Awakenings - which inspired the major motion picture - is the remarkable story of a group of patients who contracted sleeping sickness during the great epidemic just after World War I. Frozen for decades in a trance-like state, these men and women were given up as hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Oliver Sacks gave them the then-new drug L-DOPA, which had an astonishing, explosive, "awakening" effect. Dr. Sacks recounts the moving case histories of his patients, their lives, and the extraordinary transformations which went with their reintroduction to a changed world.
PLEASE NOTE: Some changes have been made to the original manuscript with the permission of Oliver Sacks.
"One of the most beautifully composed and moving works of our time." (The Washington Post)
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A living Klein bottle
Not until I got the the very end of the book (the chapter dealing with stage/film/radio adaptations) did I became aware of the nearly 'Klein bottle' structure Dr. Sacks writes with and tries to explore in his patients here. The book, and the patients, begin with the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, they survive, however, become severely Parkinsonian and are prisoners in their own bodies, yet to a person still retain their own uniqueness and can't actually be defined by their disease. When they are 'awakened', each person is effected differently and often profoundly, sometimes uniquely each time they are given L-Dopa, and some even get better. Then the strange happens when the actors who portray these people, especially Robert DeNiro, almost become Parkinsonian themselves, to the point that Sacks can't actually tell what's going on. Just like many of the patients could almost 'choose' to get better or not, so too could the actors choose their own methods and the levels of profundity.
When these actors mirror back what Sacks studied, we get a strange picture of illness and health, of a sound mind and a hallucinatory mind, of the reality that the patients invented to survive and the imaginary the actors invented to achieve a great performance. I almost felt like Sacks wanted to hook up the actors to lab equipment and run a battery of tests on them to see if what some of his patients went through would mirror the test results of what the actors put themselves through.
And at the heart of all this is identity. Most profoundly, and the point Sacks truly wanted to make (and still makes) is that patients are, in fact, human beings who are not defined by a disease but are wholly just human beings who need the treatment from a doctor who treats them as a human being.
This is where the controversy comes in, too. Medical science is supposed to deal in cold, hard facts. A doctor does not get emotionally involved in their patients lives because that would destroy the objectivity of the professional. Or so they would say. I, like Sacks, disagrees. The WHOLE person must be treated and the person cannot be defined by what 'ails' them, but only by who they actually are: a person who needs to feel better.
Sacks shows how even among a small sample size of patients all suffering from the same basic root disease, post-encephalitis lethargica, they each present in completely different ways, revive in different ways (and sometimes not even at all) and each presented a totally unique set of medical circumstances. Up until Sacks these people had basically been wasting away in a ward in an old hospital in New York - a group of profoundly disabled, Parkinsonian patients with no hope for anything better. But after Sacks, they were at least given a chance to be seen as human beings, even if they didn't actually get better.
And that couldn't be more clear than in the case of Leonard who, at the very end, cursed his awakening as a cruel joke. How much more human could that be? Sure, we may dream up a more romantic, a more stoic role for ourselves if we imagined being in his place, but honestly Leonard was almost more than human in his imperfections and passions. He wasn't just a man suffering from total disability; you can't 'define' him that way because he was a complex human being with as many faults as pluses.
So finally what Sacks is getting at is the notion that we need to recognize the basic humanity in each of us, and especially the stranger to us. It is no wonder that the disease that Sacks wrote about first began claiming victims around the time of the WW1, a terrible war that brought the world together to kill itself. This disease was, sort of, a remnant of that terrible time, a reminder that to treat each other with un-humanity that we could suffer the same living-hell fate of having our own humanity taken away by doctors and loved ones while we rot in a useless body but with an almost perfect mind.
- Dan Harlow