Who is Wilhelm Reich and Why Did I Include Him in Island Apart?
Wilhelm Reich was an iconoclastic psychotherapist (and an early disciple of Freud), whose work paved the way for bioenergetics, psychodrama, primal scream, and other modern expressive therapies.
He’s also one of the secondary characters in Island Apart. And to judge from reader comments and critical reviews, his inclusion is one of the most controversial parts of the story.
So who exactly was Reich and why is he in the book?
Born in Galicia in 1897 and died in federal penitentiary in 1957, Wilhelm Reich an iconoclast of 20th century psychiatry. Many of his theories—the physical manifestation of psychic woes, the importance of a healthy sex life in psychological well-being, an emotionally involved therapist who actively interacts with his patients—have become widely accepted practices in modern psychotherapy. Others—like the existence of a mysterious cosmic force called orgone energy—are regarded as the delusions of a madman.
Reich also had the unfortunate distinction of being the most censored author in America and a victim of the worst instance of book burning in our history. In 1952, 6 tons of his work were burned in an incinerator in New York’s Meatpacking District.
As for why I made him a part of Island Apart, the reasons are both personal and aesthetic.
I first came to know Chappaquiddick through a group of Reichian psychotherapists. (I answered an ad for a job at a psychodrama retreat group here in a local alternative weekly newspaper.) The session introduced me to some very singular characters, some of whom inspired characters in Island Apart, like Reich biographer Ely Samuelson.
I had at least three aesthetic reasons for including Reich. First, I made Claire biography book editor because I wanted to include real life people in my story—figures like Marie Curie, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of course Wilhelm Reich. I wanted to use these real life figures as counterpoints to my fictional characters—in particular in the sense that all had shadowy or tragic back stories that belied their admired public personas. Appearance and reality is one of the major themes in the book—some of the characters that look the worst (like the Hermit and Wrench) actually turn out to have big hearts.
Or as Claire observes with an ironic smile: “My years as an editor have taught me one thing: you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Reich’s story also fascinated me in the way it parallels the Hermit’s. Here was a man who set out to do great good in the world, but who wound up being misunderstood and punished. Something similar happens to the Hermit. My goal was to play the fictional Hermit off the real life Reich.
Finally, I knew I was writing a love story that in essence is a summer beach read. I wanted to give the story a little more intellectual depth and seriousness of purpose than your typical summer romance novel. By including Reich and some of the other historical figures, I hope to add more weight and substance to the story. It’s for you all to tell me if I succeeded.