The Wilhelm Reich Pardon Project was an effort to encourage individuals to write letters describing Reich’s beneficial impact on their lives and work, and requesting that Reich receive a posthumous pardon. This project was initiated by Eva Reich, his daughter, who worked with her father as a lab assistant in the 1950s, and became the executor and trustee of his estate in the year after his death.
We felt a pardon would have been the first step in according Reich the respect he deserves as a pioneer in the history of psychology and the founder of the field of somatic psychotherapy. Anyone working with breath, movement, subtle energies, touch – in effect, anyone who employs a body-oriented perspective or technique in addressing psychological problems – is part of the legacy of Reich. As we worked on this project it became clear to us that we should not work for a “pardon.” A pardon would have insinuated that Reich had done something wrong. Our legal consultant clearly stated that was not true and we agreed. We decided to continue our pursuit to redeem his reputation.
Few today are aware of the debt we owe to Reich and the personal/professional sacrifices he made to develop the techniques we employ in our practices. Even fewer choose to acknowledge that Reich’s discoveries and techniques have been the undisclosed foundation of many subsequent movements in the field. Reich is rarely credited – due to ignorance, issues of self-importance, or fear of experiencing the persecution which destroyed his career and resulted in Reich’s imprisonment and premature death.
As beneficiaries of his legacy, it seemed appropriate to work towards eradicating the stigma attached to his name caused by his conviction and ignoble death in prison.
Besides honoring the founder of our field, any positive change in the perception of Reich and his work would also help those practicing body-oriented psychology today. As many of us have personally experienced, general professional and public opinion is still quite resistant to psychological perspectives which place emphasis on somatic issues. We felt it was time to acknowledge Reich’s impact on our work and claim both our heritage and our place in the field of psychology.
Wilhelm Reich was a pioneer in the field of psychology. As a student of Freud, Reich’s development of the principles of character analytic therapy laid the foundation for understanding the psychological depth to which human beings are adversely affected by traumatic experience and how emotional character structure seems to be held in place by the muscular structure of the individual. As his work progressed, Reich discovered the possibilities for healthy recovery from trauma due to the resilience and malleability of human character structure. As Reich paid more attention to the whole body during therapy, character traits assumed to be inherent and permanent dissolved along with muscular rigidity, returning the individual to a more natural and flexible physical/energetic emotional structure. By focusing on building an individual’s awareness of the unhealthy relationship between muscular constrictions, constrictions of the breath, and the suppression of emotions, Reich discovered that successful resolution of even the most deeply held character issues became possible.
Reich discovered that his body-oriented perspective could be successful with even the powerful, aggressive and sexual impulses which Freud assumed to be innate, immutable, and only barely controllable through suppression and socialization. Separating from Freud, Reich continued on his body-oriented path, confirming his theories of mental health, both in the laboratory and in sessions with his clients. Working with breath and physical movement, Reich was able to access deeper and more fundamental levels of human experience.
Reich’s work led him to identify a force as pervasive and necessary to sustaining life on earth as air and sunlight. Reich discovered that an individual’s ability to regulate the smooth accumulation and discharge of this life energy was critical to maintaining physical/emotional health. Reich named this life force ‘orgone,’after “organic” and “organism” and to his observation that healthy energetic self-regulation depended on a natural, uninhibited orgasm reflex. Reich found that chronic muscular tension created blocks of armoring which inhibited the flow of orgone energy through the body much like clotting blocks the flow of blood through arteries. Reich found that these energetic blocks corresponded to blocks in emotional development, mutating an individual’s naturally flexible character structure into a series of rigid psychological defenses and neuroses.
Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the wide scope and impact of Reich’s work. Many who work in the growing field of body-oriented psychotherapy originally created and developed by Reich know little about his pioneering work – the long years spent in the laboratory and session office developing both the science and techniques which led him to his therapeutic and orgone energetic work. Due to the repressive atmosphere of the United States in the 1950s, Reich’s work was labeled perverse, subversive and fraudulent. As Reich always linked the psychology of the individual to the psychology of larger groups of people such as countries or cultures, his views were seen as both psychologically and politically dangerous. As a result, after limited and inadequate testing, the Food and Drug Administration denied Reich’s application for a patent for his orgone accumulator despite that fact that this device had already been used successfully in therapy by Reich and others. After an injunction, eventually, criminal charges were brought against Reich for contempt of court stemming from the transportation of accumulators by one of his students. Although this was done without Reich’s knowledge, both Reich and his student were imprisoned. Reich died ignobly and prematurely in jail under suspicious circumstances in 1957, two weeks before he would have been eligible for parole.
Most do not know or acknowledge the extreme debt which all who either touch their clients or hold them within a psychosomatic perspective owe to Wilhelm Reich. First, there is the work: Reich is the venerable ancestor of anyone who considers themselves part of the family of practitioners of body-oriented psychotherapy. Second, the personal and professional sacrifices made by Reich blazed a trail through dangerous, unmapped territory. Over 70 years later, his trail is a now widening path traveled by a growing number of people. Today, we are able to help people with their problems of life with a much lower level of fear of consequence such as jail or professional slander.
We owe so much to Wilhelm Reich. We had hoped that we might have been able to accomplish a first, important step towards establishing the respect deserved by Reich, his daughter, and all who pursued the difficult path against the plague. Our efforts were not received easily, and now, with the passing of Eva Reich, we have sadly given up the legal and political work toward redeeming the reputation of Wilhelm Reich. We will never give up our respect and our acknowledgment of all the good work he did and the benefits that have been and are still being experienced by many throughout the world.