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Reich’s Therapy

In response to:

The Case of Wilhelm Reich from the December 4, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

It is unfortunate that for your review about Wilhelm Reich [NYR, December 4] you did not choose somebody who knew Reich and who had a first-hand acquaintance with his therapeutic technique. It is true that, as Dr. Rycroft reports, Reich was (especially during his last years) autocratic and suspicious, but all his many patients also knew him as a warm, giving and singularly compassionate man. In recalling her therapy with Reich, Dr. Nic Waal, Norway’s foremost child psychiatrist of the period, wrote: “I could stand being crushed by Reich because I liked truth. And strangely enough, I was not crushed by it. All through this therapeutic attitude to me, he had a loving voice, he sat beside me and made me look at him. He accepted me and crushed only my vanity and falseness.” This account is entirely typical of what Reich’s patients relate and I can fully confirm it on the basis of a session I had with him in the late 1940s.

Much more seriously, like the majority of psychoanalysts, Rycroft is completely blind to the great breakthrough which Reich accomplished with his very detailed account of the way in which traumatic experiences produce not only neurotic character attitudes but also chronic muscular rigidities. The only comment we get about Reich’s new technique of vegetotherapy in which repressed emotions are released not only by talking but also by direct work on the musculature, is that “suggestion may have been the reason why Reich’s patients improved.” This is quite ludicrous. Dr. Rycroft lives in England where there are no psychiatrists trained in vegetotherapy, but if he were in New York he could meet a number of Reichian therapists who had previously been analysts with more conventional affiliations. I have never met one who did not regard Reich’s therapy as a vast improvement over all earlier techniques. I remember listening to a lecture by A. S. Neill, who told me about his treatment by orthodox methods and his subsequent treatment at Reich’s hands. In one session with Reich, Neill said, more dammed-up emotions were released than in years of traditional analysis.

I am myself very skeptical about a great many of the claims Reich made during his last years, but is seems to me absurd to maintain that “Reich’s life must be adjudged a failure and futile.” Reich’s pioneering work about the somatic basis of neurosis and his therapeutic innovations are bound to secure for him a most distinguished place in the history of science long after his many detractors are forgotten. May I refer those of your readers who are interested in finding out about Reich’s work on the muscular armor and his therapeutic innovations to Chapter 8 of The Function of the Orgasm, Chapter 15 of Character Analysis (3rd edition), Chapters 16 and 17 of Dr. Ellsworth Baker’s Man in the Trap, and my own article on Reich in Volume 7, pp. 104-115 of the new Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Paul Edwards

Professor of Philosophy

The City University of New York,

Brooklyn College

Charles Rycroft replies:

I feel a certain sympathy with Professor Edwards’s letter. It is indeed a pity that I never met Reich and have had no first-hand acquaintance with his therapeutic work, and was therefore compelled to confine myself to dealing with some of the philosophical, theological and scientific implications of his writings. I have no reason to doubt that in his dealings with patients Reich was “a warm, giving and singularly compassionate man” or that he is remembered by some of them with gratitude, and I said nothing in my article to suggest that I thought otherwise. My use of the word “suggestion” in connection with his therapeutic results was perhaps unfortunate in view of the fact that it is so often used with pejorative undertones; what I meant to say was that it never seems to have occurred to Reich that his therapeutic successes may have been more a function of his personality than of his theories. It seems to me that many psychotherapists, with no doubt becoming modesty, attribute their cures to their theoretical notions when in fact they should give the credit to non-intellectual aspects of their own personalities.

I think Professor Edwards would not have found my article so critical of Reich if he had not assumed that I was writing from an orthodox Freudian position. I can quite believe that Reich was more successful in releasing dammed-up emotions than many orthodox analysts are. My objection to vegetotherapy is not that it deviates from the cautious, interpretative techniques of classical analysis but that its underlying theory seems to me to be bad biology. For instance, Reich’s description of the segmental arrangement of character armor and his assertion that it “represents the worm in man” (See Selected Writings p. 158 et seq.) seems to me to run counter to evolutionary theory and to comparative morphology.

My feeling that “Reich’s life must be adjudged a failure and futile” was not so much based on doubts as to whether any of his ideas will live as on the impression that all his life he was looking for something which despite his claims to the contrary, he didn’t find and which indeed wasn’t to be found in the places where he sought it. What this something was, or whether it was an illusion or something that could have been found somewhere or with someone, I do not know.

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