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May 27, 2007

A Book of Dreams

The small boy was an officer in the Cosmic Engineers. He helped his father with the machine they used to send beams of mysterious energy into the upper atmosphere, causing rain to fall during a drought. Their ray gun, called a "cloudbuster," had other uses as well. The UFOs that seemed to be keeping track of activities around Daddy's laboratory would try to avoid the beam. You could chase the flying saucers across the sky with it.

Did any of this really happen? When Peter Reich published A Book of Dreams in 1973, his father, Wilhelm Reich, had been rediscovered as, at the very least, a prophet of the sexual revolution - but also quite possibly the discoverer of a hitherto unknown form of energy, called Orgone. (These aspects of his work were related: Good sex makes the Orgone flow.) The older Reich died in a federal prison in 1957, prosecuted, or by some account persecuted, for claiming that Orgone technology could cure cancer. Peter was 12 at the time.

Answering the basic question about Reich - i.e., "genius or madman?" - isn't really the point of A Book of Dreams, which is the most haunting memoir I have ever read. The son says he has no competence to judge his father's claims about Orgone Energy. In the preface to an edition reissued in 1989 (the last one, and now unfortunately out of print) he admits to "still hedging" on the matter.

What certainly was real, in any case, was the aura of discovery and adventure radiating from his father - as well as the sickening terror of watching the laboratory ransacked by G-men, and the complex experience of mourning a father rediscovered by others as a counterculture hero.

This is a book about growing up with a magician: a loving but mysterious father, powerful in his command of the secrets of the universe, but also vulnerable in ways that a boy of 8 or 9 could never imagine. I trust A Book of Dreams, not as a definitive statement of the truth about Wilhelm Reich, but for how it captures the feelings of childhood, when the frontier between reality and imagination can be easily crossed. In the son's own words: "Perhaps the story, released now and no longer secret, generates some energy of its own."

my piece for "Recommended Reading: Critics' Picks," Newsday, 27 May 2007

Posted by smclemee at May 27, 2007 7:54 AM


thanks for this. i read peter reich's book over the weekend and found it devastating. i lived at a reichian community for 2 years in the 70s, and the reverberations of believing so strongly in what we were doing and of having lost them by running away stay with me to this day. the vision was extraordinary and much of what we accomplished was as well, together with the certainty that what we were on to could save the world if enough people listened. that has been very hard to let go of--maybe impossible.

Posted by: Gabrielle Welford at June 28, 2007 7:43 PM