Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks: A biographical memoir of Oliver Sacks

Review by Ann Skea

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks: A biographical memoir of Oliver Sacks.
Lawrence Weschler.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2019. 383 pp.
ISBN 978 0 3742 3641 0.

In the early 1980s, 29-year-old Lawrence Weschler had just become a staff writer at the New Yorker. Having finished a book-length biography of Californian Light and Space artist, Robert Irwin, he was looking for a subject upon whom he could "direct the sort of slow long-term attention" he had lavished on his previous subject. Oliver Sacks came to mind, because Weschler had already established a rapport with him through correspondence about a proposed film of Sack's book, Awakenings, for which Weschler had written a preliminary screenplay.

So, for the next four years, Weschler shared a great deal of Oliver Sacks's life. He accompanied him to hospitals; listened to some of his patient consultations; interviewed his publishers, people who worked with him, and his closest childhood friends; debated with him and discussed literature, philosophy and Jewish mysticism; and he documented and commented on their meetings, phone-calls, e-mails and letters. After four years the two had become friends, and Sacks had become god-father to Weschler's daughter, Sara.

Sacks then asked Weschler to abandon the project.

Not until shortly before his death did Sacks relent, and he then asked his friend to complete the work. And How Are You, Dr. Sacks is the result, and its title is based on the very personal and caring question with which Oliver Sacks often approached his patients.

What comes across most strongly in Weschler's profile is the conflicted brilliance of his subject. Sacks was a great bear of a man, an award-winning weight-lifter, a tireless long-distance swimmer, a man who could consume dangerous quantities of addictive drugs without dying from overdoses, and, eventually, a highly successful writer. He was also deeply empathetic towards his patients, worked tirelessly for their well-being, and was desperately determined to bring medicine from cold, symptom-medication-based treatments to what, today, would be described as a holistic regard for the patient. He was also stubborn, insecure, prone to childish outbursts of rage, and as he described himself: "a man of vehement dispositions, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all [his] passions."

Late in life Sacks recognized his own problem of prosopagnosia (or an in ability to recognize faces), and although he recognised people by their voices, posture, gestures and gait, this face-blindness added to his insecurities. And he was also in almost complete denial about his homosexuality and his 35-year sexual celibacy, recognizing it but refusing to publicly acknowledge it. It was this which initially resulted in his ban on the continuation of Weschler's profile.

Weschler writes well. He provides a vivid and detailed picture of Sacks as a man and as a neurologist, a philosopher, a doctor and a friend. He does not skate over Sacks's failings and he does justice to his brilliance in the field of "Romantic" science (the science of the individual person) and the influence of his work on patients in particular and medicine in general.

Inevitably, given the time-period of Weschler's profile, there is a great deal of information about Awakenings, its patients, and the play and film made of the book. And "The Leg Book" with Sacks's writer's-block and paranoia over it, also features at some length. There is also much to enjoy in this book. Descriptions of Oliver's prodigious appetite, for example. He would absent-mindedly, and often, eat from his neighbour's plate. And Jonathan Miller, one of his oldest friends, remembers how food "simply converged on Oliver... gradually you noticed that all the food was gravitating to his end of the table, where it quietly and systematically got eaten." Sacks's 21-day residency at a writer's colony resulted in a 28 pounds weight gain: "He accomplished this in part due to the superb breakfasts and dinners but especially to the buffet lunches." Oliver gradually increased the number of his visits to these until he was "coming down at eleven and staying until four. Each new group would proclaim "Oh, Ollie, good! You're with our shift," not realising that he was with all their shifts."

Oliver's obsessive behaviour showed itself in his passion for ferns, for the Periodic Table, for cuttlefish, for drugs, for motor-bikes ridden at dangerous speeds, and, especially, for writing. Editors regularly despaired over the possibility of curtailing the flow of revisions and other additional material which flowed their way, even after a book was officially finished. Oliver's own report about one article he had sent to the editor of the New York Review of Books was: "Oh, I think he liked it, though I think I made his life more difficult by sending him 17 more revised versions." Other editors leaned to simply cut or ignore Oliver's excesses.

My only complaint about this book is that Weschler is so used to writing lengthy pieces for The New Yorker that towards the end of the book I felt I had heard almost too much about Oliver Sacks, and I wished the book had been shorter.


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