Going far career-wise was something Sacks fervently desired. “Here I am, look what I can do,” is how he describes his feelings about his first professional intervention into the American neurological community. Sacks would develop a genius for recognition of another sort, for paying attention to people whose illness might have rendered them invisible but for his gift of seeing them as beings with histories, with contexts. This genius he combined with his own craving for recognition—writing as a witness to the lives of others in such a way that he himself would be acknowledged through the quality of his testimony.
Many people discovered Sacks through his book Awakenings (1973) and the 1990 movie based upon it starring Robin Williams (as Sacks) and Robert DeNiro (as a patient). Sacks powerfully described his work with hospitalized patients seemingly frozen in a decades-long Parkinsonian sleep. For many years merely warehoused, they received from him the gift of attention; and then he treated them with the experimental drug L-DOPA, which seemed to bring them back to life. The physical awakenings turned out to be short-lived, alas, but the book raised powerful questions as to how we recognize and care for people living with, or rather alive within, profound illness.
Although he has always taken voluminous notes on his patients and filled hundreds of thousands of journal pages on myriad ideas that compelled him, Sacks often suffered from writer’s block. He tells us of his struggle to finish Awakenings, finally doing so as a tribute to his recently deceased mother. Sack’s tribute parallels Freud’s writing of The Interpretation of Dreams, which he had described as a reaction to the loss of his father. Both men lost a parent when they were about 40—Freud turning his attention to his patients’ dreams, Sacks striving to help his patients awaken from their slumbers.
Sacks sees himself in the tradition of Freud and of the Russian neurologist A. R. Luria, medical men who took upon themselves the depiction of the fullness of a patient’s life and not just the course of an illness. Their case studies are powerful narratives, and Sacks, too, wanted his clinical portraits to be recognized as literary achievements. When his friend, the poet W.H. Auden, praised Awakenings as a masterpiece, Sacks tells us he wept.
If Awakenings opened the door to literary acceptance and growing recognition, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) turned the neurologist/author into a public figure. The case study for which the collection is entitled is of a man with visual agnosia, the inability to recognize objects, even people. Sacks helps us see the world from this man’s perspective, and from the points of view of those who cared about him. Sacks has does the same for people with Tourretes, aphasia, amnesia, autism. He’s written before about his own prosopagnosia, which hinders his ability to recognize the faces of people he knows—even those he knows well. As a writer, he shifts our gaze from the horror of deficits to the wonder at the human ability to find a way to make sense of, even thrive in, an altered world. He says of his subjects that “[t]heir ‘conditions’ were fundamental to their lives and often a source of originality and creativity.”