Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Olivia Laing has established herself as a group biographer par excellence, taking as her subjects alcoholic writers for the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013, reviewed here) and outsider artists for the highly atmospheric The Lonely City (2016). Her new book, Everybody, is similarly wide-ranging in its points of reference and again brings together biography, theory and memoir. The topic here is slightly more nebulous, however. It’s about being a body in the modern world and how outside forces like illness, rape and imprisonment restrict physical freedom. The gurus this time include an analyst in 1920s Vienna, the feminist writers and civil rights activists of the 1960s–70s, and today’s environmental protestors.
‘The realisation that embodiment is more dangerous or oppressive for some people than others is what drives liberation movements,’ Laing writes. What with the refugee crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Black Lives Matter protests, the news kept reinforcing the inequality of physical experience over the six years she was writing this book.
There’s an old theory that all illness results from trauma. Laing absorbed this logic from a body psychotherapist she saw as a young woman, having taken a degree in herbal medicine. Bodies as imperilled, bodies as traumatized: this vision is what fuels the book’s anxious search for freedom, especially for those most likely to be denied it on the grounds of gender and sexuality.
Laing’s chief guide was a new name for me: Wilhelm Reich was an analyst and protégé of Freud’s in 1920s Vienna. He coined the term “orgone” for the energy that animates all life and built an orgone accumulator—a wooden box the size of a phone booth—where healing doses could be delivered. He was sentenced to jail for two years in 1956 for refusing to stop selling his orgone accumulators on order of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Reich saw libido as the key to bodily freedom, but this can be taken to unhelpful extremes. Pornography and sexual violence towards women are the topic of the book’s central and most powerful chapter, “In Harm’s Way,” which contrasts Andrea Dworkin’s and Angela Carter’s responses to the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Dworkin, a survivor of domestic violence, believed that mistreatment of women is systemic and that pornography inevitably turns women into objects. Carter was more tolerant of de Sade’s work, taking from him the lesson that privilege leads to tyranny—one person’s freedom can eliminate another’s.
Both Reich and de Sade spent time in prison, so these two figures cycle back in for a section on prison design. Is the purpose of imprisonment retribution or rehabilitation? Laing asks. Her main example is Bayard Rustin, a gay Black conscientious objector who was arrested on moral grounds when caught in flagrante with another man. He had been a mentor to Martin Luther King, Junior and aimed to desegregate the prisons from within, but King distanced himself from Rustin after Rustin’s arrest, not willing to risk association with homosexuality.
A late chapter considers how the language of “swarms” is used to dehumanize immigrants and nonviolent protestors. Laing, a tree-sitter during the Newbury Bypass protests, is uneasy about the harsh rhetoric and punishments directed at Extinction Rebellion activists today.
For me, the book’s discussion of Susan Sontag’s experience with cancer and her denial of death repeated too much from Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, and the treatment of cancer in general was too similar to Anne Boyer’s The Undying. I found Everybody scattered in places and sometimes struggled to find an overall thread, but it contains so many interesting nuggets of information and so many shards of fascinating life stories that are worth engaging with. It might also be illuminating in the future to compare Laing’s take with Maggie Nelson’s in On Freedom, a work of cultural criticism released in the same year.
‘Every day as I’ve sat down to write there have been more stories about bodily harm on account of bodily difference,’ Laing writes in her final chapter. Whilst she celebrates the civil rights advances of the twentieth century, she is distressed that race and sexuality are still being cited as excuses for excluding and harming other people. Unfortunately, it seems her work will continue to be all too timely and relevant, but we are lucky to have such wise commentators in our midst.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She writes for the Times Literary Supplement and Wasafiri literary magazine, among other publications, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Olivia Laing, Everybody: A Book About Freedom (Picador, 2021). 978-1509857111, 368 pp., hardback.
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