The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – a title so intriguing that it must surely have shifted thousands of copies for that reason alone – is a collection of case histories about people with devastating brain conditions written by the neurologist Oliver Sacks. But this is not a dry medical textbook; these are riveting stories of memorable characters.
Oliver Sacks died on 30th August. The newspapers have been full of obituaries, chronicling the life and work of this extraordinary, wonderful man, who wrote about his patients not as objects of medical science but as humans with souls and unique identity – and their own stories to tell.
A piece in the Guardian Saturday 5th September by three different contributors offered some memorable vignettes and comment. Will Self writes how he met Sacks at a Duckworth publishing party. ‘He had a man with Tourette syndrome with him who was, I presume, either a patient, a friend, or, which is more likely, given Oliver’s overall disposition – both. At any rate, this man was running around the book stacks shouting “Fuck! shit! Damn!” And Sacks was chatting away…’
Jewish, gay and living alone for most of his life, Sacks was driven by a fascination for what it means to be human. He combined this with tender listening to every afflicted individual. Andrew Solomon suggests that when writing about his patients, ‘he was both exploitative of and deferential to them, telling their stories without regard for personal seemliness…it was audacious to be as careful as he was about the spiritual vulnerabilities of the profoundly impaired.’
Sacks, writes Sue Halpern, introduced us to ‘the strange and miraculous architecture of the human brain… to people with diseases and conditions that rendered them freaks to others but not to him and then, by extension, not to us.’
Time to re-read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and Awakenings.