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Autobiography: In search of self and science

Nature volume 521, pages 158159 (14 May 2015) | Download Citation

Tim Radford revels in Oliver Sacks's memoir of his youth as a biker, druggie, muscle-builder — and scientist.

On the Move: A Life

Oliver Sacks

Alfred A. Knopf: 2015. 9781447264040

A young man sets out to find himself. He discovers motorbikes, leather, speed and thrills, lives on a kibbutz and has a learning experience with a prostitute in Paris. (The climax is a shared pot of lapsang souchong tea.) In the United States, as a young medic, he takes to the road on his motorcycle: Easy Rider in the landscape of John Steinbeck. He also takes to marijuana, LSD, methamphetamine and morning-glory seeds. He has the appetite for science but not the patience for research. He is drawn to the helpless, the hopeless and the lost, but manages to annoy the hell out of his peers, so he drifts from job to job.

This is the stuff of a certain kind of mid-twentieth-century novel. It is also the youth chronicled by Oliver Sacks in what might be his final reminiscence, On the Move. If it is the last, it is the coda to an astonishing life: Sacks is a scientist, a doctor of medicine and a clinical consultant who has also had a brilliant career as a best-selling author and man-about-neuroscience.

Oliver Sacks in New York in 1961. Image: Douglas White

None of Sacks's journey into mythic America was planned. The enthusiastic biker who first crossed the Atlantic from Britain in 1960 with vague dreams of joining the Royal Canadian Air Force or becoming a lumberjack instead achieved enduring recognition and status as professor of neurology at New York University. But you might not predict it from this account of uncertain beginnings and peripatetic adventures.

Sacks, who had been a junior doctor at the Middlesex Hospital in London, became an intern of uncertain migrant status working with neurosurgeons at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. He fell in love with California, and hung around Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, birthplace of the US gym revolution. Here as elsewhere, he did nothing by halves, consuming “five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes per evening” to bulk up for his power lifts. He broke a weightlifting record (“a squat with a 600-pound bar on my shoulders”) and several bones. His capacity for alcohol matched his appetite for learning (at around 17, deep in James Joyce's titanic 1922 novel Ulysses, he sipped his way through a litre of aquavit during the North Sea ferry crossing from Norway) and his ability to connect with others.

That talent was to inform his understanding of patients, colleagues and readers. His friends have ranged from truck drivers and Hells Angels to polymath-director-scientist Jonathan Miller, geneticist Francis Crick, poet W. H. Auden — and Hollywood star and muscleman connoisseur Mae West, who chatted him up while he was moonlighting at a Los Angeles hospital.

At the heart of this picaresque adventure is an unhappy secret. When Sacks admitted in 1951, aged 18, that he might prefer boys to girls, his mother called him “an abomination” and wished that he had never been born. However, nothing 'abominable' had yet happened. That was to hit several years later, when, determined to lose his virginity, he headed to Amsterdam and its gay bars, but drank so much gin that he was unconscious during his deflowering.

“This is a compelling front-line dispatch from half a century's wonderful exploration of brain, mind and nervous system.”

Sacks was not without connections and luck — a loving medical family in London, a scholarship to the University of Oxford, cousins including iconic US cartoonist Al Capp and Abba Eban, the Israeli scholar and diplomat. After the success of Sacks's first book, Migraine (Vintage, 1970), his father joked that he no longer spoke of himself as “Abba Eban's uncle” but as “the father of Oliver Sacks”. And can he write? Over his life, Sacks has filled 1,000 notebooks and journals, not counting journalism, medical notes and a lost suitcase full of photographs and notes — written in bars and restaurants, up mountains and in airports. He has more than a dozen books in print. Harold Pinter wrote a play inspired by his second book, Awakenings (HarperPerennial, 1973); Penny Marshall directed the film. Awakenings also inspired a ballet, and Peter Brook directed a French theatre production of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Summit, 1985). Michael Nyman wrote an opera on the same work.

Some of On The Move feels ripe for a US heavyweight such as the novelist James Baldwin. Other parts are untidily told, padded with extracts from letters home or the young adventurer's first attempts at writing. It is not quite clear how that youthful, ready-for-anything medic metamorphosed into a distinguished professor. We piece the story together from anecdotes of foolhardy adventure and episodes of clinical encounter. Sacks writes about people with migraines, Tourette's syndrome or Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, colour blindness, serious mental illness and the post-encephalitics of the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York, who are the subjects of Awakenings. These are the stuff of his books: not just medical cases, but warm, quirky and aware.

This is another compelling front-line dispatch from half a century's wonderful exploration of brain, mind and nervous system. It is a valedictory memoir, and one with a tentatively happy ending. At 76, this lonely writer (“it has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life”) found enduring love. But the book's text was handed to the publisher before Sacks, now 81, was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He has just written about that in The New York Review of Books, and of — in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche — “a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow”. Here's hoping there may yet be an epilogue.

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  1. Tim Radford is a former science editor of The Guardian, and author of The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things.

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Correspondence to Tim Radford.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/521158a

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