The BEST: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

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The BEST: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
Reviewed by Yitzchak Blau

Summary: In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’ popular and acclaimed volume from 1985, he explores the neurological difficulties and coping mechanisms of twenty-four different patients.

Why it is The BEST:

1. Dr. Sacks successfully combines the best of clinical medicine with a humanistic outlook that never loses sight of the patient’s personality. I believe this served as a model for the subsequent writings of Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande.

A footnote from Sacks’ autobiography (On The Move, p. 173) conveys his attitude. He was working with three patients on L-dopa, as described in his book Awakenings, and one of his colleagues critically said: “Gee, Oliver, I have three hundred patients on L-dopa.” Sacks answered: “Yes but I learn a hundred times as much about each patient as you do.” The need for larger numbers in scientific studies should not obscure the importance of understanding the lives of individual patients.

2. The reader learns a good deal about humanity’s amazing ability to adjust and cope with severe limitations. An older fellow who leans left due to Parkinson’s learns how to walk straight (chapter 7). A patient with Tourette’s figures out how to navigate between the wild spontaneity of his Tourette self and his calming, predictable self while taking a medication called Haldol (chapter 10).

3. The book conveys how we often mistakenly evaluate people solely based on their ability to engage in abstract reasoning and mathematical problem solving and fail to connect to them through art, music, and symbolism. Those with very poor abilities regarding the former may excel with the latter. A chapter on an Orthodox Jewish woman named Rebecca (chapter 21) conveys this quite poignantly.

4. Sacks is alert to philosophical issues that touch upon his cases. What personal identity remains for a fellow with severe memory loss (chapter 2) or someone with Tourette’s constantly mimicking others (chapter 14)? This inspires reflections on David Hume’s theory of personal identity.     

These themes certainly impact on contemporary Jewish life. Yeshiva culture is quite intellectual and we can forget to value other avenues through which students can excel. The significance of Jewish collective expression, particularly in the State of Israel, must not obscure the ultimate value of each individual. The ability to function and even flourish in darker circumstances is another enduringly relevant idea (see Rav Tzadok’s Divrei Soferim, 32).   

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Associate Editor of TRADITION, is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on February 6, 2020]

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