# 429: BOOK OF THE WEEK — “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”

Sacks, Oliver (2015/1985). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Story behind the Book Choice

Oliver Sacks has been my hero ever since I learned about his way of publishing. He gave a shit about publishing academic papers. He wrote stories. Well, he certainly did publish some scientific papers at some point, I guess, but his passion was to tell the stories of patients in a literary manner. By doing so, he wrote himself into academic nirvana. Academics do not value stories. They value papers in ranked journals in order to boost their academic careers and their egos. I am not saying that all academics do this. In the sciences, particularly in medicine, people ultimately save lives by doing innovative research. And that research can only be advanced if the academic community gets to know and build on it.

In the humanities, that aspect can be neglected.

No lives get saved by writing a novel.

At least not immediately.

People have been publishing about the same books for centuries.

They are mostly doing it because they have to.

Yes, I am sounding bitter but when I think of Sacks now, my mind brightens up again. He did not listen to what conventions would dictate. He still wrote his stories. They are fascinating. And Sacks was a fascinating man. He was a weirdo and an outcast in so many ways. Yet, he walked his path, even though he felt lost for a while, as far as I know his life story. Today, someone very dear to me warned me that I should take care of myself because I am investing much energy and passion into something that already almost killed me some years back. I know she is right. I do not know if Sacks ever felt that way. What I know for sure is that he loved writing.

And so do I.

Writing is the only thing that will be left for me,

even if I lose everything and everyone else.

  1. Stories

This was fascinating to learn at the beginning of the book that Sacks actually continued a tradition, one might call it a legacy, first expressed and supported by a Russian psychologist and neurologist. Sacks talks about Luria (Lurija) throughout the book. They were in intensive exchange and obviously, Sacks owed his self-declared mission to tell patient stories in a literary manner to this man. It is funny to learn that Luria was from Russia. Nowadays people predominantly think that mostly bad things come from Russia because of the war in the Ukraine and because of the difficult history we Germans have with Russia. But in addition to the many other good things that come from Russia, one should not forget that especially literature flourished there and we would not have some of the world’s finest writing without Russian authors. Just think of Dostojevski, someone who had a particular love affair with my hometown.

“Publish such histories, even if they are just sketches. It is a realm of great wonder.”

Getting such a note from someone who might be dying soon is more than just a “please do this.” It is a calling in some way. Yes, it might put a burden on you. But Sacks took it as an inspiration, maybe even a confirmation for something that he was going to do anyways. What is clear is that someone like Luria would not have written this to just anybody. In order for someone to ask you to tell the story of people — of patients — it takes a lot of trust and confidence in the abilities of this person. And Sacks obviously fulfilled these expectations. Without him, we, they laypeople of psychology, psychiatry, and neurology, would be poor of knowledge. He wrote these stories for us and for the scientific audience.

That is still a no go.

But he did it.

And I admire him greatly for this.

Not as a writer.

As a human soul.

2. Beyond help

This is a tragic story of a guy whose memory got stuck in the 1945. He was already in his sixties when Sacks met him. But his memory still made him believe that he was at the beginning of his twenties and had just returned from war. This peculiar form of neological disorder was and still is very rare. And as Luria had told him, Sacks shares the wonder that goes along with encountering tragic exceptions of “illness” if we want so. As a matter of fact, one side effect of Sacks’ stories is that we learn that the boundaries between “sick” and “healthy” get blurred. This in and of itself is highly valuable. What was striking for me, in addition, was this simple line “beyond help.”

For everyone who works with people, in the health sectors but also in any other sector including charity, chaplaincy and counseling, help is the ultimate driver. It might sound cheesy but it is not. You do your work because you want to help people. Usually, you do that with even more passion if you yourself once were in a situation in which you needed help very desperately. In any case, this phrase “beyond help” is the worst-case scenario. It is something that forces you to realize that you CANNOT DO anything else. You have done “enough.” No additional move will make a difference. This is the most tragic thing to accept when working in a helping job. And it is even more tragic to share it with the person you are trying to help and with his/her loved ones.

An even more devastating thing is to learn about yourself that you cannot be helped anymore.

I wish that never happens.

But you can never be sure.

What happens to others can easily happen to yourself.

It makes you feel humbled if you have understood this very simple lesson.

3. Before one’s eyes

I had not known this quote by Wittgenstein before. I read it several times. It is so true. But it also makes one feel so hopeless. If you know that you cannot see the obvious in front of your eyes. You just know that you are missing the essentials. And the harder you try to see, the less you learn. It can drive one crazy. It reminds me of golfing. Golf is such a tough sport because the harder you try to hit the ball correctly, the less successful you are. It is really enervating, a severe mental challenge, less a physical one. Physical power is even disturbing. This is similar to the kind of missing the obvious that Wittgenstein talks about. But Sacks did look closely with all his senses — above all, his feelings and intuition. He treated patients with unconventional tools and ideas.

And above all, he left them their dignity.

He gave them an honorary place in human and medical histoy by writing their stories.

And none of them appear just “crazy” or mad.

We should all remember that we might all be crazy to some extent.

Maybe this is the obvious that we are missing in front of our eyes.

Reflection Questions

1) Do you think “stories” can enhance science? Why/not?

2) Did you ever encounter someone who was beyond help? If yes, how did you deal with it?

3) Are you looking for anything and there is a possibility that it is right in front of your eyes but you still cannot see it? Was that ever the case in the past?

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