Oliver Sacks writing about his mother

I will begin my blog concerning life writing and related matters with Oliver Sacks’ second memoir, On the Move: A Life (2016).  The book is far more personal than his earlier memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), and I find is fascinating in various ways.  Like all second (or third etc.) installments of multi-volume memoir, this one provides an opportunity to revisit people, phases, incidents etc. described in an earlier one (or ones); to elaborate, reassess or whatever.  A particularly striking instance of this, it seems to me, is the account Sacks gives of his physician mother, Muriel Landau.  In both memoirs she is seen as the keeper but also the sharer of scientific secrets.  On the final page of On the Move Sacks says of himself: ‘I am a storyteller, for better and for worse’; earlier he writes that ‘my mother was a natural storyteller.  She would tell medical stories to her colleagues her students, her patients, her friends.  And she told us – my three brothers and me – medical stories from our earliest days, stories sometimes grim and terrifying but always evocative of the personal qualities, the special value and the patient’ (183).  This could be a description of Sacks’ own narrative practices.

In the earlier volume he explains that his physician father too was a memorable storyteller; but in this respect the mother, who gave crucial support and narrative counsel during the writing of Awakenings, seems preeminent.  On the whole Muriel seems warmest, most nurturing, when firing the young Oliver’s scientific imagination.  I don’t think Sacks gives many indications of more generalized maternal warmth; that is, of motherly care and affection that are independent of her son’s gratifying and bond-building scientific passions, and independent of what was assumed to be his journey towards a medical career.  He does however reprint a passage from a quite emotional letter she wrote him after he had left home (55); and, much later, there is a touching period during which a broken hip renders the household stairs too dangerous for her and Oliver, who had been a competitive weight lifter many years prior and who is has come home to see her, carries her up and down the stairs.  His solictude is ironic too: Muriel had been opposed to his weightlifting on medical grounds.

There are two passages which cast Muriel in a vastly more negative light than the above and both are of enormous and damaging import for the son.

In Uncle Tungsten he recalls that when he was fourteen his mother arranged with a Professor of Anatomy to induct her doctor-to-be son into the mysteries of human anatomy.  This was done at the Royal Free Hospital dissecting room.  He had never seen a corpse before and was nauseated when he entered the place, but the Professor conducted him to the cadaver of a girl of his age whose body had already been much-dissected, handed him a scalpel and told him to go to work on one of the girl’s legs, this limb having thus far been spared the scalpel.  Sacks says of the month-long process: ‘the horror of the dissection, and the feeling of the dissecting room spread to life outside – I did not know if I would ever be able to love the warm, quick bodies of the living after facing, smelling, cutting the formalin-reeking corpse of a girl my own age’ (243).  His mother, it seems, had thought an anatomy textbook sufficient preparation for this experience and there is no indication that she gave the Professor any instructions as to the boy’s emotional needs in this situation, nor the age or gender of the cadaver upon which he was pursue his apprenticeship.

The reference to ‘a girl my own age’ might be taken to suggest that this trauma had some bearing upon his later sexual relations with women specifically, but he gives no later indication that this was the case.  In fact On the Move is among other things a coming out narrative.  When Oliver is eighteen and about to leave home for Oxford his father sits him down for a chat and inquires whether he is interested in girls or whether, perhaps, “you prefer boys?”  Oliver admits to the latter preference but informs his father that he has never “done anything”, and pleads: “Don’t tell Ma – she won’t be able to take it.” The father ignores the plea and, ‘the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said.  “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.  My mother, so open and supportive in most ways, was harsh and inflexible in this area. (10-11)

He makes various attempts to explain and even excuse this incident, including a speculative link between this ‘news’ and a brother’s being diagnosed with schizophrenia, but “her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality” (11).  After some early gay experience Oliver was to be celibate for thirty-five years, until his relationship with Bill Hayes (the subject of a memoir by Hayes himself).

Sacks writes that ‘my mother’s death was the most devastating loss of my life’ (193), an unsurprising comment in general terms but one that in this particular context raises more questions than this memoir by a profoundly diffident man (albeit one now bent upon late-life self-disclosure and exploration), is prepared or able to address.

If this were an article I’d need to press ahead with the issues I’ve raised so far – in particular identity issues arising from Muriel’s devasting pattern of maternal support and rejection.  But since it’s a blog I can stop here, ponder further, and resume in due course…