A few months ago, I was on a Radiolab binge at work when one of my favorite guests showed up to be interviewed. Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, author of scientific classics like The Man Who Mistook his Wife as a Hat was a Radiolab staple. His enthusiasm for science and discovery shined through in his interviews, whether he was talking about his love for the Periodic Table of Elements or the strange neurological cases he’d come across in his career.
But from the start, this interview felt different. Not because of Sacks-he was acting the same. But there was something in the host’s voice, something tentative and sad that made me sit up in my chair and focus. Oliver Sacks explained that he was dying. An earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and he was in the late stages of terminal cancer. He didn’t sound too sad; instead he sounded interested. He thought what was happening to his body was fascinating. That unquenchable desire for knowledge is front in center in his memoir, On the Move.
He was born into a family of doctors, who expected him to follow their path. He dutifully attended medical school at Oxford, but when the results for his final anatomy exam were posted, Sacks scored near the bottom. Drowning his sorrows in five or six pints at the local pub, Sacks got an idea. He staggered back to the school to ask to take an optional anatomy exam to compete for a prestigious university award. He showed up late and left early, and his essay on brain structure and function won the university prize. For the rest of his life, his writing would open doors for him.
Sacks left London for California to complete a residency in neurology. That’s not the only reason he left home. One day before college, his father asked Oliver why he never brought any girlfriends around. Then he asked his son if perhaps he liked boys instead. Sacks said that he did, and begged his father not to tell his mom, sure that she wouldn’t understand. His father did tell, and Oliver was right. She called him an abomination and said, “I wish you’d never been born.”
California was freedom to him, and Sacks took tremendous advantage. He’d work a full week and hop on his motorcycle for amphetamine-fueled solo road trips. He became a competitive body-builder, once holding the California record full the full squat, lifting 600lbs. After years of hiding his sexuality, he jumped right into the casual sex scene that permeated California in the 60s.
After years of living on the brink of self-destruction from his own “too-muchness” Sacks moved to New York and there he found his calling. While working at a rehab hospital in the Bronx, he found patients who were catatonic for decades until they were reanimated by a new drug. Instead of writing stuffy case reports, he wrote about the patients, who they were and what they felt. His book about them, Awakenings, was a smash hit, turned into a hit play and movie with Robin Williams playing Sacks.
His books were about the patients, not the disease. He wrote about one woman who came to him, complaining that she could hear music all the time, and she couldn’t recognize the songs. After running some tests, he determined she’d had a minor stroke that was causing her to hear music. Case closed. But Sacks was still curious about the music. The woman was born in Ireland, and shipped to relatives in America after her parents died. After doing some research, Sacks realized the songs she was hearing were Irish ballads that were popular when she was a child in Ireland. He told her what she was hearing could be her long-dead mother singing.
I think that story sums Sacks up. He was never content with simplicity. He always had to dig deeper, to excavate the “how” and the “why.” His memoir is a celebration of what it means to be alive, and you’ll close this book hoping you can live just half as much as Sacks did.