The title The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat first came to my attention in an advertisement for an opera, which was, unbeknownst to me, inspired by the book. I was offput. It was nonsensical, and I dislike nonsense. I did not buy the opera tickets, and then I forgot about it until I heard a discussion of agnosia on a podcast. This book was a key component of that discussion, and I realized that it was not nonsense, but medical science. The author, Oliver Sacks, is a neurologist, and the book is a collection of his case studies.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was originally published in 1970 and had a second run in the mid-1980s with followups on the patients and information from newer studies on similar cases. Obviously, medical and social advancements have occurred since then, and some of Sacks’ terminology, such as “moron,” “imbecile,” and “retarded,” is downright cringe-worthy now, but used without a hint of insult here. Sacks’ empathy for his patients is obvious, and he has a gift with words uncommon among medical professionals. When you read his stories, you’ll realize that these conditions could happen to you, or to someone you love, at any time, for no reason. It’s sobering. But Sacks’ attitude is optimistic and encouraging, and his viewpoint is fascinating.
A scene from the
Indianapolis Opera production
The book is divided into four sections: Losses, Excesses, Transports, and World of the Simple. Each section features case studies of patients in that category. For example, Losses describes patients with a neurological loss or deficiency, including the man in the title, who loses his ability to recognize objects and people by sight. It also tells the story of a “disembodied” young lady who had a devastating response to a drug and can no longer sense the position of her body. In contrast to Losses, the Excesses section includes cases where a neurological function is overactive, for example Tourette's patients who have too much nervous energy, and a case of Cupid’s Disease, where exaggerated libido is triggered by previously latent syphilis. Transports describes people who experience fantastic visions and auditory phenomena, as well as incredible recollections. Finally, World of the Simple describes patients with intellectual disabilities ‒ and their surprising gifts and skills.
Oliver Sacks, Brooklyn Book Festival, 2009
(© Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons)
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is neatly structured and easy to follow. Sacks has a formal, florid writing style, and there’s a fair amount of medical terminology, but don’t be intimidated. The book is accessible. Just have your dictionary app handy. You’ll want it every now and then. I hope that, someday soon, more postscripts will be added to address medical advancements since the last publication. Even so, you’ll put this book down with new empathy for the ill, new awe for the human brain, and if you’re neurologically healthy, gratitude for your wellness.