May 6, 2013

Bonfires of the Humanities

Fredric Wertham, M.D., Wilhelm Reich, M.D., and American Book Burnings

By Stephen Wahrhaftig

May, 6, 2013

On an August day in 1956 the US Food and Drug Administration sent a dump truck to a warehouse in Greenwich Village. It picked up six tons of literature comprised of thousands of books and scientific journals. Proceeding to the Gansevoort Street incinerator, decades of Wilhelm Reich's printed work were burned to ashes.

Students of Reich are familiar with the popular articles of the late 1940's written by Mildred Edie Brady for Harper’s Magazine and The New Republic. Brady, a model-turned-leftist journalist, wrote The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy for Harper’s, discrediting the West Coast intellectuals who were extolling literary and sexual freedom, and said Reich was influencing a generation of hedonists. The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich appeared a month later in the NR, and both articles contained fabricated tales about Reich. In this piece she portrayed him as a crackpot scientist with crazy theories about sexuality. She ended her article saying appropriate laws were needed to protect the public, and if this was done people like Reich could be stopped from practicing any therapy not approved by the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Mildred Brady was a sensationalist writer and her work, by itself, might have been largely disregarded--if it did not have the support of someone not so easy to dismiss. This was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a New York psychiatrist. Born Fredric Wertheimer in Munich, he came to the USA and taught at John Hopkins, and eventually headed a psychiatric clinic that treated criminals.

Crime Explained

In the late 40's and early 50's one of America's two unique art forms, comics books (the other being jazz), was at its peak of popularity. The monthly titles of the comics often sold millions of copies and Dr. Wertham’s criminal patients sometimes read comic books. Looking over the panels of flying superheroes, machine gun-toting mobsters, and bikini-clad jungle princesses shocked his Bavarian sensibilities. Since his patients read comic books, he put two and two together and a saw tremendous career opportunity opening before him. Criminals read comics. Comics caused criminal behavior.

Wertham wrote articles promoting this idea. But here is where his line of work took a strange turn. He had built his reputation upon protecting young, innocent readers from stories of imaginary ghosts and monsters. Yet Wertham now was paying his bills by writing books like Show of Violence. Based on his experience of working with the mentally ill, he wrote lurid accounts of people who murdered their children, each story more terrible than the last. Every chapter of Show of Violence is told in graphic, prurient detail. Wertham saw no conflict between what he was writng and what he condemned in comic books. This ability to rationalize his thinking and do what best served his own interests--combined with his skill in presenting pseudo-scientific evidence--came in handy when building a case against Wilhelm Reich.

Wertham first wrote about Reich via a paid commission from (no coincidence) The New Republic. This influential magazine was far to the political left and, because Reich had become increasingly critical of communism, his position was at odds with its editor, Henry Wallace. NR wanted to bash Reich and needed a prominent figure to do their bidding. They chose Paul Goodman, a best-selling writer and critic, to review Reich’s The Sexual Revolution and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. They had expected a hatchet job, but to NR's tremendous disappointment Goodman enthusiastically endorsed both of Reich’s books. Now NR was in a bit of a fix. Infuriated, they refused to publish Goodman’s positive review and were in need of someone sympathetic to their agenda. Wertham, as a member of the American-Soviet Friendship League, and as a qualified psychiatrist with suppressive theories, was made for the job.

Wertham’s Influence

Reich’s ideas of promoting freedom, personal accountability, and work democracy as presented in The Mass Psychology of Fascism agitated Wertham in the same way Rulah of the Jungle did, her bare legs and long hair exposed seductively as she swung on jungle vines. In his 1946 New Republic review of the book he viciously attacked Reich's theories, saying Reich had “utter contempt for the masses” and was a “neo-fascist.” He ended his scathing write-up by urging all progressive intellectuals to take action against Reich and his “psycho-fascism.” This set the stage for Brady's destructive follow-ups.

It was only six months after Wertham’s review that Brady’s first attack, titled The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy, appeared in Harper's magazine. And a month after that, in May 1947, The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich was published in the New Republic.

Wertham’s influence on the media continued unabated for, in a 1948 Collier’s Magazine article, there appeared a piece, Horrors in the Nursery, written by a Judith Crist. She sited Wertham's “findings about the evils of comic books.” Her wide assertions about how crime and horror comics led directly to juvenile delinquency and worse, fully supported Wertham’s ideas. However, throughout the article no actual science or studies were cited, and Wertham’s conclusions were accepted as fact even though they were baseless. He simply felt comics were bad for people and the media believed him. Regarding the inconvenient question of press freedom, Crist quotes Wertham, "...the publishers will raise a howl about Freedom of Speech and of the Press...nonsense. The time has come to legislate these books off the news stands and out of the candy stores."

In 1954, Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent was published. He claimed it to be the result of “seven years of scientific investigation.” Yet, like his other publications, the book contains no scientific investigations. Instead, it is full of assertions based on what he believed to be true, and little else. Research done in 2010 by Carol Tilley on Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics has confirmed that, “Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.”

Comic Books and Bonfires

Wertham's 1940's articles, and his 1954 book, led to a massive witch-hunt by the government and other authorities, culminating in a senate subcommittee hearing to investigate the terrible scourge of American comic books. Even more disturbing was the action taken around the country by local activist groups.

As early as 1950, the mayor of Rumson, NJ, along with a local cub master and others herded forty Cub Scouts (not Boy Scouts) into a commandeered fire truck. For two days, they drove the engine through the borough with the siren blaring, collecting comic books for destruction.

In Missouri, a Girl Scout troop and St. Mary's Church created a massive bonfire of comics. Children were seen crying among the gathered crowds. One child of a poor rural family recalled being made to participate in the book burnings, even though he had never read a comic book. "The thing about it is that I didn't give the comic books much thought until that time, and when we started that bonfire, I started to think something really just wasn't right about it. I thought they were trying to use us, and I didn't think that was right. It got me pretty mad. I never did think about teachers in the same way after that."

In the end, the government concluded that they had no legal reason for banning comics. It was a simple matter of free speech. But the damage had already been done. In just two years, half of the comic books published in the US disappeared. Hundreds of artists and writers lost their jobs. Stan Lee, of the Timely/Marvel group, had to fire his staff in a day, one at a time. People who had created memorable stories in a uniquely American art form found jobs bagging groceries and as security guards. The most creative company, EC comics survived by changing one of their comic book publications to something called Mad Magazine. Every other title was canceled.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury wrote his classic, Fahrenheit 451, a cautionary tale of an authoritarian future where government “firemen” sought books hidden in citizen's homes, and torched them in bonfires. It was only a few years since the Nazis had consigned thousands of books to the flames (including Reich’s), and not many years before we here in the United States burned comics and then Wilhelm Reich's books.

The part Dr. Fredric Wertham played was not directly involved in the court’s decision to burn Dr. Reich's books, and there Is no evidence he intended for schoolyards across America to host bonfires of comics. But his attempt to protect the public led, inexorably, to these acts of extreme censorship. The urge Wertham had to clamp down and extinguish ideas and expression of freedom not consistent with his thinking took possesion of him. It drove him, as it did religious leaders, and authoritarian parents and teachers, to use the power they had to enforce their beliefs.

As we reflect on Dr. Wertham's legacy, we can console ourselves with the fact that these book burnings took place in a different America, one that disappeared more than half a century ago. Except that this is not entirely true. In 2001 book burnings in New Mexico and Pennsylvania reduced Harry Potter novels to ashes. Reverend George Bender, of The Harvest Assembly of God Church commented, "We got some people mad at us, but it's good to have publicity.”

It is generally believed that Mildred Edie Brady, who was granted an interview by Reich by posing as one enthusiastic about his work, was the single person responsible for the US government’s campaign against Reich. It is true her article in the NR did lead, just two months later, to the FDA investigation. But Wertham’s book review in the same publication, six months earlier, may well have set the stage for Brady.

There is no hard evidence that Brady decided to visit Reich because of Wertham’s review of The Mass Psychology of Fascism. However, it’s not a far reach to question if she would have, or could have, written The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich had it not been for Dr. Frederick Wertham. If this is so, Reich’s books might not have been burned and he sent to prison where he died.


Stephen Wahrhaftig writes from West Chester Pa. His site,, covers design and marketing.

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Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.