These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary people and Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist and author, was just that. Though he died 5 years ago, his eccentric personality uplifts Ric Burn’s documentary OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE as he recounts his career and upbringing while ailing from terminal cancer. It was a diagnosis that he would not allow to damper his spirit to remain a shining example of empathy and positivity; traits that could find energy and life in his most destitute patients. And in this practice, and in the lining of this film, he shows us that he is not an extraordinary person at all. Instead we are all, in fact, extraordinarily unique individuals.
Considered the “first public intellectual in the area of medicine,” Oliver Sacs considered himself equal parts doctor and writer. Known for novels such as Awakenings, which was adapted into a feature film, as well as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, he saw patients with bizarre, neurological abnormalities and in his writings he forced himself into their realities. Some criticized that he was exploiting his patients, but he would liken the science of his observations to astronomy, leading him to be called the Hubble Space Telescope of Neurology. He would cast himself into the depths of all that we still do not know about the human brain to better understand our perceived realities. But even given this complicated methodology, it all began with a simple basic diagnostic question: “how are you?”.
But even given his ambition to immerse himself in his patients’ experiences, ironically there has been little known about Oliver Sack’s early life until now. Given the tumultuous nature of his early childhood and young adulthood, he has always been more reluctant to discuss his own life than the lives of others. But given Sack’s diagnosis with only months to live, Ric Burns takes on the task of filming Sacks as he answers one final introspective question: “what do I need to say?”
We are given a portrait of his early life in Britain where he was born into a family of doctors of scientists. His mother was one of the first surgeons in England, and given their anticipated importance at the onset of World War II, the family was forced to move and flee during the Battle of Britain. We discover that his brother suffered a psychotic break as a child, and that Sacks himself was tormented by migraines and face blindness, which instilled fear in him that he might find the same fate. And by the time he turned 18, he came out to his parents and instilled the same fear in them that they had lost another son.
In his young adult years, while he was beginning to study and practice medicine, he took to motorcycles, body building, and an abusive reliance on amphetamines. With the drugs, he could get on his bike and ride for 36 hours straight, only stopping for gas. He was the last person you would expect to save lives, and as described by a participant in the documentary, he was seen by many as a “supreme fuck up”. But this was until he had the epiphany that that if he continued to run his life in this way, he would not make it another year. He would then enter three decades of sobriety and celibacy to focus on medicine as well as his writing.
Today, empathy seems like a rarer trait than it has even been, as we find ourselves consumed by our personal bubbles. But given this examination and narrative of the life of Oliver Sacks, Ric Burns gives us the chance to put ourselves in his shows and think like the instructor. By showing us how Oliver was brought up with mental anguish, we can understand why his career took the path that it did. And more important, by showing how his life was slowly going down a path of ruin, Ric Burns forces us to trust in the fact that second chances exist, and are critical in our understandings of people and society.
Oliver Sacks proved that there’s an abundance to be learned from personal history and experience. Lessons that you can’t find in a textbook. And this documentary offers evidence that to be an empathic, caring individual is an introduction to finding answers, as well as the key to living your best life.
So brighten your day with this incredibly moving documentary that’s now playing alongside RBG in our Virtual Movie Palace, another emotional biographic documentary about an extraordinary human being. And if you haven’t seen Awakenings, the 1990 Oscar nominated film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams (playing a version of Sacks), you can find it on the shelf at the Ann Arbor District Library and I can’t think of anything else that’d be more appropriate than that. Enjoy your week and we’ll see you soon!
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