Review – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver SacksThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The title makes this sound… odd. It made me worry that we were going to end up laughing at the plight of people with neurological disorders and defects, the first time I heard of it. But I was assured that Sacks was, overall, a decent guy, so I decided I probably should give it a try — especially since it’s one of those books that everyone seems to associate with neurology. Some of Sacks’ language is horribly out of date now (it’s jarring to read about ‘retardeds’, etc, even if the word was more acceptable then and had a medical meaning), and I can sympathise with people who felt that some of the language was too technical — it wasn’t to me, but I’ve had plenty of exposure.

I think it mostly avoided the ‘freak circus’ effect, with a kind of tenderness about most of the cases described. One or two points I disliked were when Sacks tries to decide whether or not amnesiac people are ‘de-souled’ — so dehumanising and just… not appealing — and one where he made a kind of connection with a patient, or thought he had, and then immediately pulled back to avoid… what? Communicating honestly with a patient, getting into their world a little bit? Maybe I would see that differently as a doctor, but reading it, I couldn’t help but think what an opportunity was missed.

Not all of the cases are fully described here, with the ins and outs and whys and wherefores; sometimes a diagnosis is assumed. But it is an interesting account of the many ways the human brain can go wrong, and the unexpected effects it can have.

Rating: 3/5

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