Here at last is the second part of an interview with my neighbor, Elisabeth Abrahams, now in her mid-80’s. Still full of fire, elegance and jaunty humor, Elisabeth and her 97-year-old husband Joe are passionately involved in local politics – and continue to host lively parties full of dancing and singing for each of their birthdays.
I’d asked Elisabeth to share an experience that dramatically shifted her world-view. “That’s an easy one,” she smiles. It was at UCLA, where she studied Dance Therapy with Allegra Fuller Snyder, Buckminster Fuller’s daughter.
Elisabeth was in her 40’s and divorced. In England, she’d been “a solid Churchillian Conservative” but by the time she came to California in the 1970’s, she “was ready to hear Allegra.”
You must understand your body and experience as a way of knowing. In a functional way the ideas need to be embodied in your own thinking /experiencing. —Allegra Fuller Snyder
Elisabeth’s first marriage was to a man who later realized he was gay, “so physically it was a disaster.” Then her Tai Chi teacher, a Norwegian woman who’d studied Tai Chi in China and been analyzed by a Reichian, introduced Elisabeth to Wilhelm Reich’s books. Reich (1897-1947) was briefly considered heir to Freud and played an important part in shaping psychoanalysis.
With Reich, the defenses—narcissism, passive aggression, and the rest—moved to the fore. Psychoanalysis has adopted other interests (notably, empathy), but Freudian therapy as conducted today is closer to Reich than to Freud. — Slate.com
Reich’s status as heir didn’t last, however. His passion for his own ideas consumed him: he believed that proper orgasms could save the world. He named the energy in orgasms orgone and invented a special box, the orgone accumulator, to concentrate it – Woody Allen called it the orgasmatron in his 1972 film, Sleeper. Melding Freud with Marx, Reich was father to the Sexual Revolution. The counterculture, Esalen, the New Left, Fritz Perls, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and William Burroughs, and many more are all indebted to Reich. His influence was huge, but hardly anyone remembers him.
An excellent retelling of Reich’s story can be heard on Pacifica Radio in a 2010 interview with Christopher Turner, author of Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America. Listen here.
There’s lots of interesting history in the broadcast and I’m eager to read the book. Reich is part of my life story: not only did I play with his great-niece as a child – his niece and her husband were friends of the family – but years later, my first husband, a fan of Reich’s ideas, built an orgone box in our house!
The pleasure of living and the pleasure of the orgasm are identical. Extreme orgasm anxiety forms the basis of the general fear of life.”
― Wilhelm Reich
I tell you: “Only you yourself can be your liberator!”—Wilhelm Reich
Elisabeth decided that she was going to use Reich’s work, somehow, in her thesis.
At UCLA, Alma Hawkins was founder and chair of the Dance Therapy program.
I was not teaching technique and composition, but rather using movement as a personal means of experiencing and expressing. It was through my work with patients that I discovered the true meaning of organic movement as a vital force in the living process. —Alma Hawkins
Elisabeth remembers, “Alma was a lovely woman who had all the right ideas, a very forward-thinking woman, but definitely a spinster.
“I go into my first interview with her and she asks what I want to write about. I say I’d like to do something on tension and relaxation. What books do I intend to use, she asks, and I say I’d like to include Reich.”
“‘You don’t like Reich, dearie, do you?’
“‘Well, yes, I do.’
“‘I think we shall have to think about that. I’m not sure that we can accept…’ In great distress, I went to Allegra.
“‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I’ll take care of Alma.’ And she did!
“It was not a very good thesis, but it could have, it could have been really something,” Elisabeth says.
She pauses. “You know, he was onto the right thing. Prana! Chi! Kundalini! And Hahnemann was onto it too. It was just too soon.”
Elisabeth glances at her watch. “There, I mustn’t desert my husband!”
“But I have one more question,” I say – but that will have to wait for the third part of the interview.