Thursday, March 22, 2012
Lunch with Peter Reich by Christopher Turner
I met Peter Reich for lunch at his home in Massachusetts, two hours outside of Boston. He worked as assistant to the dean of the Harvard Medical School – an unlikely job for someone whose father devoted the last two decades of his life to battling the “pharmaceutical interest.” Peter said, “I’ve spent sixteen years working for the enemy.”
“What my kids don’t understand,” Peter told me as we sat in desk chairs in his garden, “was that people in Reich and my mother’s generation really believed in a better world. It was probably going to look like a Socialist world. It wasn’t going to be Communist, it wasn’t going to be fascist. It was fair and honorable, and sexuality would be a part of that better world. There was a vibrancy and a hope. But that better world didn’t make it and people today don’t know about that.”
When I asked him to describe his father’s obvious charisma, Peter Reich invoked movies. “When Star Wars came out and I saw the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker about the Force, I really felt kind of ripped off. And that is the best description. He had that presence that Obi-Wan Kenobi projected and that same belief in that same force.” To Understand Reich, Peter told me, you have to understand how he modeled his life on the films he saw.
“He thought the movies were about him, and maybe they were. You see. It’s hard to know where the circle starts. For example, High Noon, he was really into High Noon, and Bad Day at Black Rock. And this is why he wore a cowboy hat: he was Gary Cooper. And when the FDA came up to see him at Organon, he was just like Spencer Tracy. He’d say, ‘Listen, mister’ –he used that language. That was really part of his American persona, the movie person. He didn’t make a distinction between that and real life.
“He could put his hands on you, and he was a healer, he really was. And I think he felt he could heal the world, because his cloud-busters really seemed to work. So he really felt he was in control of everything. And he didn’t understand who other people didn’t see that. He shared the moral certainty that Gary Cooper had in High Noon and Spencer Tracy had in Bad Day at Black Rock, and that Sir Thomas More had in A Man for All Seasons.
I imagine Reich as the Burt Lancaster character in The Rainmaker, a naive showman and energetic charlatan who charms a sexless old maid and then actually drums up a storm. The very idea of orgone energy might be seen as cinematic: in The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht , a feral Leni Riefenstahl is the guardian of a high altitude cavern that glows an ethereal blue during full moons and lures men to their death in the mountains.
I put it to Peter Reich that in every biography of Reich there seems to be a cut-off point, an eye-rolling threshold after which the biographer considers Reich mad. For the psychoanalysts it was Lucerne; for others it was of his odd inventions, be it the orgone box, the cloudbuster, or the space gun. Even among his devotees, only a very few managed to follow him to the end. A.S. Neil, Reich’s faithful friend since the 1930s, was exasperated when he received a copy of Reich’s new journal, CORE (Cosmic Orgone Engineering), which described the “cloudbusting” experiments. “If I had never heard of Reich and had read CORE for the first time,” he wrote to Reich in January 1955, “I would have concluded the author was either meschugge [mad] or the greatest discoverer in centuries. I can’t follow you…is there anyone that can?”
Peter Reich replied: “Okay, I was on the operation when the blueberry growers paid Reich to make rain in ’54, and it started to rain. I just couldn’t believe it. Another time, this hurricane was heading right towards us and all of a sudden it veered off. You know, I participated in a lot of things that I think really happened. And I don’t know what to make of them. I remember in Arizona, he’s bought this telescope and he was seeing these flying saucers, and I remember looking through the telescope and I didn’t see the thin cigar shape with the little windows [this was how Reich described a UFO to him]. I remember thinking to myself, Well, I don’t know.
That’s where I drew the line, I think, and that was as a ten-year-old boy. But I made it rain, I made the wind come up, I don’t know, I just really don’t know.
“He was a nineteenth-century scientist, he wasn’t a twentieth-century scientist. He didn’t practice science the way scientists do today. He was a nineteenth-century mind who came crashing into twentieth-century America. And boom! The FDA was hot to get a prosecution and he walked right into it. He was sending telegrams to the president of the United States, saying he was stopping hurricanes and claiming that the FDA were Communists. He walked right into it, with his eyes wide open.”
When A Book of Dreams came out in 1973, Peter Reich was criticized for not being able to state clearly whether he now believed in orgone energy or not, though it is precisely this irresolution that makes the book such a compelling read. In 1998, in a preface to a new edition of the book, Peter Reich wrote; “The forty-four-year-old husband and father is a private person to whom this all happened a long time ago. He waits, he watches. A critic once said that Wilhelm Reich had grabbed truth by more than its tail. How much more? Does anybody know? Does Orgone Energy exist? So, yea, the son is still hedging.” Almost twenty years later he is still equivocating; his is an ambivalent, complicated relationship to his father’s ideas and inventions. “Perhaps it is the easy way out,” Peter speculated in his book.” Keeping one foot in the dream – but it is deeper than that. My childhood is the dream.”
“You know, he was like Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he repeated. “He was all there, all the time. He would get drunk –he did have a bad drinking problem. And he beat my mother up. But it’s funny, that doesn’t detract in my mind. He would get drunk because he was so lonely. One by one [his friends] got to the eye-rolling point. They kept peeling off. At a certain point I just think he started spiraling and he knew that it couldn’t go on anymore. [The Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan] Makavejev said that everybody has a blind spot when it comes to Reich, and I think that’s true. But where does the blind spot begin?”
In the posthumously published Contact with Space, Reich wrote:
"On March 25, 1956 at 10PM, a thought of a very remote possibility entered my mind which I fear will never leave me again: Am I a spaceman? Do I belong to a new race on earth, bred by men from outer space in embraces with earth women? Are my children off-spring of the first interplanetary race? Has the melting pot of interplanetary society already been created on our planet, as the melting pot of all earth nations was established in the U.S.A. 190 years ago? Or, is this thought related to things to come in the future? I request my right and privilege to have such thoughts and to ask such questions without being threatened to be jailed by any administrative agency.”
“Hey, man, see that mother with the red nose?
“Yeah, what about him?”
“He’s the Sex Box man!”
“What the hell is the Sex Box man?”
“Whatta you mean – you don’t know? Everyone knows about the Sex Box man. It was in all the papers. He kinda made a big wooden sex coffin, and a guy and a chick would crawl; into it. They’d have to make love for an hour before he’d let them out. It was a big porno raid. Everybody read about it.”