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BOOK REVIEW

On finding freedom for every body

A  protestor waved a Black Lives Matter flag in front a Nina Simone music video during demonstrations in Portland, Ore., last year. Author Olivia Laing captures a moment where Simone, in conversation with an interviewer, recognizes that the absence of fear is, for her, the embodiment of freedom.
A protestor waved a Black Lives Matter flag in front a Nina Simone music video during demonstrations in Portland, Ore., last year. Author Olivia Laing captures a moment where Simone, in conversation with an interviewer, recognizes that the absence of fear is, for her, the embodiment of freedom.Mason Trinca/NYT

Today, long after 9/11, freedom remains an overdetermined concept. Remember “Freedom Fries?” The word itself has been appropriated across the entire political spectrum. Too often it’s co-opted to bludgeon human rights in defense of so-called individual freedom as in the contemporary politicization of mask use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Defused of its meaning, writers like Olivia Laing — in company with Louis Menand (“The Free World”) and Maggie Nelson (whose “On Freedom” is forthcoming this fall) — aim to reclaim a more just and inclusive definition of the idea and word.

The Windham-Campbell Prize rightfully recognized and celebrated Laing with its award in 2018. Since then, she published a novel and an eclectic essay collection, while, simultaneously, working on her latest work of nonfiction, “Everybody: A Book About Freedom.”

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Laing steadily built her reputation as an editor and writer with an earnest sophistication. She doesn’t make her mark with arch observations or cool reserve. Her enthusiastic criticism is fueled by a political and humane connection as well as an aesthetic and intellectual one. A genuine moral imperative grounds her indirect path to criticism.

Beginning in her childhood, Laing experienced freedom as an elusive concept. Growing up in a gay household in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom, she was fully aware of “how bodies are positioned in a hierarchy of value, their freedoms privileged or curtailed according to more or less inescapable attributes, from skin color to sexuality.” “Everybody” concentrates with exuberance on bodies as a means to riddle out the expression and performance of freedom. Through protest, suppression, illness, sex, and movement, human bodies are a battleground for freedom.

Laing opens the book with her own experience in the 1990s as a student of herbal medicine as well as her time as an environmental protester, living in an actual treehouse and putting her body physically on the line. Her lifelong interest in the connection between the philosophical notion of freedom and its lived expression animates the book with propulsive energy. Laing makes nimble and astute connections among the liberation movements of the 20th century (“What they all shared was a desire to turn the body from an object of stigma and shame into a source of solidarity and strength, capable of demanding and achieving change”) and applies this understanding to larger questions about the policing of bodies, which proves revelatory. The book’s central subject, through whom Laing charts the limits and depths of bodily freedom, is the unconventional psychoanalyst and once celebrated protégé of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich. Grappling with Marxism and Freud during the 1930s, Reich developed a practice of psychoanalysis that would address trauma (including physical violence and social factors such as poverty and unemployment) that was located in the body. It was a theory that led to his estrangement from Freud and ultimately left him abused by the American justice system. Although he died in prison after escaping Europe during World War II, his impact was implacably felt throughout the 20th century and beyond.

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Through careful study of the lives and deaths of artists and activists such as Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Christopher Isherwood, Andrea Dworkin, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and Nina Simone, Laing uncovers Reich’s influence beyond his lifetime into the civil rights movement as well as the gay and sexual liberation movements of the 20th century, various waves of feminism, the AIDS crisis, environmental protest, the return of extreme-right/conservative movements, the climate and political refugee crisis, Black Lives Matter, and the COVID-19 pandemic. What surfaces are the mechanisms of shame and glory that inform radical engagement.

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Laing captures a moment where Nina Simone, in conversation with an interviewer, recognizes that the absence of fear is, for her, the embodiment of freedom. Simone herself is stunned by this discovery. The fearlessness that we latch onto in communion with others expands freedom in a society that continues to politicize and place restrictions on bodies and expression. It’s essential to seize these opportunities when they arise, as they make room for more widespread freedom through a more inclusive social imagination.

These triumphs and failures of the body also manifest themselves in the creation of art and social justice. As alone as we are in our mortal existence, achieving autonomy and self-knowledge is no individual effort. Laing writes: “Freedom is a shared endeavor, a collaboration built by many hands over centuries of time, a labour which every single living person can choose to hinder or advance. It is possible to remake the world. What you cannot do is assume that any change is permanent. Everything can be undone, and every victory must be refought.”

In the presence of the transgender singer and performance artist Justin Vivian Bond, Laing “felt some constriction or binding had been removed” leaving her body “streaming with life.” For others, like the 2019 youth protesters in Hong Kong, it’s freedom from political oppression. Laing recalls a friend’s observations of these students, “Many things had been banned, including the word protest, so when they communicated with each other the students used the word dreaming instead. I know that dreaming is dangerous, one of them told my friend, but dreaming gives me hope.” Dreaming beyond conventional wisdom and restrictive visions, Laing emboldens us to seek liberation across difference in the face of turmoil. “Everybody” is a galvanizing book during a time of incredible hesitation.

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Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and developmental editor who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.

Everybody: A Book About Freedom

By Olivia Laing

W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $26.95