Oliver Sacks, a place for every story


The tics caused by Gilles de la Tourette syndrome is one thing; extreme irritability is another. Driving, it can cause behaviors like this: “I returned to my home after a day of work, a motorist had almost stamped me: I accelerated and I made him a fishtail. Then I lowered the window of my door, I gave him a finger of honor, I cursed him and I threw him a metal coffee mug which reached his vehicle. ” It is a patient who reports this scene to neurologist Oliver Sacks. The irritated driver has suffered from debilitating epilepsy since his adolescence. Sacks transcribes this story with his great talent for storytelling in one of the texts that compose Everything has its place, and which were previously unpublished in French. Some scenes are hilarious, others are poignant. The story of the man who, for seven years, has been so absent from the world that he has transformed for his people into an element of the decor, is heartbreaking. Between 1950 and 1957, his body temperature was 20 degrees. It has cooled, erased. From the moment when doctors, and in particular Oliver Sacks, a medical student at the time, became involved in treating him, a balance was broken: “His family saved his life by letting him cool down; we killed him by warming him. ”


Born in London in 1933 to two parents doctors, died in the United States in 2015 of liver cancer, Sacks is the author of several bestsellers, the best known of which is entitled the man who mistook his wife for a hat (Seuil, 1988), published in English in 1985. These are case histories, as psychoanalysts do, but as neurologists rarely write. With Oliver Sacks, the origin of the evil lies, not in a cluttered and chaotic unconscious, but in neurological lesions. However, without ever having recourse to analytical vocabulary, Sacks is interested in the past of his patients and their dreams to understand the origin of their disorders, which all neurologists do not do – and even less today than yesterday : “For Freud, the dream was the” royal way “of access to the unconscious. For the doctor, it may not be a royal road, but it is no less a secondary route which allows for unexpected diagnoses, for making unforeseen discoveries ”, writes Sacks in Everything has its place. This sagacious title means the opposite of what it announces: the neurological lesions cause confusion which puts patients ass over head. Nothing is going right anymore: hallucinations and obsessions are jostling at the gate, bulimia is taking hold, memory is screwing up, etc. Sacks the iconoclast tries to find ways out for his patients. By talking to them, it helps them find their way. He has a mantra: you have to shoot “Started from the capacity to compensate for a handicap which every brain has”. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Everything has its place is divided into three parts. It opens with “Premières Amours”. Sacks looks back on his intellectual training and his childhood loves, which were not trivial: “I remembered with nostalgia the deeply romantic loves – even deeper, no doubt, than those which would succeed them – which I had tasted at twelve years: I had fallen in love with sodium, potassium, chlorine and bromine. “ At the same age, he has a “revelation”. He discovers the periodic table of the London Science Museum, and understands that chemistry will be one of the passions of his existence. In “Swimming Babies”, he talks about his early and intensive swimming practice. It’s already covered in his autobiography, On the move, a life (Threshold, 2016). In order to go swimming every day, Sacks lived for twenty years “A red house” located by the water in New York. He saw it for the first time from the ocean, while swimming. He visited her in her only dripping swimsuit and bought it in stride.


At the end of the volume is the section entitled “Life goes on”. The neurologist paints a picture of his hobbies there. He listens to music, strolls in the gardens, enjoys finding the California he traveled on a motorbike in 1960, eats herring and goes to zoos. He remembers meeting the third type with an orangutan female. In the look of the animal, he read a familiarity. They meet again, “She and I contemplating ourselves as lovers despite the glass panel that separated us”. There is an empathy at Sacks that has become over the years the hallmark of his medical practice. It never overflows, thanks to the irony and mischief that contain and retain it. Empathy also characterizes the way Sacks writes about his patients. “Clinical stories”, the central part of the book, shows him traveling with some of them as needed, or in any case following them for a long time and attentively, at home, with family.

“Travels in the company of Lowell” tells a tour of America which he accomplishes with a photographer suffering from Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. Together, they went to Alberta to a colony of Mennonites, and more particularly to a family suffering from this syndrome for six generations. The description of the gestures that animate them is hilarious and, nevertheless, Sacks never makes fun of what he sees. “La Catastrophe” is, we might be tempted to write, the best news in the collection. Sacks takes us into the fate of his patient by giving us the feeling of being with him over time, so much so that it feels like a fiction. Spalding Gray was an American writer and actor who performed in theater as “Autobiographical monologues”. After a car accident which seriously injured him in 2001, he was tempted by suicide. He leaves farewell tickets to those around him, and blends into nature. It reappears, then it disappears again. He returns, then he disappears.

Virginie Bloch-Lainé

Oliver Sacks Everything has its place Translated from the English (United States) by Christian Cler. Christian Bourgois, 304 pp., € 22 (ebook: € 13.99).


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