Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Theoretical Reflections on Wilhelm Reich's Character Analysis

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Theoretical Reflections on Wilhelm Reich's Character Analysis

Article excerpt

The ideas contained in Wilhelm Reich's Character Analysis, while very influential, have not been thoroughly exploited in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. These ideas, aimed particularly at producing genuine change rather than mere intellectual understanding, are reexamined. Further implications of them are discussed.


It is well known that Wilhelm Reich came to a tragic end, for which Reich himself bore a large part, though by no means all, of the responsibility. He died in prison of a heart attack. He had been sentenced, after refusing to allow a plea of emotional illness, for distributing and claiming health benefits for his "orgone accumulators." But his death was only the denouement of his strange story. He had held a place in the psychoanalytic world that was more than promising; as a young man he had already made important and recognized contributions. By the time of his death he had become alienated from virtually all professional and personal contacts, apart from a few followers, and was occupied with fantastic and grandiose pseudo-biological and cosmological theories. (At one point he presented his cosmological theories to Einstein and was met with a polite but ultimately disappointing reception.)

Reich's defection from psychoanalysis and his apparent psychosis would, of course, be far less interesting if he had not already advanced theoretical and therapeutic ideas, in his book Character Analysis (1) that are still of great value and continue to be studied. He was not, in other words, a run-of-the-mill defector. His ideas, with their emphasis on general attitudes, and his intense interest, influenced by his Marxism, in the effects of society on personality, could easily be considered the most important application of psychoanalytic ego psychology to psychotherapy and psychopathology in his time or later.

Reich's ideas introduced a point of view that aimed at correction of a serious weakness of the psychoanalytic method and had great influence. I wish to show, however, that these ideas, particularly those that were only implied and never developed in his own presentation, were not fully exploited and have never received the subsequent development within organized psychoanalysis that might have been expected. Hitler and the war intervened, of course, and Reich's fierce contentiousness could not have helped. But certain unsettled theoretical issues in psychoanalysis were also much involved. In any case, this neglect has meant a serious loss for psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

At least two of Reich's students, Fritz Perls (2) of Gestalt Psychology fame, and Hellmuth Kaiser (3), less famous but an important figure nevertheless, did develop new methods of psychotherapy strikingly influenced by Reich, but did so outside of psychoanalysis. And Reich himself, of course, continued to develop his ideas outside of psychotherapy and psychology altogether. That development, from psychoanalysis to a strange kind of psychobiology, and from ideas about liberating sexual energy to the "discovery" of a cosmic energy or life force, was entirely self-conscious. That is, Reich saw his later conceptions as logical extensions of his psychoanalytic ideas. In this, he was in a sense correct; a relation is clearly there. But unfortunately it consists of a series of steps that are logical enough, but in the wrong direction, leading not to a more subtle, more specific, and deeper understanding of psychopathology and psychotherapy, but to a caricature, a primitivized and more concrete version of the original conception. It is not necessary to review that unhappy development here in detail; it is the psychological ideas and what can be extracted from them that are important.


Reich had a program and a complaint that drove it. His essential therapeutic aim, emphasized repeatedly in his book Character Analysis (1), was that of "penetrating to the energy sources (we might now say affective sources-DS) of the symptoms and the neurotic character" (p. …

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