During this series on The Roots of Healing, I’ve been writing about different systems of medicine and healing. The last article in this series was on homeopathy.
Today I will veer away from discussing systems of healing to discuss a pioneer in the field, someone who put the body back in mind-body medicine.
His name was Wilhelm Reich, and he was a man far ahead of his time, but unfortunately he is for the most part forgotten.
Born in 1897 in the part of Europe that was once the Austro-Hungarian empire, he went to medical school and became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. In the 1920s he became a protege of Sigmund Freud, and was considered one of his top underlings.
Yet as the years progressed, Reich saw limitations in the traditional psychotherapeutic approach, and felt that just working with the mind was insufficient in helping people free themselves of their burdens. He maintained that the body needed to be involved in psychotherapy also, and he founded the entire approach of body-centered psychotherapy, of which to this day there are many schools of thought.
Thus, the entire realm of mind-body medicine has Wilhelm Reich to thank, because he was willing to break with the convention and doctrine of his time and take medicine and healing into new frontiers.
Many well-known psychiatrists and psychologists followed Reich’s lead and developed new body-centered psychotherapies.
The first generation of Reich followers were such people as Alexander Lowen, who developed Bioenergetic Analysis; Fritz Perls, who developed Gestalt Therapy; Arthur Janov, who developed Primal Therapy; and Ida Rolf, who developed Rolfing.
Thus, without the pioneering work of Wilhelm Reich, there would have been none of these other breakthrough therapies.
Yet today, Reich is sadly forgotten. Part of that is because he died in jail a broken man, in 1957 at the age of 60, completely humiliated by the U.S. government. He was sentenced to two years in prison in 1956, for the crime of inventing something called an orgone energy accumulator, which he claimed could heal illness and restore a person’s energy field.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated the orgone accumulator and decided it had no merit, and put a cease order on their sales. When an associate of Reich’s violated the order by selling some, the FDA came after Reich and threw him in jail.
Also in 1956, in conjunction with Reich being jailed, in one of the worst incidents of censorship in U.S. history, several tons of Reich’s publications were burned by the FDA.
Reich was living in Germany in 1933 when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and he immediately left, going to Vienna, then Scandinavia, and then eventually settling in the U.S. in 1939.
His pioneering work broke many taboos of psychiatry. The field was dominated by the work of Freud, and focused on individual neuroses. But Reich was more interested in character structure.
From 1930 onwards, Reich became more interested in his patients’ physical responses during therapy sessions, and toward the late 1930s, he began to treat patients outside the limits of psychoanalysis’s restrictions, though well within the scope of general medicine.
He began to sit next to his patients, rather than behind them, in order to make stronger “contact.” He started touching them, to both increase awareness of tension and contraction and to relieve it directly. He began talking to them, answering their questions, rather than the stock, “Why do you ask?” analyst’s response.
From a psychoanalytic point of view, this undermined the position of neutrality. The analyst is meant to be a blank screen onto which the patient projects his old desires, his loves, his hates, his neurosis—a process known as transference.
Reich wrote that the psychoanalytic taboos reinforced the neurotic taboos of the patient. He slowly broke away from them, writing that he wanted his patients to see him as human.
He would press hard on their “body armor,” his thumb or the palm of his hand pressing on their jaws, necks, chests, backs, or thighs, aiming to dissolve their physical and mental rigidity. He wanted to see their movements soften, their breathing ease.
This dissolution of the “body armor” also brought back the repressed memory of the childhood situation that had caused the repression, he wrote. If the session worked as intended, he wrote that he could see waves of pleasure move through their bodies, a series of spontaneous, involuntary movements. Reich called these the “orgasm reflex.”
The two goals of Reichian therapy became the attainment of this orgasm reflex during therapy, and orgastic potency during intercourse. Reich called the flow of energy that he said he observed in his patients’ bodies, “bio-electricity.”
He felt this could free their body, mind and emotions, and lead to a full recovery of their health problems.
And herein is where Reich touched a raw nerve: he delved into the taboo area of sex in a way that Freud had never. Whereas libido and sexual repression was an important part of Freudian psychology, it was all still conceptual, and the work with patients was all conventional psychotherapy.
Reich took it one step further, and worked with people to break free of what he called the body armor, the holding patterns that caused rigidity of the body, mind and emotions.
Reich’s work was like a breath of fresh air for 1940s America, and he enjoyed a largely uncritical press in the U.S. Along with that, his psychoanalytic theories were taught in universities and discussed in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Psychiatry.
To be continued next time…