Has any book ever had a better title than The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? When Oliver Sacks’s collection of neurological case studies was published in 1985 it became a surprise bestseller and turned its author into a celebrity. It was a dramatic turnaround for a doctor whose literary ambitions had been derided by his peers who reflexively believed anything written for a non-specialist readership must be worthless. Nowadays the majority of students who choose to study neurology say they were inspired by their discovery of Sacks’s book.
At the time of his death from cancer in August 2015, at the age of 82, Sacks was one of the best-known doctors in the world. Although it had taken him 11 years to complete his third book, A Leg to Stand On (1984), in his final two decades he published with great regularity.
This portrait by well-known documentarian, Ric Burns, begins with Sacks receiving the first copy of On the Move (2015), the second part of his autobiography. There’s quite a crowd in the room, including his partner, Bill Hayes, whom Sacks encountered late in life after decades of self-imposed loneliness and celibacy. Also present is Kate Edgar, his long-term editor and ‘writing coach’, who helped him overcome writers’ block and became essential to all the books that followed.
Sacks and everyone in the room know he has only a few months to live, so there’s a lot of sadness mixed in with the bonhomie and the jokes. Sacks’s own good cheer feels just as poignant as the constrained emotion of his friends and colleagues.
As we trawl back over the doctor’s life we begin to understand the empathy he displayed in all his dealings with his patients. Sacks had the ability to communicate with the most seriously ill and disabled people, providing a level of attention most would never have previously experienced. Sacks could do this because he was, himself, a severely damaged personality.
The trouble began where it always begins, in childhood. Sacks was born in 1933 into an orthodox Jewish family based in Golder’s Green. Both his parents were successful doctors who encouraged their children’s intellectual development and expected them to follow in their footsteps.
Sacks was precocious but also insecure, with a slight speech impediment. Matters were made worse by being sent away to a horror boarding school during the war years, and by his brother Michael’s descent into schizophrenia. When he recognised and confessed his own homosexuality Sacks’s mother turned on him savagely.
In the years that followed Sacks would plunge into one obsessive-compulsive activity after another. He took up body-building and became such a ball of muscle he won awards. His ever-growing addiction to amphetamines drove him to the brink of oblivion. After graduating from Oxford Sacks moved to California where he took his body-building and pill-popping to new extremes. Dressed in tight black leather, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, he would ride his motorbike for 30 hours non-stop, fleeing from the demons in his head. In his professional life Sacks was brilliant but erratic, his private life was a disaster.
When he eventually realised the morbid turn he had taken Sacks decided to wrest control of his obsessions and addictions. He gave up the drugs and began a course of psychoanalysis that would last for decades. He resolved to live alone and devote himself to his work. A first book, Migraine, appeared in 1970, to positive reviews. A second would document his experiences with chronically ill patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx who had been in a frozen or catatonic state since they contracted the ‘sleepy sickness’ that followed the Spanish Flu in the early 1920s.
That book, Awakenings (1973), told how these patients sprang back to life after Sacks administered a new drug called L-DOPA. It seemed like a miracle but soon a range of side-effects would set in, causing many victims to revert to their slumbers. Sacks’s story – and his engaging prose style – found an audience beyond his profession, drawing praise from literary figures such as W.H.Auden, Frank Kermode and Harold Pinter.
The book was made into a movie by Penny Marshall in 1990, with Robin Williams playing Sacks and Robert De Niro as a patient. Nominated for three Oscars, it brought Sacks a measure of fame, but he would descend into a very dark place while writing A Leg to Stand On, which described his rehabilitation from a severely broken leg. It took The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to transform him from a cult figure into a mainstream attraction.
Having managed to survive his compulsions and addictions Sacks now proved he was equally adept at negotiating the burdens of fame. His popular success brought new obligations and earned him further enmity from his peers who viewed him as a vulgar showman. His great achievement was to maintain a close attachment to clinical work and the same empathic bond with his patients, while launching into a range of specialised neurological investigations, each destined to become a book. His later publications deal with topics such as autism, visual impairment, colourblindness, deafness, and disorders relating to music. Every bit of new research into how the brain works was eagerly consumed.
It took Sacks decades to learn how to live but his friends say he put on a masterclass in demonstrating how to die. For a terminally ill man he is full of energy, charm and slightly risqué humour. All the figures Burns interviews, from old friends of his student days, such as the late Jonathan Miller; to the publisher and author, Roberto Calasso, and scientist and famous autism sufferer, Temple Grandin, are fervent admirers, even as they recognise Sacks’s many faults and eccentricities.
Sacks made friends through the warmth and sincerity of his personality, but also through his vulnerability. His most devoted companion was Bill Hayes, whose memoir of Sacks, Insomniac City, was published in 2018.
There’s no need for Ric Burns to do anything to embellish a life that remains an impossible mixture of recklessness and monkish reclusion, extroversion and shyness. Neurotic to an almost crippling degree, plagued by a range of ticks and disabilities, Sacks spared no efforts to help others overcome their pain and trauma. He wrote about scientific topics with the flair of a great novelist, bringing the most abstruse subjects before a popular audience. We hear a lot of fatuous stuff about ‘inspirational figures’ but it would take more than L-DOPA to reach anyone who could watch this film and not feel moved and inspired by Oliver Sacks.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life
Written & directed by Ric Byrnes
Starring Oliver Sacks, Bill Hayes, Kate Edgar, Roberto Calasso, Temple Grandin, Christof Koch, Jonathan Miller, Eric Kandel, Atul Gawande
USA, rated M, 114 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 November, 2020