|Jul/Aug 2015 Reviews & Interviews|
On The Move
Picador. 2015. 397 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4427 6405 7.
Oliver Sachs is well-known for books such as The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and Musicophilia, which describe the lives of people with strange medical conditions. His books on migraine and hallucinations are less well-known, but to those who suffer from those conditions, equally easy-to-read and enlightening; and in Uncle Tungsten, he wrote autobiographically of his early years and his fascination with chemistry. His image as a dedicated doctor who is interested in the lives of his patients is well established, and although he has briefly touched on his personal experimentation with drugs, there is little to prepare the reader for the character which emerges in On The Move.
The cover photograph of Sachs posed in leathers astride a powerful motor-bike is the first hint that this book is very different from the others. This is his autobiography in full, covering his obsession with speed, his body-building, his experimentation with mind-altering drugs, his homosexuality, his friends and family, his medical career, his books, and his passion for writing.
Sachs fascination with motor-bikes began early with his father's pre-war Scott Flying Squirrel and progressed through teenage adventures and near-death accidents on a little BSA Bantam to ownership of a seriously powerful BMW R60. Along with motor-bikes went an interest in photography and, once he moved from London to California, a renewed interest in weight-lifting that turned into an obsession. "Bulking up" on a diet of double cheeseburgers and milk-shakes in between duties as an intern at Mount Zion Hospital, he eventually trained himself up to a level at which he was able to win the Californian squat record with a 600-pound bar, and later when he moved to Muscle Beach, to perform a 515-pound front squat and beat the local champion, after which he was know as "Doctor Squat." His strength came in handy once, he notes in a typical Sachs anecdote, when he was able to grab a collapsing patient and hold him upside down to prevent "coning," a condition in which excessive pressure in the head drives "the brain-stem and cerebellar tonsils" though the base of the skull.
Sachs freely admits he was "taking plenty of drugs in those days," but never steroids. He describes his one hallucinatory experience with Artane, the anti-Parkinsonian drug, and he tells of his unintended addiction to amphetamines and his withdrawal from them.
He is open about his homosexuality. Admitting to his father when he was 18 that he preferred boys was acceptable, but his mother called him "an abomination" and never spoke of it again. At one point he suggests this was the reason he pushed himself so relentlessly in weight lifting, but although he was "timid, diffident, insecure, submissive," the weight-lifting did nothing to change that; it just made him stronger.
Interspersed throughout the book are his accounts of his medical interest and descriptions of patients and their conditions. Much of this was the basis for his earlier books, and it is his anecdotal accounts of the way in which people adapt and cope with their conditions that makes his medical writing interesting and illuminates his own character as a doctor. His admiration for the Soviet neuropsychologist, A.R.Luria, and in particular, Luria's book Mind of a Mnemonicist (which Sachs describes as having the structure of a novel), has clearly influenced the way in which he collects full case-histories and sees his patients as individuals, rather than just as a medical condition to be studied and treated. It is this, too, that has shaped his medical writing.
In spite of an admitted lack of confidence, Sachs has always been fluent as a writer. After an extremely long process of cutting and editing by his publisher, A Leg to Stand On was ready for publication when Sachs broke his leg after slipping on a patch of black ice. Typically, he wrote at length about his experience of this and wanted to add it to his book. His publisher declined to accept it, joking, "Oliver! You'd do anything for a footnote."
It is Sachs' fluency that, if anything, is a problem with this book, and you sometimes know how his editor felt. He jumps around all over the place with times. One minute you are in London with his 90-year-old father, the next you are back in his 1960 motor-cycling days. So, too, with anecdotes about friends and family, although with friends such as Thom Gunn, W.H. Auden, Jonathan Miller, Carol Burnett, Francis Crick and Al Capp, Sachs' digressions are always interesting.
Inevitably, since Sachs is recounting his life, he repeats some of the content of his earlier books. He touches only briefly on his own career as a neurophysiologist and tends to emphasise the curious oddities of his patients without including much about his own research and possible good effects of his medical work. Unfairly, no doubt, this eventually leaves the impression these patients just provided interesting, novelistic material for Sachs' books.
Overall, this book seems to be a good and honest reflection of Sachs' character and his life. And it well exemplifies what Sachs says in his final paragraph: "Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago."