OLIVER SACKS On the Move: A life. Reviewed by Adrian Phoon
This memoir closes the loop on a remarkable life.
Oliver Sacks found fame writing case studies of his patients. In Awakenings, he wrote about his post-encephalitic patients’ revival from decades-long catatonia after he prescribed them a drug called L-Dopa. Sacks has often been accused of making himself the centre of attention in his narratives, but in his latest, and, it seems, final memoir the 81-year-old master observer makes a cheeky concession to his critics by revealing that he was always his own most beguiling case study.
At a relatively slim 256 pages, On the Move is a fitting, if fleeting, account of a full life and a prolific body of writing. The book zooms with a light touch through the decades in rapid progression. Since Sacks’s writing has always been heavily autobiographical, he has already covered different periods of his life in greater detail than will be found here. Much of the joy of reading this book lies in seeing how these different parts become a whole. How will the startling cover image of Sacks – broodingly handsome and youthful, decked out in leather as he poses self-consciously atop his beloved motorbike, practically begging to be likened to Marlon Brando – morph into the genial old physician? How will the wild one become the wise one?
Born in London to Jewish doctors in a family of high achievers, he grew up, so this story goes, shy and both intellectually and physically restless. An early assessment by his headmaster – ‘Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far …’ – sets up Sacks’s picaresque narrative of his young self in a state of perpetual flight and excess. He heads off to study in Oxford, then travels to California before settling in New York. Along the way, there are trips to the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Guam. He briefly joins a bikie gang, hitchhikes with truckies and discovers the joys of casual sex. He pumps iron with former Olympians and Muscle Beach boys, even setting a Californian record. Then, after discovering drugs (which he discussed in Hallucinations), he loses weight and falls into a psychosis before undergoing his own awakening through psychoanalysis. For the next 35 years he refrains from sex altogether, devoting himself instead to his twin passions, science and literature.
All this is told episodically, in a manner that sometimes veers into cliché. What gives Sacks’s stories a ring of authenticity and holds them together, with their disparate transformations – from promiscuity to abstinence, from rapid weight gain to equally rapid weight loss – is his obsessive personality. He is a man of extreme, and extremely diverse, passions, which he documents (obsessively) in his journals:
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.
Predictably, his wanderlust is informed by a need to escape the past – not only the traumas of wartime Britain but also the emotional confinements of his middle-class childhood. He was sent to boarding school, where he was beaten by sadistic teachers. His mother’s reaction when she learns that he is gay haunts him for decades: ‘You are an abomination,’ she says. ‘I wish you had never been born.’
Yet Sacks’s parents were not unloving. As he observes, his mother was troubled, having already raised one son, Sacks’s brother Michael, who had developed schizophrenia:
She was speaking, though I am not sure I realized this at the time, out of anguish as much as accusation – the anguish of a mother who, feeling she had lost one son to schizophrenia, now feared she was losing another son to homosexuality, a condition which was regarded then as shameful and stigmatizing.
Sacks later acknowledges that his parents cared more for him than he realised when they were alive. He is also supported by his broader family – most notably his Aunt Lennie, to whom he pays outsized tribute.
On the Move is a very sentimental, moving work. But it is also very funny. Here Sacks recalls sleeping overnight in a truck surrounded by other trucks:
Putting my ear to part of the latticed framework I now heard other noises too – the sounds of joking and drinking and making love – coming from all the other trucks all around us, impinging on the antenna of my ear.
I lay, contented, in the darkness, feeling myself in a very aquarium of sound, and very soon I feel asleep.
His elegant recollections of his own often awkward trysts from this period are worthy of Edmund White and Armistead Maupin. They include a wrestling workout with a naval officer, which is ‘sexually exciting’ even though ‘it was not a purposively sexual act’. There are several frantic rendezvous, though a great love affair will elude him until much later in life.
Sacks is drawn to contrasting personalities. He notes how his mentors often appeared in complementary pairs. And he habitually compares himself to others. His friend, the poet Thom Gunn, ‘was lapidary and incisive; I was centrifugal and effusive’. His tense relationship with a jealous supervisor named Friedman makes him think of other professional jealousies between elders and their young proteges:
This painful story – painful on both sides – is not an uncommon one: an older man, a father figure, and his youthful son-in-science find their roles reversed when the son starts to outshine the father.
Sacks’s tendency to think in binary form is more than just an affect. It speaks to a writing tradition that stretches back to Plutarch, the ancient Greek biographer whose pairings of Greek and Roman lives gave rise to moral lessons. Sacks counterpoises different lives, including his own social personae at various stages in his life, to instructive effect. If On the Move has a moral, it is a conventional one about the importance of living life free from resentment and self-judgment.
But there are some fascinating paradoxes here. On the one hand, Sacks wants us to note his self-effacing shyness: ‘I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease.’
Yet with his evident delight in regaling readers with recollections of parties with WH Auden, conversations with his cousin (and Israeli Foreign Minister) Abba Eban, the bestowal of honours from the Queen and encounters with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams (who starred in the 1990 film of Awakenings), he is clearly gregarious and loves mixing with celebrity.
Moreover, while Sacks’s narrative suggests that he had to put down youthful tchotchkes before he could pursue a serious life in neurology and writing, there is room for another interpretation of his story, that of a man who never fitted in and instead used his outsider status to challenge the medical establishment from within. The wise one never stopped being wild.
Sacks is at his vivid best when he discusses his own writing. He positions himself as the inheritor of a tradition of 19th-century literary studies of science, and likens his work to that of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz: ‘I am haunted by the density of reality and try to capture this with (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) “thick description”.’ His self-description as a ‘storyteller’ is distinctly liberal humanist in its celebration of a ‘universal human disposition’:
I am a storyteller, for better and for worse. I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.
Not that writing comes easily to him. He describes the writing process for each of his books, including the many arduous years it took to complete his third book, A Leg to Stand On (1984) He also records the medical profession’s cool reception of his books. But there are compensations, including his embrace by literary and scientific heavyweights. Auden, we learn, described Awakenings as a ‘masterpiece’ and it inspired a play by Harold Pinter as well as the film. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat became an opera by Michael Nyman and Christopher Rawlence. Stephen J Gould was a fan.
Recently, Sacks revealed in the New York Times that he has been given a terminal cancer diagnosis. On the Move does not offer a comprehensive account of Sacks’s life – it says little, for instance, about his political convictions, or his thoughts on gay rights – but makes for a satisfyingly full reading experience nonetheless. If it is to be his last work, it closes the loop on a remarkable life and establishes the case for how Sacks would like to be remembered: as a writer.
Adrian Phoon is a Sydney writer. He’s appeared in SameSame, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, New Matilda and a lot of karaoke bars. He tweets @highonprose.
Oliver Sacks On the Move: A life Picador 2015 PB 256pp $34.99
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