Oliver Sacks devoted his career to understanding patients battling autism, Tourette syndrome, Parkinson’s and other life-altering neurological conditions — and telling their stories through vivid, accessibly written accounts that contributed to a broader understanding of the mind’s mysteries. In the revealing documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, streaming now, the famed neurologist gets inside his own head, sharing the personal struggles that shaped him into a fearless student of the human experience.
The British doctor, whose memoir Awakenings inspired a 1990 movie of the same name starring Robin Williams, speaks with remarkable candor of the childhood fear that he might suffer severe mental illness like his older brother. He talks about shyness, self-doubt, insecurity and an amphetamine addiction that kept him awake for 36 hours at a time as a young physician. And he recalls the homophobia, from others and within, that haunted his whole life and psyche.
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The moving, thoughtful documentary from award-winning director Ric Burns (New York: A Documentary Film) illuminates how these challenges informed the brilliant, unconventional doctor, who poignantly reflects on his life a month after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer. The film depicts a deeply empathic physician who believed in treating not just the disease but the entire person, and who shed his white coat whenever possible to interact with patients in their own environment.
“He was asking, as hard as a person can, ‘Who are you? I need to know. I need to know more. I need to know even more,” says Robert Krulwich, co-host of the public radio show Radiolab, and one of more than a dozen subjects interviewed for the film.
That’s a view echoed by Temple Grandin, the well-known professor and author who lectures widely on her life with autism and whom Sacks wrote about in a profile for The New Yorker and in his book An Anthropologist on Mars.
“Oliver really got emotionally where I was at,” Grandin says in the film. “That he really, really understood. He got inside my emotions in a way that other people hadn’t. It was sorta-kinda mind-blowing.”
The movie is well worth a watch for anyone interested in Sacks’ life, or just the myriad ways we become who we are not in spite of painful experiences but because of them.
“You are an abomination,” his mother told him upon finding out her college-age son was gay. “I wish you had never been born.” In 1950s London, homosexual activity could lead to punishments including prison or, as in the case of computer scientist Alan Turing, chemical castration. Sacks knew what it was to be an outsider, to feel misunderstood. “We are all patients,” he would say.
Sacks’ terminal diagnosis left him with an urgency to ensure his story was told before he died in 2015 at 82. Filming took place in his New York apartment, where the bearded, bespectacled doctor gathered his closest friends and confidantes, including his partner, Bill Hayes, and longtime editor, Kate Edgar, to bear witness to his life stories before his death.
Surrounded by loved ones, books and notebooks, Sacks talks about his life and work, and his reverence for the natural world, with the dogged precision of a lifetime science lover (who has a periodic table bedspread and socks). There’s poetry and self-deprecating wit too.
“I first saw my analyst in January of ’66, so we’re now in our 50th year and we’re beginning to get somewhere,” he says in a line that feels straight out of a Woody Allen movie. One ribald story has everyone in the room in stitches.
The 114-minute film intersperses interviews and archival photos — of Sacks with his family, riding his motorcycle, buffed up from weight lifting, interacting with patients. Profoundly affecting footage shows Sacks with patients at the Bronx hospital where his research using the new drug levodopa had the initially astonishing result of waking people from post-sleeping-sickness catatonic states that had lasted decades. The movie Awakenings tells the incredible story of these patients briefly bursting back to life to walk, talk and remember.
Despite Sacks’ groundbreaking work, he had his critics, with some charging he exploited his patients for a literary career. The film doesn’t avoid this part of his story. It took decades for the medical establishment to accept and embrace Sacks, partly because he spent more time observing people than conducting experiments with stringent hypotheses. The documentary is a powerful reminder that scientists can be hobbled by the same limiting views that control many humans. And how one doctor’s own humanity left such a powerful mark on science.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life has been screened at international film festivals. It premieres nationwide Wednesday, Sept. 23, on virtual-cinema platform Kino Marquee and Film Forum virtual cinema.