In The Lonely City (2016), Olivia Laing traced a connection from her own experience of loneliness to the work of artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The result was a tapestry like no other, a tender exploration of art-making and human experience cast through an empathic prism.
Everybody: A Book About Freedom finds Laing taking a similar approach as she masterfully shares stories of fascinating artists and historical figures. This time, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is at the cosmic center of an even more wide-ranging inquiry that looks, with hope, at the idea of freedom from oppression related to skin color, sexual identity or gender.
Reich, a protégé of Sigmund Freud, believed that “the past is interred in our bodies, every trauma meticulously preserved, walled up alive.” Later in life he became known for his orgone boxes, pseudoscientific devices that attracted the attention of the FDA and led to his imprisonment. Which is to say that his legacy is a complicated, even tainted one, but Laing treats him with the same gentle perspicacity she extends to her other subjects, which include Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, sexual liberationists in Weimar Berlin, the artist Agnes Martin, Bayard Rustin and Nina Simone.
Her net, in short, is breathtakingly, ambitiously wide. Her stakes could not be higher—freedom for all bodies, “unharried by any hierarchy of form.” Along with Reich, Laing’s consistent interest here is the human body and its quest for pure freedom. How did each of these cultural and intellectual figures fight to liberate their body? How did the prevailing forces of the time work against them? These questions link Laing’s journey, which is as concerned with bodily freedom as with the way trauma can operate, years past its inception, as a barrier to said freedom. Along the way she peers inward to her past as an herbalist, environmental protestor and child of gay parents in the 1980s.
“I still don’t believe in orgone boxes,” Laing concludes, “but I do think Reich found his way to durable truths. I think the weight of history abides in our private bodies. Each of us carries a legacy of personal and inherited trauma, operating within an unequal grid of rules and laws that depends upon the kind of body we were born into. At the same time, we are porous and capable of mysterious effects on each other’s lives.” Everybody is a nonpareil study that delights the intellect.