Developmental psychology was one of the most frustrating courses that I took in college. Not because of the content — I actually find psychology to be quite fascinating — it was the professor’s attitude towards the subject that grated on me. He showed no compassion when talking about his subject. We would read about all of these ways that human development could go wrong, and he would treat it all as an interesting academic phenomenon, without even a passing nod to the fact that the cases we were studying affected real people with real lives and real suffering. I found it to be very disturbing.
It’s this sense of the importance of compassion and human dignity when interacting with the human brain and mental illness that I latched on to while reading the works of Oliver Sacks. I was particularly struck by his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of cases from his years as a neurologist told with humor and compassion. Each story is examined in detail, and the situations are often heart-rending in their ultimate prognoses — yet you can tell from his writing that Sacks sees far more than just an interesting neurological case. He sees the person underneath the difficulties, and he expresses that deep, caring compassion to his reader through his words. He’s not just a doctor — he’s fighting for a better life for his patients within the context of their neurological difficulties.
After being so impressed with Oliver Sacks’ non-fiction, I wanted to read his memoir and learn more about him as a man. The experiences he describes are riveting. He was evacuated from London during the Blitz as a child of six, and describes coming back a changed boy from his time at a sadistic boarding school. Both of his parents were doctors who had their clinics in the family home, yet who struggled to find help for Oliver’s schizophrenic brother. Oliver Sacks was gay, and he describes the difficulties of being gay in the 1950s and 60s, and the differences in attitudes that he experienced in different cities — London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, New York. He describes long motorcycle rides — across Canada from east to west, or from southern California to the Grand Canyon and back in the course of a weekend — and how he came to immigrate from the UK to the US. He shows us the double life he led for a time — conscientious medical student by day, and drug-using, leather-wearing biker named “Wolf” by night.
He also explores the changes in the field of neuroscience over the course of his life, and how those changes affected his patients. He shares about his stint as a body-builder, about several near-death experiences, about his passion for motorcycles, for scuba-diving, for photography. The last quarter of the book devolves into a fair amount of name dropping, if you have regular interactions with people such as Francis Crick and Stephen Jay Gould, I suppose some name dropping can be forgiven.
Sacks’ writing style is clear and engaging, and this memoir made for a captivating read. I found out half way through my reading of it that Oliver Sacks has another memoir (one specifically about his childhood) called Uncle Tungsten, which I am planning to read next. At times, Sacks flits between stories and memories in unexpected ways, making unusual connections between memories from different points in his life, which makes for an engaging and informative read. He led a full and intriguing life, and this book made me wish I could sit down and have a conversation with him. I suppose reading his books will have to suffice.