Everything in its place is the last posthumous book, a collection of previously uncollected and unpublished essays written by Oliver Sacks. His medical specialty, neurology, has over the years been in some of his often best selling books such as ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat’; ‘Awakenings’ – which was used as the script for a movie; and ‘A Leg to Stand On’ – to name a few.
Those stories which feed our appetite to better understand the human side of science and medicine have at times raised criticism about ethical and moral issues in publishing medical and psychiatric ‘case-studies’. The British academic and disability rights activist Tom Shakespeare called Sacks ‘the man who mistook his patients for a literary career’.
Sacks said of this criticism, ‘I hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill….but it’s a delicate business.’
One chapter gives Sacks a chance to address this serious issue ‘of ‘telling,’ of publishing detailed accounts of patients’ lives, their vulnerabilities, their illness’. It is one that greatly troubled Michael Greenberg, when he considered writing about his daughter Sally’s illness – he eventually did a decade after the onset of her mania in a beautifully written memoir called ‘Hurry Down Sunshine’.
The chapter about Sally in Sack’s book “Summer of Madness,” is an account of the thrilling but dangerous euphoria of Sally who, in the manic stage of her manic depression, “breaks.” After haranguing strangers in the street, shaking them, demanding their attention, she suddenly runs headlong into a stream of traffic, convinced that she can bring it to a halt by sheer willpower.
The first section of ‘Everything in its place’ is mainly autobiographical. Sacks writes about his own idiosyncratic ‘obsessions’ and passions. In the final sections he moves through clinical stories to a range of topics and in the end he even manages to give gefilte fish a star role – “In what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life — so queasy that I am averse to almost every food and have difficulty swallowing … I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. … Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, 82 years ago.”
A brilliant life and a brilliant character.