Living life at full speed
Before he became one of the world’s most accomplished neurologists, Oliver Sacks used to hit the open road at night, rev his motorcycle up to 160 km/h, then lie flat over the tank and stare at the road to reach an altered state of perception: he felt poised motionless while the planet rotated beneath him. Sacks failed as a conventional researcher, dropping hamburger crumbs into the lab equipment or carelessly tossing precious samples into the garbage. But when it comes to understanding and explaining how our brains perceive and make sense of the real world, no one has done it better than Sacks.
In his new autobiography, On the Move: A Life, the eminent British-American scientist and bestselling author, now 81, has been obsessed with sensation for most of his life. And what a sensational life it’s been. We knew the Oxford-educated Sacks had achieved worldwide fame for his dozen books about the brain ( The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Musicophilia). What we didn’t know was this same doctor battled a four-year addiction to speed, broke powerlifting records in California by squatting 270 kilograms, almost died twice while swimming or scuba diving in hazardous oceans and befriended fascinating people in the arts and the sciences, giving us glimpses into actors Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, poets W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn and DNA guru Francis Crick.
Starting out as a migraine specialist, Sacks felt a duty to learn all about his patients’ lives, not just their symptoms. These case histories not only aided him in diagnoses, but became fascinating fodder for scholarly papers as well as books and films for a lay audience.
His interests grew to include colourblindness, hallucinations, Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, deafness and autism. Sometimes criticized for profiting from people’s life stories, he admits a nearly helpless identification with patients. Once he risked getting fired to grant a woman her dying wish: to ride on the back of his motorbike through California’s Topanga Canyon.
Sacks is a man of extremes. He’d go for a six-hour swim for fun. When asked to write an article for a U.S. weekly, he sent nine different manuscripts. Acknowledging his love of science is chiefly literary, he’s filled nearly a thousand journals. He admits his insatiable, dangerous curiosity sometimes leads him into “too-muchness.” As an old friend said when she found him in a drug-induced delirium, “Oliver, you chump! You always overdo things.”
His love life has been all or nothing: after several brief affairs, he remained celibate from age 40 to 75, when he fell in love with his current partner, author Billy Hayes — a relationship he calls “a great and unexpected gift in my old age.”
Sacks’s memoir is as unconventional as his life. Loosely chronological, it veers off on unexpected detours, sometimes jumping continents and decades, while remaining intensely personal. A compelling and compulsive storyteller, Sacks makes you feel you’re in the room with him as he recalls a narrative, which triggers another anecdote, which then leads to yet another memory of a different time and place.
On the Move is a pleasantly disordered but eminently readable abundance, suggestive of what his constantly firing brain must be like and what his frustrated bosses and editors must have experienced. “I get intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts,” he writes, almost apologetically, “and am too impatient to put them in the right order.”
A sequel of sorts to his memoir Uncle Tungsten, about his boyhood, On the Move may well be Sacks’s last book. He revealed in February he has terminal cancer. But this entertaining and revealing memoir caps off a fine legacy of a full-tothe-brim life. Sacks’s Auntie Len used to call her favourite nephew “ridiculous, brilliant and altogether delightful.” After reading On the Move, I’d say Auntie Len is right. Health journalist Marcia Kaye is the winner of a 2015 Accolade Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, based in Washington, D.C.