A life well-lived; The uniqueness of Oliver Sacks
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 July 2015)

As 2015 began he was in good health, an 81-year-old who swam a mile every day, but in February he had to recognize that his luck had run out. A melanoma that struck nine years earlier, leaving him blind in one eye, had metastasized and re-appeared in his liver. So Oliver Sacks, the man who told us so many enriching stories about life and death, began to write the story of his own death.

With only months to live, he announced in a New York Times piece that he planned to live these closing days "in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can." He would deepen his friendships, say farewell to those he loves, travel while his strength lasts, write more -- and perhaps achieve new insights. "I feel intensely alive," he wrote. When he received the bad news, he had projects in hand. Always prolific, he had several books nearly finished and one going to press: his autobiography, On the Move: A Life (Knopf Canada).

In this powerful and impassioned summing-up, he tells us that storytelling is his greatest pleasure. He began with a knack for it and obviously worked hard to sharpen his skill. Since the appearance of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985, his acute narrative sense has won readers all over the world.

In praising the late Spalding Gray, he wrote: "He was a gifted inventor of the truth, of whatever seemed true to him at the moment." So is Sacks. His stories of the fascinating oddities of neurological patients are both true and inventive. He knows which facts to emphasize, which to tell early in the story to seize our interest, which to hold back for the right moment.

Sacks describes a life mainly successful and fortunate but he handles the soul-shaking disasters as effectively as the triumphs. Revealing his sexuality was painful and at times mortifying. In adolescence he knew he had sexual feelings about men and boys. His father guessed that was the case and Sacks acknowledged it: "Yes, I do -- but it's just a feeling -- I have never 'done' anything."

The next morning his mother came down to breakfast with a face of thunder, a face Sacks had never seen before. "You are an abomination," she said. That cruel word must have dominated the boy's mind for years. Sacks doesn't tell us how he and his mother reconciled, but they did. His nervous shyness limited his sexual life for a long time, until he recently settled happily with a partner.

His urge to experiment inspired a more dangerous crisis. He became addicted to amphetamines, used in larger and larger doses. He knew he was threatening his health by raising his blood pressure but he couldn't bear to give up the rush of pleasure. That phase lasted four years and required intense therapy before he recovered his senses.

In his twenties Sacks settled on the profession of medicine, but approached it with trepidation. When he qualified in 1958 he was excited and amazed to find himself a doctor, but also terrified. "I felt sure I would do everything wrong, make a fool of myself." He set out for North America, explored the Rockies in Canada, then went south and did his internship in California.

When he got there, a new version of Sacks appeared. A motorcyclist, he found freedom roaring down the coastal roads, thrilled by the way his motorcycle responded like part of his body; bike and rider became "a single, indivisible entity." Tastes and hobbies changed. He took up competitive weight-lifting and set a California record. On the road he blundered into a Hells Angels gang and became their friend for a while, assisting them with problems that required medical help. He became a regular body builder at the famous Muscle Beach, near the Santa Monica pier. He grew close to the late Thom Gunn, a celebrated gay poet from Britain; the title On the Move is borrowed from one of Gunn's books.

Sacks remained in the U.S., partly because there were already too many doctors named Sacks in London: His mother, his father, his brother David, an uncle, and three first cousins. The family was remarkable in other ways. One of his cousins was Abba Eban, who became Israel's foreign minister. Another was Al Capp, creator of Li'l Abner.

The reader learns a lot about the Sacks family, including Oliver's tormented schizophrenic brother, Michael. Clearly, the frustration and guilt that Sacks felt over Michael was one reason he chose to spend his career studying the brain. And his experience with Michael perhaps created the empathy for patients that fill several of his books, including this one.

His profession and his private life inevitably became linked. When he lost the use of one eye, he reflected: "I now had many new, disabling (but sometimes enthralling!) phenomena to contend with -- and investigate, of course." He appreciated the leaders of his specialty, except one man who directed his earliest work in a headache clinic. Sacks wrote up his observations for publication and showed his paper to his boss, who denounced it as useless and then stole it.

In recent years Sacks has been stimulated by the work of Gerald M. Edelman (1929-2014), a Nobel Prize-winning biologist in San Diego. Edelman's "neural Darwinism" opened a new explanation of the way the human brain develops during the life of an individual: As we move through the years we absorb new perceptions, which become the basis for maps created in the brain. Neurons map and re-map their functions, perhaps improving our abilities, demonstrating again the recently discovered plasticity of the brain. Sacks sees Edelman's idea as the first biological theory of individuality and autonomy.

The fate of everyone is to be unique, as Sacks wrote. "There is no one like anyone else, ever." We are all odd in one way or another and perhaps the highest value of his work lies in his ability to help us appreciate our inevitable and often beautiful uniqueness.

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