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Monday, Aug. 27, 2012

'Where's the Truth' Behind Wilhelm Reich?

Letters and journals of the controversial psychiatrist

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Where's the Truth? Letters and Journals, 1948-1957 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Mary Boyd Higgins, is the fourth and final installment culled from the writings of highly controversial psychiatrist and biophysicist Wilhelm Reich. But be forewarned: This book, replete with sociological, legal and scientific wrangling, is for die-hard fans only. The letters are written to colleagues, loved ones and even President Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. It is also the last testament in the final years of an unarguably passionate, loving man, a highly astute, all-consumed scientist who classically died for his beliefs.

Reich is most famous for inventing the Orgone Accumulator. Counted among its fans and users: Beat author William S. Burroughs and Mr. Americana, Norman Mailer. The energy from that machine is allegedly derived from an invisible force that exists beyond matter itself, a “cosmic” energy, if you will.

Yet, he had as many detractors as admirers. Reich came under attack from the government, the pharmaceutical industry and, probably most hurtfully, his peers. Famed physicist Robert Oppenheimer claimed “Oranur” (another word for that mysterious energy) a fraud. Even Albert Einstein tested the machine and left feeling dubious about it. But it was the FDA that ultimately became Reich's conquering nemesis.

A bright star earlier in his career, Reich had worked with Sigmund Freud. In 1933 he fled Nazi Germany and ultimately settled in the United States in 1939. Later, he set up his Orgone Institute in Maine to continue his studies.

Among the alleged benefits of orgone energy was to fight cancer and counteract the effects of nuclear radiation, a big concern during the years of the “Red Scare.” A close call with tragedy struck when his daughter Eva, working as a doctor in the laboratory, almost died in a dangerous experiment with radiation.

Another of his enterprises was the Cloudbuster, a device to create rainfall. Reich believed that this skyward experimentation was beginning to attract outside interest—real outside interest. He was convinced aliens were curious about all these doings, as he reported the presence of spacecrafts around his institute during such experiments—even following him down to Arizona, where he continued his cloud-busting studies.

Reich became increasingly paranoid, consequently creating a sense of loneliness and isolation from his co-workers and family members. Additionally, the government was closing in on him, with the FDA seeing the premise of orgone energy as an act of fraud. The FDA forbid all distribution of the Orgone Accumulator and any connected literature. This led to a modern-day book burning in which the agency had more than 20,000 of Reich's books and pamphlets perish in flames.

In March 1957 Reich began a two-year sentence in federal prison for violating a court-ordered injunction. Later that year, a week before he was eligible for parole, he was found dead in his cell of heart failure. To this day, however, Reich remains a much-discussed figure in the fields of his studies.