Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America

Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America

by Christopher Turner

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One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011

Well before the 1960s, a sexual revolution was under way in America, led by expatriated European thinkers who saw a vast country ripe for liberation. In Adventures in the Orgasmatron, Christopher Turner tells the revolution's story—an


One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011

Well before the 1960s, a sexual revolution was under way in America, led by expatriated European thinkers who saw a vast country ripe for liberation. In Adventures in the Orgasmatron, Christopher Turner tells the revolution's story—an illuminating, thrilling, often bizarre story of sex and science, ecstasy and repression.

Central to the narrative is the orgone box—a tall, slender construction of wood, metal, and steel wool. A person who sat in the box, it was thought, could elevate his or her "orgastic potential." The box was the invention of Wilhelm Reich, an outrider psychoanalyst who faced a federal ban on the orgone box, an FBI investigation, a fraught encounter with Einstein, and bouts of paranoia.

In Turner's vivid account, Reich's efforts anticipated those of Alfred Kinsey, Herbert Marcuse, and other prominent thinkers—efforts that brought about a transformation of Western views of sexuality in ways even the thinkers themselves could not have imagined.

Editorial Reviews

Christopher Hitchens
…[a] very amusing and intelligent book…
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Anyone who has seen Woody Allen's Sleeper will remember the Orgasmatron. In fact, this futuristic parody was based largely on the work of Wilhelm Reich, who coined the slogan "sexual revolution" in the 1930s. A pupil of Freud's who believed sexual and political revolution had to go hand in hand, Reich was an often-misunderstood genius for good reason. He invented the orgone energy accumulator, a phone booth–size cupboard intended to bestow sexual emancipation on its users. When his writings delved into even greater unconventional beliefs, like flying saucers, credibility was further strained. Other gurus figure in London journalist Turner's first book. What is lacking in prose excitement and humor over the sheer nuttiness of much of Reich's work is made up for by the well-described backdrop of Vienna and Berlin as hotbeds of culture, anti-Semitism, and insight into the psyche. Reich sailed from Austria to the U.S. in 1939, and, like many leftist European intellectuals, came under the FBI's scrutiny, which was his downfall. As much of a screwball as Reich was, he opened a Pandora's box for future sexologists like Fritz Perls at Esalen. As Turner shows, Reich was a seminal figure. 8 pages of b&w photos. (June)
From the Publisher

“How [Reich] went from being one of the inspirational figures of the psychoanalytic movement, as a clinician, a teacher and a writer, to being a cult figure on the margins of 1960s America is an extraordinary story, and Turner tells it with subtlety and panache. Turner has interviewed many people who knew Reich well, and he casts his net wide, setting Reich's quirks and crimes in their historical context so that a portrait of the man emerges rather than a diagnosis.” —Adam Phillips, The London Review of Books

“ Very amusing and intelligent . . . This book will change the way in which we employ that increasingly lazy phrase ‘thinking outside the box.'” —Christopher Hitchens, The New York Times Book Review

“Christopher Turner's smart, thorough, wholly engaging book takes the reader on a tragicomic adventure of the history of an idea that became an object: Wilhelm Reich's orgone box. What began in Vienna with Sigmund Freud's belief that the sexually repressive mores of society can make people sick evolved into a utopian, quasi-scientific fantasy that spread through Europe as fascism rose and eventually crossed the ocean to the United States, where it would play a crucial role in what is now called the sexual revolution. Turner's measured account, bolstered by interviews with various characters close to the action, is a study in charisma, belief, and mental contagions that infected an entire culture, and which are still with us today.” —Siri Hustvedt, author of The Summer Without Men

“Turner has created a masterful synthesis of social history, psychosexual theory, obsession, and farce. The narrative is a madcap parade: Freud and Einstein, Leon Trotsky and Mabel Dodge, the Red Scare and UFOs, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Bellow and Mailer, Dwight MacDonald and James Baldwin, Woody Allen and Kurt Cobain--and Wilhelm Reich's quixotic hunt for the ideal orgasm.” —David Friend, Creative Development Editor at Vanity Fair, and author of Watching the World Change

Kirkus Reviews

Exhaustive biography of Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), the renegade Freudian who championed the therapeutic powers of the orgasm and, for better or worse, helped transform America's views on sexuality.

At the age of 22, Reich became a member of Freud's inner circle, and was clearly the leader of the second generation of psychoanalysts. Yet his insistence that sexual repression was the key to all neuroses soon alienated him from Freud and his more orthodox followers. This alienation accelerated when Reich joined the Communist Party and laid out the theory that sexual repression was at the root of social disorder as well. None of this sat well with either Marxists or Freudians, and with the intentions of the Nazis clear, Reich left Europe for the United States in 1939. In America, Reich found a more receptive audience for his unorthodox views, especially among the artistic and political avant-garde of the early post–World War II years, who were alienated from Marxism but hardly aligned with the status quo. Of particular interest was Reich's invention, the orgone energy accumulator, basically a wooden box lined with steel wool. The box gathered and concentrated a mysterious and sexually charged life force,orgone, and by sitting in the box one could improve his or her orgasm, general health, even be cured of cancer. Notables such as Norman Mailer championed Reich, and among his followers were William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Sean Connery. However, Reich's behavior became increasingly erratic. Turner writes that he was clearly schizophrenic, seeing enemies everywhere including aliens from outer space. Imprisoned for violating an FDA injunction on building or using the orgone box, Reich died in 1957. Yet in death his influence grew, in ways he would have abhorred. He championed sexual liberation, not the promiscuous narcissism that flourished in the 1960s. As Reich had intimated and Marcuse and Foucault confirmed, sexual freedom can become a commodity and blunt radical impulses toward social change.

Fair, accessible story of a strange man and strange times.

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How the Sexual Revolution Came to America
By Christopher Turner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Christopher Turner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-10094-0


In 1909, Sigmund Freud was invited to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. On the way there from Vienna his cabin steward was reading The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, an event Freud claimed was the first indication he ever had that he was going to be famous. In the United States, the philosopher and psychologist William James and many other leading American intellectuals turned out to hear Freud talk, giving psychoanalysis official recognition, as Freud saw it, for the first time. He later wrote about what the Clark lectures meant to him: "In Europe I felt as though I was despised; but over there I found myself received by the foremost men as an equal. As I stepped onto the platform at Worcester to deliver my Five Lectures upon Psychoanalysis it seemed like the realization of some incredible daydream: psychoanalysis was no longer a product of delusion, it had become a valuable part of reality."

Little did Freud know how his intellectual discoveries would transform America, which he dismissed as an "anti-paradise" or a "gigantic mistake." Though he feared that Americans would enthusiastically "embrace and ruin psychoanalysis" by popularizing it and watering it down, he already suspected that his theories would in some way shake the country to the core. While watching the waving crowds from the deck of his ship as it docked in New York, he turned to his fellow analyst Carl Gustav Jung and said, "Don't they know we're bringing them the plague?"

Well before the hedonism of the 1920s, a Freud-inspired revolution in sexual morals had begun. Greenwich Village bohemians, such as the writers Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, the anarchist Emma Goldman, who had been "deeply impressed by the lucidity" of Freud's 1909 lectures, and Mabel Dodge, who ran an avant-garde salon in her apartment on Fifth Avenue, adapted psychoanalysis to create their own free-love philosophy. In the radical journal The Masses, Floyd Dell warned that "sexual emotions would not be repressed without morbid consequences." Eastman, one of America's first analysands, wrote a book comparing Freud and Marx: "Weren't all forms of repression evil?" he asked rhetorically. Dell's left-leaning analyst, a Shakespeare scholar called Dr. Samuel A. Tannenbaum who treated many of Greenwich Village's artists, argued that it was healthier for young men to frequent prostitutes than to practice abstinence or masturbation.

Together they fashioned a cult of the orgasm-Mabel Dodge even went so far as to call her dog Climax. However, as Dell later admitted, their experiment was an isolated one, like that of the Oneida Community in the nineteenth century and a handful of other "obscure but pervasive sexual cults." It was only after the Second World War that the idea of sexual liberation would permeate the culture at large.

When Wilhelm Reich, the most brilliant of the second generation of psychoanalysts who had been Freud's pupils, arrived in New York in late August 1939, exactly thirty years after his mentor and only a few days before the outbreak of war, he was optimistic that his ideas about fusing sex and politics would be better received there than they had been in fascist Europe. Despite its veneer of Puritanism, America was a country already much preoccupied with sex-as Alfred Kinsey's renowned investigations, which he began that same year, were to show. Reich could be said to have instigated "the sexual revolution"; a Marxist analyst, he coined the phrase in the 1930s in order to illustrate his belief that a true political revolution would only be possible once sexual repression was overthrown, the one obstacle Reich felt had scuppered the efforts of the Bolsheviks. "A sexual revolution is already in progress," he declared, "and no power on earth will stop it."

Reich was a sexual evangelist who held that the satisfactory orgasm made the difference between sickness and health. "There is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients," he concluded in The Function of the Orgasm (1927): "the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction" (the italics are his).' The orgasm was the panacea to cure all ills, he thought, including the fascism that had forced him to leave Europe. Reich sought to reconcile psychoanalysis and Marxism, thereby giving Freudianism an optimistic gloss, arguing that repression, which Freud came to believe was an inherent part of the human condition, could be shed. This would lead to what his critics dismissed as a "genital utopia" (they mocked him as "the prophet of bigger and better orgasms"). His ideas became influential in Europe, which Henry Miller, finding a new sense of purpose through sex, characterized as "the Land of Fuck." Reich was a figurehead of the vocal sex reform movement in Vienna and Berlin before the Anschluss, after which the Nazis, who deemed it part of a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the continent, crushed it. His books were burned in Germany along with those of the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and Freud.

Soon after he arrived in the United States, Reich invented the orgone energy accumulator, a wooden cupboard about the size of a telephone booth, lined with metal and insulated with steel wool-a box in which, it might be said, his ideas came almost prepackaged. Reich considered his orgone energy accumulator an almost magical device that could improve its users' "orgastic potency" and by extension their general, and above all mental, health. He claimed that it could charge up the body with the life force that circulated in the atmosphere (a force which he christened "orgone energy")-mysterious currents that in concentrated form could not only help dissolve repressions but also treat cancer, radiation sickness, and a host of minor ailments. 7 As he saw it, the box's organic material absorbed orgone energy, and the metal lining stopped it from escaping, so the box acted as a greenhouse; and, supposedly, there was a noticeable rise in temperature in the box.

Reich persuaded Albert Einstein to investigate the machine, whose workings seemed to contradict all known principles of physics, but after two weeks of tests Einstein refuted Reich's claims. Nevertheless, the orgone box became fashionable in America in the 1940s and 1950s, when Reich rose to fame as the leader of the new sexual movement that seemed to be sweeping the country. Orgone boxes were used by such countercultural figures as Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs-who claimed to have had a spontaneous orgasm in his. At the height of his James Bond fame, Sean Connery swore by the device, and Woody Allen parodied it in the movie Sleeper, giving it the immortal nickname "Orgasmatron." Bohemians celebrated the orgone box as a liberation machine, the wardrobe that would lead to utopia, while to conservatives it was Pandora's box, out of which escaped the Freudian plague-the corrupting influence of anarchism and promiscuous sex.

Because of his radical past, Reich was placed under surveillance almost as soon as he arrived in the United States (his FBI file is 789 pages long). In 1947, after Harper's Magazine introduced Reich to Americans as the leader of "a new cult of sex and anarchy," the Food and Drug Administration began investigating him for making fraudulent claims about the orgone accumulator, and in 1954 a court ruled that he must stop leasing and selling his machine. When he broke the injunction he was sentenced to two years in prison. The remaining accumulators, along with thousands of copies of the journals and eleven books Reich self-published in America (including copies of The Sexual Revolution), which were thought to constitute "false advertising" for them, were incinerated.

In the ideological confusion of the postwar period, when the world was trying to get its head around what came to be called the Holocaust and intellectuals disillusioned with communism were abandoning the security of their earlier political positions, Reich's ideas landed on fertile ground. With his tantalizing suggestion that sexual emancipation would lead to positive social change, Reich seemed to capture the mood of this convulsive moment. People sat in the orgone box hoping to dissolve the toxic dangers of conformity, which, as Reich had eloquently suggested as early as 1933, bred fascism. The literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote in his journal, "Everybody of my generation had his orgone box ... his search for fulfillment. There was, God knows, no break with convention, there was just a freeing of oneself from all those parental attachments and thou shalt nots."

In his essay "The New Lost Generation," James Baldwin described how that generation crystallized around Reich's thinking in the late 1940s and early 1950s:

It was a time of the most terrifying personal anarchy. If one gave a party, it was virtually certain that someone, quite possibly oneself, would have a crying jag or have to be restrained from murder or suicide. It was a time of experimentation, with sex, with marijuana, with minor infringements of the law. It seems to me that life was beginning to tell us who we were, and what life was-news no one has ever wanted to hear: and we fought back by clinging to our vision of ourselves as innocent, of love perhaps imperfect but reciprocal and enduring. And we did not know that the price of this was experience. We had been raised to believe in formulas.

In retrospect, the discovery of the orgasm-or, rather, of the orgone box-seems the least mad of the formulas that came to hand. It seemed to me ... that people turned from the idea of the world being made better through politics to the idea of the world being made better through psychic and sexual health like sinners coming down the aisle at a revival meeting. And I doubted that their conversion was any more to be trusted than that. The converts, indeed, moved in a certain euphoric aura of well-being. Which would not last ... There are no formulas for the improvement of the private, or any other, life-certainly not the formula of more and better orgasms. (Who decides?) The people I had been raised among had orgasms all the time, and still chopped each other with razors on Saturday nights.

"There was, God knows, no break with convention"; "the least mad of the formulas that came to hand"-both Kazin and Baldwin saw their bewildered peers breaking out of one ideological prison only to find themselves in another. Theirs was a generation teetering on a new kind of brink-full of optimism about the possibility of change, they were unsuspecting accomplices in the authorship of more insidious forms of control.

I first learned about Reich's orgone energy accumulator in 1993 when I visited Summerhill, the "free" school in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921 by A. S. Neill. I was an anthropology student at Cambridge University and, when I asked whether I could stay for a while as a participant-observer, I was offered a large tepee as a place to sleep. I liked the idea of living in it: a wigwam seemed a suitable home for a backyard anthropologist. However, everything at Summerhill-where lessons are voluntary and the pupils invent their own laws-is put to a vote, and the children decided they wanted to keep the tepee for themselves. So for that summer I lived in a bed-and-breakfast in Leiston. All the other guests worked for the nuclear power station Sizewell B: every piece of crockery and all the towels and cutlery were stamped with the nuclear power station's logo. The owner of the B&B had been given a free pullover after a random Geiger counter inspection had determined that his own, hung out on the clothesline, harbored dangerously elevated levels of radiation.

While I was there I read the lengthy correspondence between Neill and Reich that offered an articulate commentary on the rise of fascism and on the idea of sexual liberation as a coherent strategy to oppose totalitarianism, a philosophy that held over awkwardly and controversially into the era of the cold war. I also discovered that an orgone energy accumulator had once been used at the school, though it had recently been dismantled because the nearby nuclear power station was thought to have reversed its positive effects. Reich came to believe that atomic energy, the fear of which clouded the American psyche in the 1950s, aggravated the orgone energy that he had discovered, which explained, in his view, why not everyone who was prescribed his box could be cured.

A. S. Neill met Reich in Oslo in 1936 and soon afterward became his analysand, fitting in a dozen sessions with him on a return trip. Reich had by that time been expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association (he had once been considered Freud's heir apparent, but his attempts to reconcile psychoanalysis and Marxism ended up alienating practitioners of both), and pioneered a new form of analysis called "vegetotherapy," a repudiation of the talking cure. "Reich's third wife, Ilse, described it as "doing away with the psychoanalytic taboo of never touching a patient," and replacing it with "a physical attack by the therapist." Reich would relax the patient's taut muscles with deep breathing exercises and painful massage, until he or she broke down in involuntary convulsions, which Reich called the "orgasm reflex."

Though his school had already been running for fifteen years, Neill found in Reich's work its ideological justification, and he once referred to himself as Reich's "John the Baptist." His many books are littered with references to Reich's concepts of "character armor" and "self-regulation." For his part Reich saw Neill's project as a practical test of his ideas, and he sent his own son, Peter, to Summerhill for a while. He 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. Neill did, however, ask him to be the legal guardian of his daughter, Zoe. Reich invited Neill to start an orgonomic infant research center at his research institute in Maine and encouraged him to replace his Summerhill staff with people schooled in Reichian practice. Neill rejected both suggestions, but continued to read aloud from Reich's books at staff meetings.

Reich and Neill shared a belief in the redemptive power of unconstricted development in children. For Reich this had an urgent political significance: he thought that only when children were raised free would it be possible to lay the foundations of a utopia. Neill thought that a radical reform of the education system was an essential preliminary to the creation of a better world. Both men believed that children were inherently good: it was an authoritarian, sexually repressive upbringing that corrupted them. Summerhill was designed to offer children a sanctuary from the moral contamination of the world, where they could live out their desires without the fear of punishment and play without the pressure of indoctrination: "We set out to make a school in which we would allow children freedom to be themselves," Neill wrote. "In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction." The school's motto continues to be "Giving children back their childhood."

By the summer of 1944, Neill had begun to practice Reich's analytic technique on his pupils at Summerhill. "I have given up teaching and am doing only veg.-ther. analysis," he wrote to Reich. "The more I see the results with adolescents the more I consider that bloody man Reich a great man ... Marvelous how patients weep so easily when lying on their backs. Some do so in the first hour. Why?" One former student remembers being instructed to lie down and "breathe deeply, as though you're having sexual intercourse," while Neill prodded her stomach (she was too young to know what sex was, so she just panted). "The repressed ones have stomachs like wooden boards," Neill wrote to Reich of his pupils' resistance, "but children begin to loosen up very quickly, and at once begin to be hateful and savage."

"Excerpted from ADVENTURES IN THE ORGASMATRON: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America by Christopher Turner, published in June 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. 2011 by Christopher Turner. All rights reserved."


Excerpted from ADVENTURES IN THE ORGASMATRON by Christopher Turner Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Turner. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christopher Turner lives in London and writes for The Guardian and other publications.

Christopher Turner lives in London and writes for The Guardian and other publications.

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