On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

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Reviewed by Simon

Oliver Sacks’ works are pretty much the only non-fiction books I read that aren’t about literature; for over thirty years he has been writing accessible books about all aspects of neurology, from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to Hallucinations. Recent news that he has a terminal illness has saddened his many fans, and brought his name to new people. For those wanting to know more about him and his work, his autobiography is, of course, an excellent place to start – and is no less an achievement than his other books.

Curiously enough, Sacks spends almost no time at all discussing his childhood. A page or two into On the Move and he is a student at Oxford – winning an exam prize he entered while under the influence, and using the money to buy the Oxford English Dictionary. That strange little sentence encapsulates much of Sacks’ character in his youth. Those of us who only know him as a kindly professor type were rather surprised by the image on the cover – an attractive, muscular young man astride a motorbike – and his early years do come as rather a shock. Who would have thought that Sacks was addicted to motorbikes and, yes, drugs. He writes about his years-long drug addictions (and the effects of these) in a fairly casual manner, while still recognising the impact and dangers of them. It’s no secret to people who’ve read Hallucinations that Sacks took hallucinogenics, but the extent of his addiction was news to me.

It’s also quite strange to read about the sex life of Sacks; he is gay (I don’t know if this was known before the publicity for On the Move) and describes casual flings and flirtations. His first sexual experience, though, was being raped. The most extraordinary thing in this book, to my mind, is the fact that he mentions this as though it were not significant, and then moves straight on:

He had seen me lying dead drunk in the gutter, he said, had taken me home… and buggered me. “Was it nice?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. Very nice – he was sorry I was too out of it to enjoy it as well.

And that is it.

But this autobiography is not simply a confessional of Sacks’ youth, of course. More familiar territory is reached when he starts discussing his scientific career and his publications. Necessarily, there is some overlap with his existing books, although most frustrating are mentions of books that he started and stopped or (worse!) lost – he seems to have been incredibly clumsy with manuscripts, and I tore my hair out a bit to read that he lost his work on Alzheimer’s, which would have been so fascinating to read. Less painfully, there are also plenty of anecdotes and more personal elements to those accounts that will be new. And this one involves the motorbike…

Another patient on the ward, blind and paralyzed, was dying from a rare condition called neuromyelitis opitca, or Devic’s disease. When she heard that I had a motorbike and lived in Topanga Canyon, she expressed a special last wish: she wanted to come for a ride with me on my motorbike, up and down the loops of Topanga Canyon Road. I came to the hospital one Sunday with three weight-lifting buddies, and we managed to abduct the patient and lash her securely to me on the back of the bike. I set out slowly and gave her the ride to Topanga she desired. There was outrage when I got back, and I thought I would be fired on the spot. But my colleagues – and the patient – spoke up for me, and I was strongly cautioned but not dismissed. In general, I was something of an embarrassment to the neurology department but also something of an ornament – the only resident who had published papers – and I think this might have saved my neck on several occasions.

It is a truism of biographies and autobiographies to say that the subjects are fascinating contradictions – but Sacks is, in many ways. His shy and solitary nature seem at odds with, say, his bravado in the Muscle Beach crowd; it’s a contradiction he is more than aware of himself, even if he cannot entirely explain it.

I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weight lifting. My motive, I think, was not an uncommon one; I was not the ninety-eight-pound weakling of bodybuilding advertisements, but I was timid, diffident, insecure, submissive. I became strong – very strong – with all my weight lifting but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same.

An area in which his character comes to life – as it does in all of his works – is in discussing patients. While he may remain mystified by some elements of his own character, he is astonishingly astute in discussing those he helps, always seeing them in their full humanity – as individuals rather than case studies. There is the odd scientific sentence that left me scratching my head (‘I was intrigued by the strangeness of a pathology which seemed aimed only at nerve axioms, leaving the bodies of the nerve cells and the myelin sheaths of the axioms untouched’), but accessibility remains his watchword. And that accessibility comes from a fundamental kindness. This, which he wrote in a letter, encapsulates his whole approach to being both a doctor and a writer:

I find every patient I see, everywhere, vividly alive, interesting and rewarding; I have never seen a patient who didn’t teach me something new, or stir in me new feelings and new trains of thought; and I think that those who are with me in these situations share in, and contribute to, this sense of adventure. (I regard all neurology, everything, as a sort of adventure!)

It is what makes him both such a brilliant writer and a brilliant human being. For anybody else who seldom looks outside fiction and literature-related non-fiction – we can only marvel that one of the greatest storytellers of our time just happened to be telling true stories. On the Move gracefully adds to them.

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Simon is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Oliver Sacks, On the Move: a Life (Picador: London, 2015) 978-1447264040, 397pp., hardback.

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