Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Parental Alienation Advocates Cite-- WHO?
Like advocates of other ideas, proponents of the idea of parental alienation (PA) like to list their intellectual ancestry and show how their beliefs have a respectable history. But as I was glancing at some PA material, I came upon a citation that rather astonished me: PA advocates attributed the earliest reference to the PA idea to Wilhelm Reich! This was done in an article by the usually meticulous and cautious Richard Warshak and picked up again in a book edited by William Bernet.
Now, I would not want to fall into the trap of assuming that just because most of what a person wrote was pernicious nonsense, he or she could not have had any ideas worth following up. I’m also aware that Reich has some admirers to this day and they continue to publish the Journal of Orgonomy. However, most of Reich’s beliefs and practices were such that I can’t imagine that most psychologists or psychiatrists would care to associate themselves with them, and I can’t fathom why the PA group want to do so.
Here are some facts about Wilhelm Reich:
He was part of a group rejected as doing “wild psychoanalysis” by conventional Freudian analysts. This group, including Sandor Ferenczi, was characterized by hands-on, physical treatment methods, among other things. The “wild psychoanalysts” owed much to Georg Groddeck, who had earlier claimed, for example, that problems of childbirth, such as an awkward positioning of the fetus, resulted from the mother’s psychological reluctance to give birth.
Reich believed that an energy form called “orgone” was involved in sexuality and physical health, and that sitting in a box insulated against the escape of orgone would cure cancer and other diseases. His insistence on continuing to sell orgone boxes led to charges and conviction of fraud, and he died in prison.
Reich claimed that through hands-on treatment he had cured his infant son of the Moro (“startle”) reflex; this reflexive movement pattern largely disappears by about five months of age, as voluntary movement patterns take over, and this is presumably what happened in the case of the Reich baby. Why Reich, a M.D., would not recognize a normal infant movement pattern and would try to “cure” it is a difficult question to answer.
Reich’s theory of personality involved “character armor”, a stiffening of muscles accompanied by rigid thinking, emotion, and behavior, and caused by birth and other early experiences. Relaxing the muscles was claimed to restore flexibility of thinking and feeling to a normal and desirable level; without such restoration, a person could not experience life fully. (I should note that in the 1940s and ‘50s, this belief, although not widely accepted, was not considered necessarily to be a “fringe” notion, and was described briefly in an abnormal psychology textbook published about 1960.)
Reich’s treatment for “character armor” as a psychological disability involved a semi-nude patient and therapist. The therapist treated the stiff muscles that were thought to cause psychological rigidity by thrusting his fingers or hand into the patient’s armpits or against the ribs. (Does anyone remember Rolfing? How about Holding Therapy?) Bruising and considerable pain resulted.
None of these disturbing beliefs and practices indicates that Reich never made a correct statement in his life. However, it’s hard to belief that PA advocates really wanted to take on the Reichian baggage just in order to claim an early reference to their ideas. Could this have been like Darwin’s fox terrier—the reference was cited again and again until no really knew how big a fox terrier was or how peculiar Reich had been?
Whatever the rationale for citing Reich, I would think that PA advocates would do well to delete these references and concentrate on determining the incidence and prevalence of the family issues that concern them, not to speak of assessing the efficacy of the interventions proposed as treatment.