Booklist 2017 “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks

I read a lot but given the latest news developments around the world, I find that I spend several hours a day reading just the news. While it’s important to keep up to date with the news I have a feeling of being swept away in this sea of information.  At the moment, nothing really feels that solid and I yearned to find a way to slow down. So for 2017 one of my resolutions is to simply read more non-academic books.

The first book I’ve read considered Oliver Sack’s most famous work. This is one of those books that was on my “I’ll-get-around-to-it” reading list. My overall thoughts: I really liked it. It’s not a comfortable read but it is fascinating nonetheless because he presents a sympathetic, and often times, poignant reflection of his experiences working with several of his patients afflicted with different neurological problems. The case studies are intriguing accounts of people that are, frankly, quite extraordinary. Their accounts certainly opened my eyes to what the human brain is capable of, both in a positive and negative sense.

The case of “William Thompson” (Chapter 12) really stayed with me. He is described as patient who is constantly, desperately, trying to make his identity because he isn’t able to ‘retain’ an identity. “The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing – and he must seek meaning, make meaning, in a desperate way, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yawns continually beneath him” (p. 118).

Sacks identifies this as an extreme case of Korsakov syndrome, in which the patient is “continually creating a world and self to replace what was continually forgotten and lost…the patient must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment” (p.116). Not being able to ‘have’ an identity for oneself is very unsettling, and as I continued reading, the devastation of this loss began to dawn on me. It’s not only that he’s lost his identity, but that he is constantly, at every waking moment, was trying to make a new one. On one hand, there is knowing that you’ve lost your identity because then you can remember who you are in moments of lucidity. This case was altogether different because the patient was unable to recall himself and was, instead, constantly re-creating himself. Sacks describes his meetings with this patient as “…one never feels, or rarely feels, that there is a person remaining” (p. 122).

I find this description quite jarring because I don’t think I’ve ever thought it was possible to actually lose your identity permanently. Those with Alzheimers or extreme cases of amnesia there’s at least a sense of having lost part of you which can be redeemed, even for a while. It’s entirely a different deal to lose your whole self. It’s a very weird thought and this book certainly made me appreciate what my brain is capable of in a whole new way. As a narrative researcher this case has made me reconsider what stories make me, me. That I am aware of and make known to other than I exist through the stories I tell to and of myself.

It’s a bit dizzying to take in one reading, but I really enjoyed this book and it’ll be one I’ll probably return to later.

Image my own photo.

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