Dr Wilhelm Reich

The Legacy of Wilhelm Reich: Many contemporary holistic approaches to mind-body healing have their roots in the pioneering theories of this controversial psychiatrist

Nearly 35 years ago, Wilhelm Reich, one of our century's greatest intuitive thinkers, died in a U.S. federal prison while serving a sentence for promoting his unorthodox approach to cancer treatment. Reich was an Austrian-born psychiatrist and biophysicist whose iconoclastic books on life-energy, healing, sexuality, and society had the unique distinction of being banned by the governments of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

At the time of Reich's death, he was ridiculed by mainstream journalists as a mad scientist and by medical colleagues as a huckster. But today, his legacy continues to grow. In fact, many of the fundamental tenets of contemporary holistic approaches to healing mind and body originated in Reich's work.

Many of us now take for granted his then-radical assertion that emotions can be "held" in the body -- that our muscles and deep tissues retain a powerful memory of previous emotional states, which can be released through bodywork. What most people don't realize is that nearly every contemporary system of body-centered psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic bodywork -- including bioenergetics, Gestalt, Hakomi therapy, Lomi work, polarity therapy, holotropic breathwork, and dozens of other popular techniques -- bears the influence of Reich's controversial vision.

Sexology and Body Pleasure

Reich was dogged by controversy throughout his wandering life. The older son of assimilated Austrian Jews, Reich chose medicine as his profession. As a student at the University of Vienna in the early 1920s, he organized an innovative seminar on sexology and solicited the renowned Sigmund Freud as his mentor. Soon Reich was appointed clinical assistant at Freud's Psychoanalytic Clinic and was clearly marked as his protege.

As a budding psychoanalyst, Reich discovered that sexuality played a pivotal role in his patients' lives. Through the direct and unprecedented method of asking patients what they felt during lovemaking, he learned that most of them experienced little pleasure, despite their ability to complete the act; their bodies had become "deadened." Reich soon realized that this condition was widespread, and not just among psychiatric patients. He concluded that their sexual complaints were both more complicated and more common than Freud had believed.

Reich also found that beneath his patients' emotional-physical blockages -- or "armoring," as he termed their chronic muscular tensions they usually had a "layer" of violent and socially unacceptable feelings that had been suppressed since childhood. Freud had considered this murderous layer to be instinctual. But below it, Reich claimed, lay decent, loving emotions -- our true, inborn "core."

Reich's first book declared that virtuoso prowess is not the main issue in sexual matters. Rather, the key lies in our capacity to let ourselves go during lovemaking, an ability that originates in our general attitude toward life. He insisted that a radically new form of therapy -- not the "talking cure" of psychoanalysis was needed to help restore our natural openness.

Reich's new approach made two innovations, both revising Freudian analysis by directly focusing on the body. Therapists were encouraged to closely observe body and facial language as important indicators of personality. "If we know the patient well enough, we know what's going on without words being spoken." Reich observed that the way we speak, walk, even sit on a chair -- all of our seemingly trivial daily actions provide clues to our inner self. "When it becomes possible to read emotional expressions, the patient doesn't have to talk."

Therapists were also encouraged to emphasize the "here-and-now," helping clients to actually feel how they tensed or "deadened" themselves physically. In this way, they could begin to recover their natural childhood exuberance and experience everything, not just their sexuality, in a more satisfying manner. This notion, of course, has become a basic feature of many forms of bodymind healing, including Gestalt therapy and bioenergetics.

Freud's disciples, enraged by the challenge to Freudian theory, sought to destroy Reich's reputation. They claimed that he was a sexual pervert or a mad-man, indulging with patients in luridly immoral behavior. Outraged by such false and ludicrous charges, Reich decisively turned his back on psychoanalysis and embraced political radicalism. This, he decided, was the only effective means to change what he viewed as the emotionally repressive lifestyle of western Europe.

In 1930, Reich, together with his wife and two daughters, moved to Berlin, where the Communists were plotting revolution and seeking to outmaneuver Hitler. Boldly attempting to wed his revision of Freudian theory with Marxism, Reich stridently called for "sexual revolution" (a phrase he coined) and briefly joined forces with the German Communist Party. Fascism he saw as a growing menace, attracting those who were bitter and emotionally repressed due to the effects of capitalism and industrialization. An advocate of progressive sexual attitudes, Reich argued forcibly for legalized birth control and universally available contraception. Initially, he was embraced by the German Communist party as a fellow revolutionary. Soon after visiting the U.S.S.R., however, he began denouncing Stalinist Russia for its authoritarianism, and in 1933, the German Communists expelled him as a "counterrevolutionary." By the following year, Reich was openly condemning Stalin's regime as "red fascism."

When the Nazis consolidated power, Reich's books were burned and the Gestapo was ordered to kill him. Disguised as a tourist, he escaped across the border and eventually found haven in Norway.

Bodywork and Beyond

During the next few years, Reich, now associated with the University of Oslo, helped train and supervise therapists of many nationalities interested in his unique approach. Psychologists, physicians, artists, and educators all came to learn from him, including A. S. Neill, founder of Summerhill, the famous alternative school in England. After receiving therapy from Reich, Neill became a staff member at Reich's newly founded Institute for Sex-Economic Bio-Research, and the two became lifelong friends.

During these Norwegian years, Reich refined his therapeutic method. He focused on breathing and its free expression through the musculature as especially important clues to our capacity for bodily pleasure of all kinds. He also discovered that when certain parts of our anatomy are therapeutically massaged or manipulated, long-buried emotions like sadness, longing, or anger often come into awareness.

Reich would relax and loosen his patients' breathing, then help them to release their pent-up feelings -- for example, through unrestrained sobbing. It was essential, he said, that this process be guided by a competent therapist; otherwise, patients might become overwhelmed or even suicidal due to the surging strength of these long-denied emotions.

These now-familiar bodywork techniques were radical innovations at the time, and Reich once again became the target of vicious censure. The Norwegian press branded him a "sex fiend" and "pornographer," and some articles ominously denounced him as an enemy of the nation. Publicly ignoring these attacks, Reich quietly arranged emigration to the United States. He left Oslo in August 1939, only a few days before World War II erupted.

Harbinger of Holistic Health

Initially Reich taught some university courses at the New School for Social Research in New York City but soon moved his residence and laboratory facilities to rural Maine. There he focused on his latest research interest: exploring the existence of a universal life energy that he called orgone (in reference to its orgasmic and organic qualities).

In Reich's iconoclastic view, orgone energy was akin to, and yet fundamentally different from, electricity and magnetism. In a series of pioneering though not always replicable experiements with a device he termed an "orgone accumulator," Reich devoted his attention to lifeenergy investigation. An orgone accumulator was a box the size of a telephone booth, constructed of alternating layers of wood and steel, designed to attract orgone energy from the environment and infuse it into the person inside the box. Without any background in Eastern philosophy or healing, Reich had intuitively developed his own theory about the subtle energy known for millennia by mystics around the globe: by the Chinese as chi, the Japanese as ki, the Hindus as prana, and the Jewish Kabbalists as ruacb.

In the 1940s, Reich suggested that illness could best be understood as a disharmony in the flow of this lifeenergy. He identified asthma, allergies, colitis, heart disease, high and low blood pressure, and cancer as resulting from energy blockages within the body. "There is a unity between body and mind," he later wrote. "I found that you reach out with your life energy when you feel well and loving, and you retract it to the center of your body when you are afraid."

In this era, Reich's far-ranging interests included biometeorology (the effect of atmospheric conditions on emotional and physical health) and environmental medicine. Decades before the emergence of the holistic health movement, he sharply criticized mainstream Western science for its mechanistic worldview. "Nature is imprecise. Nature does not operate mechanically, but functionally." In his view, just as the human heart and brain cannot really be studied in isolation from one another, neither can living things be understood apart from the larger energy fields around us. "Because armored man is rigidified, he thinks predominantly in terms of matter."

Reich saw prenatal care and obstetrics as flagrant examples of mechanistic medicine. In The Cancer Biopathy, published in 1948, he called for a more natural approach to childbirth and pediatric care. For delivery-room medical staff not to see how their unfeeling standard procedures induced anguish in newborns was a perfect example of how the "emotionally armored" recreated this armoring in successive generations, he claimed.

For Reich, modern medicine's mechanistic outlook had led to an overriding emphasis on sickness, pills, and surgery. Instead, he recommended an approach embracing the emotional and spiritual factors that help us to remain healthy. Long before the consumer advocacy movement sparked by Ralph Nader in the 1970s, Reich attacked the unholy alliance between the major pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment, and the federal regulatory agencies. Reich's terse message was: "Only you can be your own liberator."

Reich vs. the Establishment

Despite Reich's continued intuitive breakthroughs, his final years were tragic. According to documents secured by the Freedom of Information Act, certain U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials became concerned about Reich's work with cancer patients and his use of orgone accumulators, which became more visible following a series of critical magazine accounts. His status as a foreigner and former Communist hardly helped his image with governmental investigators in the early Cold War era.

The FDA spent years gathering evidence against him. In 1954, an FDA-initiated federal court injunction ordered Reich's hardcover books banned from circulation and his softcover books, including all his English-language scientific periodicals, burned. It also ordered him to stop manufacturing and distributing his orgone-energy accumulators. A close assistant, however, ignored the directive and shipped out several accumulators to physicians.

The government then obtained a criminal contempt-of-court order, and a lengthy appeals battle ensued. Besides draining Reich's time and funds, the legal maneuvering sapped his optimism and emotional stability. He began to drink heavily, and he became paranoid, suspecting even his staunchest supporters of betraying him. After a lengthy and unsuccessful appeals procedure, Reich was sentenced to federal prison in mid-1956 and was taken into custody several months later.

On November 3, 1957, two days before his parole hearing and two weeks after the Soviets launched the Space Age with the Sputnik satellite, Reich was found dead in his cell. An autopsy performed at his family's request pointed to heart failure as the apparent cause of death. A test for poison, requested by Reich's friends, proved negative.

The Reichian Legacy

But the ideas that Reich had pioneered did not die so easily. Although no unified Reichian movement has emerged, a variety of groups and individuals have been exploring and extending his groundbreaking concepts. Under the leadership of psychiatrist Ellsworth Baker (who later authored Man in the Trap), a group of Reichians calling themselves orgonomists began publishing the professional Journal of Orgonomy, replicating Reich's basic experiments, and sponsoring an annual lecture series in New York City. Now headed by Dr. Richard Biasband in California, the orgonomists have traditionally adhered to a narrow interpretation of Reich's work, accepting no deviations from his particular analysis of the causes of armoring and his precise prescription for working with it. This attitude has limited their influence on the mainstream therapeutic community. Recently, however, they have initiated interesting research involving pregnant women, studying how the mother's emotions and character structure affect her newborn's delivery and subsequent development.

Another active figure on the contemporary Reichian scene is Eva Reich, M.D., Wilhelm Reich's daughter. Since the mid 1960s, she has traveled extensively around the globe, bringing her father's iconoclastic ideas to Central and South America, Europe, and Australia. She has won wide recognition for an approach she calls "emotional first aid" -- quick, simple methods for weakening resistant body armor and thereby restoring psychosomatic health. Currently, she teaches a gentle form of bioenergetic bodywork, using light, "butterfly" touching and stroking -- rather than hard pressing -- to help men and women release their repressed emotions and blocked energy.

Within the United States, the most successful promoter of Reich's ideas is Alexander Lowen, M.D., now over 80 years old but still actively practicing. Trained by Reich in the early 1940s, Lowen was the cofounder (with Dr. John Pierrakos) of the Institute of Bioenergetics. His many popular books include The Betrayal of the Body and The Spirituality of the Body.

Through his books and lectures, Lowen has worked hard to popularize many Reichian ideas and has won a much wider hearing than the orgonomists. Whereas orgonomists must have a medical degree and psychiatric specialization in addition to their orgonomic training, bioenergetic therapists are usually psychologists. In numbers, they far exceed the orgonomists.

Instead of concentrating on the patient's breathing, Lowen has developed several exercises and postures aimed at loosening chronically armored spots in the body and mobilizing its energy. He was one of the first to stress the therapeutic importance of being "well grounded" -- that is, being in touch with the earth, nature, and the natural world. In various workshops, Lowen and Pierrakos have displayed an amazing capacity to read character by simply observing bodily stance, gait, and breathing patterns. Such uncanny insights are often quite effective in opening up patients to therapy.

Through Lowen's well-written books, his institute's journal, and the hundreds of practitioners utilizing his therapeutic approach, bioenergetics has exerted a powerful Reichian influence on the alternative health movement. Gestalt and other body therapists have incorporated many bioenergetic techniques.

Less well known than Lowen, but also influential, is British writer and therapist David Boadella, who began studying the Reichian approach in the early 1950s. Since 1969, Boadella has written several books on Reich and edited an excellent, nondogmatic journal called Energy and Character, which has included lively articles on body language, yoga and kundalini, and acupuncture. Boadella has even explored parapsychological phenomena from the perspective of orgone energy. From his new base in Switzerland, Boadella has recently been working to unite all the European body therapists into a unified movement.

Reich's powerful influence on psychotherapy, of course, is not limited to those who openly identify with his lineage. For years after his death, many people were affected by his work who did not publicly credit him, because to do so would have meant being mocked or dismissed. Yet his theories strongly influenced the work of Erich Fromm, Fritz Peris, and much of the innovative therapy that was pioneered at Esalen in the '60s and '70s.

Therapists who have advanced Reich's work since his death have clearly made an important contribution to the alternative health care field. Many on the journey toward wholeness in everyday life have studied either Reich's own work or the teachings of his key followers such as Baker, Lowen, and Boadella. Others know from their own experience of life that within each of us, as Reich insisted, exists a natural body wisdom -- an "inner voice" -- that can guide our daily behavior to sustain joyful well-being. In the 1990s, Reich's insights will continue to inspire those who genuinely seek to hear that inner voice and to help create a more harmonious society.


Journal of Orgonomy, Box 870, Inverness, CA 94937; (415) 669-7336

Orgone Biophysical Research Lab, P.O. Box 1395, El Cerrito, CA 94530; (510) 526-5978

Annals of the Institute for Orgonomic Science, Box 304, Gwynned Valley, PA 19437

Dr. Alexander Lowen, Bioenergetic Institute, 144 East 36th St. New York, NY 10016; (212) 532-7742

Energy and Character, 23 Hardeggstrasse, 8089 Zurich, Switzerland

Article copyright Yoga Journal L.L.C.


By W. Edward Mann and Edward Hoffman

The Cancer Microbe


by Alan Cantwell, Jr., M.D.

Aries Rising Press

P.O. Box 29532, Los Angeles, CA

1990, 283 pp. Softcover, $18.95

It saddened me to read in your September, 1990 issue of the death of Dr. Virginia Livingston-Wheeler in July of this year. I was a friend and had a 20 year association with her close colleague, Dr. Eleanor Alexander-Jackson who died on May 25, also this year. With the close of this era, I want to highly recommend Dr. Alan Cantwell's new book, The Cancer Microbe. Because of my long association with Dr. Alexander-Jackson, I am quite knowledgeable about this field.

Dr. Cantwell is a dermatologist from Los Angeles who has already published excellent scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. His papers deal with the microbiology of both Sclero-derma, and Kaposi Sarcoma. In his latest book, although of a popular nature, Dr. Cantwell continues with his excellent scholastic abilities, this time as a historical sleuth, uncovering poorly understood historical aspects of Microbiology.

Dr. Cantwell's book supports the work of both Dr. Virginia Livingston-Wheeler and Dr. Alexander-Jackson. Essential to the understanding of the research of these 2 venerable women, is the acceptance of the essential feature of Pleo-morphism in Microbiology, specifically Bacteriology. Although the importance of the concept of pleo-morphism to the understanding of Microbiology has been repeatedly documented in the scientific literature, it has not yet been generally accepted in so-called "scientific" circles. Basic to the understanding of pleo-morphism is the realization that a bacillus can become a coccus, or an "l-form" mycoplasma-like organism, or even a virus-like particle. Dr. Livingston-Wheeler and Dr. Alexander-Jackson were only 2 of many scientists who demonstrated the reality of pleo-morphism.

In his book, however, Dr. Cantwell takes an extremely courageous leap beyond the basic concepts of pleo-morphism. He ties all of this work into the visionary concepts of Wilhelm Reich, M.D. Dr. Cantwell brings out 2 critical considerations in the understanding of Reich's work. First, Dr. Cantwell resurrects the regrettably forgotten work of Dr. Antoine Béchamp, a contemporary of Louis Pasteur. In addition, Dr. Cantwell refers to the contemporary critical work of Gaston Naessens, whose "super-microscope," I feel, confirms the work of Reich, as well as the other supporters of pleo-morphism. Naessens' work is especially supportive of the sub-microscopic virus-like phase of micro-organisms.

Dr. Cantwell also makes some interesting observations about the current AIDS epidemic, tying this into the broader picture of micro-biological Pleo-morphism.

In summary, I consider The Cancer Microbe to be an extremely important book that I highly recommend to anyone wishing a clearer picture of not only cancer, but a variety of chronic diseases.

Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients.


By Robert Carson

A Shrinking Disease Due to Chronic Sexual Starvation

What is Cancer? Traditionally, medical science has thought of it as an invasive tumor arising spontaneously in an otherwise healthy organism. In contrast, Wilhelm Reich defines cancer not as a tumor--the tumor is merely a late manifestation of the disease--but a systemic disease due to chronic thwaring of natural sexual functioning. In this radically different scientific investigation of a process that ends, literally, in the putrefaction of the living body due to chronic suffocatin of the tissues, Reich has arrived at the conclusion that "cancer is the most significant somatic expression of biophysiological effect of sexual stasis." If this is so, there is a far greater possibility for prevention of cancer than for its treatment.

The Cancer Biopathy is Volume II of The Discovery of the Orgone. Volume I is The Function of the Orgasm.

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