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Quite the ride

Our editor Jon Sutton watches 'Oliver Sacks: His Own Life', directed by Ric Burns and released on Altitude Films.

29 September 2021

In Gratitude, published after his death in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote: ‘I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers’. As Sacks reads that passage towards the end of this film, and his life, the viewer is left in no doubt as to the centrality of storytelling in his 82 years on ‘this beautiful planet’.

Sacks, the self-proclaimed ‘inveterate storyteller’ – ‘some comic, some tragic… some tuning here and there’ – recounts ‘turning my life into writing’. When people asked if he was doctor or writer, he would reply with ‘equally both, and in important ways they work together’. They blend in case histories. Journalist Robert Krulwich – one of many insightful friends and colleagues appearing in the film – explains that Sacks ‘was asking as hard as a person can, “Who are you? I need to know, I need to know more, even more”. He could get secrets. He will tell stories about people in terrible trouble, take this thread out of them and pull them out, pull them slowly out. But what he did simultaneously, which was the great part, was he pulled the whole world in. He would tell these stories so well… people who are lonely and left out are storied back into the world.’

However grateful Sacks ended up at having ‘loved and been loved’, he was often one of those lonely, left out people. ‘We all have our solitary consciousness’, he says, forever pondering what it’s like to be a bat, an octopus, ‘or anyone else for that matter’. His partner Bill Hayes says ‘life threw so many things at him’, including his mother’s reaction on discovering his homosexuality – ‘You are an abomination, I wish you had never been born’. ‘Her words haunted me for much of my life,’ admitted Sacks, perhaps going some way to explaining why Hayes is initially introduced on camera with the rather underwhelming ‘Billy, fellow writer, lives in the building, to whom I dedicate the book’. This makes the part of the film where we hear of the ‘enormous sigh’ of their final years together, of Sacks ‘finding balance’, a particular joy.

That balance was hard-earned, with Sacks opening the film by saying he’s in his 50th year with his therapist, and ‘beginning to get somewhere’. There must have been plenty to work through: his mother bringing home the occasional foetus and urging Sacks to dissect it, time at a ‘hideous boarding school’ in the Midlands, painful shyness, faceblind, accident prone, and perhaps most significantly his schizophrenic brother Michael: ‘I had to create my own world of science so that I would not be swept into the chaos, the madness, the seduction, of his’.

Yet making his way in that world of science, Sacks still found the time to be a ‘supreme fuck up’, a ‘menace’ who should ‘get out, see patients, you’ll do less harm’. We hear of amphetamine-fuelled 500-mile overnight motorcycle rides to the Grand Canyon (vividly depicted – this is no bland 'talking heads' film). Sacks was ‘playing with death’, lying flat on the tank, hour after hour. ‘Inscribing a line on the surface of the earth, the world turning beneath.’ He found solace in numbers, minerals, metals, elements, plants. We hear that ‘humanity was the very last thing’ Oliver developed empathy for. 

Lawrence Weschler describes Sacks as ‘extraordinarily empathic’ though, obsessed with that question ‘how are you? How do you be?’ Colleagues describe the project of doctor and patient as finding a way of living with what can’t be changed, and we hear how Sacks would compose a story, together, to turn their situation into a narrative. ‘Not just spinning tales, he’s giving people a sense of narrative.’ 

It’s a narrative that clearly became increasingly important to Sacks as he looked to complete his own life, ‘whatever that meant’. The film suggests it meant a rapprochement in writing with his mother, finding a new creative energy in friendships with neuroscientists, an increasing focus on time and, in his idea of cinematic vision, ‘timeless moments welded together by some higher mechanism. And of course getting to finally be himself – and end decades of celibacy – with Billy. ‘He gave a masterclass in how to die’, a friend says (much like another genius, David Bowie).

For psychologists, the film is a reminder of what Sacks contributed to our discipline. He’s the ‘point at which biology and biography intersect’: ‘all my patients are at this intersection, all of us are at this intersection’. Sacks revived the case history: qualitative writing, description, observation, imagination. He knew his patients so well, colleagues say, that he ‘had no choice but to chronicle them’. Sacks says he ‘never had much intellectual self-confidence’ – he was rejected everywhere, derided in some professional quarters as ‘The Man Who Mistook His Patients For A Literary Career’. ‘I don’t have any theories, I just describe, I observe,’ he says humbly, before admitting ‘there’s no such thing as just observing. I’m a fieldworker, I show things.’ Or, as Temple Grandin put it, an ‘astronomer of the mind’.

Finally, a note on the photo with this review. How could I use any other? Just look at the man. It’s what Sacks describes as ‘an earlier me, an earlier incarnation’. But it’s an important part of how he should be remembered: as a man of contrasts – ‘I’m not entirely easy to decipher, to categorise’. The man, much like the film of his life, is ultimately encapsulated in his obsession with the periodic table he carried in his wallet: ‘It stands for order, stability, but also imagination, mystery’. Or, in his own words on his full name Oliver Wolf Sacks, part ‘kindly doctor’, part ‘lupine lone motorcyclist at night’. 

- Oliver Sacks: His Own Life plays in selected UK and Irish cinemas on 29 September, and then on digital on 4 October. See www.altitude.film

Find more on Oliver Sacks in our archive.