Reflections on a life lived in vivid colour
On the Move: A Life By Oliver Sacks Picador, 416pp, $34.99 In February, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who practices medical writing as an art, published an essay in The New York Times announcing he was terminally ill. The cancer that cost him the sight of his right eye nine years ago has spread to his liver; he can count his remaining time in months. The announcement was made with characteristic understatement (“my luck has run out”). It was characteristic, too, in its verve. Skipping self-pity, Sacks spoke bracingly of the time he had left. Resolving to live the rest of his life ecstatically, he made you resolve to live yours that way too.
On the Move, a loose and slightly stand-offish autobiography that looks destined to be Sacks’s final work, is the book of a man who has already written his masterpieces. Writing about himself, Sacks never quite attains the focus and gusto of
May 9-10, 2015 his clinical case histories, which have been collected in books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. A famously shy man, he is at his most incisive and forthcoming when examining minds other than his own. This new book offers some clues about why that is, but it’s up to the reader to put them together. Sacks isn’t interested in treating himself as a mystery.
He was born in London in 1933. His Orthodox Jewish parents were both doctors — his mother a surgeon, his father a GP. Sacks wrote of his early years in his 2001 childhood memoir Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. When Oliver was 18, and just about to leave for Oxford, his father gently confronted him about his apparent preference for boys over girls. His mother was less subtle about it: quoting from the Book of Leviticus, she called her son an “abomination” and said she wished he’d never been born.
This outburst was never spoken of again, but it left its mark. In Britain in the 1950s, as in Australia, homosexual acts were against the law. Sacks mentions the haunting case of Alan Turing, the computer genius who helped crack the Enigma code during the war and was rewarded by being prosecuted for sodomy. Offered the choice between prison and chemical castration by hormone treatment, Turing opted for the latter.
The terrified young Sacks, then, was obliged to leave the country to have legal sex. He lost his virginity in Amsterdam at 22, in a less than ideal way. He drank himself into unconsciousness, woke up in the bed of a strange but friendly man, and was informed that he had been “buggered” in the interim. To put it another way, he was raped. Sacks himself doesn’t put it that way — it isn’t his style to make a big deal of things. Nor does he spend much time wondering, at least aloud, about the extent to which the fear and shame imposed on his sexual salad days overshadowed his later life, which has been dogged by a shyness that he has elsewhere called a “disease”.
“It has sometimes seemed to me,” he writes, “that I have lived at a certain distance from life.” He reveals, strikingly, that after a “fling” on his 40th birthday, he went without sex for 35 years. If Sacks were one of his own case studies, he’d have speculated energetically about the reasons for these things. But this isn’t that sort of autobiography. We’re told, at one point, that he has been seeing the same psychoanalyst for the past 49 years. What they’ve been talking about we’re mainly left to guess.
At 27, Sacks left Britain for Canada and then the US. The move wasn’t meant to be permanent, but he has lived and worked in the US ever since. His portrait of the neurologist as a young man, in San Francisco and then in New York, gives us a figure radically at odds with his latter-day image. The younger Sacks was a rugged long-distance motorcyclist, a record-breaking weightlifter, and a heavy user of LSD and amphetamines.
He also harboured an ambition to write. His first book was Migraine, which arose from his work at a headache clinic in the Bronx. “There is only one cardinal rule,” he wrote in the book’s conclusion. “One must always listen to the patient.” That commitment has been vital to Sacks’s success as a physician and a writer. When I first read his headache book I was suffering from hellish migraines myself and dreamed of encountering a neurologist as in-