On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” – Oliver Sacks

courtesy of Penguin Random House

courtesy of Penguin Random House

Oliver Sacks is as much a writer as a doctor.The searching spirit shared by the artist and the scientist has always been a part of his life, and with it the impulse to observe and record.

On the Move is a candid look at the personal and professional life of Oliver Sacks, well-known neurologist and author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, (one of my favourite books, and one I reread periodically) and many other books. On the Move is, like Sacks’s case studies, anecdotal and filled with closely observed sketches of family members, friends, lovers, patients, mentors and people he met on the road.

Many of the details of his life will be familiar to readers from his other books. He has already published a childhood memoir, Uncle Tungsten.  In Hallucinations he wrote candidly about his youthful depression and drug experimentation, and in A Leg to Stand On he described his path to recovery after a mountaineering accident caused a severe leg injury. Some of the stories shared in his previous books feature in On the Move, along with excerpts from letters, journals and early writing. Everything comes together to reveal the life of, as Sacks describes himself, “a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” Those passions include not only neurology, but writing, music, motorcycles, weight-lifting, scuba-diving, botany, chemistry, and the study of the human spirit.

Sacks was born in England. Both his parents were doctors (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner) as were his two older brothers.  Oliver followed suit, but he felt constrained by an England with “too many Dr. Sackses” and “it was not easy, or safe, to be an open or practicing homosexual in the London of the 1950s.” Nor in the presence of his mother, who, when he revealed his sexual identity to her responded with, “You are an abomination . . . I wish you had never been born.”  Sacks had a vision of “the rugged open spaces of the American West” and set out in 1960 for Canada, where he travelled for a while, then California and finally in 1965, New York City where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life.

Sacks has an endless fascination for people and their uniqueness. (He confesses that when asked to grade a group of students, he gave them all As because they all had different ways of thinking that made their intelligence unique.) With material gathered from a lifetime of journal-keeping, we meet truckers, weight-lifters, doctors and writers, and witness a life filled with passion, curiosity, dangerous risk-taking as well as shyness and insecurity.  Sacks suffers from face-blindness, which makes it difficult to recognize people, and admits that his experiences at a horrendous boarding school as a boy may have contributed to a difficulty “bonding.” He’s open about his mistakes as well as successes, and there are a few abandoned (and lost) projects, regrets, and the usual heartbreaks and losses that are a part of every life.

courtesy of Penguin Random House

courtesy of Penguin Random House

Above all is a deep passion for writing, and the book is as much about the books, written and unwritten, as Oliver Sacks’s life. Like many other writers, he finds in writing a way to think about the world. “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” His scientific and authorial idol is the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria, whose case history Mind of a Mnemonist combined clinical observation with “the dramatic power, the feeling, and the structure of a novel.” Sacks sought to emulate that style in Awakenings, the book about his work with post-encephalitic patients at Beth Abraham hospital in the Bronx. It was his first successful book (it was later adapted for a play by Harold Pinter, and a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams) and infused with the author’s now trademark admiration for his patients and “how intensely human they were, throughout all their vicissitudes.”

When the author sent his friend, poet Thom Gunn, a copy of Awakenings, he received an admiring letter in return. Gunn noted the presence of a quality he felt had been missing in Sacks’s youthful writing, “call it humanity, or sympathy.” Where Gunn felt that in the past a “deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observations,” sympathy was now “literally the organizer of your style.” It’s compassion that makes all of Oliver Sack’s books both moving and beautiful, and in On the Move there’s an added poignancy from the knowledge that Sacks may not be with us long enough to write many more books. In February, Oliver Sacks revealed in a New York Times essay that a rare melanoma contracted in 2006 had spread to his liver.

”I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he wrote. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return.” Many of those gifts are shared with his readers in this enjoyable memoir, and in all of his other books.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

 

 

Do you believe what you see?   Most of us do, most of the time.  The imagination is a wonderful thing, allowing us to wander beyond the bounds of time and space.  And in dreams we can see things more fantastic  than our conscious minds can imagine.  But in both cases, we are aware that what we are experiencing isn’t “real”.

Think back a moment, though and you can probably remember a time when your perception was significantly altered.  Sometimes you might seek out these altered states deliberately.  Sometimes it’s not voluntary.  When I had a fever as a child, my sister’s bed on the other side of the room seemed tiny and faraway, and I had the sensation that my body was enormous, pressed against the wall and ceiling.  A part of me knew this was not the case, but the physical sensation was utterly real.  I remember years later sharing this memory with other people, and having them recount their own similar experiences of this “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome”.

In Oliver Sacks’s new book, Hallucinations, the neurologist and best-selling author recounts examples of and explains this phenomenon and many other forms of hallucination, induced by illness, injury or medication.

One of my favourite books is An Anthropologist on Mars.  In that book, Oliver Sacks introduces us to  people with unusual neurological disorders.  Sacks is not only a knowledgeable doctor, but a clear writer who is able to explain the functions of the brain in understandable terms.  But the beauty of the book is the sympathy and admiration Sacks has for his subjects, who overcome the obstacles of their unusual disorders, or at least find ways to integrate their symptoms into a rethought sense of self and a satisfying life.

Sacks covers a bit too much ground here to match the emotional weight of An Anthropologist on Mars.  One hundred pages in, I had read so many examples of visual,  oral and olfactory hallucinations due to illness or injury, both accidental and deliberate, I had the disturbing sense of how easily our brains can push us off the edge of our rock solid perception of reality into a world of illusion.  We are shown a dreamy world where people “see”  simple objects or shapes repeated endlessly or bizarrely distorted faces,  perceive the smell of coffee as a “lurid, intolerable stench”, or hear “Bing Crosby, friends and orchestra singing ‘White Christmas‘ over and over.”  Shudder.

Sacks is the most engaging when he injects himself into the story, which happens in Hallucinations in the chapter “Altered States”.  Here Sacks recounts his own experimentation in his thirties with recreational drugs.  Behaviours begun out of intellectual curiosity soon developed into an emotional habit, acknowledged only much later.  I felt a hint of sadness as he described his weekly drug taking at a stage of his life when he was “depressed and insomniac” with “a sense of emptiness and structurelessness.”

The emotional dimension also gives life to “The Haunted Mind”, which examines the emotionally charged hallucinations that may occur after loss or trauma.  Sacks shares his own “bereavement hallucinations”, of “seeing” his mother everywhere after her sudden death.  And it’s impossible not to be moved by the stories of those who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and experience vivid memories frozen in time, on an endless repeat loop, completely unlike the voluntary recall of  “normal” memories.

Hallucinations is not a book about mental illness – dementia, schizophrenia or psychosis – although Sacks does talk about the hallucinations preceding migraine and accompanying epileptic seizures.   Many of the examples are those hallucinatory states brought on by fever, or that strange, liminal place between consciousness and sleep.  The shadowy figure standing by your bed, giant spiders crawling up the wall, the creature sitting on your chest, or the feeling that you are floating above your own body – these sensations are not uncommon, and have made their way into art, myth and popular culture.

It’s not surprising to learn that Edgar Allen Poe had hypnagogic hallucinations or that Dostoevsky experienced “ecstatic seizures”, in which he “felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it had engulfed me.  I had really touched God.” Joan of Arc’s voices?  Could they have been a symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy?  Maybe, but Sacks acknowledges that medicine may identify “a very specific neural basis” for such hallucinations, but can say “nothing of the value, the meaning, the ‘function’ of such emotions, or of the narratives and beliefs we may construct on their basis.”

Ultimately, by taking us to the fringes of consciousness, Oliver Sacks gives us a fascinating look at human perception, spirituality and creativity – the preoccupation of the scientist, the mystic, the poet and artist.