Five books that opened writer Olivia Laing’s mind and freed her body

Olivia Laing tells us about the writers and the reading that inspired her to write Everybody, an exploration of bodies, oppression and resistance.

Olivia Laing’s Everybody tells the story of how twentieth-century rebels used their bodies as tools of resistance, even as they were abused and incarcerated. The book draws on the work of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the prison writings of Angela Davis and the anguished memoir of Nina Simone. Here Laing pays tribute to the writing of these and other free thinkers.

For the past six years I’ve been working on Everybody, a book about bodies and freedom. It uses the life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to trace an idiosyncratic path through the great liberation movements of the twentieth century. These are some of the radical and thrilling books I encountered along the way.

Adventures in the Orgasmatron

by Christopher Turner

Book cover for Adventures in the Orgasmatron

I’ve read Turner’s biography of Wilhelm Reich maybe a dozen times and it always offers new illuminations. Reich was Freud’s most brilliant protégé, and his work was a powerful influence on the counter-culture of the 1960s – it was read by everyone from Susan Sontag to James Baldwin to William Burroughs. Reich invented body psychotherapy, worked as a sexual liberationist and anti-fascist activist, and dreamt of uniting the ideas of Marx and Freud. When war broke out in Europe he emigrated to America, where he developed pseudoscientific theories about health and ended up dying in a prison cell, a tragic end for someone who’d fought so hard for freedom.

Christopher and His Kind

by Christopher Isherwood

Book cover for Christopher and His Kind

Christopher Isherwood is one of my favourite writers, and his semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin was my model for Crudo. This amazing book, published in 1976, tells the true story of those fictionalised experiences, laying (very) bare Isherwood’s life as a young gay man in Weimar Berlin, a garden of earthly delights that was brutally destroyed by the rise of Hitler. It’s a landmark work of queer memoir, and its invigorating honesty helped kick-start the gay liberation movement.

Last Days At Hot Slit

by Andrea Dworkin, edited by Johanna Fateman

Book cover for Last Days At Hot Slit

Like Reich, Andrea Dworkin is another complex and divisive character. She came to prominence as a feminist activist in the 1970s, but her obsessive focus on sexual violence and especially the dangers of pornography helped bring about a schism in second wave feminism. I don’t agree with all her arguments, but in the light of Me Too and the ongoing revelations about rape culture, her clarity and rage feel powerfully necessary. This beautifully edited collection also reveals a far richer character than the dungareed stereotype, showing you how funny and talented Dworkin was.

If they come in the morning

by Angela Davis

Book cover for If they come in the morning

I read a lot about prisons while researching Everybody, and this book by the civil rights activist and prison abolitionist Angela Davis has stuck in my mind. It’s a collection of essays, memoirs, letters and manifestos from multiple different voices, many of them incarcerated. It makes you think deeply about how prison works, and who it serves, and is one of the best arguments for abolition I’ve ever encountered. 

I Put A Spell on You

by Nina Simone

Book cover for I Put A Spell on You

Nina Simone’s ghost-written memoir tells a searing story about race, identity and grief. Simone was not a happy woman, but she had a gift for drawing back the veil on political and personal injustice. She talks about growing up in the South and striving to become a concert pianist, only to have her dreams shattered when she wasn’t accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music, a decision she was later told was because of the colour of her skin. She became a star, but what really made her explode into life was encountering the civil rights movement. There are many harrowing moments here, from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the pain of domestic violence. But Simone is indomitable, a huge talent who had the ability to give voice to the full range of human emotion, from despair to joy – and above all the longing to be free.

Discover more about Olivia's new book, below.


Book cover for Everybody

The body is a source of pleasure and of pain, at once hopelessly vulnerable and radiant with power. At a moment in which basic rights are once again imperilled, Olivia Laing conducts an ambitious investigation into the body and its discontents, using the life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to chart a daring course through the long struggle for bodily freedom, from gay rights and sexual liberation to feminism and the civil rights movement.

Drawing on her own experiences in protest and alternative medicine, and travelling from Weimar Berlin to the prisons of McCarthy-era America, she grapples with some of the most significant and complicated figures of the past century, among them Nina Simone, Christopher Isherwood, Andrea Dworkin, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag and Malcolm X.

Despite its many burdens, the body remains a source of power, even in an era as technologized and automated as our own. Everybody is an examination of the forces arranged against freedom and a celebration of how ordinary human bodies can resist oppression and reshape the world.

Image credit: Sophie Davidson