It’s not uncommon for fringe scientists to be persecuted by the authorities, particularly if they happen to be working on hitherto-unknown forms of energy. But the persecution is usually done in a subtle way, so that only the victim is aware of it. That certainly wasn’t the case with Wilhelm Reich, the man who introduced the world to orgone energy. He was persecuted in a brutal, systematic and very public way. His books were burned, his apparatus was destroyed, his ideas were reviled and he was thrown into prison. What dangerous truth had Reich stumbled across, to warrant such heavy-handed treatment?
Wilhelm Reich began his career as a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition, but Reich went much further than Freud in linking psychology to sex. He believed that orgasm was the ultimate key to physical and mental health, and that conditions such as schizophrenia originated from an inability to achieve orgasm. According to Reich, the effect of an orgasm is to generate large quantities of a special form of energy called orgone. Although the idea was new to western science when he proposed it in the 1930s, orgone can trace its roots to the Kundalini energy of ancient India or the Qi of traditional Chinese medicine.
Reich came to believe that orgone could be collected and stored in the same way that electrical energy can be stored in a battery. He invented a device for this purpose called an orgone accumulator – a wooden booth lined with metal foil that would collect the orgone of whoever was seated inside. Convinced that he had discovered a previously unknown form of energy, Reich even persuaded Einstein – the most famous physicist of the day – to take an interest in the orgone accumulator. Einstein carried out various tests, but after two weeks concluded there was no physical basis to Reich’s orgone theory.
While orgone was dismissed by the scientific establishment, it became the in-thing with America’s avant-garde subculture. All the radical literary figures of the day – Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs – became enthusiastic devotees of the orgone accumulator. For conservatives, on the other hand, orgone came to represent “the new cult of sex and anarchy”, as Harper’s Magazine put it in April 1947.
Reich soon became Public Enemy Number One. By 1954, the Federal authorities had issued a declaration banning orgone accumulators and all associated literature. Reich was fined $10,000 – a lot of money in those days – and sentenced to two years in jail. The judge ordered that all orgone accumulators should be destroyed, and that all copies of Reich’s books were to be burned. The ensuing wholesale destruction is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “one of the most blatant examples of censorship in U.S. history”.
A lot of words have been written about Wilhelm Reich, many of them focusing on whether orgone is “real” or not – in other words, whether it is science or pseudoscience. This misses the point. In fields like psychiatry and alternative medicine, the important thing isn’t whether a theory is “true” or “false”, but whether patients can benefit from it. Orgone is no less scientific than Freudian psychoanalysis, and no more pseudoscientific than countless complementary therapies that are practiced without the persecution Reich suffered. There must have been something in the orgone accumulator, because people like Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg weren’t fools.
In any case, the authorities wouldn’t have gone to such extreme lengths simply to suppress something that “doesn’t work”. It would have been a waste of resources. If they objected to orgone accumulators because they believed they didn’t work, why couldn’t they just ignore them and let the public make up its own mind?
So the mystery remains – what did Wilhelm Reich do to warrant such uniquely heavy-handed treatment? Some people will automatically assume that he tapped into a real, physical, energy source that the government wants to keep secret. That’s always a possibility, of course. Then again, it may simply have been mid-twentieth-century America’s horrified reaction to “the new cult of sex and anarchy”. Cynic that I am, I tend to believe the latter – but others may disagree.