An Anthropologist on Mars
Some of the most remarkable people on earth are research subjects of neurologist Oliver Sacks, and in An Anthropologist on Mars, he introduces us to seven of them.
There’s Mr. I., a painter who became completely color-blind after a car accident; Greg, a bliss-seeking hippie who lost the memory of everything from roughly 1970 on as the result of a brain tumor; Dr. Carl Bennett, a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, a disease that causes tics, compulsive behavior, and uncontrollable vocalizations; 50-year-old Virgil, whose sight, restored after nearly a lifetime of virtual blindness, became more of a burden than a blessing; Franco, a painter obsessed with rendering Pontito, his childhood home in Italy; Stephen, a young autistic savant with brilliant drawing skills; and the extraordinary Temple Grandin, another autistic subject, who holds a Ph.D. in animal science and runs her own successful business designing humane slaughterhouses for cattle, based on her empathy with animals.
”Getting me used to being touched is very similar to taming a wild cow,” Grandin tells Sacks, showing him the ”squeeze machine” she designed to comfort herself mechanically. It was also Grandin who, in discussing how she tries to puzzle out the complex emotions a nonautistic person takes for granted, supplied the title of this fresh, compassionate, fascinating book.
An Anthropologist on Mars is Sacks’ sixth book; others include his literary hit, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and his made-into-a-movie hit, Awakenings, in which the round, balding, bearded, British-born Sacks, now 61, was played by the mercurial Robin Williams. Mars may be his deepest work. Sacks has always been a beautiful writer with a gift for vibrant, unsentimental description and an ability to lay out medical, scientific, and historical information in layers as light and tasty as pastry. Patients trust him and tell him things because he listens carefully, participates fully, and does not demean the afflicted with sticky piety. (Buried in a footnote is one of my favorite Sacks anecdotes, about a restaurant dinner with three Tourettic friends, all of whom ”rushed” for the corner seat because ”each saw it as an existential-neural necessity.”)
In this book, which he subtitles ”Seven Paradoxical Tales,” though, the author (who is himself known to be a shy man who lives in a house on an island off the island of Manhattan) finds great dignity and inspiration in the lives of these six men and one woman who have adapted so individually to the neural flukes that have shaped their circumstances. As Mr. I. adjusted to the loss of color in his life, for instance, he turned to painting in black and white. As she studied her own responses (or lack of responses) to stimuli, Temple Grandin transferred her hard-won, emotionless knowledge to the maintenance of animals. At home with their father’s Tourette’s, Dr. Bennett’s sons helped him by collecting a list of ”juicy” names in the news that would satisfy their father’s craving to repeat sounds (a winner: screenwriter Babaloo Mandel).
Oliver Sacks gets around. He flies with his subjects, canoes with them, dines with them, takes them on trips. He spends time person to person, not just doctor to patient. In them, he sees a human magnificence common to everyone, not set apart. With them, he doesn’t feel so shy. This generosity of spirit, coupled with a nice, rich sense of humor (just because these people are impaired doesn’t mean that the things they do and say aren’t sometimes funny), makes what this good doctor has to say a pleasure to know. A