It would be a mistake to say that Oliver Sacks is a Hell’s Angel-turned-doctor-turned-best-selling author and leave it at that. The 61-year-old neurologist’s most important role may be that of Medical Muse. His book Awakenings became the 1990 movie starring Robin Williams (as Sacks) and Robert De Niro. Harold Pinter, Peter Brook, and Brian Friel made plays from his case histories, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat inspired an opera. Required reading for Hollywood execs, his strange tales of altered minds show human nature at its most theatrical.
Sacks’ latest collection, An Anthropologist on Mars, details more of his scouting trips to the farthest reaches of the brain. ”I’m interested in extremes of experience and the ways people adapt to them,” he says. ”But it doesn’t have to be an illness. It can be darkness, silence, outer space.”
Sacks had his own extreme experience when he first saw himself portrayed in the script for Awakenings: ”I was frightened and slightly appalled,” he admits. But fame has its pluses. He receives over 200 letters a week, which lead him to such new fascinations as a Micronesian community that ”only sees in black and white. Their whole culture, art, language, dress, and cooking is achromatic.” Sounds like a movie Tim Burton was born to direct.