Olivia Laing’s book Everybody is the story of how, as people, the bodies we inhabit impact our lives, of the challenges this leads to and of the way that our bodies can both restrict us and set us free.
The book focuses on the connection between the body and the mind and how it has been viewed throughout history. This is particularly explored through the lens of the work of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. At times throughout history, Reich has been a controversial figure; the undeniable outlandishness of his later work has left him a figure mostly removed from scientific and cultural history and his theories dismissed as pseudoscience. Laing, however, makes a case for Reich’s work and fundamental philosophies. She explores his interesting life and work, tying in his theories with many other cultural commentators. It was particularly enlightening to read about his relationship with Freud; this seemed to unlock a history of psychoanalysis and understanding of the mind, and the challenges of trying to be progressive about autonomy over one’s body in the face of increasingly unrelenting governments. Laing highlights how the body has been weaponised, politicised and used as a method of control over the years. This is amplified through discussion of the Nazi party’s tragic use of this approach and Reich’s reaction to it, as well as the history of eugenics and the belief that some bodies should not exist at all.
An interesting but highly emotive point is Laing’s discussion of the changing relationship with the body experienced through illness and injury and how it puts us face to face with the health we have taken for granted. Her accounts of how many bright and talented women faced illness in ways as individual as themselves is incredibly moving. Through a history of the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism and LGBTQ+ activism, Laing emphasises how being deemed to be living in the ‘wrong’ body by the standards of society can pose a danger just to exist, and how this has been faced by fighting back. Whilst it can seem overwhelming to think about this struggle, it was genuinely surprising and positive to read about all of the progressive people throughout history that have fought for women and women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights and the Civil Rights Movement long before I expected and in the face of oppressive governments. (This should be taken with a pinch of salt though - some did amazing things, then it turned out they had some awful views).
To some it may seem like pseudoscience to read a book focusing on Reich’s work and the relationship between mind and body. Laing’s book is informed by her own practice in alternative medicine, and her discussions on concepts such as energy flow and how its relationship with the body may seem inaccessible to some. Discussions around illness, especially talking about outdated theories of the links between a physical illness as a manifestation of something in the mind, can at best be seen as hokum and at worst hugely upsetting for anyone that has experienced or been close to someone experiencing acute illness. This, however, is not the case with Laing’s book. I feel it portrays an inventive, holistic way of understanding how we connect with the world around us, others and ourselves whilst still remaining grounded. It was genuinely fascinating to learn new names and the stories of people I hadn’t heard of, such as Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. The relationship with our bodies and minds has fuelled art, culture, politics and society for years, and Laing, through her book, creates a history of that process.