The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

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This book caught me pleasantly by surprise.  I knew nothing of the story before reading it, and expected a work of fiction.  Instead it is a collection of case studies written by now-famous Neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of Awakenings, and a case study in himself).  The book consists of 24 gripping anecdotal stories of patients with varying neurological disorders, from severe amnesia to savant autism.  His writing style is softly clinical, not withholding academic terms, but relating them clearly to the average reader.  I was so engrossed in this book I finished it in a day, and am vastly richer because of it.

With no pretenses, this book is depressing.  It is a haunting account of the heartbreaking reality people with neurological disorders must endure, and the only thing that saves it from being completely unbearable is the empathy the author/doctor shows his patients.  He writes of their plight, from the man who wakes one day to find a severed leg mysteriously attached to his body, to the woman who suddenly has Irish music blaring at top volume in her head 24 hours a day.  Oddities, curiosities, but people still, and in every instance Dr. Sacks asks the deeper question regarding humanity and what it must be like for the patient.

Dr. Sacks’ approach to these people is one of empathy, and he wraps up the book with a complaint, if not a plea, about how mentally challenged people are treated:

Specifically: what does the future hold for Jose? Is there some ‘place’ for him in the world which will employ his autonomy, but leave it intact?  Could he, with his fine eye, and great love of plants, make illustrations for botanical works or herbals? Be an illustrator for zoology or anatomy texts? Could he accompany scientific expeditions, and make drawings of rare species? His pure concentration on the thing before him would make him ideal in such situations.  Or, to take a strange but not illogical leap, could he, with his peculiarities, his idiosyncrasy, do drawings for fairy tales, nursery tales, Bible tales, myths? Or (since he cannot read, and sees letters only as pure and beautiful forms) could he not illustrate, and elaborate, the gorgeous capitals of manuscript breviaries and missals?

Alas, he  will do none, unless someone very understanding, and with opportunities and means, can guide and employ him. For, as the stars stand, he will probably do nothing, and spend a useless, fruitless life, as so many other autistic people do, overlooked, unconsidered, in the back ward of a state hospital.

 

You can read the book online for free here.

 

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