Oliver Wolf Sacks, (9 July 1933 – 30 August 2015) was a British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author. Born in Britain, and mostly educated there, he spent his career in the United States. He believed that the brain is the “most incredible thing in the universe.” He became widely known for writing best-selling case histories about both his patients’ and his own disorders and unusual experiences, with some of his books adapted for plays by major playwrights, feature films, animated short films, opera, dance, fine art, and musical works in the classical genre
Oliver Sacks packed a lot of life into his 82 years (he died in August). And this incredible volume, the second part of his memoirs (the first is 2001’s Uncle Tungsten), chronicles his busy, fascinating adult life.
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford.
Sacks went to Oxford, navigated his way through research and clinical studies (a trip to an Israeli kibbutz helped him focus on his career), moved to the U.S., documented his travels (“On The Move” indeed), and discovered his passion for writing.
I suppose this is Sacks’s “coming out” book. When, at 18, he told his father that he might be attracted to men (up til then he had never done anything), his mother told him he was “an abomination” and she wished he “had never been born.” Sacks never theorizes about how this affected him. He talks about his infatuation with Richard Selig.
I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return. I was not, I think, the only one to fall in love with him; there were others, both men and women—his great beauty, his great gifts, his vitality and love of life, ensured this.
But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.
After 40, he was celibate for more than 35 years. He doesn’t explain why this was, but also, tactfully, doesn’t say how, living in New York City at the time, this might have reduced his contact with certain diseases. His various affairs, and his finding love late in life, gives the book an emotional resonance without ever feeling maudlin. His love of his schizophrenic brother Michael also adds heft, and may have instilled in him a curiosity about science and the brain.
My earlier books had shown patients struggling to survive and adapt (often ingeniously) to various neurological conditions or “deficits,” but for Temple and many of the others I wrote about in An Anthropologist on Mars, their “conditions” were fundamental to their lives and often a source of originality or creativity. I subtitled the book “Seven Paradoxical Tales,” because all of its subjects had found or created unexpected adaptations to their disorders; all had compensating gifts of different sorts.
What I liked in the book:
- His comments about an acting crew that started showing real mental symptoms after studying people suffering from Tourettes syndrome. Like one foot slightly at an angle and falling down like a pin when placed at an angle
- His study with Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic boy from England who could draw architectural images from memory.
- Autistic people had been seen, classically, as being intensely alone, incapable of relationships with others, incapable of perceiving others’ feelings or perspectives, incapable of humor, playfulness, spontaneity, creativity—mere “intelligent automata,” in Hans Asperger’s terms. But even my brief glimpse of Stephen had given me a much warmer impression.
- His studies on achromatopsia – acquired colour-blindness – which was prominent in a remote island.
- Mr. I. had became colorblind after sixty-five years of seeing colors normally—totally colorblind, as if “viewing a black and white television screen.” The suddenness of the event was incompatible with any of the slow deteriorations that can befall the retinal cone cells and suggested instead a mishap at a much higher level, in those parts of the brain specialized for the perception of color. Moreover, it became apparent that Mr. I. had lost not only the ability to see color but the ability to imagine it. He now dreamed in black and white, and even his migraine auras were drained of color.
- How he described brain works and compensation techniques
- Edelman, who once planned to be a concert violinist, uses musical metaphors as well. In a BBC radio interview, he said: Think: if you had a hundred thousand wires randomly connecting four string quartet players and that, even though they weren’t speaking words, signals were going back and forth in all kinds of hidden ways [as you usually get them by the subtle nonverbal interactions between the players] that make the whole set of sounds a unified ensemble. That’s how the maps of the brain work by reentry. The players are connected. Each player, interpreting the music individually, constantly modulates and is modulated by the others. There is no final or “master” interpretation; the music is collectively created, and every performance is unique. This is Edelman’s picture of the brain, as an orchestra, an ensemble, but without a conductor, an orchestra which makes its own music.
Oliver Sacks great accomplishment to me was to show us the people of the cases he describes as quite separate from their disorders. Not schizophrenics, but people with schizophrenia, not autistics or even autistic people, but people with autism and all of them appreciated by Sacks as suffering from their symptoms but not, in any basic way, being them. One of Sacks’ brothers had schizophrenia and needed care almost his entire life so Sacks knew mental as well as neurological disordered thinking and never confused the person with the problem.
Essentially, Sacks was as interested in the person as he was the disorder and never thought of his patients as just ‘cases’. He treated his patients as co-researchers into their symptoms and gave them a new perspective, one that, as might be said, was healthier than thinking they were sick and needed to find a doctor to cure them
I was surprised at how little self-analysis went into this autobiography—for a man who was able to interpret the lives of people with major brain dysfunctions, he seems to be either unable or unwilling to observe his own life in the same way. For instance, he mentions repeatedly that he identifies people by their voices, rather than their faces, but he doesn’t connect this lack of facial recognition with his own fascination with neurology. It would seem to me that this would be a major motivator in his interests, to understand one of his own foibles.