Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing – Review
By Barney Bardsley
This is a book about the body: our first and most important home, and the site of our sweetest pleasures and deepest pains. It is also about the collective body of society, and the conflicts ignited when that body goes to war with itself. Part psychology, part politics, part personal biography and self analysis, it is a bold work by a writer who has proved herself unafraid to go into difficult territory, both in her fictional and non fictional writing. In her preface to the new book, she makes clear that Everybody will be no exception to that rule.
“This is a book about bodies in peril and bodies as a force for change. I started it during the refugee crisis of 2015 and finished it just as the first cases of Covid-19 were reported.” In these crisis-ridden times, it is obvious that we are all under pressure, body and soul, and Olivia Laing is here to examine the consequences.
She takes, as a focal character in the book, the controversial psychoanalyst and social rebel of the early twentieth century, Wilhelm Reich. A pupil of Freud’s, who then endured a painful rift with his master, Reich insisted that it was the body itself (rather than the mind) which was the repository of all suppressed traumas, and thus should be the focus of any therapeutic work to heal a patient. He became notorious in his later life, for increasingly outlandish ideas about sexual and physical health, including the creation of a bizarre ‘orgone box’, said to accumulate healing energy. He became increasingly paranoid and violent, eventually dying alone in an American jail. But, argues Laing, in his early life, he was an impassioned opponent of German fascism (unlike Freud, who remained neutral against the Nazi threat), and a true champion of both personal and collective freedoms, paving the way for future liberation movements throughout the west.
In one of the more diverting asides in the book, Laing points out that Kate Bush’s song ‘Cloudbusting’, from her 1985 album Hounds of Love, is all about Reich and his energy theories. In the video of the song, still available on YouTube, she gets none other than stalwart rebel actor Donald Sutherland to play Reich himself!
Throughout this long book, Laing keeps circling back to Reich as her primary inspiration, whilst she weaves multi-layered stories of personal and political activists from the past century – including herself, “a gender non-conforming kid” from a lesbian household, who went on to be a healer, writer and refusenik throughout the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher’s repressive rule.
“A cool, clear gaze”
She explores some unforgettable characters, all of whom used their art – and their bodies – as a prism for viewing the wider world, and advocating for change. There were the writers Susan Sontag and Kathy Acker – each of whom contracted and died of cancer – and both of whom wrote about it, and struggled with its physical impact, in very different ways. And the prominent abstract artist Agnes Martin – who shaved her head and went off to live alone in the desert, in search of hermitic freedom from the pressures of the ‘civilised’ world.
Laing is keenly aware of the violence done to female bodies in particular, and she includes a long and searing section on Andrea Dworkin, the fierce radical feminist writer and anti pornographer, whose own experience of physical abuse from her Dutch husband – who “was so gentle at first, the man who almost killed her” – was the catalyst for turning her into a fearless and formidable campaigner.
Most striking and memorable is her final account in the book, of musician and singer Nina Simone, whose radicalism was sparked by the 1963 March on Washington, led by Martin Luther King, and whose songs and stage appearances, all through her vivid and turbulent life, combined consummate artistry with a deep, burning, profoundly physical anger against the injustice meted out towards black people in America, and the world over. When a film maker called Peter Rodis once asked Simone what freedom meant to her, she snapped back, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean really, no fear.”
As the book closes, Laing asks us to imagine what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear: “Just imagine the world we could build.” As the #MeToo movement, protesting violence against women, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, has shown, many of the battles we thought we might have won by the end of the twentieth century have only re-surfaced: just as wild, just as ugly.
Laing’s writing here is dark and difficult throughout. But what courage it took to make such a book: to look with such a cool, clear gaze at the complexities of the human mind and body, at the pain we inflict on ourselves and one another, and at the desperate desire for liberty and autonomy, that lies beneath these struggles. Everybody is a work of great skill and assurance: one of enormous and lasting relevance, in our turbulent contemporary world.
‘Everybody: A Book About Freedom’ by Olivia Laing is published by Picador