Sacks, Oliver. “On the Move: A Life”, Knopf, 2015.
As a youth of just twelve years old, Oliver Sacks’s schoolmaster wrote in his report that “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” Today we see that Sacks is still going and his restless energy pervades the pages of his autobiography. As he writes about his experiences as a young neurologist in the early 1960s, first in California, where he struggled with drug addiction, and then in New York, where he discovered a long-forgotten illness in the back wards of a chronic hospital, his engagement with his patients came to define him. He uses that same restless energy to write this book and adds humor that we sense when we read about his passions of
With unbridled honesty and humor, Sacks shows us weight lifting and swimming, his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists who influenced him including Thom Gunn, A. R. Luria, W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick. We see him here as an unconventional doctor and a man who has brought us such incredible knowledge about the human brain. He had some setbacks along the way and the major of these appears to be his difficulty with finding love and this could very well be the result of his mother’s reaction to learning that he is gay. (Yep, let’s once again blame the mother). After all, she called him an abomination. Saks forgave her but he will never forget her words to him. This could also be the source of his energy; his constant running and we are aware of that sense of movement throughout the book and probably on every page. He also had to deal with the false accusations that he had sex with patients. He turned to celibacy for over 30 years until his late love affair. We certainly feel it with his desire to travel and his move from England to America and even when he writes of his earlier addiction to amphetamines. Just as his body is always moving so is his mind. He shares with us how our minds make us human and as he does we feel what he says.
His stories of human adaptation elicit his empathy and respect for the exact truth. He has known and has been honored by scientists, poets, and his own patients. Oliver Sacks has embraced life with a great curiosity about how the brain creates the human condition. He is a member of the famous London Jewish medical Sacks family and a man who lives listening to his own drummer beat out the tune. It is amazing how one man can take in the presence of others but then anything Saks does is amazing. Looking at his family we see that he was a cousin to Israeli diplomat Abba Eban (died 2002) and to Lord Chief Rabbi of London Jonathan Sacks (now retired).
Sacks, the neurologist and author — whose books on brain-function oddities, now brings us his memoir and we see him as both a dedicated man of science and a gay bike-riding bon vivant as well. Sacks has something important to say about what it means to be gay.
Sacks came to terms rather handily with his sexuality, despite coming of age in a Great Britain where being “a homosexual” could put one in prison. “I was not too aware of what was going on all around me — or inside me — I had no crushes on anyone at school (although I was turned on by the full-size reproduction, at the head of the stairway, of the famous statue of the beautifully muscled, naked Laocoon, trying to save his sons from the serpents).” Sacks’ mother eventually came around and he even days that the death of his mother was a devastating loss. He later learned that the reason for his mother’s initial reaction came from his brother Michael’s schizophrenia. She had “lost” one son to mental illness, now “homosexuality” seemed to mean that she lost yet another son. “Homosexuality” back then was classified as a “neurosis” and was legally outlawed.
Sacks first fell in love with Richard Selig as he tells us: “I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him.” Selig, however, was straight and married and then died fifteen months later (from a lymphosarcoma Sacks himself had diagnosed).
Sacks was never sure what he wanted in another man and so he devoted himself to his work.Sacks found himself sexually uninvolved for 35 years but this was not planned and probably due to a matter of temperament. Sacks is shy and has impaired eyesight. He does not keep up with current events and is becoming hard of hearing. He says that he has always been socially awkward. Now he speaks of being aware of the deaths of his contemporaries. “My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. 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… I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved.”
For a man like Sacks, openly gay, he has made tremendous contributions to our world. I love this that he had wrote, “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” What a beautiful summary about an amazing man.