The compelling tale that Olivia Laing, acclaimed author of The Trip to Echo Springs (2013), The Lonely City (2016), Crudo (2018) and more, tells in Everybody: A Book About Freedom begins in 1999. Aged 22, she saw an advert – “pink, with a hand-drawn border of looping hearts” – in a herbal pharmacy in Brighton, attributing all kinds of physical symptoms to energy “stuck… from past traumas” and promising that it “could be loosened and induced to move again by way of body psychotherapy”.
It led her to a therapist, Anna, who “practised in a small, soupy room at the top of her house” with methods that, to say the least, were idiosyncratic. “Sometimes Anna would take a grinning [toy] monkey and clutch it to her chest,” Laing writes, “talking about herself in the third person, in a high-pitched, lisping voice.” Anna’s eccentric approach to massage relied less on kneading than “seeming instead to directly command muscles to unclench”.
It would have been easy to dismiss her as a crank. But Laing, who had since childhood “locked myself around a mysterious unhappiness, the precise cause of which I didn’t understand”, found that more often than not she now “experienced a sense of energy streaming through my body, moving through my abdomen and down my legs, where it tingled like jellyfish” – a sensation, she writes, that was “as if an obstinate blockage had been dislodged”, granting her a “newly lively, quivering body”.
The experience was transformative. It would in turn send Laing towards new emancipatory practices, of sexual freedom and direct action, where the pleasure-seeking body and the rebellious body could again be centred and celebrated as the vehicle through which life’s meaning would be felt.
She didn’t know it at the time, but Anna’s therapeutic approach, and the paths it inspired in Laing, were pioneered by Wilhelm Reich, one of Sigmund Freud’s most brilliant disciples, who, as a young psychoanalyst in 1920s Vienna, suspected that his patients were carrying their emotional pain around in their bodies. In response, he “listened, observed, then touched, prodded and probed” them in ways that brought about release.
Initially lauded within the psychoanalytic movement, Reich soon diverged from Freud, who assiduously sought to keep the psychoanalytic movement free from political association – even as the Nazis came to prominence and power. Reich, in contrast, believed that factors such as “poverty, poor housing, domestic violence and unemployment” were equally significant as drivers of psychic disorder, and became increasingly outspoken as fascism took hold across Austria and Germany.
This trajectory put him on a collision course with the Third Reich and with the psychoanalytic movement itself, from which he was expelled in 1934. The second half of his life was spent in America, where, isolated and increasingly paranoid, he secured his reputation as a pseudo-scientist. Reich self-published books on dubious theories of disease, and put his name to weird technologies – a space gun that he claimed could control the weather, and a machine he sold as a treatment against cancer, eliciting scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, a two-year prison sentence and a pariah status that has overshadowed his legacy.
Deftly grappling with Reich’s failures alongside his “obviously more fertile ideas”, Laing charts the impact of his ideas on her own life and values, and finds a line connecting the revolutionary impulse of Reich to the emancipatory movements of feminism, gay liberation and US civil rights that shaped the second half of the 20th century. Now, as we falter beneath the weight of new waves of misogyny and racism, there is “something vital [and still] untapped” in Reich’s work: the recognition “that our bodies are full of power, and furthermore that their power is not despite but because of their manifest vulnerabilities”.
• Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing is published by Picador (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply