Thanks to a media-friendly personality and bestselling books like Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia, physician and author Oliver Sacks is a familiar cultural figure, sort of everybody's charming, eccentric, really brilliant uncle.
But take a look at the cover photo on Sacks' new memoir, On the Move. He wasn't always your nice old uncle. Once upon a time, he was a dude with a body builder physique and a leather jacket, sitting astride a powerful motorcycle with a look on his face that suggests he's thinking about nothing but the next big adventure.
Those adventures fill this memoir, a mostly fond look back at a remarkable life. On the Move is entertaining and illuminating and sometimes shocking, and it's given a deep tinge of poignancy by Sacks' public announcement in February that he has terminal cancer. If On the Move is his effort, at age 81 and in the face of death, to record a life well lived, he has succeeded beautifully.
The book opens with a passage about his passion for speed, especially for motorbikes, which he rode and raced beginning in his teens. They're a fitting metaphor for a life lived in high gear, often exposed to risk but also to joy.
Sacks grew up in London, one of four sons in an accomplished family; his father, two brothers, an uncle and several cousins were all doctors, and so, more notably for the times, was his mother, who was a surgeon and gynecologist. (His relatives also included Israeli politician Abba Eban and American cartoonist Al Capp.)
The family was nevertheless quite traditional, even Victorian. When Sacks' first book, Migraine, received a favorable review in the Times of London in 1971, his father was appalled. It was, Sacks writes wryly, "a grave impropriety, if not a criminal folly" for a proper person to be mentioned in the newspaper at all. Yet his father calmly accepted the teenage Sacks' reluctant admission that he was attracted to boys; not so his mother, who called him an "abomination" and said she wished he'd never been born. She never spoke of it again, but it clearly still stings him all these decades later.
His family is a recurring theme in the book, especially his relationship with his brother Michael, who struggled for most of his life with schizophrenia and was an inspiration for the author's lifelong quest to explore the workings of the human brain. But On the Move also covers Sacks' careers as a neurologist and writer as well as his personal life, all of which are packed with enough accomplishment for a dozen people.
Sacks was first unsure he wanted to be a doctor at all, and he describes his efforts to succeed on the research side as a comical catastrophe. But as a clinician, hands-on with patients, he found his strength. Doing a rotation in obstetrics as a medical student at a time when most babies were delivered at home by midwives, with doctors assisting, he was gratified by the emotional contact with the patients and their families. His belief that such personal human connections are essential to practicing medicine is illustrated by his best-known case, his work with patients who had been rendered unresponsive, even catatonic, for decades by the "sleepy sickness" epidemic in the 1920s. Their transformations while taking the drug L-dopa became the subject of his book Awakenings and the Oscar-nominated 1990 film of the same name.
Such successes, though, don't seem to be what drive Sacks. Over and over he mentions turning down job offers that don't engage his curiosity and working for nothing or next to it on projects he feels intensely about.
And he pursues other interests with just as much intensity. As a young man, after he moved to the United States in 1960, he lived in Venice Beach, Calif., and got involved in the body building scene there — so much so that he bulked up to almost 300 pounds and set a state record for a 600-pound full squat. He also developed a more dangerous passion for methamphetamines (speed again!) that for a time turned into a full-blown addiction.
Another of his passions — one we can be grateful for — is writing. He estimates he has written millions of words, in thousands of personal journals and detailed clinical notes as well as in his dozen earlier books and countless articles and letters.
His zest for narrative keeps On the Move true to its title as he caroms from one story to the next. He recounts his friendships with the famous, such as actors Jonathan Miller and Robin Williams and writers W.H. Auden, Stephen Jay Gould and Thom Gunn. (The book's title is borrowed from a poem by Gunn.) He's just as interesting, though, on his friends who are not recognizable names — for him, everyone has a fascinating story.
Some of those stories are self-contained, but Sacks is also good at creating suspense — and making us wait for its resolution. Best example: He describes a happy erotic adventure on his 40th birthday, then writes, "It was just as well that I had no foreknowledge of the future, for after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next thirty-five years." Rest assured, though, that when he finally circles back to that subject it has a lovely last act.
"The act of writing," Sacks tells us, "when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper." How lucky that, in On the Move, we get to take the trip with him.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.