiences, but with distorted perceptions. Neurotics he found to be out of touch with their deep experiences, because of their muscular armor, and unwilling to talk about what sensations they had.
The young woman felt “both protected and persecuted by her ‘forces’, the nature of which she did not understand.” Reich began to see her “forces” as projections of her bodily sensations, and focused on helping her lose her fear of the streamings of energy in her body. He stressed the necessity of GRADUAL release of emotion and energy so that the patient would not be overwhelmed.
He was surprised to find that the patient identified her “forces” with the sun, suggesting she perceived them in her whole surrounding environment. Sharaf notes that a number of Reich’s former colleagues were saying HE was schizophrenic at this time, and indeed he was perceiving energy everywhere, just as his patient did. But although Reich could be self-destructive and paranoid, Sharaf doesn’t believe he ever really lost touch with reality. He continued to have deep insights the rest of his life, even during the stress of being persecuted because of his work.
His concern with such a patient was to avoid such crude treatments as electric shock, but to help the patient learn to tolerate intense sensations without “going off” in the eyes (rolling the eyeballs upwards to lessen the intensity).
Reich said this patient had endured verbal abuse from her mother for years, and had conceived a murderous hatred for her, wishing to strangle her. At one point she asked to squeeze Reich’s throat. He said he was a bit frightened, but told her to go ahead. He said she placed her hands very carefully around his throat, and squeezed very gently, after which she sat back in her chair, and he observed her breathing normally (one of the indicators of whether energy was blocked in the body).
Reich didn’t entirely cure this patient, but her condition did improve. Sharaf points out that schizophrenics sometimes improve from any kind of treatment or none, but that this is rare. She reached a level where she could function better, though not ideally, being more neurotic than psychotic.
Reich also became concerned about what he called the “emotional plague” character. Most neurotics he called “character” neurotics. They were unable to give, but usually minded their own business, and caused little damage. “Emotional plague” people were different in that they attacked, and persuaded others to attack people they disapproved of. He saw these “plague” people as having a lot of energy, but being so armored they were unable to use it positively, and were envious of anyone freer than they. Sharaf cites Martin Luther King’s persecution by J. Edgar Hoover as an example of this: Hoover threatened to expose King’s sex life (Hoover’s own was questionable by contemporary standards), a method that worked with most people Hoover dealt with. In this case, King refused to be intimidated.
Emotional plague characters are also very prominent today. It’s popular to discriminate against people with different sexual orientations than one’s own, against women seeking contraception or abortions, and against women’s rights in general. This was the sort of tactic Hitler used so ably, as a means of distracting people and directing their anger against scapegoats. These tactics are used today by people of equal sexual dysfunction, as pointed out in the sexual histories of three of the men most responsible for prosecuting President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Two were also having affairs at around the same time, and one paid out a lot of money because he had molested a child.
When negative rumors started about Reich in the town of Rangeley, Maine, where he had his summer home, he tried to find out who had started the rumors and confront them directly. In one case, a local citizen called Reich and the people working with him Communists. Reich wrote to him, asking if he’d started the rumor, didn’t get an answer, but had his identity confirmed by others. Reich then wrote a letter, which the people working with him signed, talking about the dangers of slander and gossip, and how those using them as tools rely on people’s fears of being slandered themselves. Sharaf thinks he was successful in this case. But more serious problems had already begun.


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