Dr. Conroy Pays Tribute to Well-known Doctor and Author, Oliver Sacks

The Storyteller

Charles P. Conroy

The world is a considerably poorer place this morning, August 31, 2015.  Oliver Sacks died yesterday and with his passing we are left without this skilled neurologist, compassionate physician, captivating, compelling essayist and author, and insightful analyst of the wonders and uniqueness of the human mind.

In the preface to maybe his best-known book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks noted how, dating all the way back to Hippocrates, the emphasis in his profession was often on disease or the pathology in question.  Case histories devoted very little attention, if any, to the subject, the person at the center of it all.  His mission was to change that.

Oliver Sacks, above all, was a master storyteller.  He believed that the person, the patient, the subject must be central to the case history.  His or her story must be described in more than cold, clinical terms.  He said: “To restore the human subject at the centre – the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject – we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what’, a real person, a patient, in relation to disease – in relation to the physical.”  He had to tell the “story.”

His entire career was devoted to that goal; putting people at the center of the analysis of conditions of the human mind.  He sought to put a face on autism, prosopagnosia (face blindness) and myriad other conditions that he described in vivid detail and in terms that the rest of us, not just other physicians, could relate to.  He told their “story.”  Sacks stands in stark contrast to the “give me data”-types among us who believe the entire story of humanity can be described solely in the numbers.

Sacks loved numbers; he was fascinated by “the twins” about whom he wrote.  They were singularly focused on prime numbers in multiple figures.  They were also able to calendrically calculate days of the week when given any date for a period of 80,000 years – 40,000 in the past and 40,000 years going forward.  Numbers not only didn’t scare him, he embraced their importance and, as a trained scientist, he respected their true value.  However, he was able like few others to describe various neurological conditions via narrative not just in objective, clinical language.

Sacks was able to inject into his writing and, thus our reading, the human factor so central to these conditions.  His essays and books drew us into a whirling maelstrom of penetrating ideas but not because they were objectively and clinically correct or based on precise, quantitative analysis.  Rather, we identified with the conditions and the people affected because he wrote lively prose using intense detail and vivid images that resulted not only in mere understanding of the condition but which also provoked empathy and compassion on the part of the reader.

In his recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam notes that, “Some of us learn from numbers, but more of us learn from stories.”  Sacks personified that thinking.  Because he mastered the art of narrative, of good old-fashioned storytelling, his writings will have more widespread effect than the piles of clinical trials and professional studies as important as they are.  We now better understand aphasia, amnesia, alexia, and agnosia – loss of language, memory, reading ability, and the ability to recognize people, objects, or shapes.  Sacks called these conditions “privative,” not just because of the grammatical Ancient Greek “alpha privative” employed in each term, but because they accurately describe the sense, or emotion, or function of which the individual was deprived.

Dr. Sacks was a master at portraying people who couldn’t see or who couldn’t see color, who couldn’t recognize faces, who couldn’t smell, who couldn’t make sense of conversation, or who couldn’t “read” the emotions, body language, or speech nuances of others.  Because he was able to do that in such masterly fashion we have come to a greater knowledge of the various conditions about which he wrote.  More importantly, we have come to a greater understanding of the dramatic, often devastating, impact the conditions have on individuals – the people who experience them and very often those who live with them and love them.

Many will remember Sacks because of the excellent portrayals in the 1990 motion picture, “Awakenings,” a film featuring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro that recounts Sacks’s experiences in a Bronx hospital with patients presumed catatonic.  I will remember him as the physician who cared, who understood, and wanted others to understand conditions about which there still remains too much mystery, ignorance, and misunderstanding.  He accomplished that because he told their stories.

About two weeks ago Sacks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times.  I knew that about six months ago he had announced that his cancer had spread and that his remaining time was short.  I marveled that, even as he faced death, Sacks to the very end was determined to be the master storyteller.  In that essay, titled Sabbath, he recounts his experience growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household in London and the various rituals observed as part of the Sabbath.  He feels his body deteriorating and knows that the shortness of breath and muscular weakness signify what’s about to come.

He concludes the op-ed piece as follows: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” He certainly can rest and rest well.  The storyteller who enlightened us, informed us, inspired us, and mobilized us is gone. While his work is done, as he puts it, his legacy is huge.  It will live on in the stories he told.   There is greater understanding of the conditions Oliver Sacks described because he was able to tell personal stories about people with conditions that are all too often misunderstood.  His stories put a face on those conditions.

Charles P. Conroy, Ed.D. is Executive Director of Perkins in Lancaster, MA.