Wilhelm Reich and the Overall Structure of Character

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)

On November 3, 1957Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich passed away. A member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud, Reich became known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. He developed a system of psychoanalysis that concentrated on overall character structure, rather than on individual neurotic symptoms.

Wilhelm Reich joined the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War and became lieutenant at the Italian front with 40 men under his command. After the war, Reich enrolled at the University of Vienna to study law and later switched to medicine. It is believed that Wilhelm Reich met Sigmund Freud for the first time in 1919 when he asked Freud for a reading list for a seminar concerning sexology. Freud allowed him to start meeting with analytic patients in September that year, although Reich was just 22 years old and still an undergraduate, which gave him a small income. He was accepted as a guest member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association, becoming a regular member in October 1920, and began his own analysis with Isidor Sadger.

Lore Kahn became one of Wilhelm Reich’s first patients and despite Sigmund Freud’s warnings towards analysts not to involve themselves with their patients, Reich began an affair with Kahn. The woman later died and according to Reich, she died of sepsis after sleeping in a bitterly cold room she had rented as a place for her and Reich to meet. However, Kahn’s mother suspected that her daughter had died after a botched illegal abortion, possibly performed by Reich himself. Annie Pink, one of Kahn’s friends, became Reich’s fourth female patient. She was a medical student and also began an affair with Reich. They later got married and Anne became a well-known psychoanalyst herself.

Der triebhafte Charakter: Eine psychoanalytische Studie zur Pathologie des Ich (“The Impulsive Character: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Pathology of the Self”) became Wilhelm Reich’s first book and was published in 1925. In it, he studied the anti-social personalities he had encountered in the Ambulatorium, and argued the need for a systematic theory of character. The work was a success and increased Reich’s professional reputation. In 1927, Sigmund Freud arranged for his appointment to the executive committee of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. The appointment was made over the objection of Paul Federn, who had been Reich’s second analyst in 1922 and who, according to Sharaf, regarded Reich as a psychopath. Reich found the society dull and wrote that he behaved “like a shark in a pond of carps.”

Sigmund Freud himself also published a paper on character and described the anal character consisting of stubbornness, stinginess, and extreme neatness. He saw this as a reaction formation to the child’s having to give up pleasure in anal eroticism. The positive version of this character is the conscientious, inner directed obsessive. Freud also described the erotic character as both loving and dependent. And the narcissistic character as the natural leader, aggressive and independent because of not internalizing a strong super-ego. On the other hand, Erich Fromm described character development as the way in which an individual structures modes of assimilation and relatedness. Even though Fromm’s character types are quite similar to Freud’s, Fromm names them differently: receptive, hoarding, and exploitative. According to Wilhelm Reich, character structures are based upon blocks – chronic, unconsciously held muscular contractions against awareness of feelings. He further describes that a child learns to limit their awareness of strong feelings as their needs are thwarted by parents who meet cries for fulfillment with neglect or punishment. He argues for five basic character structures, each with its own body type developed as a result of the particular blocks created due to deprivation or frustration of the child’s stage-specific needs: the schizoid structure, the oral structure, the psychopath, the masochist structure, and the rigid or perfectionist. It is believed that Erich Fromm got his ideas about character structure from Sándor Ferenczi and Wilhelm Reich. Wilhelm Reich then developed the concept from Ferenczi, and added to it an exploration of character structure as it applies to body structure and development as well as mental life.

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