There are things in life one simply cannot control. The outer things like the face, the voice, the body type, and the inner things like testosterone, muscle strength, and overall personality. However, in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat the uncontrollable quality is disease. Life-changing, neurological diseases which affect the patient’s life so much that their life is built around it. Although this could be seen as a foreign concept for many people, we are all born with things we cannot change, that our lives are built around. The main concept in Oliver Sacks’ text is relatable to all of us: immutability, we are born as we are with traits we cannot change that we have to live with, despite our opinions of them.
Our immutable traits can sometimes seem useless or repulsive at first but once we learn to use these traits we learn of their usefulness and fun. Chapter 5 of Oliver Sacks’ book is titled “Hands” and describes a lady, Madeleine, in her 60s who was blind and had cerebral palsy. She had been taken care of her entire life and rarely had to do anything for herself. Because of this, she described that she can’t do things like “read Braille, not a single word. I can’t do anything with my hands–they are completely useless” (Sacks 59). However, after she discovered her ability to use them because of clever manipulation by Sacks, Madeleine began to love the feeling of things. Everything around her was suddenly fascinating, bubbling with new sensation. She then started to use clay to “model heads and figures, and within a year was locally famous as the Blind Sculptress of St. Benedict’s” (63). In essence, Madeleine was born with something, her hands, that she thought to be useless but, after discovering their use, was fascinated with it and became content with it, even using it to its full potential. This is a concept which can be related to us, for some of us have certain character traits or skills which we think are pointless until we realize its application. For example, I might think my affinity for math is a useless skill until I begin working or move out and realize that it is a useful skill to have in everyday life.
However, we don’t always choose to live with what we don’t like, deciding to try to change it. In chapter 10, “Witty Ticcy Ray,” Sacks describes a case study about a Ray who was born with tourettes, giving him violent and expressive tics. These tics had gotten him fired from multiple jobs and even threatened his marriage. Ray and Sacks made the collective decision to start on a prescription of Haldol which would severely dull the effects of tourettes. After taking this Haldol for four years Ray described that he was “less sharp, less quick in repartee, no longer bubbling with witty tics or ticcy wit. He no longer enjoys or excels at ping-pong or other games; he no longer feels ‘that urgent killer instinct, the instinct to win… He has come to feel, increasingly, that something is missing” (Sacks 100). This led them to limit his Haldol intake days to weekdays, letting his tourettes reign free on the weekends.
Since that point, he was happier and felt more complete, despite feeling boring during the week. We may also feel an urge to change ourselves, as is often the case in teenagers when they feel pressure to change themselves to fit in with their friends or with the surrounding people. Teenagers may try to change their personality, humor, or their looks because of others. However, this doesn’t usually last forever as these are things which don’t like to be changed. Situations like these often lead to people finding a balance between what they desire and what other people want. Ray balanced his want for the feeling of excitement with other people’s want to not hear his sudden tics of profanity.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat was an interesting, surreal, and self-reflective experience. It taught me about neurology and disease, but also about the things that we can’t change and how we are meant to manage the life that we want either despite them or using them. If you’re looking for a book that not only is interesting scientifically but also poses questions about us as people, then Oliver Sacks’ book is the best choice.
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