W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $26.95
Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned over the past year is that our bodies are vulnerable, some more so than others. More than 56 percent of adults in the United States have received at least the first dose of coronavirus vaccines, but in India, a catastrophic second wave of the pandemic has led to a record number of cases. As COVID deaths have disproportionately ravaged communities of color, inequality has been underscored by the murder of George Floyd and the mass shooting in Atlanta. It’s for all these reasons that Olivia Laing’s Everybody: A Book About Freedom is a quintessential book for the precarious moment we’ve found ourselves in.
The recipient of a Windham-Campbell Prize in nonfiction, Laing has covered a wide range of topics in her body of work, including artistic solitude in The Lonely City and alcoholic writers in The Trip to Echo Spring. But her latest project feels like what she has been writing toward the whole time. In this multilayered and masterfully structured book, Laing obsessively examines the life of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (a protege of Freud), drawing connections to other intellectuals, ranging from the Marquis de Sade to Malcolm X, while including stories from her own life. “What Reich wanted to understand was the body itself: why it’s so difficult to inhabit, why you might want to escape or subdue it, why it remains a naked source of power, even now,” Laing writes. “These were questions that burned away at me too, informing many different phases of my life.”
There’s no path Laing is afraid to explore. She writes about the sick body, imprisoned bodies, bodies that protest, the sexual body, bodies that have experienced acts of violence — illuminating the strengths and the weaknesses of the corporeal form. Reich was a controversial figure, who “claimed to have discovered the universal energy that animates all life.” He named this energy “orgone,” and designed orgone accumulators to “automate the work of liberation, obviating the need for laborious person-to-person therapy. He also hoped it might cure disease, particularly cancer.” Each chapter of the book opens with a photo of the wooden cell, but as the book progresses the same image gets darker and darker, until the device is obliterated. Eventually, Reich’s invention landed him in prison.
Laing’s personal experiences form a backdrop for the book, allowing other voices to be at the forefront. What she does include of her own life allows the reader to see why she chose to write about the body in the first place. Laing writes about growing up in a household with a gay mother, of formative years marching in protests and engaging in environmental activism, such as camping out in a treehouse in woods that were going to be cleared to make a bypass. It’s not just protests that helped shape her, but also grappling with gender. “What I wanted as a trans person was to escape the binary altogether, which seems so natural if it includes you and so unnatural and violently enforced if it does not,” Laing writes.
Reading Everybody, it’s impossible to turn away from all the pain that has been inflicted on bodies. In one chilling example, Laing talks about the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, known for her Silueta Series, in which she used her body or a cutout to create “sublime, eerie images [that] foreground the body’s vanishing.” One of the photos shows a naked Mendieta in a Zapotec tomb, with flowers obscuring her face and most of her body. Mendieta later died in suspicious circumstances, falling from a window during a fight with her husband, the artist Carl Andre. Again and again, Laing talks about the imperiled body, including the ones that are incarcerated. “Any human body can be criminalized by the state, not because of a crime that’s been committed, but because that particular body has been designated criminal in its own right,” Laing writes.
As terrifying as having a body can be, Laing focuses on people who dared to dream of a more inclusive world, such as Nina Simone, who became a freedom fighter through her music. Simone’s legacy is a crucial reminder that art can serve a political purpose long after the artist is gone.
Everybody should be required reading for anyone who cares about not just where we are now, but the future. “If I’m certain about anything at all, it’s that freedom is a shared endeavor, a collaboration built by many hands over many centuries of time, a labor which every single living person can choose to hinder or advance,” Laing writes toward the end of the book. “It is possible to remake the world. What you cannot do is assume that any change is permanent. Everything can be undone, and every victory must be refought.”