By Gerald D. Klee, M.D.
From: The Maryland Psychiatrist [Summer 2001; Vol. 28, No. 1; Pg 13-15]
Also called orgasm therapy and vegetotherapy by its originator Wilhelm Reich, this controversial therapy is still around and is far more popular than you may think. Although Reich died in a federal prison, his movement flourishes as a form of alternative medicine. Its practitioners, including some mental health professionals, promote it as a form of treatment for mental and physical disorders.
Recently, I came across, The Function of the Orgasm, by Reich, at a yard sale. For only twenty-five cents, who could resist it? It is one of many books by this charismatic and controversial man. Up to that point I had never read anything by him. A semi-autobiographical work, first published in 1940, it describes the development of Reich’s career and his thinking over the previous twenty years, from Vienna to his early years in the US. He was a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst, who was recognized for his work on character analysis, but he quickly became impatient with merely verbal therapy. His book describes a departure from psychoanalytic technique in the form of a hands-on “character-analytic vegetotherapy”. Reich’s advocacy of such beliefs and practices led to increasing conflict with his analytic colleagues, and he was expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1934.
Although Reich’s strange theories have no scientific validity, Reich himself should interest psychiatrists as a case study. He claimed that “orgone” treatment could cure mankind of social, political, medical and psychological ills. He said it is the solution to everything from totalitarianism and war to psychoneurosis and cancer. He also called it orgasmotherapy, because he believed that frequent genital orgasms are a goal of treatment and the key to good health. The function of the orgasm is to discharge energy particles called orgones, thus maintaining a balance of vital forces. His first treatment innovation was to attack the patient’s character armor by exerting pressure in various places on the patient’s body with his hands, to reduce muscle tension. According to Reich, this led to dramatic therapeutic results. From there, he went on to develop his orgone theory.
After much clinical and experimental “research”, orgone theory developed literally into a cosmic theory. As Reich’s thoughts took wing, he accomplished what conventional theoretical physicists can only dream of. …A Grand Unified Theory of Everything.
I’ll attempt to summarize orgone theory. Good health depends on a proper balance of biological energy in the individual. According to Reich, biological energy is atmospheric (cosmic) orgone energy. Orgone energy is found throughout the universe and flows from the sun to earth. The earth’s atmosphere is charged with orgone energy and clouds, thunderstorms, northern lights and other atmospheric disturbances are due to imbalances in atmospheric levels of it.
Microscopic, blue vesicles, Reich called “bions”, are charged with orgone energy and are essential to living cells. Reich claimed to have seen them under the microscope. Although bions are “developed from inorganic matter, they propagate like bacteria”. Orgone energy seems to be the basis of life, but can be toxic in excess, according to Reich.
As with atmospheric disturbances, human mental and physical disturbances are due to imbalances in orgone levels. A healthy balance of orgone energy is achieved by absorbing orgones from the atmosphere and discharging them via frequent genital orgasms. Character armor is one of the causes of orgone imbalance. Besides mental illness, orgone imbalance leads to such things as sexual impotence, dictatorship, war and cancer.
As Reich predicted, there are schisms among his followers. It is not surprising that many people have taken Reich’s views as an endorsement of unbridled promiscuity, but in his later writings Reich tried to distance himself from this interpretation. He emphasized the need for frequent, full genital orgasms in the context of a loving relationship. In their advertisements, his followers are generally hard to pin down on this subject.
Reich had an explanation for the way orgone treatment cures cancer and other physical disorders He said. “Orgone has a parasympatheticomimetic effect. It kills cancer cells and many kinds of bacteria. Our experiments with cancer therapy are based on these biological characteristics.”
Years of “research” into cosmic forces led Reich to devise a method of helping patients accumulate cosmic energy in the form of orgones that could later be discharged in healthy orgasms. He devised a way of trapping cosmic orgone energy in a box and channeling it into a person sitting in it. Thus was born his Orgone Box or Orgone Accumulator. It would cure everything from psychoneurosis to cancer. These boxes sold like hotcakes. By this time, he was living in the US. The sale of these instruments soon attracted the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In 1954 the FDA issued a complaint for an injunction against Reich, charging that he had violated the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by delivering misbranded and adulterated devices in interstate commerce and by making false and misleading claims. Reich's Accumulators were deemed a sham and Orgone energy nonexistent. An injunction was granted. Reich was later jailed for violating the injunction and died in prison in 1957. To this day his followers portray him as a martyr.
Based on Reich’s early years, one couldn’t have predicted this tragic ending. Brilliant and energetic, he seems to have been well accepted professionally for some time. But like many of Freud’s disciples, he diverged more and more from the psychoanalytic main stream. According to Reich, his colleagues began saying he was psychotic. Indeed, many thought so. This did not deter him from going his own way and developing a large international following. There can be no doubt that he had a significant and lasting impact. To this day, his enthusiastic followers continue to spread Reich’s message worldwide. Its popularity seems to be greatest in the US, where practitioners abound.
The on-line bookseller Amazon.com has 106 matches for Reich. Many of his books, including The Function Of The Orgasm are still in print and still popular. On the World Wide Web there are more links than I can count to his name and to his therapies. Most are on alternative medicine sites where orgone therapy is frequently advertised as being available in the same establishments as treatments such as herbal therapy, chiropractic, naturopathy, acupuncture, pyramid therapy, shamanism and high colonic enemas. In addition, one can find foundations and “research institutes” dedicated to the promotion of Reich’s beliefs and practices. At least two of these institutes are in the US.
It is surprising to discover that there is even an organization of psychiatrists known as the American College of Orgonomy that promotes Reich’s theories and methods. You’ll find it at: http://www.orgonomy.org. Its journal, “ Medical Orgone Therapy” contains articles describing the uses of orgone therapy for treating a wide variety of conditions, including manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia. One must wonder how this affects malpractice insurance premiums. You can easily find the nearest medical orgone therapist on the Internet.
Orgone boxes and other types of Orgone Accumulators are widely advertised and sold over the Internet and in various outlets. To avoid the displeasure of the FDA, disclaimers are used, but the message still comes through that the boxes have therapeutic value for a wide variety of physical and emotional problems. One can also buy Orgone accumulators to treat pets, or to help one’s garden grow. Purchasers are warned to avoid orgone overdose. The label reads: “Warning, misuse of the Orgone Accumulator may lead to symptoms of orgone overdose. Leave the accumulator and call the Doctor immediately.” I suppose this warning tells us that even placebo reactions can be toxic.
Alternative medicine is gaining increasing acceptance as shown by the addition of alternative medicine sections to some general hospitals and to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Even some medical schools include such materials in their curriculums. The National Center For Complementary and Alternative Medicine is a thriving section of the (NIH). Among other activities, this Center provides funding for dubious “research” into fringe treatments. Consumers can learn about such methods, including orgone therapy from the extensive list of references available on this Web site at: http://nccam.nih.gov/nccam/site-index.html
Alternative therapies are rapidly overtaking conventional medicine in popularity and market share. It has been estimated that in1997 the $27 billion spent on alternative therapies was comparable to the amount spent on all physician services for that year. This does not bode well for the health of the American people, or for the financing of medicine. Until recent years, hospitals, physicians and government agencies held the line against unscientific treatments and outright quack remedies. The line is now crumbling. If Reich were alive today and promoting his methods, would the government prosecute him or would it reward him with a research grant from NIH? What’s your guess?
Dr. Klee, a past editor, continues to be a frequent contributor to The Maryland Psychiatrist.