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Interviews and archival footage paint a tender portrait of Oliver Sacks, neurology’s greatest storyteller

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Ric Burns, director
Vulcan Productions
2020
114 minutes
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I’m an inveterate storyteller,” confesses the celebrated neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks at the start of Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. “I tell many stories, some comic, some tragic.” Tales of both types abound in this elegiac yet lighthearted film based on director Ric Burns’s interviews with Sacks and his friends, colleagues, family members, and patients in the months before and after the physician’s death in 2015 at the age of 82. The result is a vivid portrait of an ebullient, provocative, brilliant man who transformed the practice of medicine and spearheaded the neurodiversity movement.

Born into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in northwest London in 1933, Sacks was the youngest of four sons. He was an outsider: one of only three Jews at his elite prep school; a gay adolescent at a time when gay sex was illegal; an introverted, dreamy, chemistry-obsessed boy in a family of accomplished physicians. His father was a general practitioner who made house calls, and his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England. His two eldest brothers were already studying medicine when he was in high school.

Sacks dutifully followed his expected career path and was drawn to neurology when his third brother, Michael, developed schizophrenia.
But after completing medical training, Sacks fled the homophobic confines of his nation and family—his mother had called him “an abomination.” Paul Theroux tells Burns that Sacks’s “great luck” was ending up in Los Angeles in 1960, where he found ample “guys, weights, drugs, and hospitals.”

“I liked pushing myself to the maximum,” Sacks shrugs. This meant motorcycling all night at top speed to reach the Grand Canyon, 500 miles away, by sunrise; squat lifting 600 pounds for a California state record; bingeing food; and swallowing fistfuls of amphetamines. Images
of a buff Sacks during his bodybuilding years contrast with his admission that he was “playing with death.” By the early 1970s he had given up both drugs and sex, remaining celibate for 35 years before falling deeply in love with writer and photographer Bill Hayes.

As a bench scientist, Sacks was a disaster, losing the myelin he had spent months extracting from earthworms and helplessly watching his lab notes blow off his motorcycle. He found his métier as a clinician. Drawn to patients with severe neurological disorders—outsiders like himself—he saw them as individuals, not merely diseased brains. He spent hours conversing with them, trying to understand what it was like to live with their conditions. Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande describes Sacks’s impact on the medical profession as showing it that there are important “truths to be found going deeply into human lives.”

In 1966, Sacks was working in the Bronx at the Beth Abraham Clinic, home to 80 survivors of the encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) pandemic of the 1910s and 1920s. Listening to nurses who believed there were intact minds and personalities behind bodies locked in “suspended animation,” he boldly administered the new drug levodopa. Super-8 footage reveals the thrilling result: an incredible awakening as the patients burst into life, dancing, joking, and singing. Tragically, most developed side effects so debilitating that they discontinued the medicine, sinking back into frozen states.

The medical establishment, skepticalof his results, refused to publish his reports; Sacks’s frustration at this refusal, 45 years later, is still palpable. He shared the story of these patients in his book Awakenings (1973). The appearance of Penny Marshall’s 1990 movie version cemented Sacks’s celebrity, to both his delight and discomfort.

In his work, Sacks adopted the case study or medical narrative approach, combining biography and biology in detailed discussions of individual patients. Other neurologists considered these studies unscientific and merely anecdotal. But not all science is statistical; observational
science is science, too.

Sacks considered himself a fieldworker providing facts to neuroscientists developing new theories of consciousness. Sacks’s observations, Christoph Koch tells Burns, were integral to Koch’s understanding of the relation between different parts of the brain and specific aspects of vision, including how we perceive the flow of time.

Sacks’s case studies also undermined stereotypes of people with neurological differences. Autism activist Temple Grandin recounts that “[t]hey used to say that people on the autism spectrum had no inner world.” But by taking the time to get to know Grandin and others with autism, Sacks disproved this: “He got inside my emotions in a way no one else did.”

The film ends with Sacks and friends gathered in his apartment, raising glasses of wine with the Yiddish toast “l’chaim,” to life. This riveting and poignant documentary, which launches virtually on the Kino Marquee platform on 23 September, is Sacks’s final case study—and a celebration of the life of a remarkable man.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of
Seeing (Norton, 2015). She is currently writing a biography of Oliver Sacks.