Perception is everything – and it’s a very fragile lens. That’s what I found at the heart of Oliver Sacks’s monumental collection of case stories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Sacks, a prolific neurologist and writer, documented case studies of people afflicted by inconceivable impairments – conditions that could render one adrift in the time and spaces of their own lives. Their stories are recounted with vivid, human, detail, ridding them of any sanitised, clinical dilution, and presenting the characters as rounded, gifted, incredibly intricate individuals.
In doing so, Sacks does good work towards expelling the many stigmas anchored to psychological disorders and those forced to experience those disorders every single day. His keen and comprehensive descriptions offer glimpses into the actual feelings of perception-twisting conditions, highlighting how simply and randomly one could find themselves lost in labyrinths of their consciousness, in some instances unable to discern basic shapes and objects, or faces, despite possessing seemingly perfect eyesight (like the subject of the title case, who possessed visual agnosia).
Sacks’s stories are successful in that they not only recount the patient’s diagnoses, but lay bare Sack’s own subjective experience of encountering them, as well as the vast impacts their losses have had on their lives. His cases, ultimately, display that sanity and normalcy is fickle at best, reliant on the cohesion of innumerable factors to maintain an intact whole. Most strikingly, they show how easily – like a bullet through a thin glass pane – that whole can be fractured beyond repair. We could, like Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse V, find ourselves unstuck from time, moving between memories and unable to determine their chronology. We could lose the ability to recognise the faces we love most. We could lose our words.
You could wake up and find yourself on the wrong side of that flimsy, hypocritical barrier that society deems sane, only to be silenced and side-lined as you plead that your world is very literally falling to pieces. People wake up and find themselves in these places every day. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat reminds us that those people require compassion, empathy, and genuine understanding – not snide remarks and poorly-managed institutions.