Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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Tribute: Oliver Sacks

Posted on August 30, 2015 at 9:17 am

We mourn the passing of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who illuminated the workings of the brain and set an example of grace and compassion that extended to the way he shared his thoughts about his terminal diagnosis.

I first learned of his work when I read his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, stories about his patients. Those extreme examples of impairment of perception, cognition, and functioning were utterly absorbing. Sacks’ dedication and kindness, his deep connection to the humanity of his patients, the lyricism of his descriptions, are profound and moving.

His work inspired art. The best known is Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall, with Robin Williams playing a character based on Sacks and Robert De Niro playing one of his “locked-in” post-encephalitic patients. They were thought to be incurably impaired, almost completely, until Sacks proposed a new treatment. They were brought back to life, but, tragically, only briefly.

Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter adapted another of Sacks’ stories into a play, “A Kind of Alaska.”

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was adapted into an opera.

Another of my favorite books is An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. It did more than provide insights into the way people with autism perceive the world; it allowed neurotypicals to see the world through the mind of Temple Grandin, which gave her opportunities to tell her own story in books and in an award-winning film where she was played by Claire Danes.

I was privileged to see Dr. Sacks speak twice. He was candid about his own impairments, including prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces). His book, A Leg to Stand On describes his own experience as a patient, following a severe leg injury that affected his perception of his own body. His depth of understanding encompassed all ways of perceiving to demonstrate that what we think of as “normal” is just one small part of the range of human experience. His legacy should inspire everyone to think more about how the perceptions of those around us affect the way they see the world and to do more to meet them where they are and to build on what we share.

May his memory be a blessing.

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Awakenings

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Malcolm Sayer, a shy neurologist (Robin Williams), is assigned to work with patients for the first time after his research funding is cut off. His patients, all but catatonic, are in a ward called “the garden,” because their only treatment consists of “watering and feeding.” Ever since an epidemic of encephalitis (“sleeping sickness”) decades before, they have not spoken or appeared to understand anything that was going on around them. Everyone else has given up hope, but Sayer, approaching them as a researcher, notices that they are capable of reflex reactions, and believes that new medication used for patients with Parkinson’s disease may help these patients, too. Over the objections of the doctors in charge, he gets permission to try it on one patient, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro).

At first, there is no reaction, but soon Leonard “awakens.” His transformation is so thrilling that Malcolm is easily able to get permission and funding to treat the other patients. They, too, awaken, some more fully than others. A one-time musician does not speak, but plays the piano. Some of them are horrified at the time they have lost. But most are giddy with the pleasures of being alive. Malcolm takes Leonard outside, and Leonard’s embrace of everything around him contrasts sharply with the inhibitions of Malcolm, who hesitates to try anything but his work, and cannot even bring himself to have a cup of coffee with a friendly nurse (Julie Kavner).

Leonard becomes impatient to experience more. He develops a warm friendship with the daughter of another patient in the hospital (Penelope Ann Miller). He asks for permission to leave the hospital on his own. But he becomes hyperactive, angry, and ridden with tics. The medication’s side effects begin to overwhelm him. Malcolm sees that he is losing Leonard, and the other patients know that it must soon happen to them, too.

Soon, all of them are returned to their previous state of catatonia, the only evidence of their brief awakening the greater respect and affection they receive from the staff, and their impact on Malcolm, who heeds Leonard’s call to life by reaching out to the nurse.

Discussion: This movie is based on the book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was the basis for the character Malcolm Sayer. It is a powerful and moving story, brilliantly acted and directed. Like Malcolm, we can all use a reminder to appreciate the pleasures of being alive, including the pleasures that require us to take risks.

Families who see this movie should talk about what the neurologist means when he says, “because the implications of that would be unthinkable?” Why would he prefer to believe that the patients are not aware of what is going on? Were you surprised by the way any of the patients reacted to being “awakened?” Which reaction was most like the way you think you might feel? Why is it hard for Malcolm to interact with other people? How does Leonard change the way Malcolm behaves? Why does the staff treat the patients differently after the awakening, even when they go back the way they were?

Compare this movie to Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” especially Emily’s speech after her death, about what she misses and what she wants the living to be aware of.

Scriptwriter Steven Zaillian also wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List and wrote and directed Searching for Bobby Fischer. Teens will enjoy reading the Sacks book, and some of his others, especially The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, with astonishing and compassionate descriptions of some of his neurology patients.

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