Saturday, 10 October 2015

"On the Move" with Oliver Sacks

The recent death of the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks made me more determined than ever to read his final work, his autobiography "On the Move". I owed it to him, for I owe him my sanity.

Once upon a time there was a university student prone to distressing bouts of obsessive thoughts, rages, and who's strange ticcing behaviours had been remarked upon, and made fun of, for years. By my final year at University, with finals approaching, I just didn't know what to do any more. I'd seen counsellors and psychiatrists throughout my studies, and none of them knew what was happening to me. I was really struggling to cope.

One mental health nurse suggested schizophrenia. That went down really well.

In the University bookshop, I idly picked up a copy of his anthology "An Anthropologist on Mars", opened it at random to a chapter on a surgeon with Tourette's Syndrome, and found myself reading standing up in the bookshop, beginning to end.

Reading about me.

A year later, I was given my formal diagnosis, and the improvement in my well being was immediate, simply because I knew it "wasn't my fault" any more, and I wasn't mad. Still been a rocky path, but I'm still here!

As for his book, there are many surprises to learn about the cuddly, bearded fellow, the one essentially played by Robin Williams in "Awakenings", the cinematic adaptation of his book of the same name. You can see from the picture that he was a leather clad biker, a neurological  Kerouac-ian hero, a traveller. A bear of a man.

He was also a drug addict for a large part of the 1960s who nearly killed himself with amphetamines, a Muscle Beach powerlifter and record holder, and a gay man who was celibate for 35 years at one point. Indeed the account of how he lost his virginity, which would be essentially rape in modern terminology, is shocking in his calm acceptance of the situation.

What he also makes clear that he was never a great researcher in neurology, rather his fame came from his sympathetic care of his patients combined with his deep observational skill. He has been criticised for exploiting his patients, but to me he stays on the right side of the ethical tightrope - bringing the study of the intricacies of the brain to mere mortals, without compromising his position as a carer. However, he does make it clear that he had to shelve a documentary on one of his Tourette patients after they made threats against him, and his use of terms like "idiots" to describe certain conditions is very jarring to the modern reader.

Indeed,  it is his accounts of his freewheeling early life and forays into writing case studies, that form the most readable section of the book. After the 1968-73 period where he describes his work with his "Awakenings" sleepy sickness patients, things begin to flag rather as has life settles down and he gives up his motorbike. A major section towards the end, where he describes a new theory of "neuronal evolution" will almost certainly blow the synapses of a non-expert reader. Fans of his case study writing may also be disappointed, but obviously those works are available to read in their own right.

But overall it is a fascinating account of a deeply human and important man, and I enjoyed it greatly.


All text and images copyright CreamCrackeredNature 10.10.15


  1. He was a complex man. Love your very heartfelt review.

  2. Thank you for this very self-revealing post and the review on Sachs's book. I didn' t know that he had died. I have two grandchildren with 'problems' who would I am sure have benefitted from his wisdom. One has for ten years or more struggled with his sexuality and the other is a 'loner' who is also extremely clever. People can be so cruel to anyone who is different from what they consider the 'norm'. Well done Si for speaking out for the 'different'.

  3. I am so very glad you came across Oliver Sacks all those years ago! It is amazing what a difference it makes when there is a “name” for the condition one is dealing with and a way of finally making sense of what is happening. Really great review, Si!

  4. It must have been a g reat relief to find your diagnosis. Sacks was a fascinating man and writer and I need to read more of his books

  5. A very moving post Simon and thanks so much for your review of his book. So pleased to hear he made such a difference to your life.

  6. I'm very pleased you discovered his book that day- not feeling alone and knowing someone understands and can make sense of things makes such a difference. He sounds a very human man rather than a remote one.

  7. Thank you so much for your kind comments, I always worry about being too revealing on a post such as this, especially when this blog is essentially part of my portfolio, but I thought it was a book worthwhile talking about, and also putting in a personal context