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Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Inside Dr. Reich's Orgasmatron

Aug. 17, 2011
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Nowadays the notion of sexual healing is more or less taken for granted; a healthy sex life is seen as a prerequisite for psychological health—and with physical benefits beyond the pleasure principle. One of the idea's early and influential proponents, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, is the subject of Christopher Turner's detailed, endlessly engrossing biography, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Reich had a good idea or two, but as his biography makes plain, his own psychologically troubled life was hardly a happy one. In the end, the doubtful claims he made for a device he called the “orgasmatron,” which he asserted could alleviate cancer and arthritis as well as enhance sexuality, placed him in the tent where snake oil salesmen and cranky inventors peddle their wares.

Reich's childhood and adolescence lend support to the theory that many psychiatrists chose their profession in order to cure themselves; both parents were unhappy, unfaithful and took their own lives. Queasy within his own skin and suffering a lifelong affliction with disfiguring scabs, Reich prescribed getting beyond what he called the “skin ego” to our authentic core through the physical union of orgasm. “Could a sexual revolution have been born from one man's uneasy relationship to his own body?” Turner wonders.

The journey Reich took from Freud's inner circle in 1920s Vienna to a U.S. prison in the 1950s provides a fascinating topographical map of the intellectual, cultural and political landscape of the 20th century. He always managed to find followers and always made himself an outcast. Freud rejected the implications of Reich's thesis about the therapeutic value of orgasm, holding that the repression his erstwhile pupil sought to overthrow through a freer sex life was inherent in the human condition. The Nazis were amenable to some of Reich's ideas, but as a Jew and a Communist, he was forced to flee to Scandinavia after Hitler took power. The Communist Party expelled Reich, considering his preoccupation with sexual liberation a bit petit bourgeois. Landing in the U.S. on the eve of World War II, Reich became the authoritarian leader of a circle of devotees. His ideas filtered into the bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village and San Francisco and were much discussed by the artists and intelligentsia of postwar America. At one time or other Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Dwight McDonald flirted with the political and social imperatives of Reich's liberated libido. It was an alternative to Communism among disillusioned radicals and lots more fun than towing the Party line.

Reich ran afoul of the Food and Drug Administration for promoting the orgasmatron, a wardrobe sized construction where people could sit and recharge their vitality through intense exposure to “orgone,” the ethereal universal energy he claimed to have discovered. As Turner shows, Reich was no charlatan but a true believer who sought Albert Einstein's endorsement for the project. When the great scientist curtly dismissed him, Reich chalked it up to a vast conspiracy. Paranoia as well as authoritarianism became fundamental to his nature. Reich may have enjoyed a great deal of sex, but he was hardly liberated. He was convicted in federal court of making “false and misleading claims” about the orgasmatron and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Turner often quotes associates who called Reich “brilliant,” but whatever genius he may have possessed was handicapped by obsession, insecurity and lack of wisdom. In today's parlance, Reich thought outside the box, but built a box of his own and imprisoned himself within its plywood walls.


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