Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957)

Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) was a controversial psychoanalyst born into an assimilated Jewish family in Dobrianychi in Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now western Ukraine, and grew up in Bukovina on a large farm operated by his father. His first language was German. Some researchers assert his interest in biology and natural science was stimulated early by farm life and that natural life functions, including the sexual function, shaped a strong later inclination as a bio-psychiatrist toward the biological foundation of the emotional life of the person.

Reich was educated at home by tutors. His mother committed suicide in 1910 after his father discovered she had an affair with one of the tutors. Reich's father died four years later from tuberculosis, leaving the seventeen-year-old Reich to direct the farm work on his own without interrupting his studies at the German high school he was attending. In 1914, the First World War erupted, Russian troops rolled into Bukovina, and he had to flee. Nothing was left of his property or his past and Reich joined the Austrian Army in 1915, serving at the Italian front and experiencing what he called "the war as a machine."

After the war, Reich entered the University of Vienna Medical School and became a member of the second generation of psychoanalysts after Sigmund Freud, and one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. Reich devoted much time to educating working-class people about the essential role of sexuality in their lives and worked within the Socialist and Communist parties in Vienna, and later in Berlin, to promote sex education. In 1933, he was denounced by the Communist Party, fled from Germany when Hitler came to power, and expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1934. He first moved to Scandinavia and later left on the last ship to leave Norway for the United States before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Reich taught courses at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, began publishing his books in English, trained American physicians in his therapeutic techniques and pursued investigations of his controversial theory of "orgone energy." His work provoked press criticism and the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which obtained an injunction against his activities for "fraud of the first magnitude." He was charged with contempt in 1956 for having violated the injunction, and was sentenced to two years imprisonment. That summer, over six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court. He died in prison of heart failure.

Despite the controversies, Reich's work on character and his research into "muscular armor" — the expression of the personality in the way the body moves — shaped innovations such as body psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetic analysis, and primal therapy. He was the author of several influential books and essays, most notably Character Analysis (1933), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), and The Sexual Revolution (1936). He coined the phrase "the sexual revolution," and his writing inspired generations of writers, artists, and intellectuals.