Friday, 22 January 2016

On The Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson

What we thought: It emerges from Dr Oliver – of hat-mistaking and awakenings fame – Sacks’ autobiography that he was something of a Jekyll and Hyde: the genial doctor had a secret night-time (and weekend) existence, which he reveals in his own account of his life. Not that Sacks was evil, like Mr Hyde, but he was gay (in a time when to be gay was still illegal). This came as a surprise to me – although clearly his close friends and acquaintances (including writers such as Auden and Thom Gunn) knew this – as he was not officially ‘out’ until almost the end of his life. Nor does he make a political issue of his sexuality; while not being secretive, he writes about only a small part of life in San Francisco and New York’s gay community, a life which his few photos hint at tantalisingly. 

A strange life, then, lived in the public eye but in the shadow of what appears to have been a life-long burden of shyness, discretion, and – although he does not dwell on it – loneliness, regarding the truth of his own personal feelings. At one point in an interview for a hospital position he blurts out that he has not had sex for 35 years. If anything is a surprise, in the autobiography of a man who was so widely admired and who made so much of his life and work public, it is this. We all thought we knew Dr Sacks from his many fascinating books: the warm, enthusiastic, humane, indefatigably curious and eloquent neurologist who introduced the world to many of the bizarre fragilities of the human condition, especially the human mind. It turns out we didn’t, and Sacks had a fragility all of his own.

Perhaps – and in parallel – the other unexpected aspect of his life is its physicality, in someone so devoted to concerns of the mind and intellect. As a young man in London he had a passion for motorbikes and was a member of the Ton Up club, doing 100mph circuits of the North Circular, and in the United States, where he emigrated early in his career, he befriended Hell’s Angels. He became a champion weight lifter in his early days on Muscle Beach in California, while studying for his US qualifications. And he retained a passion for swimming and snorkelling throughout his life, swimming whole circuits of City Island where he lived. He would take off to ride for hundreds of miles across states at the weekends from San Francisco, visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and barely sleeping, or sleeping rough. He makes no secret, either, of his prolonged experimentation with recreational drugs, mainly amphetamines. He also played the piano and his knowledge of and interest in music is dispersed through the autobiography in the same way as are his references to eminent friends and their work and to detailed knowledge of a wide and fascinating range of scientific and literary subjects. Sacks was truly a polymath who lived a full and interesting life.

For a man so ultimately successful, Sacks takes pains to document his many reversals and losses along the way, providing a perspective that illuminates how much of his glittering career was felicity, how much teetered on the brink of failure and despair. At the point when he was about to become successful with the publication of his most famous work, Awakenings, he was sacked, his mother died, and in losing his job he also lost his home and most of his income. He writes, too, of his many rejected and even lost manuscripts, and the painful experiences of failed relationships, his fumbled experimental science career, and his self-confessed personal awkwardnesses. His modesty is endearing, enlightening and encouraging. And yet his charm and underlying strength of character meant that he came through to find his own way.

Dr Sacks takes us through the background to and composition of his well known books, from his first publication Migraine through Awakenings to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and A Leg to Stand On, about his struggle to recover after a serious leg injury. He also narrates his relationships with illustrious friends and acquaintances: Jonathan Miller, W H Auden (who left him all his LPs and 78s), poet Thom Gunn, the eminent Soviet neuropsychologist A R Luria, Robert de Niro (about whom he tells a very funny story), and Robin Williams among them. He also tells the stories of the equally extraordinary members of his family: his eminent gynaecologist mother, his dedicated GP father, his autistic brother, his amazing Auntie Len, all in the same gently humorous, forgiving and warmly appreciative style. He bats off the many criticisms levelled at him of his life’s work decisively, yet with equal charm and grace, although he felt for a long time that he didn’t receive suitable recognition from the medical profession.

Dr Sacks’ work is always a pleasure to read, and beautifully written, full of humour, insight and revelation. I might have wished that he had been a little less circumspect and discreet about his personal life and the circles he moved in, as he is clearly a wonderful gossip, and the stories he tells about people are almost always to their credit rather than his own. As with most autobiography, there is a sense of judicious omission in many areas. The memoir is in a way a prolonged note of thanks and acknowledgement to everyone who has been formative in his life and work, including, finally, the late-life love of his life. “Let your last thinks all be thanks” as the line he quotes from Auden has it. Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 only a few weeks after the publication of this book.

You will like this if: you like Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, popular psychoanalytic writers such as Adam Phillips, or you are generally curious about the human condition, medical discovery, and how we function.

Avoid this if you don’t like: medical or scientific detail or what makes people tick – or “tic”.

Best accompanied by: two half-gallon jugs of cider, a squid dinner and an L-Dopa cocktail.

Genre: autobiography/memoir, popular science/medicine.

Available on Amazon

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