Olivia Laing and the many issues surrounding the body


This was her gateway into understanding Reich’s essential dynamic – “that the political world can make bodies into prisons, but that bodies can also reshape the political world”.

Laing’s expansive socio-political inquiry traverses territories of bodily vulnerability: illness and its causes; incarceration and prison reform; artistic movements; spectrums of gender and sexuality; and the rhythms of social change. Everybody fuses individual subjects as diverse as the Marquis de Sade, Kate Bush, James Baldwin and Oscar Wilde into a compendium that is deeply researched and thoroughly readable, as cerebral as it is entertaining.

It is Laing’s use of biographical detail that makes her writing so engaging. As in her earlier works, she draws on her knowledge of contemporary art. She illuminates the complex interplay between the lives of artists, their relationship to their bodies, and their artistic practice.

The reader is gifted with insights into the American abstract painter and desert mystic Agnes Martin, who kept her sexuality closeted and refused gender labels. Martin lived a life of monkish self-denial, struggling with schizophrenia that went undiagnosed until later in life. Laing also spotlights the Cuban American performance and video artist Ana Mendieta, whose work centred on her body as object and subject. Rejecting American feminism as white and middle-class, Mendieta died in suspicious circumstances, falling from her 34th-floor apartment in New York while in the company of her husband, sculptor Carl Andre, who was acquitted of her murder.

Sexual liberation and escaping from repression were central to Reich’s notions of bodily freedom. During his time in Weimar Berlin, he advocated for access to contraception, legal abortion and safe sex, Reichian ideals that were later revived by feminist thinkers, including Andrea Dworkin. Laing gives a visceral description of Dworkin’s escape from domestic abuse, an ordeal imprinted on Dworkin’s body that gives context for her radical thinking and activism against sexual violence and misogyny.

Sexual liberation and escaping from repression were central to Wilhelm Reich’s ideas.

Sexual liberation and escaping from repression were central to Wilhelm Reich’s ideas.Credit:

In a chapter called “Unwell”, Laing delves into the lives of writers Susan Sontag and Kathy Acker, recalling the contrasting but equally harrowing accounts of their cancer treatments. Sontag pursued the most radical and aggressive interventions available, while Acker opted for alternative therapies and eschewed conventional treatment. Both paths are borne out in their writing, both were ruinous for their bodies.

Laing traces the fates of bodies that are discriminated against and criminalised because of skin colour. Over-represented in prisons, people of colour disproportionately bear the psychological effects of incarceration: bodily humiliation, deprivation and disconnection from others. Laing’s account of the civil rights movement, and the fates of its leading actors – Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King jnr, Malcolm X – remind us that social changes come at a high personal cost, are hard won and are never permanent. She points to the recent rise of neo-fascism, and the Black Lives Matter movement, to show that “everything can be undone, and every victory must be refought”.

Reich’s permissive attitude to sex and his affiliation to communism meant exile from Europe. His attempts to integrate a political framework into his psychotherapy practice led to his eventual rejection by Freud and his peers. He lived his later life in the United States, paranoid and formulating increasingly bizarre pseudo-scientific ideas that eventually led to a dogged investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration. Reich was later imprisoned, where he died alone.

In reclaiming Reich’s project of bodily freedom from under the cloud of his later scientific discreditation, Laing builds a conceptual frame to understand her own body. Through the book, she hints at a wavering alliance to gender, though it is not until near the end, and rather quietly, that she identifies as trans and non-binary.

By channelling Reich in Everybody, Laing has written arguably her most accomplished book yet. She has resurrected Reich’s dream of the free body, and in doing so she dares us to “imagine … what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear … just imagine the world that we could build”.