On the Move by Oliver Sacks – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice
On The Move - oliver sacksWriter/neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of the autobiographical Awakenings (made into a movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, an Anthropologist on Mars, a Leg to Stand on, Hallucinations, The Island of the Colorblind, The Mind’s Eye, Musciophilia, Seeing Voices, Oaxaca Journal, Migraine and Uncle Tungsten. has finally written his own biography. He is now in his eighties, still writing and this is a most intimate portrait of his life as a writer, adventurer and doctor.

Dr. Sacks is the offspring of a distinguished medical family: his father was a respected general practitioner in London England, and his mother a well known surgeon. He had three brothers – two became doctors and a third, Michael, suffered from schizophrenia and lived at home with his parents until their deaths (his father died in his nineties). When he began publishing books, his father was afraid he would be struck from the medical register in England for ‘advertising’. Such was the discretion of the profession at the time.

After he had qualified as an MD, Sacks emigrated to the United States, via Canada which he toured on a motorbike, ending up in California to requalify as a physician in the States. Once qualified, he left California, which he loved, to take up practice at the Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He longed to be a researcher but proved incompetent at it (he lost his research samples) so he became a clinician, lucky for the rest of us.

Within a few years of moving to New York, Dr Sacks began seeing patients at Beth Abraham, a chronic disease hospital. There he found the survivors of “sleepy sickness” which had swept the world in the early 1920’s. It was a form of encephalitis that had killed many thousands and survivors came down later with a form of post encephalitic syndrome that froze them in catatonic states. They  had been unable to move on their own for decades . The drug L-Dopa had just been discovered and Dr. Sacks administered it to these patients, with dramatic results which he documented in his book Awakenings.  He became a celebrity when the book was made into a film with the same name.

It is fascinating to be given access to the world of this neurologist who brought the workings of the brain to so many non medical people with his well written and popular books. He is blessed with a spirit of adventure and innovation and a profound humanity which shines through his work. He was really a writer in neurologist’s clothing. He wrote from a young age but only began publishing his observations, outside of academic papers in his early forties,  in 1073, with his book Awakenings.

Dr. Sacks’ portraits in later life show him as avuncular but the picture on the front cover of his biography shows a stunningly handsome 20 something lover of motorcycles . He reveals himself as ‘gay’ in an age when homosexual activities were illegal in America and England (he was born in 1933) and describes his trysts in some detail. He loves motorcyles and was an honourary member of the Hell’s Angels in California. He frequently  got into trouble with his superiors and was fired from a few medical jobs. But he has ended up revered both as a clinician and a writer. Such is the power of fine writing. Most joyfully for him, at the age of 75,  never having had a true partner, Dr. Sacks fell in love with a man who loved him and now has a domestic life in which he is happy. His book is dedicated to his partner

Dr. Sacks truly reveals himself in this book and it is a satisfying read.

Moving On is published by Albert A. Knopf.