The Founder of the Orgone Movement
Wilhelm Reich had a knack for annoying people. Alternatively, he possessed the courage of his convictions but expressing them made him unpopular. A student of Freud, he emphasized the role of sex in psychology to a much greater extent than ever before. His advocacy of adolescent sexuality and contraceptive use made him few friends in Catholic Austria. Even so, much of his early work became influential in psychoanalysis. Likewise, he is much less famous today than many of his contemporaries.
In the unsettled political climate of Europe in the 1920s, he attempted to combine Marxism and his sexualized theory of mental health and illness. The resulting views made him extremely unpopular to both with the psychiatric community as well as various communist parties. In fact, he managed to annoy both Hitler and Stalin to the point where each placed him on their separate hit lists. In one case because he was a communist, the other because he was the wrong kind of communist.
After widespread condemnation of probably flawed microbiological research (which essentially denied much of the existing body of knowledge, including conventional germ theory) that he conducted in Norway, the scientific community there successfully and vigorously argued against him to receive a license to practice psychology. Although, he was not actually deported as many would have liked.
The Battle with the FDA
Reich left Europe for the USA just before the Second World War started. Shortly after arriving and taking a teaching position, he discovered a “life force” or libido energy that could supposedly influence the weather, cure cancer and would change physics as we know it. He managed to meet Einstein and present his theory. Although, the latter rejected it after conducting some experiments. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he was arrested by the FBI due to his political views, but released after a few weeks and found not to be a threat to national security.
Reich enjoyed a number of years free of notoriety in the United States. He founded an institute dedicated to study orgone. This came to an end in 1947 when his views on sexuality, as well as his claims surrounding orgone devices, stirred up controversy. This apparently caused Reich’s state of mind to deteriorate. He also became very interested in UFOs around the same time.
In particular, the Food and Drug Administration sought and gained a court order to have all orgone devices destroyed and all distribution of publications praising them banned. The key problem was that it is illegal to promote a device related to health or medication without being able to prove its efficacy. While this system has its flaws, there are also good reasons for it. Most importantly, that is done to keep dangerous or ineffective treatments off the market. To put it another way, freedom of speech is generally allowed, but selling equipment with dubious curative properties is not.
Reich ignored the injunction. He was arrested and sentenced to jail. Six tons of his books were burned. He died in custody shortly before he expected to be released.
The Status of Orgone Today
Reich and his theories still have a small cadre of adherents, and by no means, all of them lack scientific credentials of some kind. While Reich’s earlier work in the humanities and psychology has had a large influence on future developments in those fields, his scientific theories have been largely discarded (although they still receive occasional interest and even attract a small amount of serious research).
The main problem seems to be that few people are willing to take Reich’s theories seriously enough to conduct systematic experiments to prove or disprove them. The idea of a system that claims to be able to solve problems ranging from fascist dictatorships to desertification to cancer are simply beggar’s belief. Therefore, there is currently no evidence of the validity of any of his theories aside from research conducted by those who have already accepted them. Apparently, no independent researcher has noticed similar effects of what is supposed to be a very widespread and indeed universal phenomenon.
A number of well-known figures have used orgone devices and reported more or less positive effects on their health, including Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger. However, there is no scientifically significant indication that sitting in a specially designed box has any results at all, positive or negative. As far as physical or statistical proof is concerned, orgone science is more or less on par with astrology and juggling crystals. But, at least, it does no harm as long as it’s not used in preference to forms of treatment that are better understood.