8 Things We Learn from Oliver Sacks’s Memoir, ‘On the Move’


If you know of Oliver Sacks, it's likely as a world-renowned neurologist — the person who cured Leonard Lowe (played by Robert De Niro in Awakenings), explored what LSD does to the brain (specifically, his, in Hallucinations), and brought popular attention to just about every type of brain disorder, including Tourette's, migraines, schizophrenia, and cerebral palsy. You probably also know that Sacks has terminal cancer, something he eloquently wrote about for the New York Times. What you likely don't know about Sacks is that he once held a weightlifting record in California, is a serious motorcycle enthusiast, and fell in love at 77. Such moments make On the Move a compelling read. The memoir offers a glimpse into one of the greatest minds of our time, made all the more special by the knowledge that it's one of his last gifts to a devoted readership.

1. He's been a life-long motorcycle fan.
Sacks details the time he got his first bike, a secondhand BSA Bantam with a two-stroke engine and bad brakes, very early in the book (he is pictured in leather, sitting on the motorcycle on the cover, after all). He found out about the brakes the hard way, while circling his neighborhood, Regent's Park, round and round, until the bike ran out of gas. He immediately sold it to buy a replacement bike, a Norton 250cc. 

2. And put in a lot of miles.
"Most weekends," he writes about his time in Northern California, "if I was not on duty, I would take off with my bike to explore …Sometimes I rode up the Coast Road, Highway 1, past the northernmost redwoods to Eureka and then on to Crater Lake Oregon…It was in the same year, otherwise monotonous with internship, that I discovered the wonders of Yosemite and Death Valley and made a first visit to Las Vegas which one could see, in those unpolluted days, from fifty miles away like a glittering mirage in a dessert."

3. He once was a forest firefighter in British Columbia.
While hitchhiking west in Canada — immediately after finishing medical school in England — Sacks is conscripted to firefight in a dangerously dry season where "every night lightning will strike somewhere, and more acres of valuable timber conflagrate like tinder. Or sometimes there is just an instantaneous apparently sourceless combustion arising like some multifocal cancer in a doomed area."

4. He once held a weightlifting record in California.
Sacks was a relatively serious weight lifters early in life and had a go at a California power-lifting record, while working out daily and eating five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes every evening. He made the books with a 600-pound squat, what he calls the "equivalent, in these circles, to publishing a scientific paper or a book in academia."

5. Body surfing nearly killed him.
"At the height of my strength," Sacks decided to dive into some really rough ocean, getting slammed onto shore and dislocating his shoulder, breaking his arm, and several ribs. He couldn't crawl out of the surf with one arm on his own, and was pulled to safety by Chet Norton, a fellow body builder (and soon-to-be Mr. Universe) who helped to yank his shoulder back into place before sending him off the to emergency room.

6. He was good friends with Robin Williams.
In the 25 years after Williams played him in Awakenings ("He was not imitating me; he had become me, in a sense — it was like suddenly acquiring a younger twin"), the two became close friends. Sacks recalls one occasion where Williams defended Sacks' identity as a Jew and an Englishman (brought to question by an audience member in a lecture) by mixing a Cambridge accent with Yiddish aphorisms. "I wish we could have recorded this marvelous flower of the moment," writes Sacks.

7. His brother, Michael, was schizophrenic.
Sacks talks about his brother's battle with the disease as both an inspiration and source of fear and guilt (for his perception of fleeing his home and country where his brother lived into adulthood).

8. He fell in love at age 77.
"It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love. As an twenty-year-old, tantalizingly, with Mel; as a thirty-two-year-old, ambiguously, with Karl; and now (for God's sake!) I was in my seventy-seventh year."

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