How It Would Feel to Be Free: Olivia Laing’s Everybody

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An unattributed photograph begins each chapter of Everybody: A Book about Freedom, a new book of cultural criticism by English writer Olivia Laing. A door punctured with two narrow windows opens to a folding chair sitting unoccupied inside a wooden box. From one chapter to the next the image is the same but gradually darkens from the right side. By the very last chapter, door, chair, and wood frame have been totally obscured; we peer into a flat black rectangle.

The coming darkness acts as metaphor for the object pictured, an orgone accumulator, and its maker, Wilhelm Reich. Both have become occluded over the years. Laing means to resurrect them. “[Reich’s] ideas felt like time-capsules, half buried in history and still humming with life,” she explains in the first chapter. “I wanted to unearth them,” she continues, “to trace their legacy in the flickering light of the twenty-first century.”

Laing shares Reich’s story at the beginning of the book and then fills in the details gradually. The Austrian psychoanalyst began his career as one of Sigmund Freud’s most promising pupils and died, decades later, in an American prison, paranoid and alone. In the time between, in the wake of fascism and many personal losses, he built a machine that he believed could harness the energy that animates all life. That energy, he called orgone. Once accumulated in the box he designed, orgone would offer emotional therapy for those who sat inside and even cure people of disease, cancer in particular, he hoped. The details are less than clear. “Reich’s universal healing device was a wooden cell slightly smaller than a standard phone booth, in which you sat in stately self-confinement,” Laing writes. “Reich believed the orgone accumulator could automate the work of liberation, obviating the need for laborious person-to-person therapy.” Not everyone was buying it. Reich and the orgone accumulator came to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which pursued him doggedly over the course of a decade, eventually burning his library and arresting him in 1957. He died several months later of heart failure, his early work to locate and treat trauma housed in the body, liberate sexuality from the yoke of patriarchy, and oppose the choking forces of fascism largely forgotten.

What makes Reich such a potent figure for Laing are the ways his work and life dovetail with so many of the twentieth-century freedom movements Laing brings together here: his recognition, through his psychoanalytic work in Vienna with working-class patients, of the traumatic tolls that systems of inequity take on individual bodies; his early advocacy for sexual liberation; his analysis of the fascist exploitation of sexual anxieties; the way he died in a prison cell—not an uncommon end, as Laing notes, for those who work on behalf of freedom movements. In the troubled year of 2016, when so many of the freedoms that had been won seemed dangerously precarious, Laing recounts how she sought out Reich again, returning to him to learn more. “I was haunted by the sense that there was something vital untapped in his work.” On the next page she explains, “[W]hat I found most exciting about Reich was the way he functioned as a connector, drawing together many different aspects of the body, from illness to sex, protest to prisons. It was these resonant regions I wanted to explore, and so I took him as a guide, charting a course right through the twentieth century, in order to understand the forces that still shape and limit bodily freedom now.” Reich, indeed, acts as the nervous system of Laing’s book, his own ideas and biographical details becoming the basis to collect and process the ideas and lives of figures as diverse as Andrea Dworkin, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, and Kate Bush—many of whom read and responded to Reich—to create a book that’s a body composed of many parts.

Alongside Reich, we also hear about Laing’s many lives. She is an herbalist trying to narrate and mend a patient’s ailments, a teenager seeking medical treatment herself, a sexually promiscuous young adult, a road protester putting her body in harm’s way to slow deforestation, a person born female but feeling the stifle of a binary system of gender identity, and always, throughout, an ever-attentive viewer, reader, and connector of disparate things.

Laing helps us keep up along the way. Did you know, for instance, that Sontag and Nina Simone were born a month apart, in 1933? Laing tells us as way to connect them across different chapters. Painters Philip Guston and Agnes Martin appear separately, but they make one of the book’s most striking pairs: Guston left behind the great success he had found as an abstract artist to paint the hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan, interrogating the white supremacist in the outside world as well as in himself. Martin abandoned figurative painting, New York City, romantic love, and the narrow categories of gender and sexuality to find a celibate freedom of shimmering, transcendent abstraction. Here comes Reich again, this time in connection to Martin’s art. Laing quotes critic Terry Castle, who described a gallery where several of Martin’s large paintings hang, as “a tiny orgone box of a room, full of faintly pulsating energy currents, but also strangely full of grace, a promise of contact.” Laing then continues, “When I first read that sentence, I was filled with pleasure. When people write about Reich’s doomed invention they almost always concentrate on its failings as a medical or scientific device. By comparing it to Martin’s paintings, Castle opens up the possibility of a whole new spectrum of meanings.” Martin turned her back on the world; Guston offered himself up. Both, Laing makes the case, were seeking and finding a kind of freedom.

Pleasures and possibilities, though, come hard-won in this book. Laing’s subtitle is A Book About Freedom, but what she gives us, in fact, is an autopsy of the bitter struggles of the twentieth century to achieve it. The arenas were many—illness and its treatment, sexual politics and eugenics, violence against women, homophobia and the strictures of gender, prisons, direct-action protest, and racism. The psychic and physical tolls exacted in each were great, and Laing lays them out unflinchingly; this book is not for the faint of heart. The chapter “In Harm’s Way,” for example, starts and ends with the 1970s and ’80s performance work that Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta made about rape and the vanishing female body. Laing also details Mendieta’s troubled marriage to the artist Carl Andre. About the fall that led to Mendieta’s death at age thirty-six, Laing begins, “She died in violent and uncertain circumstances, and in the murky aftermath her work was used as evidence in court that she was culpable for her own death.”

As in earlier Laing titles like 2016’s The Lonely City, where the work and words of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger become her means to explore ideas of loneliness, artists and writers are her chief interlocutors here. She’s especially interested in the ways polemicists, novelists, painters, performers, and activists reconciled their work to the physical body that put pen to paper, spread paint across canvas or touched pencil lightly to its surface, stood and sang, spoke out, loved. The Black activist Bayard Rustin, for example, whom Laing describes as one of the great architects of the civil rights movement, has been excluded and erased from that history because of his homosexuality and the related arrest that derailed his career, though he remained a powerful figure behind the scenes. “One of the most admirable things about Rustin,” Laing contends in her chapter on prisons, in which Rustin features prominently, “is that he refused to serve as his own jailer, declining to live inside the closet even if he was ostracized or punished. His story viscerally demonstrates that prison is not simply an institution, but the concrete embodiment of a set of attitudes that control behavior on the outside, too.”

Would it be splitting hairs to ask for an index? To request a little more explanation on occasion, such as when Laing mentions the term “duende” in reference to the transgender singer and performance artist Justin Vivian Bond? (It’s a Spanish term for a heightened state of expression, often associated with flamenco, I found when I consulted the interwebs and then arrived at Laing’s slightly expanded account of the term three pages later.)

Whatever the book lacks in easy accessibility, it gains for its timeliness. Laing notes that she was completing her book just as the first cases of COVID-19 were becoming news, and the events of the last twenty months have only made Laing’s book speak louder to the present moment. Each of us knows now the visceral fear of proximity to other bodies that might be sick, vectors of contamination initiating us into disabling illness, and we’ve seen the devastating, disproportionate effect of this disease on people of color. We’ve heard the reports of the crisis at the US-Mexico border and the stories of refugees whose desperation to escape one life has led them on perilous journeys that end in carceral limbo in another, bodies behind bars. Thousands have taken to the streets, putting their own bodies at risk to demand an end to the violence enacted upon Black bodies by systems of state power. Meanwhile, several American state governments are moving to prohibit transgender children and teenagers from accessing gender-affirming medical care and to ban them from participating on sports teams. Though the specifics are new, similar bodily precarities, systemic inequities, xenophobic anxieties, and fears about bodies not easily categorized form the twentieth-century background Laing lays out for us in her book.

In the last chapter, as I read about the struggle of Black activists to find freedom in the United States in the 1960s, about the life and music of Nina Simone, and in particular about Laing’s love of a radical, witchy song Simone covered called “22nd Century,” I kept expecting to read about the hit “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas and recorded by Simone in 1967, it became an anthem of the civil rights movement. I’ve always loved the song’s exultant last verse, as Simone imagines herself into a bird flying overhead, her voice lifting, soaring in accompaniment. But it didn’t appear.

I finished the book and sought out the recording. Maybe you know the song already? There’s not the rage that we find in other Simone performances. What there is is tenderness. So often Simone pairs the two, as Laing astutely observes, but not here. The words are plain but plaintive: “I wish I could share / All the love that’s in my heart / Remove all the bars / That keep us apart / I wish you could know / What it means to be me / Then you’d see and agree / That every man should be free.” Can you imagine yourself into the body of someone you’re not? Someone who has been othered, made out to be less than human? Simone appeals to us, to our hearts and bodies, before she sheds her own body this once and takes to the skies.

“Say that you dreamt of a world in which people were not hobbled or hated or killed because of the kind of body they inhabited,” Laing addresses her reader at the very end of Everybody. “Say that you thought the body could be a source of power or delight. Say that you imagined a future that did not involve harm. Say that you failed. Say that you failed to bring that future into being.”

This book is not a survey, a bird’s-eye view of all the steps forward and back, toward and away from freedoms of all kinds sought fifty and hundred years ago. For that, this one book would need to be many. And Laing has too much of her own skin in the game to be a bird flying high, charting the course from above. What she offers here, instead, are the tools to see the intersectionalities of our struggles, all of them sited in the body.

She’s grieving the losses of freedoms once earned. “[W]hat I really miss is hope,” Laing writes in Chapter 7, as she sees the prospects for diverting climate change diminishing with every year. But by imploring us to remember and dream alongside the dreamers she’s bringing before our eyes, she has created a book that itself functions as an orgone accumulator, a black box pulsating with light and energy that might offer hope in the struggles now and to come. Darkness, as Rebecca Solnit—another contemporary writer who shares many of Laing’s intellectual and political preoccupations—has written, can also be a place of hope, where the future remains uncertain, obscure. Who can know what will come? Reading Everybody: A Book about Freedom helped me see myself among others—Reich, Laing herself, and so many more—working creatively and expansively toward freedom for ourselves, freedom for each other.

Elissa Favero teaches at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and writes about art, architecture, and landscape. More from this author →