Olivia Laing: Everyone has realised how much their physical lives mean to them”

Photography Sophie Davidson

In her new book, Everybody, the revered author of Lonely City poses sharp questions about how bodily freedom has evolved since the 20th century – and where we can go from here.

I wrote Everybody out of a sense of despair,” says Olivia Laing of her new book, which she started writing in 2015. Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the rise of Trump and the far-right led the author down a historical rabbit hole. Why is it, she wondered, that some bodies are treated with such violence and hatred? Why are we logging onto Twitter and seeing a constant flow of horrific news stories, all of them about bodies? How did the liberation movements of the 20th century lead us right up to this very moment?

Laing wrestles with these questions in Everybody, but it’s not all doom and gloom. In a masterful blend of memoir, criticism and biography, the writer takes us on a journey of bodily discovery through the eyes of figures such as Malcolm X, Susan Sontag and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, whose legacies have been etched in history. She also takes on people like renegade” Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose work has been widely criticised – even by Laing herself.

Reich, who coined the term sexual revolution”, serves as Everybodys central character. He was a controversial figure in the psychoanalytic community for embracing pseudo-scientific concepts such as orgone therapy, which suggested that orgasms were the key to mental and physical well-being. Laing tells the story of his life with humanity, using it as a through line for understanding how the world limits our bodily freedoms. In the process, she invites us to imagine one that doesn’t.

I wanted to know if it was a straightforward history, and what that push-pull dynamic was between [bodily] liberation and repression,” Laing says. She draws on her own experience of growing up in a lesbian household and identifying as non-binary to explore the ways in which emotional and physical pain are inextricably tied together.

Those experiences gave me an insight that many people are absolutely sealed off from, which is that some bodies are not treated well by the state and society at large,” she continues. Some bodies are subject to prohibitions and violence, and that’s concealed until it happens to you. My sense of transness is completely core to everything that I’ve looked at in the book, every sense of bodily difference or difficulty. I can make sense of it by way of my own experience.”

We caught up with Laing to get to the root of Everybody, how Covid ruined everything and the power of hope.

Have you learned anything about yourself while writing the book and has it changed the way you view the world at all?

Oh, definitely. I wrote Everybody out of a sense of despair. What’s the point in liberation work? What’s the point in freedom movements if they can all just be pushed back? What became clear from writing this book is that freedom movements extend way beyond our lifetime. The important part is to play the role you can, knowing that it goes on beyond you, knowing that these battles aren’t won and secured in perpetuity. Once you let go of that, I think there’s an enormous relief.

Despair is the thing that’s most likely to disable any struggle. You see that in history. I saw a lovely quote from [Scottish author] Ali Smith this weekend about the ability to stay hopeful. She said that hope isn’t just something sparkly and a luxury; hope is what keeps us from the abyss. Realising how powerful those activists’ work was, how despaired they felt, and yet the legacy they’ve left makes me feel like we can all continue. I finished writing it feeling more positive than when I started.

On social media, people have often pointed out that using the term bodies” can be reductive or problematic. How would you respond to that?

When I talk about bodies, I’m talking about humans. We, as individuals, live inside a material form that is at once me, a completely individual being, and is also treated as a representative of a type of body, which is subject to prohibitions, demands and dangers that have nothing to do with the individual, whether that’s race, gender or sexuality.

It is incredibly reductive to be called a body” and I think one of the things many liberation struggles have tried to do is demand the freedom not to be defined along those terms. But at the same time, to think or claim that we are not our bodies feels to me like another kind of violence.

As we’ve discovered over this year, of being disembodied and being forced to have disembodied connections, the body is a source of our pleasures as well as our pains. The body is our site of connection with other people. Something different happens when our bodies are together in a room, as opposed to talking over Zoom.

It’s interesting that the world has now been forced into this experience, where everybody has realised a level of bodily vulnerability, but also where everyone has realised how much their physical lives mean to them.

At the beginning, people were calling Covid the great equaliser”. Would you argue the pandemic has actually deepened those societal fractures?

It hasn’t been at all! And now our little lifeboat in the UK sails off happily, while India is in utter crisis. Even here, it’s like a heatmap of inequality, but there is some level at which people thought they would never experience that level of physical vulnerability and they now have.

Before, there was a sense of us heading towards a brave new world and digital future where many interactions happened online. Having been forced to do that, people now remember how precious our communal bodily lives are, how difficult it is to be separate from not only friends but also strangers, not being able to have those experiences of mass bodies, nightclubs, gigs, and dancefloor ecstasy.

How do you think we can move forward, divorce ourselves from the thought that some types of bodies are better than others, and democratise the ways in which they’re viewed?

That’s a big question! There’s this great quote from Nina Simone, where she says, I am not the doctor to cure it. All I can do is expose the sickness.” I feel a bit like that. It begins with listening to other people’s experiences, what their needs are, and finding ways to make them possible. I think there is a need to point out when prejudice is happening and there needs to be ongoing conversations about what different experiences are, especially with people who find it impossible to believe [them].

What does a world in which the body is free and liberated look like to you?

So much of our bodily liberties are being criminalised at the moment. Look at the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, for example. But my books often end with a question, which I then move to answer in the next book. Lonely City felt like it was so much about bodies, so I ended up writing Everybody. This book ends with me saying, imagine the future! So that’s what I’m now writing about, what utopia means. Let’s revisit in five years’ time and I’ll tell you what the free body looks like.

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