The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks

 Posted by on 2 June 2002 at 9:18 am  Uncategorized
Jun 022002

April’s Wired had a great article on one of my favorite authors, Oliver Sacks, entitled The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks. The author really has a good understanding of Sack’s work, as evidenced in this passage:

In telling the stories of his patients, Sacks transformed the genre of the clinical case report by turning it inside out. The goal of the traditional case history is to arrive at a diagnosis. For Sacks, the diagnosis is nearly beside the point – a preamble or an afterthought. Since many of the conditions chronicled by him are incurable, the force driving his tales is not the race for a remedy but the patient’s striving to maintain his or her identity in a world utterly changed by the disorder. In Sacks’ case histories, the hero is not the doctor, or even medicine itself. His heroes are the patients who learned to tap an innate capacity for growth and adaptation amid the chaos of their disordered minds: the Touretter who became a successful surgeon, the painter who lost his color vision but found an even stronger aesthetic identity by working in black and white. Mastering new skills, these patients became even more whole, more powerfully individual, than when they were “well.”

The story of his first work on migraines was fascinating, as was the discussion of the “annihilation field” that seems to follow him around. But perhaps the most interesting discussion was of the critiques of Sack’s writings:

Sacks has raised public awareness of disorders formerly considered very rare, notably Tourette’s syndrome and autism (see “The Geek Syndrome,” Wired 9.12). But in certain quarters, what Sacks “gives to his patients” by turning them into the subjects of best-selling books is still open to debate. A British academic and disability-rights advocate named Tom Shakespeare has christened Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a writing career.” Alexander Cockburn flamed him in The Nation for being “in the same business as the supermarket tabloids (I MEET MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE WITH TWO HEADS) only he is writing for the genteel classes and dresses it up a bit (I MEET MAN WHO THINKS HE’S A MONSTER WITH TWO HEADS). The bottom of it is a visit round the bin, looking at the freaks.”

Fordham University scholar Leonard Cassuto, however, points out that Sacks’ case histories have precisely the opposite effect of Victorian freak shows: “Medicine killed the old-time freak show by pathologizing its exhibits. Johnny the Leopard Boy inspires no wonder and awe if you say, instead, that ‘poor John is suffering from vitiligo.’ Sacks is unique because he’s reincarnated the freak show in precisely the same medical language that did so much to end it. People will want to stare, and Sacks is suggesting that the best way to deal with this desire is not to forbid it but rather to shape and direct it, to make the stare into a mutual look, a meeting of two worlds. Sacks uses the case history as a bridge between people with disabilities and the able-bodied majority, placing himself squarely in the middle as the link that forms the span.”

I would add that Sacks presents his patients as fully human and fully capable of living a worthwhile life. Unlike the gaping stares in a freak show, Sacks’ stories are relatively unconcerned with his patients defects, focusing instead on the resilience and flexibility that allows them to overcome those problems. The patients are not objects of pity, but rather people to be admired. They have created a meaningful and rich existence when despair and hopelessness would grip most of us. In this respect, Sacks has probably done more for people with “disabilities” than all other disability advocates combined.

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