science

Wilhelm Reich: the strange, prescient sexologist who sought to set us free


There are certain people who speak directly into their moment, and others who leave a message for history to decipher, whose work gains in relevance or whose life becomes uncannily meaningful decades after their death. It’s hard to think of a better example of the latter right now, in this year of protests and plague, than the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, one of the strangest and most prescient thinkers of the 20th century.

What Reich wanted to understand was the body itself: why you might want to escape or subdue it, why it remains a naked source of power. His wild life draws together aspects of bodily experience that remain intensely relevant now, from illness to sex, anti-fascist direct action to incarceration. The writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin read Reich, as did many of the second-wave feminists. Susan Sontag wrote Illness As Metaphor as a riposte to his theories about health, while Kate Bush’s song “Cloudbusting” immortalises his battle with the law, its insistent, hiccupping refrain – “I just know that something good is going to happen” – conveying the compelling utopian atmosphere of his ideas.

Reich believed that the emotional and the political directly impact our bodily experience, and he also thought that both realms could be improved, that Eden could even at this late juncture be retrieved. He was vilified in his own era, sometimes for good reason, but many of his ideas still hum and wriggle with life.


His story begins in Vienna, in the wake of the first world war. As a young man, he was Freud’s most brilliant protege (der beste Kopfe, the best mind in psychoanalysis). But in the early 1920s, he had a heretical revelation. As he listened to his patients speak, his attention kept straying to their bodies, lying guarded and rigid on the couch. What if they were communicating information that couldn’t be said in words? Maybe the past wasn’t just housed in the memory, as Freud believed, but stowed in the body too.

What Reich was seeing was not a hysterical symptom to be decoded, but rather a kind of clenching and clamping that pervaded a person’s entire being: a tension so impenetrable it reminded him of armour. He thought it was a defence against feeling, especially anxiety, rage and sexual excitement. If experiences were too painful and distressing, if emotional expression was forbidden or sexual desire prohibited, then the only alternative was to tense up and lock it away. This process created a permanent physical shield around the vulnerable self, protecting it from pain at the cost of numbing it to pleasure.

Over the next decade, he began to work with his patients’ bodies, first verbally and then by touching them, an act totally prohibited in psychoanalysis. To his amazement, he found that when he worked on these regions of tension – the habitual expressions of fright, the clenched fists or rigid bellies – the feelings lodged there could be brought to the surface and released. Patients remembered long-ago incidents of shaming or unwanted invasion, experiencing the fury or despair they’d been unable to feel at the time. This emotional release was often accompanied by a pleasurable rippling feeling Reich called “streaming”.

It was because of this therapy that I first encountered Reich. In the final year of the 20th century, I came across an advert in a herbal pharmacy in Brighton for a body psychotherapist. I’d had a strong sense since childhood that I was holding something, that I’d locked myself around a mysterious unhappiness, the precise cause of which I didn’t understand. I was so rigid and stiff that I flinched when anyone touched me, like a mousetrap going off. Something was stuck and I wanted, nervously, to work it free.

The therapist, Anna, practised in a small, soupy room at the top of her house. There was a professional-looking massage bed in the corner, but the overwhelming impression was of slightly grimy domesticity. Whenever I could, I’d suggest we ditch talking in favour of a massage. I didn’t have to undress completely. Anna would don a stethoscope and lightly work at odd places on my body, not kneading but seeming instead to directly command muscles to unclench. Periodically she’d lean over and listen, the bell of her stethoscope pressed against my stomach.

More often than not, I experienced a sense of energy moving through my abdomen and down my legs, where it tingled like jellyfish tentacles. It was a nice feeling, not sexual exactly, but as if an obstinate blockage had been dislodged. I never talked about it and she never asked, but it was part of why I kept coming back: to experience this newly lively, quivering body. When I first read Reich, I immediately recognised his description of streaming. Even now, I can still remember how it felt: as if something too, too solid had been induced to melt, as Hamlet once implored.

Reich had always been intensely interested in sex, and he wondered whether the energy he’d unleashed was the same thing that Freud termed libido. At the time, Freud taught that all symptoms sprang from disturbances in sexuality, a premise Reich’s patients certainly bore out. If undischarged sexual energy caused neurosis, mightn’t it follow that the discharge of sexual energy was in itself a healing force? Reich suspected the orgasm was the body’s own innate way of releasing tension, dissolving the rigid armour of trauma and unhappiness in a rush of fluid, libidinous energy.

Wilhelm Reich, pictured in the mid 1950s.
Wilhelm Reich, pictured in the mid 1950s. Photograph: AP

If he was right, then sex mattered, and not simply as a procreative force. In the early 1930s, Reich coined the term “the sexual revolution” to describe the universe of happiness and love that would arise once people had shaken off their shackles, divesting the world of its punitive, prurient attitudes. He was undoubtedly naive in this, as the French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault observes in The History of Sexuality. If the orgasm is so powerful, Foucault asks, why is it that the vastly expanded sexual liberties of the intervening years have failed to dissolve capitalism or topple the patriarchy, despite all Reich’s ardent predictions to the contrary?

It’s an easy criticism to make, but it doesn’t mean Reich’s utopianism was completely without solid, practical foundations. If people had access to safe sex, and especially to contraception and safe, legal abortion, they were far less likely to produce unwanted children, or to find themselves shackled by poverty or unhappy marriages. As he pointed out in The Sexual Revolution, 20,000 women a year died in Germany because of illegal abortions between 1920 and 1932, while 75,000 became ill with sepsis. You don’t need to believe in the magical power of the orgasm to see why a sexual revolution might be desirable, especially for women.

But Reich’s Steckenpferd (hobbyhorse), as Freud called it, might not have had such grave consequences for their relationship had it not coincided with his growing conviction of the need for social change. Many of his patients were working class. Listening to their stories, he realised the problems he was seeing weren’t just a consequence of childhood experience but social factors such as poverty, poor housing, domestic violence and unemployment. Each individual was plainly subject to larger forces, which could cause just as much trouble as Freud’s central site of interest, the crucible of the family.

What Reich longed to do was treat the cause. “From now onward, the great question was: Where does that misery come from? While Freud developed his death instinct theory, which said ‘the misery comes from inside’, I went out, out where the people were.” In 1927, he read Das Kapital with as much amazed recognition as he had once read Freud. He was gripped by Marx’s account of capitalism as a brutal system of exchange that converted people into commodities, objects of arbitrarily fluctuating value. The notion of alienated bodies, estranged from their own needs and desires, chimed with what he’d seen in his own patients, lying stiff and rigid on the couch.

Both psychoanalysis and communism were full of potential for understanding human unhappiness and expanding human freedom, Reich thought, but each had major blind spots. The problem with psychotherapy was that it insisted on treating the individual as if their pain occurred in a vacuum, unmediated by the society they inhabited or the politics that governed their lives. As for Marxism, it failed to recognise the importance of emotional experience, not least the trouble caused by shame and sexual repression, especially to women. Therapy was not enough. Politics was not enough. Only sex was a sufficiently powerful force to reshape society. As he explained in his memoir, People in Trouble, he believed freeing sex from centuries of repression would change the world.

A National socialist demonstration in Berlin, in front of the Brandenburger Gate circa 1931.
A National socialist demonstration in Berlin, in front of the Brandenburger Gate circa 1931. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

In 1930 he moved to Berlin, where out of the wreckage of war there had arisen a great flowering of new ideas about sexuality. He was a prominent, passionate figure in the city, lecturing crowds of thousands. Young people in particular came to him in droves, seeking help with the difficulty of reconciling their own desires with their anxiety and ignorance around pregnancy and disease.

This liberation work came to an abrupt halt when Hitler seized power in 1933. The free expression of sexuality was immediately a target of the new Nazi regime, and many of Reich’s allies were arrested and imprisoned. A known communist and anti-fascist, Reich went on the run, spending weeks hiding in hotels under false names before escaping over the mountains to Austria, then coming back, perversely, mysteriously, to his watched apartment in Berlin to pack a suitcase and escape again.

He spent that autumn in Denmark, poring over Mein Kampf and writing The Mass Psychology of Fascism, his landmark work of analysis of the Nazis’ appeal. In it, he explained how the patriarchal family acted as a unit of indoctrination, training people from childhood to submit to authority. The Nazis burned it on pyres, alongside all his other published work.


People in Trouble was the first of Reich’s books I read, and it bowled me over. Reich was not a beautiful writer, like Freud. He often sounded boastful, even paranoid, but there was an urgency that tugged me in. It was as if he was writing from the battleground, hunched over his notebook, sketching out high-stakes possibilities for enlarging the freedoms of real people’s lives. His account chimed with my own experiences of becoming involved in activism, the excitements and frustrations of trying to agitate for political change.

I’d grown up in the 1980s as a gender non-conforming child in a gay family, under the malign rule of Section 28, a homophobic law that forbade schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. To know that this was how the state regarded your own family was to receive a powerful education in how bodies are positioned in a hierarchy of value, their freedoms privileged or curtailed according to more or less inescapable attributes, from skin colour to sexuality. Each time I went to therapy I could feel the legacy of that period in my own body, as knots of shame and fear and rage that were difficult to express, let alone dissolve.

Olivia Laing.
‘I’d grown up in the 1980s as a gender non-conforming child in a gay family’ … Olivia Laing. Photograph: Matt Writtle/Evening Standard/eyevine

But if my childhood taught me about the body as an object whose freedom is limited by the world, it also gave me a sense of the body as a force for freedom in its own right. I went to my first Gay Pride at the age of 11, and the feeling of all those marching bodies on Westminster Bridge lodged inside me, too, a somatic sensation unlike anything I’d previously experienced. It seemed obvious to me that bodies on the streets were how you changed the world. As a teenager terrified by the oncoming apocalypse of the climate crisis, I started attending protests, becoming so immersed in the environmental direct action movement that I dropped out of university in favour of a treehouse in a Dorset woodland scheduled to be destroyed for a new road.

I loved living in the woods, but using my own body as a tool of resistance was gruelling as well as intoxicating. The Criminal Justice Act had drastically curtailed the right to protest, just as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill threatens to do now. Policing had become more aggressive and several people I knew were facing long prison sentences for the new crime of aggravated trespass. Freedom came at a cost, and it seemed that the cost was bodily, too, the loss of physical liberty an omnipresent threat. Like many activists, I burned out. In the summer of 1998, I sat down in a graveyard in Penzance and filled out an application for a degree in herbal medicine.

Reich’s ideas seemed so relevant to my times that I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t heard about him, either in protest circles or during my training as a herbalist. It wasn’t until much later that I realised the reason he isn’t more respected or discussed is that the excesses of the second half of his life have overwhelmed the first. The radical, incisive ideas about sex and politics that he developed in Europe before the war have been almost buried beneath the far more dismaying notions developed in his years of exile, which range from pseudo-scientific theories of disease to a “spacegun” that controls the weather.

Mary Henderson, the office manager of the Wilhelm Reich Museum, displays an ‘orgone’ accumulator.
Mary Henderson, the office manager of the Wilhelm Reich Museum, displays an ‘orgone’ accumulator. Photograph: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty/AP

When Reich emigrated to the United States in 1939, a refugee from Hitler’s Europe, he didn’t establish himself as a psychoanalyst or an activist, but as a scientist; albeit one proudly uninterested in the process of peer review, the testing ground of all scientific achievement. Shortly after his arrival, he claimed to have discovered the universal energy that animates all life. He called it orgone, and in the laboratory of his house in New York he developed a pseudoscientific machine to harness its healing powers. Given the consequences it would have for its maker, it’s ironic that Reich’s universal healing device was a wooden cell slightly smaller than a standard phone booth, in which you sat in stately self-confinement.

Reich believed the orgone accumulator could automate the work of liberation, obviating the need for laborious person-to-person therapy. He also hoped it might cure disease, particularly cancer. This latter claim triggered an exposé, which in turn drew him to the attention of the Food and Drug Authority, initiating an investigation into the medical efficacy of the orgone accumulator that lasted almost a decade.

On 7 May 1956, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for refusing to stop selling his invention. His books were burned, in what remains the only federally sanctioned book burning on American soil. The following spring he was sent to Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, where six months later he died of a heart attack in his cell, a brutal end for somebody whose life was dedicated to enlarging the freedoms of others.


The year Donald Trump came to power, I returned to Reich. I felt as if his troubled life formed a pattern that was in itself illuminating, and I was haunted by the sense that there was something vital buried in his ideas. Why had his work gone so catastrophically astray, and what did it tell us about the larger struggles in which he’d played such a dynamic, ardent role? As each successive year has passed, bringing revelations of systemic misogyny and racism, followed by the mass uprisings of Black Lives Matter and a global plague, Reich has only felt more relevant. He had a knack for asking the right questions, even when his own conclusions were flagrantly wrong.

While his later theories about health are pseudoscientific, his belief that our bodies are burdened by both emotional trauma and social conditions remains apposite. As the Covid epidemic has demonstrated, even something as supposedly neutral as a virus doesn’t affect all bodies equally, but instead exposes the way that physical vulnerability intersects with poverty and racism.

As for sex, there’s a lot more to Reich than his latter-day reputation as the orgasm man. When he was 11, his mother had an affair. His father found out, and was so physically abusive that after a year she killed herself to escape him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the horrors his mother underwent drove Reich’s work as a sexual liberationist, opening his eyes to the consequences of patriarchal models of ownership, as well as restrictive attitudes to sex. As Andrea Dworkin put it, he was “that most optimistic of sexual liberationists, the only male one to abhor rape really”. None of the revelations of the #MeToo movement would have surprised him. When he talked about the sexual revolution, he didn’t mean a fantasia of endless ejaculation so much as a world in which women could experience sexual pleasure without fear of retribution, violence or death.

Violence also woke Reich up to the ways in which not all bodies are protected by the state, a truth that Black Lives Matter has viscerally demonstrated continues in our own era. In 1927, he witnessed a workers’ uprising in Vienna that was viciously suppressed by the police, culminating in 89 deaths and thousands of injuries. The spectacle of the brutalised crowd and the robotic policemen haunted him: a vision, though he didn’t know it yet, of what would soon befall Europe, and continues to be enacted around the world.

What he saw on the streets of Vienna was not, he was certain, the natural or inevitable order of being. It was the product of patriarchal capitalism, which established a rigid, immobilising, authoritarian model of relationships from the moment a child was born, and it had culminated in a massacre. Reich could not believe humans were naturally hateful and cruel. He thought these behaviours were a consequence of the unequal and deforming systems in which they were forced to live – of which I would argue that white supremacy is the most damaging and dangerous.

The tragedy of Reich’s life is that nearly a hundred years later, these systems remain as powerful as ever. The better world he dreamed of has not yet transpired. There is no republic of bodies, free to migrate between states.

Nor can it be said that this is Reich’s tragedy alone. From feminism to gay liberation to the civil rights movement, the struggles of the last century were at heart about the right to be free of oppression based on the kind of body you inhabited. And yet every day people are killed, hurt, hobbled because of bodily markers like skin colour or gender or sexuality.

Does this mean the dream of freedom has failed? No. It is possible to remake the world. What you cannot do is assume that any change is permanent. Everything can be undone, and so every victory must be refought. Freedom is a shared endeavour: a collaboration built by many hands over many centuries of time. The free body isn’t just a beautiful idea. As Reich knew, it requires work, a labour every single living person can choose to hinder or advance.

  • Everybody is published by Picador on 29 April. Olivia Laing will be talking about the book on 30 April at the Southbank, London, SE1 8XX.



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