Disclaimer: I was surprised by the scattered, incomplete, and sometimes conflicting information I found about Wilhelm Reich online. Take everything here with a grain of salt.
Ted Kaptchuk, the guy studying placebos at Harvard, told his placebo-giving doctors to spend a little extra time with their patients. Give them a rub on the back, the grandfatherly type, while pausing for twenty-seconds of visible introspection, during which the patient may assume that you are pondering how best to proceed with his case. Brushing all of the details aside, those few extra gestures worked; the patients who received them fared better.
That a soft touch might make the patient and practitioner relationship more fruitful has never seemed an odd idea to me. Touch lends itself to trust, for one thing, and it can trigger a subtle wave of pleasure generally lacking from the doctor’s office. The trusting, relaxed patient will be more likely to disclose full information to their doctor, I imagine, and they’d be more responsive to their doctor’s care.
The last time someone touched me therapeutically, I was twenty-three. He was older, let’s say thirty, a reedy guy studying psychoanalysis. His blue eyes matched the blue veins showing through his pale skin, even though it was August and even I, usually pasty to the point of fluorescence, had a tan. We met in a Turkish coffee shop, him reading some book by Wilhelm Reich, who I’d never heard of at the time, and me probably re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow. His eyes caught my attention, then his book, so I started a conversation with him and asked him for a date. “Sure,” he said, suggesting we meet at nine in the morning a few days later at another coffee shop.
It was a tough date to make, but I didn’t have anything else to do. In a week I would be driving out of Boston for a month long camping trip, and from there I’d planned to settle in Baltimore. I hadn’t worked the whole summer, and had spent most of my free time sleeping in, getting stoned, and going out late. It was a dreamy few months for me, one ever content being lazy, but I knew that once it ended I’d probably have to resume waking up early like the rest of the world.
I figured the early date would be a practice run for future early wake-ups, and when the morning came I dragged myself out of bed and to the coffee shop my new friend had suggested. The Turkish place where we’d met was lined with windows on all sides. You sat on soft, tasseled pillows covering wicker seats, and your drinks came in tiny cast iron kettles. It was easy to lose hours sitting there indulging in romantic feelings, imagining intimate meetings with exciting strangers. But we didn’t meet there for our date. Instead, he suggested we go to the kind of place you stay in only because you don’t want your coffee to get cold while you wait for the bus. The shop was annexed to a dingy co-op supermarket, a hold out from Cambridge’s sixties glory days, I guess. There were no windows in the cafe except for a few facing the street, and the walls were a moldy tangerine. Not that anything would feel romantic at such an hour, but this place wasn’t even trying.
The guy came into the coffee place a little after me in a rumpled button up and jeans that hung too loose and short. I gave him the nonchalant, half-attentive smile I was sporting at the time and waited for him to finish the elaborate preparation he favored for his coffee before he sat down. There was a moment of silence at first, but then somehow while finishing our coffee we managed a conversation, one that revolved mostly around him. “I’m studying at the school of psychoanalysis downtown,” he told me. “It’s, um, the only accredited one in the country.” Whatever had been missing in his life—connection to other people, relaxation, pleasure—he found it in psychoanalysis. In particular, he told me, he was interested in physical psychotherapy, sometimes called vegetotherapy. It healed him, helped him get closer to what he couldn’t normally reach inside himself. Psychoanalysis lead him to revelations he would have never had otherwise.
He must have thought I was a monster, because I dismissed his beloved psychoanalysis pretty flippantly. I’ll admit to being an especially unbearable know-it-all that summer. A summer’s worth of acid had cleared up any neuroses I had, and there was no lack of sex in my life. Whatever loop you’re stuck in, acid seems to cut through it and lay it flat for you to examine. It’s easier to toss out your troubles that way. Maybe some people needed ritualistic healing, medicinal touch, or talk therapy to work through that process, but not me, I congratulated myself. As I sipped my coffee, I looked at him straight through the halo of old mascara rimming my eyes and said that all of his studies and therapy seemed like a waste of time to me. Why sit through all of that talking when the right drug could give you the same revelatory experiences in just minutes?
That’s how we ended up walking back to his bedroom. He promised it wouldn’t be sexual, but strictly professional. Most of all, he promised that I’d begin to see that psychoanalysis works. If I had known more about his hero, Wilhelm Reich, at the time, I might not have believed that. Reich, an outspoken and controversial figure during his life, is best known for his orgone concept. Stemming from the root “org” (impulse, excitement, as in orgasm), orgone describes a universal life force linking libido and orgasms. Reich was obsessed with the libido and the forces that blocked it. Mental illness and neuroses, he theorized, arose from one’s inability to experience full, orgasmic release, and society would benefit if people came more often. These ideas weren’t so popular in the early twenties and thirties, and controversy chased Reich from one European country to another, eventually driving him to the United States.
As it was, my hapless date only explained that, as a new student of Reich-informed psychoanalysis he needed more patients for practicing his favored methods. He explained this to me as we walked up to his bedroom, a closet sized space with just a few feet left over between the bed and his desk. There he rolled a yoga mat onto the floor and told me to lie down. Part of what made Reich so controversial was his insistence that patients strip down during therapy sessions. That made it easy for him to press upon the body armor gathered across their body, until their tension released and allowed emotions pent up in the body to flow. He called this Vegetotherapy.
“When I touch you, relax,” my once-date-now-therapist said. “Relax more. You’re not relaxing enough—put your weight on me.” He was trying to break through my body armor. Though there are different strains of body psychotherapy, of which Vegetotherapy is one, most call for practitioners to press upon the areas where body armor develops. Reich taught that the armor forms when sex-negative teachings run at odds with one’s libido. After this armor breaks, patients should feel more comfortable expressing and pursuing their libidinal urges. Therapy might break through this armor, and so could an orgone accumulator. The latter was invented by Reich in 1940. The original orgone accumulator was a wardrobe-like structure intended to collect orgone from the atmosphere. It was made of layers of organic materials to absorb orgone and metallic ones that concentrated energy at the box’s center. Sitting in this high-orgone environment, Reich claimed, could have beneficial health effects. Orgone did not just have human effects. According to Reich, it could be harvested via his Cloudbuster device and used to control rainfall and clouds. Of course, there is no proof that either of these orgone-harvesting devices do what they claim to do, nor is there proof of the existence of orgone at all. Reich wasn’t very scientific in his study of the force and its potential powers. Even so, he did have enough of a following to catch the FDA’s attention. In 1954, they banned him from touting the medical importance of orgone, and outlawed the sale of orgone devices. Soon after, Reich was imprisoned for continuing to traffic in such contraband. He died in prison of heart failure at age 60.
It was hard to relax with a stranger sitting right above my head, positioned with his fingers pushing hard against the area just outside of my temples. A couple of times he switched positions, moving his fingers behind my shoulders and then to the rounds of my calves. “Relax on to me,” he said over and over, never sounding satisfied with my physical response. The way he explained it to me, if I could feel comfortable laying all my weight upon him in such a way that we were touching as closely as possible, that would open up a deep channel for conversation between us. He never mentioned any of Reich’s terms like body armor or orgone, and without those pseudoscience terms muddying things up, what he was saying made sense. How could a patient relate effectively to a therapist sitting across the room with a notebook in hand? What an artificial, alienating way to heal someone it seems, when you put it that way. But there is still a disconnect with vegetotherapy. His touch had been intellectually stimulating, but hadn’t triggered any emotional or physical release for me. Having always considered myself a little too easily excited, I was surprised to find that this new way of touching left me feeling not remotely aroused. There was nothing akin to an empathetic doctor’s pat upon your shoulder here; it was only a mechanical prodding, a choreographed routine that made one feel more like a test subject than a patient. No one actually intimate with each other would touch like this, and I never felt any rush of liberated orgone coursing from broken body armor.
After a few minutes, he moved away from me and curled up on the bed next to where I continued lying down. “So tell me about yourself. What do you worry about? What stresses you?” But the whole experience had left me so disoriented, I couldn’t think of anything that I felt comfortable telling him. If orgone existed, and if it had ever caused any blockages in me, then my summer had already shaken it loose. “I’m fine,” I said, “Really fine.”