Thursday, March 16, 2017

Inheritance: Peter Reich's A Book of Dreams (1973)

(l. to r.) Eva Reich, Jerome Siskind, Peter Reich, Wilhelm Reich, Ilse Ollendorff (Peter's mother) in Maine.

"I am in Lewisburg [Penitentiary]. I am calm, certain in my thoughts, and doing mathematics most of the time. I am kind of 'above things,' fully aware of what is up. Do not worry too much about me, though anything might happen. I know, Pete, that you are strong and decent. At first I thought that you should not visit me here. I do not know. With the world in turmoil I now feel that a boy your age should experience what is coming his way – fully digest it without getting a 'belly ache,' so to speak, nor getting off the right track of truth, fact, honesty, fair play, and being above board – never a sneak ..." 
– Letter from Wilhelm Reich to his son, Peter, aged 13, from prison, March 19, 1957.
When my mother passed away recently from cancer, I fulfilled a promise I made to eulogize her at the memorial. For the first time, however, I decided not to write the tribute as I had for other friends and relatives I'd lost in the past. It might seem to be a strange choice since we choose our friends over time and throughout our life, but we begin in the womb of our mothers. You would think that my eulogy would need the care of consideration and thoughts first consigned to paper. But as I was growing up, I came to know a formidable and peripatetic woman who was as daunting as she was fascinating. For one thing, Sheila Courrier-Vezeau had done many things by the time I was 10. Besides being a striking model in her late teens, she would soon after get her pilot's license. To this day, I still have a distinct memory and knowledge of all the cloud formations she taught me when we took to the sky. If she longed for the stars, she also dove into the depths of the water when she learned to scuba dive. I would often go up to Tobermory, Ontario, in the Great Lakes on summer camping trips, trekking into the woods, while she sought out small shipwrecks.

During my early childhood, she wasn't home much since she had to work full time. My grandparents came to raise me in those years. At first, she assisted the famous futurist, Frank Ogden, and helped him with the kind of prescient inventions that predated the computer age. (I wish I had a photo of her – decked in black leather – while I rode on the back of her motorcycle bolting off to Ogden's farm.... but, then again, maybe I'm glad I don't.) Before long, in the early Sixties, she ended up working with anchor Harvey Kirck at CTV News and helping him organize his newsroom. In the end, though, it was real estate that grabbed her passion. From 1972, until she was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, she worked full-time selling houses. It was remarkable to me that she could work so long and so hard right into her eighties. She never seemed to tire.

Sheila Courrier in 1953, one year before I was born.

Though we didn't have a very consistent domestic relationship as I was growing up, her influence was still remarkably felt. It had an indelible impact that I'm still trying to figure out. My own doggedness and fierce independence were undoubtedly an inheritance from her. When I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, mere months before she would herself be struck, she came to Toronto on a couple of occasions to be with me. She first assisted me through a crucial 8-hour spinal operation that saved my life, as well as taking care of me while I was recovering and about to begin chemotherapy. We were encountering in the worst moments what being mother and son meant to both of us, as it appeared then that I wouldn't be in this sphere much longer. Having never had a chance to delve into her maternal side, and with me coming to terms with the fragility of time, my mother drew closer to that role and what it truly meant to her. I was also able to become a son. It was a gift beyond words that those times took place before more tragedy struck. While we talked during those visits, I made a promise to speak of her at whatever memorial was created. But due to the complicated history we had, where I made choices in my life that diverged radically from what she might have had in mind, and which would ultimately made us ships that passed periodically from a distance, I needed to feel my way back to my origins with her. For that reason, I decided to speak impromptu at the tribute as if I was making my way down river streams to the source of the water that had brought me here rather than speaking from a carefully planned arrival.

When re-reading Peter Reich's memoir A Book of Dreams (Harper & Row, 1973) about his famous father, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, I realized that his book traced similarly tangled and ambiguous roads back to a relationship with an influential and intimidating parent. Unlike some chronicles written by the children of prominent figures, A Book of Dreams isn't a Daddy Dearest trash job, or a revisionist history that robs its subject of his distinctive genius. Reich instead writes a story of his childhood, flashing back and forth through a series of personal dreams he has as an adult, that draws a captivating portrait of his loving and difficult relationship with Wilhelm Reich. At the time of his birth in 1944, Peter entered into a family embroiled in controversy. His father was an Austrian psychoanalyst who had originally studied under Freud. But he later broke from the strictly formal talk therapy of his mentor, and even from some of Freud's ideas on neurosis. In particular, after graduating from medicine at the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm Reich had a desire to reconcile Marxism and psychoanalysis by delving into something he termed character analysis – where he sought the source of repression in the body itself through muscular armour used by individuals to protect themselves from emotions and memories they didn't wish to face. In his book, Character Analysis (1933), Reich wrote that character structure was the result of social processes, whereas muscular armour was a defence that contained the history of the patient's traumas. Dissolving that armour would bring back the memory of the childhood repression that had caused the blockage in the first place. He would eventually come to treat it through body therapy – an aggressive form of deep massage – to free up the feelings and then arrive at talk therapy. Reich first tried to ingratiate his ideas into the society created by the Russian Revolution and argued that neurosis had its roots in sexual attitudes formed in socioeconomic conditions; he hoped the Revolution might possibly provide the ground for a new society that would break those psychic chains of repression. But he quickly became disillusioned when he saw signs of the authoritarian personality in Leninist and Stalinist theory and action. Once addressing the National Congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, he tried in vain to explain the Oedipal conflict as he was being shouted from the state. In a few short years Reich lamented that millions were going off in war to die for the Motherland.

After being denounced by the Stalinists, Reich was chased from Europe by the Nazis, whom he examined in 1933 in his landmark book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. By the time he wrote The Function of the Orgasm in 1939, where he explored the direct relationship between neuroses and our inability to surrender completely to the full bio-energetic pleasure of complete orgasm, he began to be perceived as a radical in the psychoanalytic community and was denounced by both psychotherapists and scientists. He emigrated to America in 1939, eventually to live in Maine, where he was regarded as insane when he claimed to have discovered the source of life in the Orgone, a biological energy that existed in the universe as cosmic energy and flowed through the body, which began to draw the attention of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). When he began to build boxes called Orgone Accumulators to enhance Orgone energy in the patients' bodies, doing experiments in curing cancer, and building cloud-busters used to break up Orgone energy in the sky to bring rain to areas of drought – as well as chasing UFOs – he became the FDA's target. In time, Reich would grow more isolated and paranoid about the attacks and, though filled with sharp insight into the human condition, later books like Listen, Little Man (1948) and The Murder of Christ (1953) had tinges of megalomania and narcissism. (In The Murder of Christ, you could easily perceive the ways he felt persecuted by those suffering from what he called "the emotional plague," which he also blamed for the Crucifixion of the Prophet.) In the late Forties, when disparaging articles about Reich and his work appeared in The New Republic and Harper's, the FDA closed in with an injunction that charged him with a "fraud of the first magnitude." During the early Fifties, they had him first destroy his accumulators and then required him to burn his research papers and books. In Arizona in 1956, Reich was charged with violation of that injunction when he shipped an accumulator across state lines and was eventually sentenced for two years at Lewisburg, where he died of a heart attack in November 1957, at the age of 60. He was just days away from his application for parole.    

Peter Reich.

A Book of Dreams begins in France in 1963 when Peter wakes up from a powerful dream and finds himself in a Paris hospital, having suffered a dislocation of his shoulder from an accident. What follows is a number of childhood memories from the period when his father was going through his troubles with the FDA. One of the first recollections is of his father making him bury a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo because "the glow stuff was deadly just like fluorescent light." The 13-year-old child was losing a favourite toy, but to his concerned scientist parent it was poison:
Glow-in-the-dark light was bad energy and it didn't mix with Orgone Energy, which was good energy. Daddy was trying to kill the bad energy in the atmosphere. Bad energy came from flying saucers and bombs. The cloudbuster cleaned the atmosphere of the deadly orgone – we called it DOR – and fought the flying saucers. Only we called the flying saucers EAs. It was initials. The E stood for something and the A stood for something. Daddy told me what it was but I forgot. We had names for a lot of stuff. The EAs energy was like glow-in-the-dark energy and it made us sick. 
Despite the explanation, as Peter writes his memory from the mind of a young adolescent, he doesn't fully understand the concern and his father seems to lose sight of his son's sense of loss:
"I have told you, Peeps, that the glow-in-the-dark paint has a negative charge. It is like florescent light...Rather than giving off energy, it draws it away, absorbs it from living things."
"How come the other kids don't get sick then?"
"But they are, Pete. They are tightly armoured against feeling the deep effects of DOR sickness. They fight it off with toughness and dirty jokes but the sickness still eats them away inside. Their faces become tight and their jaws get rigid because they no longer feel. When they get older, they die of cancer. Sometimes I see armouring in you and that is why I give you treatments."
"All their bellies are hard?"
"Yes. And their way of achieving things is a hard-bellied way. Do you remember the movie we saw with John Wayne [The Wings of Eagles], in which he falls and gets crippled?"
"The one where he plays a navy officer. Yeah. He fell down stairs at night and the doctors told him he would never walk again."
"Ja. You see, when he was sitting in bed, looking down to the end of his cast watching his toes, he resolved to walk again. And he said, over and over again, 'Gonna move that toe, gonna move that toe, gonna move that toe.' You see, that is the rigid way of overcoming things." 
"But in the end, he walked, didn't he?" I asked.
"Yes, but you see, to overcome obstacles that way, by force, so-called will power, that is communist. It is the rigid, mechanistic way of accomplishing things. He had to make himself so tight and hard to force himself to walk again that he forgot how to love and be kind." 
Peter Reich would elaborate on those movie connections with his father years later when talking to author John Shaplin (Adventures in the Orgasmatron) in 2012. “He thought the movies were about him, and maybe they were," Peter explained. "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." That day the FDA came to Organon was particularly traumatic for Peter, as he had to let the officers into the property and take part in the destruction of the accumulators.“He was a nineteenth-century scientist, he wasn’t a twentieth-century scientist," he explained to Shaplin. "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.” As A Book of Dreams reveals, a boy's eyes are less wide open. The needs of a child, often overlooked by preoccupied parents, clouds the judgment of both.

A patient of a Reichian therapist in an Orgone Accumulator box.

While much of A Book of Dreams is caught up with Peter Reich's coming to terms with the trauma of the persecution of his father, he also comes to face the psychological dilemma created in his adult life because of it. 
As an unhappy adolescent I followed the Playboy ethic assiduously. Big tits. Love 'em and leave 'em. Sex is a diversion, like sports. I fucked a lot. I masturbated a lot, not as a release of energy, but because fantasy was easier to come by than the dream world portrayed in movies. It ran deeper, too, like the lake which only got darker and darker, because being a real person and letting myself love a woman would have meant sharing all that fear. It would have meant sharing who I was, and I was too loyal for that. In my own way, I wanted his penis too.    
Eventually, Peter Reich would find his own feet and become a journalist, then a day-care teacher who lived in Vermont with his wife, Susan Gulick, and for the past thirty years he has worked at the Boston University School of Medicine. The legacy of his father, ironically, would be picked up by others in psychoanalysis a mere decade after he died with Fritz Perls creating Gestalt Therapy, former Reich student Alexander Lowen's bioenergetic analysis (which also worked on the body but through exercises rather predominant massage), and the primal therapy of Arthur Janov, which brought into the world the Primal Scream. But Reich has also been felt (and often judged incorrectly) in popular culture. In 1971, the Serbian film director, DuĊĦan Makavejev, made a scatterbrained collage, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, that combined a specious knowledge of Wilhelm Reich's work with contemporary looks at counterculture politics and at The Vow, a Stalinist propaganda film from 1946. Makavejev makes an appearance in A Book of Dreams, researching Reich with Peter and shooting scenes at their former compound, but you never get the hang of what this film will be. "Movies are like tangible dreams, colorful moving shadows," Makavejev tells Peter. "When you turn the light on, it disappears. This is a very powerful fact." That powerful fact never emerges in W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. On the first season of NBC's Law & Order in 1990, one of the show's most powerful episodes over two decades of broadcasts ("Indifference"), fictionalized the famous Joel Steinberg-Hedda Nussbaum abuse and murder case, but instead of portraying the Steinberg character as an attorney (as he was in real life), he's a Reichian therapist who drugs his patients with cocaine and then fucks them as if that were a typical part of Reich's Orgone treatment. If Wilhelm Reich wasn't turned into a misplaced avatar of the Sixties, advocating fucking in the streets, he was pilloried in dramas as a dangerous quack. 

He fared better in other cultural forms. In music, Patti Smith was the first to tackle Peter Reich's A Book of Dreams in her romantic epic dirge "Birdland" on Horses ("His father died and left him a little farm in New England / All the long black funeral cars left the scene / And the boy was just standing there alone / Looking at the shiny red tractor / Him and his daddy used to sit inside / And circle the blue fields and grease the night"). But most famous is Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" on her 1985 album, Hounds of Love. In the video of the song she recreates the story of the buried yo-yo and combines it with a dramatization of the cloudbusting machine, playing Peter Reich as a pixie Peter Pan while Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm Reich is a young and dashing long-haired idealist, a Walt Whitman playing the Burt Lancaster role in The Rainmaker and making it pour while the FDA is in hot pursuit. Although the video simplifies the story by having the son heroically make the sun come out just as his father is being taken away, the song itself is a powerful evocation of a boy's lost innocence. 

A Book of Dreams is about the complicated love that parents have for their children, which is made more difficult when the parent's persona makes him seem more than human when in truth he is only ihuman. My mother was a career woman with a long and fascinating series of jobs and accomplishments before it became common and that is indeed something to remember. But it came at a price for both of us. She never got to experience what it meant to be a mother raising her first-born son and I know she felt some guilt and sadness around that fact. I never got to experience the maternal warmth that her presence could have provided me with and helped me to share and trust in the qualities I saw in her in my adult life. (Knowing all the cloud formations in the sky doesn't compensate for that.) Maybe Peter Reich never got to reconcile those complications in his life with his father. Fortunately, I did have those few last moments with my mother before she became sick. But A Book of Dreams doesn't set out to fix the past and what it failed to provide. It does, however, make the future more real – as well as the parents who made that future possible.  
Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. Very sensitive piece that catches the tragedy of the children of giants who crash.

  2. I've been a Kate Bush fan since forever and just scored a reasonably priced copy of A Book of Dreams. Thank you for the very interesting and informative background.