Screaming Reichians

Years ago in the Hamptons, all kinds of odd people would come out here in the summertime. I think it had to do with the fact that prices were cheap. Even in the amounts that passed for money in those days, people of modest means could afford it. This is no longer the case, of course. With real estate prices what they are now, the Hamptons is pretty much just for the rich. I do think it is the Hamptons loss that this is so, but that’s my opinion.

One group of professionals that came out here and hung around together were the psychiatrists. Those following one sort of philosophy or another kind of banded together. The other day, I remembered a short article I had written years ago in Dan’s Papers about the followers of a particular psychiatrist named Dr. Wilhelm Reich. And looking through back issues, I found it. It appeared in Dan’s Papers on September 26, 1980. Here it is. [expand]

*        *        *

At a party in Southampton the other night, I wrote, I overheard a woman make this comment.

“Thank Heaven the Reichians are gone,” she said. “We can live our lives again.”

I walked over and joined this conversation.

Reichians?” I asked. “I thought Reichians were psychiatrists. Followers of Wilhelm Reich.”

“Indeed they are,” the woman said. “And we’ve had four of them with summer homes in the Lion’s Head section of Springs. Have you ever been up there when they were seeing their patients?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“It’s horrendous. They deal in primal screams. You’ve never heard such screaming. One of the patients will scream over on the next block and it rattles the dishes. I scream back. ‘Hope you feel better.’ It just goes on and on.”

“Can’t you complain to the authorities?”

“Complain? Somebody who is going to the psychiatrist down the street is too loud?”

“My God.”

“They have these guttural screams that come from deep down in their chests. From their very souls.”

“Did all four psychiatrists live in the same house?”

“Separate houses. Scattered throughout the neighborhood. You couldn’t get away.”

“Sounds awful.”

“Two of them moved out last year. Then the third, then this year finally the fourth. We’re free at last.”

Only in the Hamptons.

*        *        *

I took this article to to my wife, who is a psychotherapist. She told me I ought to look up what they were screaming about, and so I did.

Wilhelm Reich and his followers, it turns out, were screaming not so much to get the demons out, which was what I thought it was all about, but to turn themselves on about sex. I guess when I learned about Reich in college, I had missed that. So in 1980 I had made a mistake, which I hereby correct. Better late than never.

The story of Wilhelm Reich is fascinating, and it also tells some remarkable stuff about the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

Reich was a pupil and confident of Sigmund Freud in Germany, had become an anti-fascist when Hitler came to power, and in opposition, joined the German Communist Party. After two years, he became so violently opposed to Communism, the party threw him out, so, in 1939, he came to America to advance his own theories about human behavior.

Reich was of the belief that there were two kinds of energy in the universe, the energy for kindness and goodness and the energy for evil and hatred of others. He invented something he called the Orgone Box, which he said, was able to collect and accumulate the good energy and be available for use by his followers. Orgone stood for Orgasm and also for Organism. The boxes themselves, and he had thousands of them made, were five feet high, two and a half feet wide and were  made of layers of wood and sheet metal. They could be purchased. They were the good energy accumulators. In 1946, Reich wrote a book called Listen, Little Man! which sold in huge numbers.

Reich said, “My book reflects the inner turmoil of a scientist and physician who has observed the little man for many years and seen, first with astonishment, then with horror, what he does to himself; how he suffers, rebels, honors his enemies and murders his friends; how, wherever he acquires power ‘in the name of the people’ he misuses it and transforms it into something more cruel than the tyranny he had previously suffered at the hands of upper-class sadists.”

The book does not tell you how to use the Orgone Box. You have to go to either him or his followers to learn that. The end result, however, is that people become triumphant in defeating the evil energy and absorbing the good energy. And this energy, Reich declares, is actually physical, and it is expressed in lots and lots of loving.

“It is high time” he wrote, “for the living to get tough, for toughness is indispensable in the struggle to safeguard and develop the life-force; this will not detract from their goodness, as long as they stand courageously by the truth.”

In 1947, after the New Republic published a scathing article claiming the Orgone Box was a fraud, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began an investigation into the Reich Orgone Energy Accumulator. The FDA operated on the presumption that Reich’s books and literature must contain pornography. But when Reich refused to even talk to the FDA, the investigation collapsed. They had no evidence.

But that was not the end of it. In 1954, in the middle of the Joe McCarthy era, when this United States Senator terrified everyone in America with his “Congressional hearings” that came this close to toppling the government to make McCarthy a fascist dictator, the FDA went after Reich again. Again they could find no evidence, they nevertheless declared the Orgone Box a fraud, that orgone energy does not exist, that all literature mentioning orgone energy be burned, and that the transport of orgone boxes across state lines was grounds for arrest.

As Reich continued to refuse to cooperate—this was exactly the evil energy he was talking about—such transport continued to take place, and later that year, Reich was imprisoned. Three years later, just a day before Reich was to go up for parole, he died in prison of a heart attack. He was 60 years old.

Today, you are free to buy orgone boxes anywhere and pull the physical-psychic energy from the universe as per his instructions. And I guess that in the late 1960s and 1970s, groups of Reichians came out to Springs to enjoy Lion’s Head.

In 1940, Reich spent five hours with Einstein. There is no record of what they said to one another, but as Reich was leaving, he was overheard to say, “You understand now why everyone thinks I’m mad.”

“And how,” Einstein replied.

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