For more than a decade, I have taught a seminar on the literature of medicine for Harvard freshmen. We begin with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, read stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Kafka, and William Carlos Williams, and then Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars. His portrayals of a skilled surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome and an accomplished autistic artist with eidetic memory—the ability to “see” an object that is no longer present—cause the students to rethink “abnormal” as meaning only “abject.”
This year, I also assigned the class Sacks’s recent essay “My Own Life.”1 He had received a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma and wrote that his survival is likely measured in months. He described himself as of “vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” A talented student drew a contrast with Ivan Ilych, who was passionless and shaped his behavior to strictly conform to others’ expectations. Tolstoy judged Ilych’s life as “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move, reveals how very different from that his life has been, and therefore most gratifying.
Sacks’s early case histories, many published in these pages, revealed little about his background. Then, in 1997, he wrote an essay on swimming.2 He recalled how his father was a champion swimmer, and the young Sacks learned by imitating his slow, measured strokes. Though he was nervous and clumsy on land, swimming involved adaptation and altered identity, two of Sacks’s great themes; in the water he “found a new being, a new mode of being.” His memories of the water brought intimations of mortality; noting that his father swam into his nineties, he ended the essay: “I hope I can follow him, and swim till I die.”
Four years later, his boyhood memoir Uncle Tungsten appeared.3 Sacks was raised in a traditional Jewish home filled with academic expectation. His father was a general practitioner, his mother one of the first qualified woman surgeons in England. The youngest of four brothers, Oliver had eclectic interests at a young age. The book highlighted his enthusiasm for chemistry, which I share, but I imagine some readers were not ready to immerse themselves deeply in the Periodic Table.
On the Move is a memoir of his maturity. It is tighter in focus, but still pulses with his distinctive energy and curiosity. The narrative conveys a sense of freedom, that Sacks has reached a time and position in which he can be humorous and self-deprecating, but also discuss fraught parts of his life: the profound love and admiration for his mother colored by her condemnation of his sexuality; his beloved brother Michael’s schizophrenia; being marginalized by a medical establishment that did not value his holistic approach to neurology; the roots of his perilous descent into drug abuse.
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