Oliver Sacks’ On The Move

On The MoveIn December of 2014, British neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of bestselling neurology case studies such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, received a grim diagnosis: cancer cells from an earlier ocular tumour were discovered to have spread to his brain and liver, where their further advancement could not be stopped. He was given “months” to live. In February of 2015, he shared the sad news in a New York Times op-ed, in which he demonstrated a strength of spirit few possess in life and fewer still muster in the face of death: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” Fortunately for us, he had already completed his memoir On The Move prior to learning of his impending death (one of its many similarities with Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22), giving us a glimpse into his life and character, as well as the people and events that shaped him.

The first and most publicized of the book’s revelations is that Oliver Sacks was gay. We are not ten pages into the book before he shares with us his father’s surmise (“Perhaps you prefer boys?”) and his mother’s disgust: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” Consider it the first example of his good nature and acute sympathy that he contextualizes her outrage, at least in retrospect:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas – like religion and politics – where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings. My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind.

Nonetheless, this episode is placed at the very beginning of the book, and clearly fills him with a sense of shame at his very nature that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He is late to lose his virginity, and after a particularly painful romantic episode spends nearly four decades totally celibate, perhaps adopting his mother’s strategy of “partitioning” this aspect of himself. But if the young Sacks was timid and filled with guilt, he was also preternaturally gifted. He recounts one particularly telling anecdote: after finishing second-to-last in an anatomy final exam, he sought the comfort of alcohol to drown out his embarrassment. But the liquor had an unexpected emboldening effect, and he sauntered back to school to take another exam, the prestigious Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. He arrived late and wrote the exam drunk, answering only one of the seven essay questions and leaving a full hour early, but when he checked the school newspaper the next week he had won the award. The £50 prize he spent on the 12-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which he read, in full, throughout his subsequent years in medical school. I would venture to guess, of the thousands of students currently enrolled in medical school across the world, none volunteer to read the OED before they fall asleep, but the written word, no less than the wonders of science, held Sacks in thrall.

On The Move reveals a second of Sacks’ passions, both in its title and its cover photo: motorcycles. He revelled in the exhilaration of riding them all his life, from his boyhood days in England to his years in California and New York, completing his education and doing clinical work. Motorcycles were not just a method of transportation but a means of escape, and you can get a sense of his restlessness by how eagerly he sought the open road, both in longer trips across Canada and the continental United States and in shorter weekend excursions into the desert or the mountains. The book’s title comes from a poem of the same name by Thom Gunn, one of the many remarkable people Sacks befriended, and it’s not hard to imagine what aspects of the poem appealed to Sacks. Here, for example, is the poem’s first description of the riders:

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt – by hiding it, robust –
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

The “donned impersonality” of the motorcycle garb, the concealment of all doubt, and even the fraternity of the open road – all surely appealed to the young Sacks, so eager for experiences of life and so constrained, in normal settings, by his timidity and guilt. Three subsequent lines of the poem seem almost prophetic in Sacks’ case: “Much that is natural, to the will must yield / Men manufacture both machine and soul / And use what they imperfectly control / To dare a future from the chosen routes.” I am drawn to that idea of constructing a soul, of it being something not native to us but forged (Keats, in his letters, writes, “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”), and then there is that final, beautiful image of daring a future “from the chosen routes,” those well-trodden paths we all see before us that represent our future.

There is an ever-present temptation, in biographical writing generally, to read the past teleologically, to see in the child the seeds of the man, and to forget those other routes, those roads not travelled, as if it were possible to draw a straight line through time connecting the younger Sacks, making his hospital rounds in New York or pumping iron with the bodybuilders of Venice Beach, to the bestselling author of that New York Times article, and if there’s one thing On The Move does very well, it’s how it dashes this myth. We see Sacks grapple with drug addiction, for example, or turn down a comfortable residency on a quiet Canadian island in favor of New York; we see, in other words, those other routes. And we are all the more grateful for the daring route he ultimately chose.