One Man's Search for an Orgasmic Life Force

It remains unclear what "orgone" actually is, but Wilhelm Reich thought you could find it by sitting inside a box.
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Wilhelm Reich and the orgone accumulator. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Wilhelm Reich and the orgone accumulator. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An orgone accumulator is about the size of a telephone booth, though as a point of reference that comparison may have expired some years ago. An orgone accumulator is about the size of a standard refrigerator; maybe a little taller, and more spacious, for the accumulator is without all of the latter’s plastic shelves and drawers. The exterior is made of wood, and the interior consists of layers of wood and metal with sheets of steel wool between. It’s a sparse, hollow chamber—an Iron Maiden without the spikes. It’s not a torture device, though, so a single chair is placed in the center of its floor. One enters the box freely, and stays as long as she likes. Within reason.

It’s recommended that one’s time in the accumulator not exceed “hours.” It may seem difficult to imagine a situation in which a person might protest such a regulation—with the possible exception of that person’s belief that time spent in the box was saving her life.

The box was, per the inventor’s admission, Wilhelm Reich’s greatest contribution. Reich, an Austrian-born psychoanalyst who studied under Sigmund Freud, was once a well-respected psychiatrist, having published a book, Character Analysis (1933), in which he advocated for psychoanalytic techniques that moved away from pure treatment of symptoms and toward what he called “character structure”-oriented methods. Reich is described as a visionary, and “the most brilliant of the second generation of psychoanalysts who had been Freud's pupils.”

After several days of experimenting, Einstein and his team of assistants concluded that any temperature increase seemingly produced by the device was due to the natural temperature gradient in the room. Reich responded with a 25-page letter, attempting to change his mind. Einstein didn’t respond—not then, and not to any of Reich’s numerous follow-ups.

There are a number of not-insignificant caveats to that praise, though; perhaps none greater than the orgone accumulator.

“ORGONE” IS A WORD that Wilhelm Reich made up, chosen for its shared root with “orgasm.” Reich believed that human sexuality—as expressed via orgasm—was the ultimate expression of mental and physical well-being, and that to harness that power would be to gain control of the one true “universal life force,” or “orgone.” He claimed to have discovered that life force in 1939 in New York through experiments done on mice. (More surreally, Reich also claimed to have seen orgone in the night sky, thanks to a specialized telescope he called an “organoscope.”)

In Reich’s conception, orgone is not unlike oxygen in both its fundamentality and intangibility. It’s invisible, but everywhere. We produce it within our own bodies, but it’s possible to run short. In orgone loss (or suppression, as the case may be), Reich saw the source of mental illness, cancer, and virtually any other manner of disease. In orgone, he saw the universal cure.

And so he began building the boxes, which he called orgone accumulators. Styled after the Faraday cage, Reich believed the device could gather orgone particles from outside the box and direct them, in concentrated doses, into the living things inside. First he tested them on animals, and in 1940 he built one big enough for humans. According to Christopher Turner (who wrote about Reich in 2011’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America), Reich wrote to supporters in 1941 that the accumulators were “definitely able to destroy cancerous growth.” Though he had no medical license, Reich had begun using the accumulator as experimental treatment on patients with cancer and schizophrenia.

Around the same time, Reich was seeking support for his work from Albert Einstein, whom he enlisted to test the accumulator himself. After several days of experimenting, Einstein and his team of assistants concluded that any temperature increase seemingly produced by the device (which Reich claimed was owed to orgone conduction) was due to the natural temperature gradient in the room. Reich responded with a 25-page letter, attempting to change his mind. Einstein didn’t respond—not then, and not to any of Reich’s numerous follow-ups.

Reich remained undeterred. In 1941, he purchased a farm in Maine and called it “Orgonon,” with the intention that it would become a center for orgone-related studies. (Now, the facility is home to the Wilhelm Reich Museum.)

The sharp decline in public (and professional) respect for Reich is attributed to two critical magazine stories—both by journalist Mildred Edie Brady—that were published in 1947. One, printed in the New Republic, used the term “cult” to refer to Reich’s supporters three separate times. Brady criticized the psychoanalytic field for what she perceived as its collective failure to publicly reject Reich and his orgone theory.

The stories spawned greater institutional attention to Reich’s work and claims, and, later that year, the Food and Drug Administration began an investigation, deeming him “a fraud of the first magnitude.” Reich’s budding persecution complex spiraled. (He began to believe that the Earth was being attacked by something he called “energy alphas,” writes Turner.) In 1956, one of his associates attempted to ship an accumulator across state lines, in express violation of an FDA injunction decreed two years prior. Reich was arrested and charged with contempt of court, and, as part of his sentencing, his accumulators and “associated literature” were to be destroyed.

After many appeals (including one for presidential pardon), Reich died of a heart attack in prison. Three of the six lines in Time’s short obituary are dedicated to skeptical description of the orgone accumulator.

BECAUSE HE DIED IN prison, because his ideas about human sexuality were especially radical for his era, and because the destruction of his writings strikes many as blatant censorship, Reich maintains something of an enthusiastic following to this day. James DeMeo, director of the “Orgone Biophysical Research Lab” in Oregon, has written extensively in defense of Reich’s work, and of what he perceives as the smear campaign waged against him. Vicepublished a flattering profile of Reich last year.

What exactly orgone is—if it’s anything—remains unclear. There are deep, deep recesses of the Internet for which orgone is conspiracy panacea: the website orgoneblasters.com purports to sell pieces of the material (conveniently made three-dimensional), which it states can be used to “keep chemtrails from sticking over your home and area [and] destroys aliens, and demons won't come near them, and they will kill zombies and evil beings!!”

You can buy them in varying sizes and quantities, for between $6 and $288.

As for the infamous accumulator, there are DIY guides around theInternet. You can buy the materials pre-packaged, if you prefer, but you’ll have to assemble it yourself. These sites don’t (and can’t) specify what exactly the thing will do for you, but if you want to sit in a hollowed out refrigerator (or telephone booth) in your backyard for an hour or two, that’s nobody’s business but your own.

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