People who reviewed his early books said he reminded them of Chekhov, Joyce or Borges, not other doctors or scientists. When I was in graduate school and moved twice a year I had a small shelf of books I brought out wherever I happened to be, and two of them were Borges' Ficciones and Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I confess that I did not draw the obvious skeptical conclusion until recently; I mean, whose life is really like a story by Borges or Chekhov?
The writings of neurologists and psychiatrists always invite this question. They are encouraged to protect their patients' privacy by altering details, and when questioned they often admit that a certain patient in one of their books is a composite of several real people. At what point does this compositing and altering details turn the whole thing into fiction? Plus there is the problem that some psychiatrists' books are full of people they cured in a few weeks or months and sent home happy.
But Sacks was special case because of the power and beauty of his writing. After reading some of his cases I felt with a deep seriousness that I had seen the world in a new way. I carried that book around for years and still keep in on my shelf because I thought I had learned from it profound things about human life.
Lawrence Wechsler, who knew Sacks well, has now written a "biographical memoir" about his friend titled And How are You, Dr. Sacks? According the reviewers it demonstrates convincingly that much of Sacks "nonfiction" was invented. This is Scott Sherman in the TLS for 13 December 2019:
Quite often, reading Sacks, one wonders, can this be completely true? . . . Weschler quotes a remark by Alan Bennett about Bruce Chatwin who, he suggested, "like Sebald, Kapuściński, and Oliver Sacks", operates "on the borders of truth and imagination."In 1983, Wechsler asked Sacks about the famous case of Dr. P., the man who mistook his wife for hat. Sacks said,
I mean, perhaps it's a case that I seized on certain themes, imaginatively intensified, deepened, and generalized them. But still.But still what? Not even Sacks, it seems, could say, at least not in a few sentences. Sherman again:
Weschler puts Sacks in the same category as Ryszard Kapuściński. For the work of both, he coins the term "Rhapsodic Nonfiction." He notes that Sacks, as a writer, was blazing his own trail: "trying to advocate for and model a different sort of medicine on behalf of chronic, often institutionally warehoused and largely abandoned patients . . . the sort of patients often referred to as 'hopeless.'"There was also a sense, says Wechsler, in which the redemptive narratives Sacks created for some of his patients were
part of the therapy itself. Helping to turn an it back into an I . . . or maybe a patient into an agent . . . such people were privileged witnesses to and actors along the very remotest stretches of human possibility, and as such had marvelous stories to offer about such extreme vantages and experiences.Of course only a very few crazy people have ever been able to communicate what they experienced while mad. Has Sacks spoken for them, or has he replaced their voices with his own?
I am wondering how knowing this will change my feelings about Sacks and his books over the years to come. I do not think I will forget or dismiss them. They are so powerful, and so infused with his generous spirit. Perhaps he did not really know what his patients were experiencing, but he certainly knew more about them than I ever will. He wanted, from boyhood, to somehow combine science and literature, and I think he achieved something remarkable in that direction.