Adventures in the Orgasmatron by Christopher Turner
The title, Adventures in the Orgasmatron, is telling. It says a great deal about the nature of the book. The author, Christopher Turner, purports to write about a prominent medical doctor. He introduces the subject with a made-up word, coined and used by a filmmaker (Woodie Allen) in a comedic way in the context of social commentary, satire perhaps regarding social behavior.1 The title further pairs the made-up, comedic word with “adventures in,” giving it the flavor of a comic or ribald novel and bringing to mind fantastical, unreal adventure series like The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin written simply for our amusement.
Such a title does not suggest serious research. This book, however, is well - and assiduously researched, and details of the lives of many people, dates, numbers, chronicles of events, quotes from diaries, published and unpublished, archives, newsprint and known and unknown texts are reported. It is well-written and reasonably well-constructed. It is at times compelling as it ranges through decades of history and far reaching aspects of the Western world from the latter 19th up through the 21st Century. It would be interesting, at times fast-paced and easy reading were it not for the fact that it alleges to be truth – truth about people and scientific matters. The blending of fact and fiction, the juxtaposition of supposed facts, mistruths and supposition is deeply disturbing. Amidst dates and facts there are blatant untruths, misleading statements, accurate descriptions with a minor but potent addition that changes the significance of the original event, supposed and fabricated motivations, quotes taken and used out of context such that their meaning is changed.
Some banter or friendly conversational support between people is passed on as if serious. (Example, referring to Summerhill and its founder A. S. Neill, the author states Reich “once threatened to give up his research and come and teach at the school, but Neill laughed and declined his offer saying that Reich would frighten the children.”) (Turner 2011, page 9) ) Also there is a suggestive joining of characters within a paragraph who did not know each other, implying a relationship where none or little existed. The association is used to color one or more of the characters. For example, Turner writes “His [Reich's] ideas became influential in Europe, which Henry Miller, finding a new sense of purpose through sex, characterized as 'the Land of Fuck.'” (page 5). Do Reich and Miller have anything to do with each other? Does the crude phrase imply that Reich was crude? Is the phrase an accurate description even of Miller?
People who read or heard about Reich's work and then interpreted the material in their own way are mentioned along with their subsequent behaviors,writings, and activities, as if these reflected on Reich, as if their behavior meant something about his work. There is a generous use of contempt and ridicule.
Characters, not just Reich's, are assassinated or put in a bad light. Motives are fabricated and ill intent is given to the movements, discoveries, activities of people – the sort of thing that is disturbing to read whether one likes, doesn't like, agrees or doesn't agree with the person thus targeted. One realizes one is being led to believe or feel something about the situation that is not inherent in the facts and that this line of thinking or innuendo is going to be destructive to someone or something.
And Reich's character is assassinated – his scientific discoveries are discounted, his therapy and writings are placed in disrepute, his ardent distress and concern for the suffering of humanity are dismissed. His ability to sustain attention and stay with and observe the functions of nature without preconception is pathologized. Anything new or previously unknown is “shown to be” or implied to be imaginary.
Reich did not go meet Freud but, according to the author, “made a pilgrimage” (17), and, the author continues, he did so as “an outsider in search of some kind of home” (page 17). Says who? Apart from fact or fiction, what does this imply? In reference to Freud's office Turner refers to “his [Freud's] bookcases, which supplemented his cabinet of archaeological oddities with another sort of oddity: a leather-bound collection of dreams, jokes, mistakes and perversions” (page 18). This other sort of oddity was Freud's book of essays. When people were hungry and food in short supply, the author says, in referring to Reich receiving food: “uncle Arnold, who had been a lawyer, reluctantly gave them the odd meal or handout” (page 32). Reluctantly? Says who? It is stated that Reich's brother had tuberculosis, went to a sanatorium, Reich helped him, “but, to Robert's disappointment, Reich never visited him there – he claimed he was too busy, no doubt embroiled in the battles within the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.” (page 88) No reference is given. How are Robert's feelings known? What was the context? Note the innuendos in “claimed” and “embroiled.” Turner writes, “Even though he had been excommunicated from the IPA in 1934, Reich couldn’t help making a detour on his long journey home: . . .and Reich had no intention of sparing his former colleagues any embarrassment.” (page 185). Says who? Such assumption, license, regarding motivation is appropriate to fiction.
The author faults Freud for analyzing W. Wilson whom Freud never met, and yet states: “Reich's skin disease, which he'd suffered from since being a teenager, may have influenced his later sexual theories” (page 35). The author continues speculation, attributing to Reich a fear of disease based on Reich's writing (during the war) that he felt repulsed seeing soldiers queuing up at a brothel and remarking that three days later these soldiers “marched back to the front with gonorrhea'” (page 37). Turner states, “Reich certainly seems to have sought to compensate for this mother's death with his work” (page 45) and, later, referring to a youth movement's social program that another psychoanalyst was in, “But Reich, having been isolated in the provinces and having enlisted so early in the military, had missed all of this bohemianism, which centered in Vienna. He would no doubt have enjoyed the sense of camaraderie the movement offered.” (page 53). Notice this sentence: “Encouraged by Hitschmann, and desperate to prove the universality of his theory, Reich began to collect case histories that same month, grilling patients at the Ambulatorium about the minutiae of their sex lives (page 79). Desperate? Grilling? Minutiae? Or “Reich, seeking to fill Hirschfeld's shoes, drafted a series of proposals . . . “ (page 130). Seeking to fill someone's shoes? How is this known? Why state these things unless we are to see Reich as power-hungry and without real interest in what he was doing. “Reich wrote proudly . . . ” (page 131) and “argued provocatively” (page 131). How is this known? A potent example: The author writes, “In fact, Reich published several articles . . . , and many of the other articles on the sexual misery of youth forced 'to satisfy their sexual needs in halls and basements' specifically reflect Reich's own peculiar bugbears” (page 132). The author has a foot note at the end of the sentence, but the footnote refers to the internal quote by Reich, not the author's analysis. There is no evidence for the speculation. And what do anyone's bugbears, even if they exist, have to do with adolescent misery? Would they change observation of the conditions of youth?
Turner writes, “Reich had a dream . . . Reich doesn't put forward an interpretation of his dream in his diary, but little is needed to see in it a perfect symbol for . . . “ (page 196), and Turner supplies his own interpretation and impugns Reich with various attributes. Or, more damaging, after referring to things Reich described, the author says, “His mind seemed once again to be unfurling” (page 200). If the writer had not seen or did not understand something, he seems to think that perception of that event or phenomenon is the mark of hallucination or other pathology. Also “Reich seems to have spent the entire vacation staring through his tube at the pulsating fog” (page 221). “Seems” to have spent the “entire vacation”? And if he did? Are we to be suspicious of someone who would do that? In addition to fabricated intention and diagnoses of state of mind, there are unsubstantiated facts about Reich's life and the lives of others and a mixture of such, for example: “The Function of the Orgasm was written in part as a response to Reich's former colleagues' questions about his sanity” (page 235). A minor mistake of fact of a different nature is the following: “Reich is indeed almost universally acknowledged as the founder of a new method of analyzing a patient's defenses, a technique that evolved into what became known as ego psychology” (pages 90-91).
Due to its style, and perhaps because it builds its derogatory tone in a tabloid-like style as it reaches its end with discussion of people's sexual lives, relationships, and diagnoses of insanity, the book will attract attention. Regarding content, however, substance is missing and there are major errors. There is undue emphasis on the accumulator and misconceptions, exaggerations and inaccuracies about its role and function in Reich's work, research and therapy. The nature of orgone energy is inaccurately presented and discussed. (Note the comment,“For Reich, as for Mesmer, a healthy human was essentially an electrical machine in harmony with the energies of the cosmos” (page 177). This is not true.) An overarching, basic misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the book regards the role that sexuality and orgasm play in human life and how they developed in Reich's theory and treatment. Reich saw that those who responded to therapy and were able to sustain their gains were ones who had a satisfying sexual life. Full discharge is what happens in the genital embrace after characterological and biophysical obstacles that impede the free movement of energy in the body have been freed and the fear of intimacy and deep sensations has been managed. To promote increased sexual activity without the latter would be dangerous and irresponsible and unrelated to any theory or therapy discovered and developed by Reich. Turner states, “Reich . . , like Gross, celebrated sexual immorality as a cure.” (page 77) Celebrated? Immorality? A cure? Where is the reference for this notion? What Reich did say is, “Real cure, I argued, can be achieved only through the elimination of the basis of the symptoms in the patient's character.” (Reich 1973, page 150). Nowhere does he teach or imply that one must teach “how to” have or perform an orgasm or that doing so will heal. Sexual satisfaction implies an ability to have a loving, caring relationship, no paraphernalia needed. Any system countering the view that sexual satisfaction can not be forced or taught or and that genital sexual sensations without healthy structure are a source of deep fear is unrelated to Reich's work.
Where are honor and compassion ? For the suffering of people? For the state of youth? For hardships and accomplishments? For conditions of the time? On a fundamental human level for anyone who despite and amid the wartime conditions in Europe through which Reich and Freud lived studied and did scientific research while also responding to and trying to ameliorate social destruction? For a prominent doctor and scientist jailed for 3 ½ weeks on charges of communism which, then deemed unfounded, much later was revealed to be a case of a confusion of names (mistaken identity was uncovered) and the case formally closed? Wouldn't one expect a person who lived through having six tons of their published work burned in their life time to have some reaction? And isn't it noteworthy that a person attacked by several governments would continue their dedication to research and concern for humanity? And continue through legal action and imprisonment over a research device? Wouldn't one have some feelings for that person and be shocked by such events especially in a non-totalitarian state, whether you agreed or disagreed with the results or implications of their work?
Turner refers to anyone who speaks favorably of Reich as a disciple and thus dismisses them. One of his “disciples,” Elsworth F. Baker, M.D., said that one can not understand well or see accurately a person one does not like (1980). Surely this is all the more true in looking back in history and writing about a personality no longer alive. The author must deal not only with his or her likes and dislikes but the abundant attitudes of people interviewed and sources used. And this book utilizes many sources.
Who would go to the trouble to write such a book?
I recommend reading My Eleven Years with Reich by Elsworth Baker, someone who knew Reich personally for over a decade, for a clearer picture of who Wilhelm Reich was.
Virginia L. Whitener, Ph.D.
Turner, C. 2011. Adventures in the Orgasmatron. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Reich, W. 1973. The Function of the Orgasm. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Baker, E. F. 1980. Personal communication.
Baker, E. F. 2011. My Eleven Years with Reich. Princeton, New Jersey: ACO Press.