Family Tragedy, Sexual Awakening, and World War I
Wilhelm Reich was born on March 24, 1897, on the outer reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on a fairly wealthy farm estate in Bukovina, in what is now Ukraine. His mother, Cecilie (or Cacilie) Roniger Reich, was nineteen, his father, Leon Reich, at least ten years older. A sister was born the next year, but she died almost immediately. His one surviving sibling, Robert, was born three years later. Their fraternal relationship would be vexed for a number of reasons, especially those surrounding sexual rivalry and the competition for paternal affection, which was extremely hard to obtain.
Willy, as he was called, developed an attitude toward his mother that was deeply sexual and colored all of his subsequent almost frenetic relationships with women, compelling him to focus on their (maternal) breasts as their most important and soothing attributes. Indeed, one can say that he had an ongoing fascination for the female breast as the ground of all protection, healing, and safety. As he puts it in his early journals in 1919-22:
Breasts which are round, full, supple, do not sag, and have a rosy-white hue are the most beautiful part of a woman. That is why I like poems that extol women's breasts with chaste but sensuous desire, for no yearning within me will ever be as strong as that for a woman's breast upon which to rest my head. Later I experienced many a night in which I abstained from intercourse but found a complete substitute for it by resting my head on a girl's breast and pressing close to her body.1
It is clear from other references in his autobiography that the source for this later breast obsession was his ongoing desire for his mother's breasts, a fascination that his mother seemed to encourage, as if to deepen their somewhat unhealthy Oedipal bond, which would prove to be so tragic in its consequences.
Willy's attitude toward his father was deeply ambivalent, ranging from extreme rage (certainly an appropriate response in his affection-starved youth) to a form of sentimental imitation. Leon was a brutal and sadistic man, given to constant psychosexual flirtation with staff, relatives, and wives of friends. He frequently beat the peasants on his estate and ruled everyone there with an iron fist, including his wife. Projecting his own desires, he regularly accused her of infidelity and made life profoundly difficult for the family, especially the two young sons, who adored their mother. Yet he was also a scholar of sorts and strongly supported his sons' education, hiring private tutors to prepare them for the rigorous examinations at the Gymnasium.
The farm life into which Reich was born was self-consciously aristocratic and assimilationist. The family was Jewish, but the Yiddish language was absolutely forbidden, and the children would be beaten for using it. High German was the language of the empire and thus the language of anyone wishing to climb the social ladder, while the lower classes spoke either Yiddish or Hungarian. Thus Reich's lifelong ambivalence about his own Judaism had its beginnings in Bukovina and his father's social pretensions. In later years Reich studied French, Latin, ancient Greek, and English and had a bit of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Polish.
The family farm was located in a beautiful natural setting, and Reich early on developed a love of nature and of flora and fauna. He took to hunting and fishing and amassed an outstanding butterfly collection. His attention to naturalistic detail started in his adolescence and was reinforced by a series of fairly adept tutors from local universities. His refined observational and experimental eye later served him well in clinical settings, where he was able to size up a patient's muscular body armor in a matter of seconds, a skill not unlike that of taxonomic identification in the field. Reich was a born naturalist, and his later discovery of psychoanalysis has to be located in this prior biological and naturalistic background, a prethematic background that later became more clearly defined and shaped.
Willy was extremely precocious sexually. At the age of four he had hisfirst noncoital sexual experience, with a maid; he lay on top of her and played with her pubic hair, intimating to her that he had already divined most things about the sexual act. He had also begun to watch the farm animals mating and found that he could artificially stimulate mares by inserting whip handles in their vaginas (an activity that later came to disgust him). His real sexual life started with the cook when he was eleven and a half. As he puts it in his autobiography: "She was the first to teach me the thrusting motion necessary for ejaculation, and at that time it had been an accident. From then on I had intercourse almost every day for years--it was always in the afternoon, when my parents were napping." 2 In his autobiography he states that his libidinal drive was quite powerful and that in his teens he frequented brothels. Often he would see his professors there, further teaching him about the deceits involved in "enforced monogamy." He masturbated compulsively during his early and late teen years, leading him, so he thought, into depression and despair over ever finding an ideal (maternal) woman who could rescue him from the abyss of his raging desires. From his fifteenth year until the war years (ages seventeen to twenty-one), he oscillated wildly between intense sexual episodes and severe suicidal depressions.
Reich gives a stunning description of one of his brothel visits when he was fifteen that shows both his capacity for frank honesty and his then-out-of-control libido:
Was it the atmosphere, the clothing, the red light, the provocative nakedness, the smell of whores--I don't know! I was pure sensual lust; I had ceased to be--I was all penis! I bit, scratched, thrust, and the girl had quite a time with me! I thought I would have to crawl inside her.3
His need to "crawl inside her" had at least two psychological sources, one being the suicide of his mother, which occurred in 1910, and the other being some probable borderline tendencies that drove him toward fusion with the Other rather than distance from her. In the former scenario there is an ongoing need to return to the paradise that has now been closed forever, in a quite literal sense. The body of the prostitute, which can be controlled by the patriarchal structure where money equals power over female flesh, is always available; always ready to provide an entrancepoint into the dark taciturn world of the divine mysteries where generation takes place. Perhaps Reich saw the womb as being something like Paul Tillich's great "ground of being," the source of all beings and the sustaining ground of all life energy.4 This fascination for prostitutes remained long after he stopped frequenting brothels.
In probing into the origins and trajectory of the family drama, we have four sources that we can use to challenge one another. The first is the fascinating disguised case study, written in 1920, when Reich was twenty-two or twenty-three--that is, about the same age when he wrote the first part of his autobiography. The second is Reich's memoir Passion of Youth, to which Sharaf did not have access (as it was published in 1988). The third is Sharaf's biography, which first came out in 1983. The fourth is Use Ollendorff's book Wilhelm Reich: A Personal Biography.5 To add some poignancy to the analysis of Reich's case study, it should be noted that when Sharaf interviewed Reich's daughter Eva in 1971, she informed him that Reich had admitted to her that the case study was a self-analysis. What will become clear is that Reich's two depictions contain strong elements of denial, specifically surrounding his complicity leading to his mother's ingestion of several poisons.
We will start with the disguised case study, published in 1920, when Reich was a working analyst. It is entitled "A Case of Pubertal Breaching of the Incest Taboo."6 In English it is a brief nine-page document, but it contains a wealth of material about the deep guilt structures that permeated Reich's partially unresolved Oedipal conflicts. The narrative's special urgency removes it from the usual genre of the clinical case study, and Reich resorts to the interesting tactic of quoting a "letter" that he received from the "patient" that describes the family tragedy.
Reich introduces us to a student in his twenties who comes to him "all choked up" and who cannot seem to function in the external world. He states: "From our short, superficial conversation I could only surmise that I was dealing with a compulsive symptom (a brooding mania)."7 The really interesting material begins to emerge when he starts unfolding the patient's childhood Oedipal conflicts:
From earliest childhood a deep tenderness bound him to his mother, and it was she who often protected him from the violent excesses of his father. His parents' marriage was not a happy one;his mother "suffered terribly" because of his father's jealousy. At five or six, he had already witnessed horrible scenes of jealousy. Often his father had become violent. The boy had always been "on his mother's side." This is easily understandable since he himself was terrorized and loved his mother fervently. Because he had matured sexually at an early age sex was not a mystery to him ... At age fifteen, the first slight feelings of inferiority found expression.8
The main features fall into line with his autobiography and with Sharaf's research, namely, the brooding, intense sexual fixation on the mother (he often engaged in a kind of sexual play with her with her consent), his very early sexual maturing, and his father's extreme physical violence.
Things became more complex when a series of tutors arrived in the household to prepare Willy and Robert for the Gymnasium. Perhaps in revenge for her older husband's constant brutality and flirtatious ways, Cecilie, never quite as beautiful as Reich liked to remember in his later idealizations, took a strong fancy to a tutor (called N in the case study) who had developed a special bond of trust with Willy. Reich watched with growing horror as they had sex whenever Leon was napping or away on business. In the letter that forms the heart of the case study, Reich describes how the patient slowly comes to realize that the primal scene is taking place right under his and Leon's noses, in his own house, with his own beloved mother and his own beloved tutor:
Then, when Mother (oh, what a terrible ring that word now has!) came out of the room, which I could see was completely darkened, with flushed cheeks and a wild darting look in her eyes, I knew for sure; it had happened, although I had no way of telling whether or not for the first time. I stood in a corner, cowering behind a cabinet with tears streaming down my face. I wanted to run to her. But it didn't happen that way, to the great misfortune of us all. I am still deeply convinced that seeing me would have brought her to her senses, even though late, and saved us our mother and Father his wife. This would have been the only possible salvation.9
It is clear that Reich blamed himself for causing his mother's suicide by not confronting her straight away with her double betrayal. He was alsoafraid that if he had rushed in on the lovers, he might have been killed, a strange fantasy mixed with a desire to join the lovers in a threesome. Thus in one stroke he lost both his tutor and his mother, and he knew he was on the verge of a great paternal outburst that would shatter his home once and for all, which is in fact what happened.
He says nothing in the case study about how the father came to discover the infidelity, a very interesting omission, but merely asserts that it somehow happened. After his mother poisoned herself, "the patient's relationship to his father showed marked improvement. Gradually he became 'my best friend and advisor.'"10 This is certainly a strange statement to make in a disguised self-analysis. Could Reich have been so blind to his real Oedipal feelings, or is he simply closing off the case study as quickly as possible so he can make his final comments on masturbation fantasies and the role of the "horrible secret" in adulthood? Indeed, he lightly passes over by far the most important question of the subsequent postsuicide family relationship--namely, how to deal with the violent father who is partially to blame for all that happened. Fortunately, we find a much more honest and revealing Reich in the (then unpublished) autobiography.
In the journal account of his discovery of the primal scene between S (not N) and his mother, he presents the narrative in roughly the same way. It is filled with a pained awareness that two of the most important people in his life have torn his world asunder:
I heard them kissing, whispering, and the horrible creaking of the bed in which my mother lay. Ten feet away stood her own child, a witness to her disgrace. Suddenly there was quiet. Probably I had made some noise in my excitement. Then his soothing voice, and then, then again--oh!
Oh, composure, peace! What a superhuman effort it takes to write this shattering tragedy "objectively"! What mockery! What an undertaking! All I remember of that catastrophic night is that I wanted to rush into the room, but was held back by the thought: they might kill you! I recalled having read that a lover will kill anyone who disturbs him. With a head full of bizarre fantasies I crept back to bed, without hope of consolation, my youthful spiritbroken! For the first time, a deep feeling of misfortune and of having been abandoned overcame me.11
He reports that he repeated his spying behavior night after night and even thought (as noted above) of "breaking in on them and demanding that she have intercourse with me too (shame!), threatening that otherwise I would tell Father."12 Thus we see emerging a combination of guilt, lust, inferiority, rage, fear, need for betrayal, a feeling of being betrayed, and a sense of the woman (the "ideal" woman) as the most unreliable creature on earth.
Thus, the Reich of the secret journals is a Reich able to be candid about the Oedipal struggles among himself, Leon, Cecilie, and the tutor whom he identifies as S. At the same time he unburdens his "dual guilt" that lay behind what he thought of as his complicity in his mother's suicide. In the autobiography he seems unsure of the truth and presents the case as if his father forced the truth out of him by direct threats, but the evidence points more in the direction of an Oedipal revenge tragedy in which Willy gets back at his mother by willingly setting forth a series of strong hints so that Leon will be compelled to draw the inevitable conclusions. Sharaf interviewed several people close to Reich, who claimed that Reich had admitted that he had told his father of the betrayal (contrary to the accounts in the case study and the autobiography).13
The revelation came about after Willy, on a dare from a farmhand, stole some tobacco from his father's locked desk drawer. While rummaging through the drawer, he happened upon a picture book of naked women and a sexually explicit marriage manual. He devoured both books and quickly returned them to the safety of the locked interior of the desk (the paternal realm of secrets). But Leon discovered the theft of the tobacco soon enough and called for an immediate search of all the farmhands. Unfortunately for Willy, his mother found a "cigarette-rolling device" in one of his pockets and told Leon about it. So his mother in effect betrayed him to the paternal castrating power. Leon's response was swift and violent:
That settled it. I received a good beating and slinked off into the garden, without shedding a tear. The beating didn't bother me, I was used to that, but being betrayed by Mother confused me completely.She had delivered me into Father's clutches! I could not get over it, nor did I ever forgive her.14
Interestingly, S was away for summer break at the time and was not one of the innumerable sexual suspects on Leon's list. When Leon found out that S was indeed the culprit, he started shouting, at which point a scream could be heard from Cecilie's bedroom. She had swallowed a common house cleaner such as Lysol, an act that was itself almost pathetic in its combination of utter despair and its guarantee of excruciating suffering. She swallowed one poison after another, while Leon continued to beat her as she died. In Sharaf's account, Cecilie dies a few days later, while in Reich's account, she lingers on for months.15
Cecilie's mother, who had a strong dislike for Leon, had tried to intervene after the marital estrangement by having Cecilie and her two children move into town to get away from the daily beatings, but to no avail. Between the poisons and the beatings, Cecilie's body could no longer hold out, and she died in 1910, when Reich was, as noted, thirteen. It is unclear whether her death was caused by an intentional suicide or came about as the result of a cumulative series of self-destructive acts. In 1944 Reich appended a self-lacerating note to his autobiography that shows how he had continued to struggle with his Oedipal guilt (and sense of betrayal):
How logical and rational! How mistaken my ideas were in 1919 [that is, in his earlier journals]. The situation has now become clear to me: what Mother did was perfectly all right! My betrayal, which cost her her life, was an act of revenge: she had betrayed me to Father when I stole the tobacco for the Cartwright, and in return I then betrayed her! What a tragedy! I wish my mother were alive today so that I could make good for the crime I committed in those days, thirty-five years ago. I have set up a picture of that noble woman so that I can look at it over and over again. What a noble creature, this woman--my mother! May my life's work make good for my misdeed. In view of my father's brutality, she was perfectly right!16
Here we see the idealization process really taking hold, part of the Oedipal struggle and perhaps an element of borderline-like fusion. In theearly journal accounts there is a strong dose of devaluation, combined with a deeply conflicted idealization. Reich's account of uncovering his mother's body in front of her mourners the day after her death shows a callow disregard for everyone's feelings, and he responds to her corpse as if it were a scientific object for detached study.17 He does observe, however, that this experience taught him that he had the character trait of "emotional masochism" and that he later came to enjoy the role of the martyr.
His father began to feel guilt over Cecilie's death, but it may have been tied to a kind of wounded narcissism rather than to any sense of genuine complicity in the tragic suicide. Yet he did begin to act out in a way that, at least unconsciously (according to Reich), showed that he took on the guilt burden of Cecilie's suicide (as it was understood) and sought a means of atonement. Leon took out a life insurance policy for his two sons and then, according to Ollendorff, exposed himself to the elements while pretending to be fishing. Already weakened by the family events, he contracted tuberculosis. He was able, after Reich's frantic efforts, to borrow enough money to travel to the Alps for convalescence, but the disease won out, and he died in 1914.
Thus, at the age of seventeen Willy had lost both of his parents, one to a suicide he dimly felt he had caused and the other to a carelessly contracted illness that was directly tied to the first. Meanwhile he was acting out sexually in ways entwined with the Oedipal triangle (or square if you include S) that he was forced to enter into in an abnormal way.
Willy and Robert remained on the estate, trying to maintain as much as possible of its previous successful operation. On July 31, 1914, news of the war and the general mobilization reached them. Reich responded almost indifferently to the idea of war at first. But when Russian soldiers arrived and briefly took over the estate, he began to understand its implications, especially since the locals soon took sides, choosing between their Russian liberators or their protectors from Vienna.
Reich was taken prisoner by the Russian army and ordered to join a horse column that was to be taken back to Russia for an uncertain fate. He was able to persuade his guard to allow him to use his own horses and sleigh rather than immediately climb into the army sleigh that was waiting for him. This diversion bought him enough time to get a farmhand to round up some bribe money to give to his Russian guard. As the column moved out of town (Reich had cleverly managed to be the last sleigh inthe group) and Reich began to despair, several farm workers rode up to the back of the entourage and handed a large envelope to the guard. Reich slowed down very cautiously and at the right moment, with a wink to the guard, pulled away from the group and returned to his estate.
But the estate did not prove to be a refuge, as the Russians were active in a military charge against the Austrians and Germans. Chaos was raining down on the valley as the Austrian cavalry fled from the battlefield. Reich had only one choice, to whip up his horses, join the full retreat, and hope for safety behind the lines. By a stroke of luck he escaped with the routed troops, whereupon he joined the Austrian army. In his autobiography he recalled:
I reported for military service half a year earlier than I was due to, legally, and was assigned to a division which built roads and simultaneously practiced with weapons. As a volunteer, I did not yet have the right to a commission, because I had not got my secondary-school diploma. But twelfth-grade pupils could get a Notabitur, or emergency diploma. You had to make up the courses of the final year and pass a somewhat leniently judged examination ... By this time [summer 1915], I was in officer's school. We were eighteen-year-old boys, as were some thousands in the Eastern Army. With six weeks of infantry training behind us, we were being instructed in extended and platoon company leadership. The schooling was strict and difficult ... I returned to the regiment a full corporal.18
Before too long he was assigned to the front lines to fight against the Italians. He seemed to have had little difficulty adjusting to life under fire, and he slowly began to probe into the psychological and sociological aspects of what he quickly came to see as an absurd war. In his view, the much older men under him did not much understand or care to know the reasons for the war. They simply were in no position to think in terms of class struggle, or of the dissolution of the empire, or of nationalism. He soon found out that food, sex, and survival were uppermost on his troops' minds, and he took every opportunity to provide his men access to these goods.
Of course, sex is especially brutalized during wartime, and the issues of patriarchy become intensified: men are causing the war, and men force women to offer them "relaxation" during brief moments of escape from battle. Reich expressed his moral indignation at the sexism of war in his account of brothel life on the front:
The Italian prisoners brought their brothels with them: an older woman with four or five girls. Our people when on reserve were given "brothel leave." In Fiume and Trieste this business flowered in a ghastly way. The soldiers were lined up alphabetically to go to one girl. The Italian women were quartered in our camp. By day, some of the batmen [officers' servants] and some of the men slept with them. The following night, the officers took them into their rooms. Three days later, a whole column marched back to the rear with gonorrhea. Among them, our captain. So much for morality.19
This brief morality tale, of course, comes from a young man for whom prostitutes were his lifeblood after the death of his mother. Was he projecting his own fear of infection?20 Or was his outrage tied to the shock of seeing a whole mass of men descending on four or five women in such a "military" fashion? At least in his brothel experiences the relationships had had the semblance of being one on one and had some foreplay and conversation. Here, perhaps, the depersonalization was too much to bear and would leave its mark on his later reflections on the need for total social sexual reconstruction, not just personal. Even so, his sense of the personal remained strong and rather elitist in the 1920s, centered on a kind of self-actualization and model tied to Germanic ideals of spirit and autonomy.
Reich was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and company commander. But his control over his troops diminished, and partially owing to the general war malaise, he gave them greater and greater latitude. His commanders seemed not to care about this lax behavior, which was spreading throughout the ranks; Reich was more or less conforming to the norm. Finally, at age twenty-one, he applied for a furlough, which soon led to his full demobilization. His strong desire to enter university studies had been put on hold by the war, and he was keen to embark on adegree program of some kind. He went immediately to the University of Vienna, thinking that he would study law, but his inner drives soon dictated otherwise:
But law was not for me. I undertook it because one could earn one's living more quickly here than elsewhere. There were three-month cram courses for the first state exam. I studied industriously, but without inner involvement. Two weeks before the examination, filled with hundreds of paragraphs of Roman and ecclesiastical law, I ran into an old school friend who was studying medicine. He reawakened my interest in natural science. I dropped jurisprudence, and transferred to the faculty of medicine. It was a good intuitive move; a few weeks later Austria fell, and with it, its administration of justice. I would have gone under, as I was without any material basis of existence.21
What had Reich gained from his more than four years of war service? He had received basic and then advanced military training and, at the age of eighteen, had been given command over peasant and bourgeois men in their thirties and forties. He started developing a deep sense of class-consciousness that flowered into socialism and later into communism and finally in his later years into what he called "work-democracy." He saw how patriarchy can misuse sex, especially in extreme conditions, and how human life can be utterly devalued. One of his commanders had his legs blown off a few feet in front of him, and he saw many men die because of mindless and stupid orders, orders that he often had to countermand to save lives. His sense of self-worth was hardened by the war and was propped up, as he clearly notes in his autobiography, by his officer status. This status was especially evident via his uniform (every insignia of which had meaning in a semiotic code that soldiers treated with great seriousness).
Sharaf gives his own summation of what the war might have meant to Reich, seeing it as a partial cure for the family traumas of 1910 and 1914, a means for looking back at the suicides and for preparing for the emergence of what Jung called the great "hero myth." Sharaf argues:
In a life of danger, he could feel some relief from the inner pressures, some surcease from the guilt of the past. In time, he wouldchannel this "heroic" effort into a task that made sense, into a mission not of simply staying alive but repairing the conditions that had produced the early tragedies.22
The hero myth can inflate the ego and provide a goal and direction that can seem to overcome all obstacles. One of the emergent features of the postwar Reich was an intensely driven and laserlike focus concerning his mission in life, and anything connected with his myth was protected from internal and external criticism. This heroic myth can also be seen in Freud, Adler, Jung, Einstein (hardly the benign, wise old man of Princeton he pretended to be),23 and many others. In fact, it may be a necessary condition for genius-level productivity. In the next chapter Reich's genius will measure itself against the university world and against the father of psychoanalysis. At the same time (in the 1920s) Reich will write a series of papers that show his immediate grasp of classical psychoanalysis and, in turn, the first unfolding of his own unique vision.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert S. Corrington