"This is a book about bodies in peril, and bodies as a force for change." Laing completed this new book about the right to bodily freedom just as the pandemic was gathering pace, showing how frighteningly vulnerable our physical bodies remain. But this is also, she writes, a time when the "right to love, to migrate, to gather in protest, to reproduce or refuse to reproduce" is increasingly being "viciously contested". Laing's writing is never less than bracing, combining formidable intelligence with truly radical ways of looking at the world. I need her books in my life more than ever.
This is an expansive book, bold in scope and speculative range, an invitation to ongoing conversation rather than bland assent. In that conversational spirit, I would venture a different view of the dynamic between freedom and control animating the book. Laing’s Reichian take on sexuality as a “wild force”, which every social order seeks to circumscribe and control, might account for why states and institutions keep such vigilant watch over the body, but not why liberation movements so often sabotage or compromise themselves – why, for example, an agitator for sexual reform such as Magnus Hirschfeld, founder in 1919 of Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research, should also have been an advocate for “welfare eugenics”, including the compulsory sterilisation of the “mentally stupid”.
The compelling tale that Olivia Laing, acclaimed author of The Trip to Echo Springs (2013), The Lonely City (2016), Crudo (2018) and more, tells in Everybody: A Book About Freedom begins in 1999. Aged 22, she saw an advert – “pink, with a hand-drawn border of looping hearts” – in a herbal pharmacy in Brighton, attributing all kinds of physical symptoms to energy “stuck… from past traumas” and promising that it “could be loosened and induced to move again by way of body psychotherapy”.
The fertile source material — all the fascinating mini-biographies and conceptual leaps — makes Everybody a stimulating read. Laing’s ability to make connections is certainly impressive, and though her central thesis — that political, sexual and racial freedom is played out on and with the body — is nothing very new, her call for a tolerant future in which “difference is cherished” and bodies live without fear feels both timely and beguiling.
By blending memoir, art criticism and biography, Laing explores how the body you are born into shapes your life, your freedom and your opportunities.