Oliver Wolf Sacks, always “On the Move”

I just finished reading Oliver Sacks’s memoir, On the Move, and decided to write a quick blog review of this exceptional book. (If you want to read a professional book review, I suggest Michiko Kakutani’s in the New York Times or Will Self’s in the Guardian).

Sacks surprises the loyal readers of AwakeningsThe Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars with extreme tales from his youth. For example, he had a penchant for powerlifting/bodybuilding, amphetamines, hitchhiking with truckers (he goes by his middle name of “Wolf,”) and motorcycling through rural California. The peaceful-appearing neurologist even comes off as as frightening at one point, when a car full of teenagers tries to run him off the road. Sacks, 260 pounds, pursues them on his motorcycle brandishing a club, “like the mad colonel astride the bomb in the final scene of Dr. Strangelove.”

Sacks loves taking care of patients, but struggles to fit in and develop a career in medicine. He is fired from his job at Beth Abraham Hospital.  In his early years, despite publishing several well-received books, he has no faculty appointment in a department of neurology. “I am a gypsy, and survive— rather marginally and precariously— on odd jobs here and there,” he writes to one medical student.

Swimming is a theme of the book. In the water, some of his best ideas develop:

“The greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a rowboat but no motorboats or jet skis to threaten the unwary swimmer. The Lake Jeff Hotel was past its prime, and its elaborate swimming platform and rafts and pavilions were completely deserted and quietly rotting. Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.”

It could be argued that writing is actually the love of Sacks’s life (he kept over 1000 journals)

“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. 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. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.”

Sacks touches on one of the central criticisms of his work, the accusation (in my opinion, unfounded) that he has taken advantage of his patients for his literary career. How was it possible for Sacks to “write about these patients and even film them, yet continue to be seen by them as a trustworthy physician, not as someone who had exploited or betrayed them.”  

Sacks doesn’t answer the question directly, but I come away from “On The Move” trusting that he had his patients’ best interests at heart. This is an important issue for we physicians who want to write about our work. (This theme was also explored by Dr. Anna Reisman in an essay in The Atlantic.)

The bravest and most surprising part of Sacks’s book are the discussions of his sexuality. He describes his mother’s furious reaction when she learns that he is gay.

“You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.”

Sacks withdrew from his mother but felt guilty about it the rest of his life. He lost his virginity in Amsterdam while drunk (it is unclear but appears that he may have been raped).

Sacks then developed a relationship at the age of 20 with a man named Richard Selig:

“We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.”

At times while reading this book, I felt sorry for Sacks’s isolation. He lives far from his family in England and has no partner or children. In addition, as the memoir goes along, Sacks’s parents, siblings, and close friends die off, one-by-one. But happily, Sacks finds new love at the age of 75, with a writer named Billy Hayes. It is a lovely way to end this powerful memoir:

“We often swim together, at home or abroad. We sometimes read our works in progress to each other, but mostly, like any other couple, we talk about what we are reading, we watch old movies on television, we watch the sunset together or share sandwiches for lunch. We have a tranquil, many-dimensional sharing of lives— a great and unexpected gift in my old age, after a lifetime of keeping at a distance.”

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One thought on “Oliver Wolf Sacks, always “On the Move”

  1. Thanks for the review. Nice summary for someone who hasn’t read the book. For me, Sacks is to medical writing what Gould was to science writing. Both brilliant story tellers and able to intertwine science and art in their works. Tragic to hear of his mother’s rejection due to his sexuality. Does Sacks link that rejection to his risk taking (meth use, motorcycling…)?

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