Review:  Oliver Sacks’ ‘On the Move’ a memoir of an extraordinary life

Author Oliver Sacks
(Elena Seibert / Knopf)

Neurologist Oliver Sacks has engaged, amazed and enlightened readers with his case studies of neurological aberrations, which include “Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “Musicophilia.” His 13th book, “On the Move,” picks up where “Uncle Tungsten,” his 2001 memoir of his boyhood passion for chemistry, left off. It is a fascinating account — a sort of extended case study, really — of Sacks’ remarkably active, iconoclastic adulthood.

“On the Move” is filled with both wonder and wonderments — beginning with its cover photograph of a buff, leather-clad young Sacks astride a powerful motorcycle. Sacks’ discursive, revealing memoir chronicles his surprising route to becoming the bard of brain disorders. Pit stops along the way include his biker days (in which he went by his middle name, Wolf), avid weightlifting, experimentation with psychotropic drugs leading to amphetamine addiction, numerous brushes with death, lifelong passion for long-distance swims, and so many carelessly lost manuscripts you can’t help but wonder about Freudian slips.

The vivid self-portrait that emerges is of an immoderate risk taker with a brilliant “wildly associative mind,” an enthusiast who regards “all neurology, everything as a sort of adventure.” A teacher’s astute assessment best sums up Sacks’ nature: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” He has frequently pushed the limits.

When he returned to London as a 10-year-old in 1943 from the horrific boarding school to which he had been evacuated four years earlier, he craved “movement and power.” Until the roads became too crowded, motorcycles provided intense release. He writes of the thrill and terror of careening around London’s Regent’s Park ring road with failed brakes until the gas ran out, and of “doing the ton” — 100 mph — on his more powerful bikes before speed limits were imposed.


Sacks’ candor extends to his sex life, which was bashed when he was 18 by his mother’s ferocious reaction to his homosexuality: “‘You are an abomination,’ she said. ‘I wish you had never been born.’” Sacks, who discusses his few and far between relationships (including an astonishing 35-year sexual hiatus between ages 40 and 75), reminds us that his mother, one of the first female surgeons in England and “so open and supportive in most ways,” was a product of her times and Orthodox Jewish upbringing, and that “in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense.” But, he adds, “her words haunted me for much of my life.”

Freedom — from mandatory military service, from a restrictive society — propelled him to Canada and then San Francisco in 1960, at age 27. In 1965, finding himself addicted to amphetamine and the “easy, sleazy life” of California after a three-year residency at UCLA, he moved to New York. He began his clinical practice in the Bronx after failing spectacularly at research and being deemed “a menace in the lab.” He also began seeing the psychoanalyst he’s been consulting for nearly 50 years.

“On the Move” takes its apt title from a poem by Thom Gunn, a friend Sacks met in California in the 1960s. Gunn is one of many deceased colleagues, friends, and relatives — including poet W.H. Auden, actor Robin Williams, and scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Crick — commemorated by Sacks in his memoir.

The book is also filled with amusing and sometimes staggering accounts of goofs and gaffes that make one wonder how someone like Sacks would fare in today’s more rigid, competitive, and “increasingly professionalized” environment. A self-proclaimed terrible test-taker (unless essays were involved), Sacks tells of jeopardizing his Oxford scholarship by failing the routine preliminary exams three times.

Better at taking risks than assessing them, Sacks has swum with life-threatening boat traffic and poisonous jellyfish in New York waters and has been rescued by strangers from bone-fracturing rough surf off Venice Beach and a near-fatal solitary mountain hike in Norway (which led to “A Leg to Stand On,” the book he found hardest to write, perhaps because it was his first personal one).

Of course, Sacks’ life isn’t all mishaps. Much of his memoir recounts how, inspired by the Soviet neuropsychologist A.R. Luria’s winning combination of science and storytelling, Sacks excitedly channeled his clinical work with patients into compelling narratives. Although his books have enjoyed gratifying commercial success, Sacks writes of an often frustrating lack of attention from the medical world.

“On the Move” takes a few extraneous detours, including long excerpts from youthful travel journals and too much on biologist Gerald Edelman’s “Neural Darwinism,” but it leaves us wanting more. Its ending feels somewhat rushed, which is understandable in light of Sacks’ moving announcement in a New York Times op-ed in February about finding himself “face to face with dying” after learning that an ocular melanoma first treated in 2006 has metastasized to his liver.

Sacks reassured readers that he has several nearly finished books in the pipeline, feels “intensely alive,” and is not “finished with life.” Hurray for that — and for this wonderful memoir, which richly demonstrates what an extraordinary life it has been.


McAlpin reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post and writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.

On the Move
A Life

Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf: 416 pp., $27.95