Sigmund Freud's Best Pupil and His Descent Into Madness

Diaries of Wilhelm Reich Show Devolution of a Great Mind

Madman Or Prophet: Klaus Maria Brandauer stars in a forthcoming biopic about Wilhelm Reich.
Wikimedia Commons
Madman Or Prophet: Klaus Maria Brandauer stars in a forthcoming biopic about Wilhelm Reich.

By Vladislav Davidzon

Published February 13, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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WHERE’S THE TRUTH? Letters and Journals, 1948-1957
By Wilhelm Reich
edited by Mary Boyd Higgins and Brian Boyd
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288 pages, $40

Being a prophet is an arduous profession, and one should by all means steer one’s children away from it. It is lonely, the hours are long, the pay is shabby and the people you endeavor to lift out of the darkness and into the light invariably claw and fight against you the entire way. They might remember you fondly, but only after they throw you and your works onto the bonfire. Or perhaps after they find your lifeless body on the floor of your jail cell a week before your parole hearings, as they did with Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich. Reich was the only man who was so honored as to have his books burned by both the Nazis and the McCarthy-era American government, both of whom immolated copies of his “Mass Psychology of Fascism.”

It is somehow appropriate that the inventor of the Orgone Accumulator — a homemade telephone-booth-sized cabinet lined with an energy-absorbing metallic coating in which one would sit to be charged up with metaphysical energy — died in a similar sort of enclosure.

Wilhelm Reich as he appeared in a 1900 childhood photo.
wikimedia
Wilhelm Reich as he appeared in a 1900 childhood photo.

The accumulator itself was immortalized in Woody Allen‘s “Sleeper” and in the fiction of William S. Burroughs and Evelyn Waugh. Though we already knew the end of this sad tale, the publication of “Where’s The Truth?” the fourth and last volume of Reich’s private letters and journals, fleshes out in detail his thoughts and feelings at the tragic conclusion of his life.

Perhaps Freud’s most brilliant pupil — in 1919, when Reich was 22, Freud allowed him to work as the youngest analyst in his clinic in Vienna — Reich was the prophet of the sexual revolution. Endeavoring to meld the insights of Marx and Freud with the emerging field of neuropsychiatry, he pioneered innovative techniques to analyze and ameliorate the “genital dysfunction” of the Viennese working classes

Even more so than Freud he saw psychological disturbances as stemming from sexual dysfunction, the deleterious effects of which combined with economic deprivation and carnal physicality to inscribe neurosis upon both the mind and the body. Yet Freud disapproved of the single mindedness of his insights and pruned off this disciple as he would many others for the crime of ignoring his injunctions and carrying their research into uncharted realms.


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