Orgone But Not Forgotten

Orgone But Not Forgotten

Archives of the Orgone Institute, Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University, Courtesy of Kevin Hinchey

Dr. Wilhelm Reich claimed orgasms prevented mental illness and fought droughts (and UFOs) with giant energy guns. In the 1950s, the government called him a fraud, burned his books, and busted up his lab in Rangeley. Now, his modern-day admirers have sunk more than quarter-million dollars into a documentary to redeem his name. Is Dr. Reich’s long, strange story about to climax?

By Dan Otis Smith

Orgone But Not Forgotten

Archives of the Orgone Institute, Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University, Courtesy of Kevin Hinchey


One evening in the spring of 2015, I drove down a wooded road north of Rangeley Lake to visit the 175-acre estate known as Orgonon. I was there to interview Kevin Hinchey, then a co-director of the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust, named for the scientist and Austrian expat who’d purchased the property in 1942 and conducted research there until 1957, the year he was sentenced to federal prison and died in his cell.

Hinchey was staying in a rustic cabin across the street from the flat-roofed, fieldstone citadel that Reich called his Orgone Energy Observatory. It was there that Reich performed experiments to determine the nature and practical application of what he’d dubbed “orgone energy,” an all-permeating cosmic life force that the psychotherapist-turned-biophysicist had discovered years before, while seeking a biophysical manifestation of the Freudian libido. Now a museum, the building houses Reich’s books, equipment, artwork, and inventions, including several orgone energy accumulators — walk-in boxes like freestanding closets, in which one can soak up high dosages of orgone for its therapeutic and medicinal benefits. Scattered elsewhere around the property are a trio of cloudbusters, steampunk-looking arrays of hollow copper pipes mounted atop turrets, thick cables trailing off the back. These were used to suck excess orgone from the atmosphere to incite rainstorms — and, in Reich’s later years, to disrupt the comings and goings of the UFOs he suspected were polluting Earth’s orgone field.

During Hinchey’s 14-year tenure as a director (he stepped down in late 2016), the now–63-year-old Connecticut native visited Orgonon monthly to help administer Reich’s archives, write for the trust’s publications, organize conferences, and give the occasional museum tour. He’s been visiting Rangeley since childhood; in the ’70s, a run-in with some college kids on a pilgrimage to the museum had first piqued his interest in Reich. He read everything of Reich’s he could find, from 1927’s The Function of the Orgasm, which established Reich as a promising Freudian acolyte, to 1933’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which got Reich chased out of Germany, to 1938’s The Bion Experiments on the Origins of Life, which prompted the first loud accusations of quackery from the scientific establishment — but not the last.

When I sat down with Hinchey, he showed me a fat binder containing an outline of a documentary he was ready to undertake, a project he described as “the first factually accurate film about Reich.” He said he’d grown sick of the distortions and inaccuracies that tend to accompany popular coverage of Reich — suggestions that he was a sex cultist, dismissals of his research by folks who’ve never read it, accusations (false, says Hinchey) that Reich claimed he could cure cancer. He wanted to set the record the straight, he said, but it would take a lot of work and money — and frankly, he wasn’t sure it was possible.

Reich claimed to see new particles that pulsated with a mysterious energy he called “orgone.”

Fast-forward three years: Hinchey’s film, Love, Work and Knowledge: The Life and Trials of Wilhelm Reich has just wrapped its New York City premiere, and its creator hopes the film will make the festival rounds in 2018. The audience in NYC included 200 or so of the 1,000-plus Reich enthusiasts who donated some $400,000 via online crowdfunding campaigns to get the doc made — allowing Hinchey to shoot on location everywhere from Rangeley to Tucson to Vienna to Oslo. So who are these admirers of a long dead, questionably reputable scientist? What about Reich stokes their fascination? And does the orgone energy still flow strong in pockets of rural Maine?

Wilhelm Reich grew up in the early 20th century in an eastern province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After an army stint in WWI, he went to Vienna to study medicine and met and befriended Sigmund Freud. Like Freud, he was preoccupied with questions of sexuality and its relationship to physical and mental health. He was taken with Freud’s early concept of libido and how it might express itself through neuroses. Reich’s therapeutic experiences convinced him that sexual activity — and its repression — had critical links to psychological health. Getting patients to shamelessly experience gratifying orgasms became a central goal of his therapy. Reich’s takes on psychoanalysis and sexual freedom dovetailed with his Marxist leanings — capitalism, he felt, was both politically and sexually repressive — and he set up free clinics with info on sexual health, plus a mobile clinic stocked with literature and contraceptives.

Orgone But Not Forgotten

Courtesy of Harvard University

“Reich spoke from his soapbox about the dangers of abstinence, the importance of premarital sex, and the corrupting influence of the family,” biographer Christopher Turner writes in his 2011 book Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex. Turner and plenty of others credit Reich with laying the groundwork for the sexual revolution of the later 20th century.

Reich practiced psychoanalysis in Berlin a while, then fled to Norway as the Nazis came to power. There, he started dabbling in lab science, searching for some kind of measurable libidinous energy. He attached electrodes to volunteers’ erogenous zones and gauged their electrical charge with and without stimulation. He turned to microscopy to find evidence of libido in the smallest living things and noted a similarity between the convulsions experienced in the human orgasm and the internal movements of microorganisms. As he watched organic materials disintegrate under his microscope, he claimed to see new particles form that pulsated with a mysterious energy he called “orgone.” He called the particles “bions” and described watching them bind together to transform into protozoa — claiming, in other words, to have witnessed the microscopic origins of life itself.

The European scientific community did not reach the same conclusions. Critics shrugged that Reich had simply discovered bacteria that had found their way into his cultures. He was mocked as a charlatan in both academic circles and the popular press, and some of the public ridicule was accompanied by a whiff of anti-Semitism. It was under a cloud that Reich left Norway for the U.S. in 1939, shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland.

Renata Reich Moise lives in Hancock with her husband and has three orgone accumulators that she uses only occasionally, for things like minor burns or insomnia. Two she made herself: a metal bowl covered with layers of wool and steel wool (the former pulls orgone from the atmosphere; the latter radiates it towards the user) and a heavy blanket containing similar materials.

The third is a full-size vintage accumulator that abuts the Moises’ greenhouse. Renata let me sit inside, where a small plaque reads, “Wilhelm Reich Foundation.” After a few minutes, I sensed, more than heard, a faint buzz, which I told myself was the friction of steel wool scraping the booth’s rickety walls. Outside, I heard the whoosh of wind or sea. When I stepped out again, I felt fine. Calmer maybe? Centered?

Renata was born in 1960, three years after her grandfather’s death in prison. Her mother, Eva, Reich’s eldest daughter, worked alongside Reich in Rangeley, and her father, William Moise, worked as Reich’s assistant and sort of PR rep. Renata grew up using orgone accumulators and watching her dad alter weather systems with one of her grandfather’s cloudbusters.

These days, she’s a certified nurse midwife, and early in her career, she says, there were times that she butted up against establishment attitudes about orgone. Once, when she was a student, a visiting lecturer used her grandfather as an example of a quack. Another time, she included Reich’s perspective on the roots of cancer in a paper, and every page came back crossed out with a red “X.”

“Those kind of things, when they happen, you can go two ways,” she says. “I could have said, ‘I quit. I’m not going through this modern medical thing.’ Or, the reality is, you’re 21, and you need to be able to make a living.”

Still, she says there’s no tension between the science of her upbringing and of her profession. Renata likens orgone to qi, the ancient Chinese concept of life force that’s managed in acupuncture. “The knowledge I have about how emotions affect the body is pretty easy to translate into working with a woman in labor,” she explains. “The piece I don’t merge is the accumulator — and that’s okay. I’m not on any kind of mission to do that.”

Orgone But Not Forgotten

It was the accumulators that brought about Reich’s downfall, along with McCarthy-era suspicions and social mores. Reich sought peace in Rangeley — he boasted of ushering in a new “era of atomic energy . . . not in your inferno, but in my quiet, industrious laboratory in a far corner of America.” And he found supporters there, as well as converts to orgone therapy. But Rangeley had a small town’s rumors and prejudices. The night Eisenhower was elected, in ’52, a crowd marched past a house where the Reich family was staying, chanting, “Orgy, orgy! Come out, you commie!”

Some news articles portrayed Reich as a kook and/or subversive, and these caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which opened a file on Reich, suspicious that his orgone accumulators represented a “fraud of the first magnitude.” Over the course of a decade, the agency spent millions investigating Reich — on surveillance, accumulator purchases, tracking and interviewing patients, and repeated, unannounced visits to Orgonon. They deemed the accumulators medically worthless. In 1954, Reich was served a summons to answer the FDA’s call for an injunction prohibiting interstate shipment and advertising of them.

But Reich didn’t show, and the injunction was enacted in his absence. When one of Reich’s students was caught bringing accumulators to New York some time later, Reich was convicted of contempt of court. The FDA orchestrated the destruction of the accumulators at Orgonon and, deciding they qualified as advertising, burned thousands of his books and journals. Reich was sentenced to two years in prison and died of heart failure eight months into his sentence.

Such cloak-and-dagger drama over a harmless wooden box may seem ridiculous today, but Renata has heard stories all her life of the FDA’s offensive and its aftermath. “It was horrible at the time,” she says. “For my parents, it was a horrible time.”

What really bothers Hinchey is the FDA’s assumption that Reich was not only a fraud but a pervert, the way the agents’ suggested they were on the verge of busting up some kind of sex ring. He’s also rankled by the pop mystique that’s evolved around orgone accumulators. Bohemian types like William S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer were enthusiasts, sometimes describing the box as if it were a mystical aphrodisiac. In Sleeper, Woody Allen famously parodied orgone accumulators with a device called the Orgasmatron. Hinchey can hardly say the word without sighing and rolling his eyes.

The ranks of Reich’s modern-day defenders are modest and motley, Hinchey says, “sort of a tortured landscape, ranging from serious scholars to people who are completely mystical and uninformed.” But what unites New Age-y therapists and radical lab scientists and sex researchers and UFO conspiracists and others is a desire to see their martyr redeemed — and, one suspects, their own convictions validated. Hinchey’s donors weren’t just funding a movie, as they see it; they were righting a wrong.

A Reichian reappraisal may have a head of steam. The film comes on the heels of a 2015 book, published by Harvard University Press, calling for recognition of Reich’s rigor in the lab, if not his discoveries. Author James Strick is a history of science professor, a co-director of the Reich Trust, and a consultant on the film. He realizes the entrenched skepticism that the Reich-curious are up against. “As a young scientist, you might pick up Reich’s book and be interested,” Strick says, “but your PhD advisor says, ‘You don’t want to get involved in this unless you’re a very established scientist.’”

Hinchey is more optimistic. “I hope that young, college-educated people will see this film and read his books,” he says, “that they’ll ask, ‘How does Reich explain his own life and work?’ and not go looking elsewhere.”

Love, Work and Knowledge will screen in Rangeley in July, during the Reich Trust’s annual summer conference, when Reich’s defenders gather in a quiet, industrious laboratory in a far corner of America.


16 Comments

  • January 20, 2018

    James DeMeo

    This writer continues with the slander of Reich, now more than 80 years on. Hinchey was correct to make a film in opposition to such slanders. I am one of many PhD-level scientists who have tested out Reich’s claims experimentally, and got positive results supporting his conclusions. But the malicious “skeptics” do all they can to erase this body of supporting work. Wikipedia, for example, is dominated by “skeptic” liars who block and forbid inclusion of citations to published peer-reviewed materials in their pages on Reich and orgone energy, but every kind of slander is allowed in an included. Writer Smith is sadly misinformed, or deliberately continues with this erasure of the evidence. I highly recommend, see the film “Love, Work and Knowledge” when you can do so. The film’s website is http://www.loveworkknowledge.com And if you want to review the positive scientific evidence supporting Reich, read my book “In Defense of Wilhelm Reich: Opposing the 80-years War of Mainstream Defamatory Slander Against One of the 20th Century’s Most Brilliant Physicians and Natural Scientists”, which carries annotations from the scientific studies.
    https://www.amazon.com/Defense-Wilhelm-Reich-Mainstream-Defamatory/dp/0980231671/
    Reich’s scientific findings are just as important and challenging today as they were in the 1950s. They didn’t burn his books for nothing.
    James DeMeo, PhD
    Ashland, Oregon

  • January 20, 2018

    SilverWun

    You make obvious that ignorance is chief among what has not ‘gone’ from the world since this great and greatly understood man lived. Your depth of it is equal to what accounted for Reich’s early destruction. Knowledge, however, has not been dependent on your existence for its growth in the world.

    In spite of seemingly immortal, bumbling character assassinations, world understanding of his pioneering contributions to the good of humankind has grown and will continue to grow with this documentary that is as much a work of love as it is a work of great art.

  • January 20, 2018

    SilverWun

    Read the comment before this one quickly. It will probably not last long. Ignorance despises knowledge. This is why Reich was so short-lived and unanswered.

  • January 21, 2018

    James DeMeo

    My first comment also deleted, too much fact in it about Reich, too supportive of his work, made citations to replications of his experiments by PhD-level scientists. How many others were deleted? Maybe they will allow to at least post the home webpage for Mr. Hinchey’s new film, so people can go see it when the schedule is announced.
    http://www.loveworkknowledge.com

    • January 23, 2018

      Down East Magazine

      Getting through the comments list this morning.

      • January 24, 2018

        James DeMeo

        OK thanks, much appreciated that you allow open commentary.

  • January 21, 2018

    GandalfsTrouserpress

    Biased and ill-informed. The reviewer seems unacquainted with Reich’s work itself and relies on second-hand opinion and hearsay to denigrate a man and a body of work that he fails to understand or expresses any desire to.
    I recommend readers read Reich’s work themselves, see the film and make up their own minds.
    Here’s a YouTube video showing ‘bions’ emerging from sterilised steel filings.
    See for yourself.

  • January 21, 2018

    Μαρκος Κωτσιας

    This article betrays its intentions from the very first lines: Reich NEVER claimed ”orgasms prevent mental illness”. This false statement tries to incite ridicule and outrage by people believing Reich really considered a mentally ill person will be cured if he just ejaculates. This is sleazy, defamatory innuendo follows unjustly Reich’s work. Instead of ‘orgasms prevent mental illness’ Reich really claimed that a healty, gratifying, loving, fulfilling sexual life prevents neurosis.

    The statement “Getting patients to shamelessly experience gratifying orgasms became a central goal of his therapy” tries deliberately to stir moral indignation to folks actually believing Reich himself was inapropriate with his patients.

    Derision becomes very clear in the lines “So who are these admirers of a long dead, questionably reputable scientist? What about Reich stokes their fascination? And does the orgone energy still flow strong in pockets of rural Maine?”

    The article proceeds to mention the salacious slanders, gossip and innuendos in Turner’s book as the work of an expert on Reich. The title of the book calls the orgone accumulator ”Orgasmatron”. This alone is enough to reveal the author’s merit and intentions. No mention whatsoever in high quality proper scientific works of psychiatrists working in the field. No, orgasmatron it is.

    Orgone therapy patients are called ”converts”. Any pretense of taking Reich seriously has fallen by now, as the author seems sure this all is just a ridiculous cult. He falsely presents FDA infamous ‘get Reich’ investigation as serious and unbiased. He paints his supporters, serious scientists and new age mystics alike, as misguided fools.

    But what is really disgusting is at the very end: by repeating the phrase ”quiet, industrious laboratory in a far corner of America” he makes it sound as something silly, worthy of contempt. The reader is put on rails and can’t help but leave this article with a smirk of derision.

    How is this article NOT a slander?

  • January 22, 2018

    Μαρκος Κωτσιας

    Why is there a comment section here? Most comments longer than a few lines don’t even appear. Comments with counter-arguments and proof exposing this slander full of derision and innuendo for what it is, are nowhere to be found.

    • January 22, 2018

      Down East Magazine

      We’re reviewing comments as they come in. Some are pending review. Thank you.

    • January 23, 2018

      Down East Magazine

      Getting through the list this morning. Should all be up now.

  • January 26, 2018

    5thcolumnist

    Wow… judging by the copious amount of vitriol spewed at the article’s author (and intent), I can see that rabid, unquestioning devotees of Reich’s work are still very present among us! For me, the article piqued my curiosity and will lead me to learn more about Reich’s work, of which I was only faintly aware via the cultural references noted by the author. Perhaps I missed it, but I did not feel as if I were reading some derisionally judgmental screed on Reich, or his work, or his family and followers. So for me, thank you for an interesting, well-written article!

    • January 26, 2018

      Μαρκος Κωτσιας

      It’s so nice to hear this article is an opportunity for you and others to learn about Reich’s work.

      One does learn about Reich’s work HERE

      http://www.orgonomy.org/sciences.html
      http://www.orgonelab.org/
      http://www.wilhelmreich.gr/en/

      One does NOT ”learn about Reich’s work” from Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron.

      The article provides no mention whatsoever on proper things ”about Reich”. On the contrary, it suggests Turner’s collection and amplification of childish innuendo, gossip, ridicule and 70-year old slanders is an actual work ”about Reich”.

  • January 26, 2018

    PJ

    Well, like Woodstock was the focus of peace and love, man! So too, is Orgone the focus de jour of pseudoscience. Perhaps more powerful in its ability to attract has-been hippies and conspiracy theorists. But, do you know how many trips to Burning Man could have been sponsored with $400k!!

    • January 26, 2018

      Kara Ohlund

      Name-calling and belittling? Grow up, PJ.