Posted by: cochinblogger | August 26, 2016

Orlando and Oliver Sacks: A Review of “On the Move”


I was reading Oliver Sacks's autobiography when the Orlando massacre took place. Was it inspired by ISIS, was it a homophobic hate crime, or was it both? From whatever I've read, it seems to me that it was primarily a homophobic hate crime, with the ISIS brand serving as a convenient ideological cover for the massacre. At first thought, there might be no connection between Oliver Sacks's autobiography and the Orlando killings, but there is; for Sacks was a homosexual.

I first heard the name Oliver Sacks as the author of the book whose striking title appears on the cover above: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks had written one or maybe two books prior to Hat that won acclaim, but it was Hat that made him an overnight celebrity. It must be one of the most unusual book titles ever. I have a weakness for popular books on medicine and biology, and once I read my first Oliver Sacks book, I knew I had to read them all. I'm yet to achieve that goal, but I've read a fair number, enough to make me an unabashed fan of his writing. So it was only natural that I would pounce on his autobiography when I saw it in the library.

Of all his books I've read, I think On The Move is the best written. Sacks is a gifted writer, and all his books are stylistically accomplished. But after a few pages of his autobiography, I could feel a difference: this was simple writing. Ornate flourishes usually decorate his writing, but there's none of that here, just a pellucid clarity and directness. I loved it, and was propelled from page to page until the end. In his books, Sacks wears the hat (if you'll pardon the pun) of writer — but here, we get Sacks the man. He might be the man on a bar stool spinning a yarn in a bar. He might a fond grandpa telling a grandchild an incident from his youth. The tone is direct and oral. The writer's hat is discarded, but the abdication paradoxically makes him a better writer. To repeat, On The Move is the best written of all his books I've read.

Sacks mentions his homosexuality very early on in the book:

I was due to go to Oxford in late summer. I had just turned eighteen, and my father thought this was the time for a serious man-to-man, father-to-son talk with me. We talked about allowances and money — not a big issue, fir I was fairly frugal in my habits, and my only extravagance was books. And then my father got on to what was really worrying him.

"You don't seem to have many girlfriends," he said. "Don't you like girls?"

"They're alright," I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

"Perhaps you prefer boys?" he persisted.

"Yes, I do — but it's just a feeling — I have never 'done' anything," and then I added fearfully, "Don't tell Ma — she won't be able to take it."

But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. "You are an abomination," she said. "I wish you had never been born." Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us. My mother, so open and supportive in most ways, was harsh and inflexible in this area. A Bible reader like my father, she loves the Psalms and the Song of Solomon but was haunted by the terrible verses in Leviticus: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

And a little later:

I knew that the very idea of homosexuality aroused horror in some people; I suspected that this might be the case with my mother, which is why I said to my father: "Don't tell Ma — she won't be able to take it."

This excerpt is typical of the writing style of the entire book: direct, matter of fact, plain and yet beautiful and powerful. It is in this autobiography that we see Sacks come into his own as a writer, perhaps because he has no medical baggage to carry. But back to Sacks and his mother.

Sacks rounds off his description of this incident with this eloquent explanation — or rationalization of — for his mother's behavior:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings. My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind.

Spoken like a psychiatrist, like a psychologist, like a historian! Well, she was his mother. But, after carefully rationalizing her behavior, Sacks ends with this sentence, which shows — unsurprisingly — that the wound never did heal. The concluding sentence (the principle of which applies equally to the incalculable damage repressed authority figures inflict on the sexuality of their adolescent charges, whether heterosexual or homosexual) is a terrible indictment of his mother:

But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

One might think that the above encounter led to a snapping of ties between mother and son. Nothing of the sort. As Sacks says, the topic was never mentioned again by either mother or son. Slowly the earlier relationship re-established itself. In fact, they became very close, as close as any mother and son can become. One of the most moving passages in the book describes Sacks actually carrying his mother up and down the stairs of the house when she was recovering from a fall. But that was far in the future.

There is another episode in the book, related to the incident with his mother, that I now turn to. Sacks was a medical student at Queen's College, Oxford, when he met Richard Selig.

Richard Selig. It has been nearly sixty years, but I can still see Richard's face, his bearing — he bore himself like a lion — as I first saw him outside Magdalen College in Oxford in 1953. We got talking. I suspect it was he who started a conversation for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer. … He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love.

Selig was apparently a man of immense charisma:

I was not, I think, the only one to fall in love with him; there were others, both men and women — his great beauty, his great gifts, his vitality and love of life, ensured this.

They soon became good friends, taking long walks together. Selig was a poet, and would show Sacks his poems. Sacks in turn would show his medical essays (even in those years Sacks had a talent for combining his love of writing with medicine), and Selig was fascinated by chemistry and biology. How long could Sacks keep his emotions bottled up?

While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother's words about "abomination" made me feel that I must not say what I was [my emphasis]. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said: "I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way." I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

This wonderful friendship was interrupted by a bolt from the blue. Selig had been troubled by a swelling in his groin that had grown uncomfortably large, and consulted Sacks about it. Sacks described the swelling as being "the size of an egg." It was diagnosed as lymphosarcoma, and Selig was told he had no more than two years to live.

After telling me this, he never spoke to me again; I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor, and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death. But he was determined to live as fully as he could in the time remaining to him; he married the Irish harpist and singer Mary O'Hara, went with her to New York, and died fifteen months later. He wrote much of his finest poetry in these last months.

The humanity of Selig's reaction to Sack's revelation contrasts glaringly with the way his mother reacted. On the strength of just the gentleness with which he handled Sack's declaration of love, Selig must have been an extraordinary human being. His abrupt break with Sacks is puzzling, but the prospect of impending death does make people behave in unfathomable ways. I'm afraid Sack's explanation is just a weak rationalization.

Mrs. Sacks and Richard Selig. A study in contrast. I will make a couple of points before wrapping this up. One: Freud is largely discredited today, but his original insight, I'm convinced, is true. Unconscious conflicts play havoc with human lives. Sacks the adult was unable to soothe the sting of his mother's cruel denunciation; how much more damaging must be a thorn so painful that all memory of its existence is suppressed, but that still continues to fester within the sufferer. It is noteworthy here that Sacks saw his psychoanalyst Shengold, a specialist in childhood trauma, every week for the last forty and more years of his life.

Two, I conjecture that Sacks left England to escape his mother. He traveled incessantly like a lost soul. His relationships were clandestine, furtive affairs in the gay bars of Europe. His first homosexual encounter in England, with a biker he met on the road, was a one-night stand. In America, he continued his long motorcycle rides; indeed, they became longer and longer because America is such a huge country. He threw himself into weightlifting. He also became physically attracted to a room mate who was straight, and whose reaction to Sack's ardor was disgust and rejection. Soon after this, Sacks found consolation in drugs. He became addicted to crystal meth. His life at this stage was surreal: regular work in a hospital on weekdays, and escape in the form of long motorcycle rides and/or drugs during weekends. He was in California and had settled down into this manic routine. But he moved again, this time to the opposite coast. He continued his drug taking for some time, but gave it up after a few years: the change of scene helped. Three, the title of his autobiography — On The Move — is appropriate because Sacks's lifestyle up to this point was that of a man on the run — from what? From his own sexuality, I wager.

In New York, Sacks gradually settled down in his clinical work, giving up first drugs and then sex. He remained celibate for over 30 years from his early forties onward. He also wrote a couple of books that were well received critically, but The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat made him a star, a celebrity. And the rest is history.

As far as India is concerned, we have not moved beyond the England of Sacks's youth. Homosexuality is still a crime. The legal position apart, India has a long, long way to go before homosexuals are accepted by our society, which is largely conservative. Yes, there are liberals like myself, but we are more the exception than the rule. Here is a typical horror story of the kind of reception homosexuals can expect in the smaller towns: Adventures in Creepland. Yet, it would be wrong to say there has been no progress. The courts have come tantalizingly close to decriminalization; the Delhi High Court decriminalized sex between consenting adults of the same sex, but sadly, the Supreme Court in 2013 overturned that judgment. In TV discussions, I see a change: most participants, even members of the clergy who earlier had refused to budge from their fixed theological positions, are in favor of decriminalization. Many homosexuals have come into the open (the most famous is perhaps the writer Vikram Seth, a bisexual; see Leila Seth on Vikram Seth), and many organizations work for the rights of the LGBT community.

Back to Sacks. His personal life had a happy ending: he was in his seventies when a friendship with the writer Bill Hayes ripened into love, and they lived together until Sacks died in 2015 of a rare retinal cancer that spread to his brain and liver. Sacks kept quiet about his homosexuality all his life; it was only in his autobiography that he finally talked about it. I like to think that after all the frenetic movement of his early life, Sacks found peace in the end: he was recognized for his great gifts as a neurologist and writer, and more importantly, he grew old with a loving partner and opened up about his homosexuality. There was no need to run or hide anymore.

He was finally able to say what he was.

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  1. Awesome review. I knew very little about Sacks, but now I have to read this book.

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