On the Move by Oliver Sacks

by Jeff Booth
Review of On the Move- A Life by Oliver Sacks

In light of this month being proclaimed LGBT Pride Month, I thought it might be appropriate to review a book by one of my favorite writers, a writer of whom it was not generally known was gay until fairly recently. He did not come out until this book was published. Being gay is an important part of the story of his life, but primarily because it was a life lived when being gay was simply not a safe thing to be.

I have been a big fan of the writings of Neurologist Oliver Sacks for a long time- long before I was struck by a bizarre neurological condition of the type that he so often wrote about. What made Sacks such a great read was his detailed clinical accounts that were so spectacularly well written.

When I did become neurologically challenged, his frequent references in many of his books to the fact that where there were neurological deficits there tended to also be some benefits I took strongly to heart. Had it not been for his books, I may never have searched for those benefits, and that led to creating a huge library of digitally restored art for the Center for Sexual Expression and Education, and a massive book to go along with them.

This book is both similar and very different from his other books. This time he is the subject, not just the observer. Dr. Sacks is always an important character in his books, but not the main subject. Here we get an entirely different view of the man played by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings.

The young Dr. Sacks was a handsome, athletic, and a body-building motorcycle riding daredevil. He abused and was addicted to drugs, a rather problematic thing for a doctor. He also struggled with his sexuality, since at the time in his native England, it was illegal. The fates of his two brilliant and gay compatriots, Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, were very much on his mind.

He was a risk taker to the point of extremes. I could not even keep track of all the times he wrote about some stunt of his almost getting him killed. I sometimes wondered while reading the book if this was not a result of his own very conflicted sexuality. Did he often look for extreme experiences as a substitute for the sexual relationships he was so seldom able to have?

His told his father that he was gay when he was a teenager, and his father told his mother, despite his pleading for him not to. Her response was to tell him “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”

He was celibate for some 35 years for reasons he never fully explains. The closest he comes to an explanation is when he writes, referring to his mother, that “Her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.”

His life story is fascinating. When he began writing his clinical accounts, they became popular with the general public, but the medical profession virtually ignored them, despite their providing some of the best documentation of neurological case studies ever recorded. He writes about the long journey to gain acceptance in his own profession. From our perspective today, he is seen as a brilliant neurologist with remarkable observation skills, but it took him a long time to get to that level of universal respect.

Despite the fact that he has been an enormously prolific and successful author, he writes of how much of a struggle all of his early books were, including the ground-breaking The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He wrote with such a strong voice and great confidence, and yet he was filled with self doubt and re-wrote things endlessly.

The book is a fascinating journey into the life of a brilliant man who contributed to our understanding of how the mid works, and what happens when it does not work properly. No one has done a better job of describing and chronicling what people experience with cognitive deficits, while at the same time embracing their humanity.

There is somewhat of a happy ending. At the age of 77, he met and fell in love with author Bill Hayes. They were happily together until his death. He wrote “It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love.”