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A Man of Many Hats: Kate Sidley Reviews Oliver Sacks’ Autobiography On the Move

By Kate Sidley for the Sunday Times

On the MoveOn The Move, A Life
Oliver Sacks (Macmillan)

In recent photographs, Dr Oliver Sacks has the look of an avuncular Father Christmas, or perhaps an elderly rabbi, kindly eyes twinkling behind wire-rimmed glasses above a full grey beard. The cover image of his autobiography, however, gives a different view the renowned neurologist and author: suddenly he’s a hunky, leather-clad young biker astride a powerful BMW. He was, among other things, an obsessive motorcyclist and speed freak.

The image – like the book itself – illustrates just what a complex and multifaceted man Sacks is. Who would have thought that this deeply cerebral doctor, steeped in literature, immersed in a medicine, was once known to the habitués of Muscle Beach, Los Angeles, as Dr Squat? (He could squat lift 270kg.) As a young man he would swim around City Island, New York – a six hour swim – and at 81 he was still swimming a mile a day. His urge towards experimentation drew him into heavy, almost fatal, drug use. As one perceptive schoolteacher said of him: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.”

This is not the first time that Sacks has turned his scientist gaze upon himself. He has written extensively about himself in Uncle Tungsten and A Leg to Stand On. But this autobiography gives readers a more in-depth account of his background and upbringing, and its effect on him. Born in England in 1933 into an intellectual Jewish family of well-regarded physicians and storytellers, he developed twin passions for literature and science. During World War II he was sent away from London and his family to a brutal boarding school, where he was bullied and beaten. He posits that this traumatic separation might have contributed to his difficulties with, in words of another evacuee, “the three B’s: bonding, belonging and believing.”

Shy and somewhat solitary by nature he did not socialise easily, unless, perhaps, the talk was of jellyfish or some other scientific subject that intrigued him. Sacks writes about growing up gay in the hostile environment of 1940s Britain. “You are an abomination,” his mother told him. “I wish you had never been born.” He had a period of sexual experimentation, but after a “sweet birthday fling”, he tells us without explanation that “he had no sex for the next 35 years”. The book is like that: at times deeply intimate and revelatory, but often strangely absent of detail about certain key events or participants. (Readers and fans of the good doctor will be happy to learn that he fell in love in his 77th year, and relinquished his solitary habits for the pleasures of a relationship.)

This is the engrossing, poignant and gently amusing story of an unconventional polymath, thoroughly beguiled by the world, and beset with great enthusiasms and deep interests, amongst them cephalopods, chemistry, volcanoes, gravitational waves and ferns. Of course his greatest fascination was with his patients. In his books, Sacks documents fascinating neuro-atypical conditions, like Tourette’s, autism, face blindness, colour blindness, memory loss and the eponymous subject of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The finely observed case studies are not confined to the patient’s symptoms. Sacks considers the person in their entirety, and is fascinated by their lived experience of their condition, as well as the resilience and adaptiveness with which sufferers often meet their neurological challenges.

He is not without his critics. In his early days, some of his fellow doctors were dismissive of his narrative approach. He also describes painful accusations of treating his patients with less than appropriate respect and confidentiality. (One critic referred to him as, “The man who mistook his patients for a literary career”). But he is greatly loved by his many readers.

In February, he announced, in a powerful and poignant Op-Ed in the New York Times, that his cancer had metastasised and he had not long to live. The piece concludes: “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” On The Move gives readers the privilege of sharing that adventure.

Follow Kate Sidley on Twitter @katesidley

Book details

Image courtesy of NBC


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