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.