A dubious bit of folk wisdom passed from one generation of medical students to the next is that you can tell a doctor’s specialty by his or her personality: Surgeons are arrogant; internists indecisive; pathologists antisocial; psychiatrists flaky. And neurologists, supposedly, are brilliant but cold, able to locate the precise area of the brain from which a symptom arises yet indifferent to the person with the symptom. Medical school joke: The neurologist’s motto? “Diagnose and adios.”
If there’s any truth to this stereotype, it has never applied to Oliver Sacks. For over 50 years, as a neurologist and a writer, Sacks has been more interested in people’s stories than in their pathologies. Even the oddest neurological conditions, such as that of the patient he described in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat,” are, for Sacks, less compelling as diagnostic riddles than as windows into the human soul.
Sacks has written often about his own life: in “Uncle Tungsten,” about his childhood in wartime London; in “A Leg to Stand On,” about a severe injury he sustained in his 40s while hiking; in “The Mind’s Eye,” about his loss of vision in his 70s from ocular melanoma. His memoirs, though, like his books about deafness, music, hallucinations, and many other subjects, never contain only stories. Sacks’s tales are occasions for exploring larger themes, liberally footnoted forays into history, literature, philosophy, and science.
Sacks’s empathy and intellectual curiosity, his delight in, as he calls it, “joining particulars with generalities” and, especially, “narratives with neuroscience” — have never been more evident than in his beautifully conceived new book, “On The Move.” This meta memoir, in which Sacks reconsiders aspects of his life and work that he’s written about in a dozen previous books, is remarkably candid and deeply affecting.
In “On The Move” Sacks revisits the childhood he described so fondly in “Uncle Tungsten.’’ He portrays his early years — his parents, physicians from whom he inherited his love of both science and storytelling; his fascination with chemistry; his explorations of Hampstead Heath as a budding naturalist — with no less affection, but with more frankness. He recalls his family’s distress about his brother’s schizophrenia and his own homosexuality. “You are an abomination,” his mother blurts out, upon learning that teenaged Oliver is attracted to boys. “I wish you had never been born.” Sacks forgives his mother, concluding that she was not so much cruel as “suddenly overwhelmed.” “But,” he confides poignantly, “her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.”
From “Hallucinations,” we knew that Sacks had experimented with drugs as a young doctor, but now we get a starker picture of his amphetamine addiction and of other risky behaviors. In his 20s and 30s, Sacks’s pastimes included motorcycle racing, extreme weightlifting, and alienating employers. He seems to have been, in those years, on the brink of self-destructing from his own exuberance, his, as he puts it, “too-muchness.”
Sacks offers these revelations neither to titillate the reader nor to castigate himself but, rather, to give a fuller picture of himself as a person and, particularly, as a writer. When the rebellious young doctor, in professional exile at a rehab hospital in the Bronx, encountered patients catatonic for decades until they were reanimated by a new drug, L-dopa, he wasn’t content to write them up as case reports. Rather, Sacks lived among the patients and created the series of intimate portraits he published in “Awakenings.” Through similar accounts of how he transformed clinical data into popular books we better understand the doctor-writer whose “love of science is utterly literary.”
Coursing through “On The Move” with the urgency of an undammed current is the story of Sacks’s life as a gay man. From his loss of virginity as a shy youth in Amsterdam (to a man who picked him up in the street — literally picked him up: He was lying there drunk), through anonymous encounters and passionate love affairs, to his rediscovery of romance in old age after a decades-long dry spell, Sacks recounts some of his sexual experiences in unapologetically graphic detail, as if making up for years of painful silence.
Though “On The Move” covers the whole of Sacks’s long life and features many famous figures — W.H. Auden, Francis Crick, and Robin Williams were among his close friends and Abba Eban his cousin — “On The Move’’ is not a portrait of an era, like, for example, Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” It’s an old-fashioned memoir (what used to be called ‘‘memoirs’’) in which journal entries, snippets of decades-old conversations, lost jobs, houses, and lovers rearrange themselves through recollection into a new and meaningful whole.
In a late chapter, “A New Vision of the Mind,” we learn that Sacks’s memoir technique has a neurological correlate. He describes a theory, developed by neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, which understands the brain not in static, anatomical terms, but as a dynamic interplay between neurons, experience, and memory, in a perpetual state of change.
In a recent New York Times essay Sacks revealed that melanoma - which, nine years ago, left him blind in one eye - has spread to his liver. Still, he wrote, “This does not mean I am finished with life.” And, fittingly, “On The Move” is no farewell tour. It’s a gift, a message from a writer who, though past 80 and mortally ill, retains the ethos of the handsome stud sitting astride a motorbike on its cover: Stay alive; keep moving.
ON THE MOVE:
By Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 416 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and Writer in Residence in the Division of General Internal Medicine at MGH. Contact her at www.suzannekovenmd.com.