The article written by G. Thomas Couser that examines Oliver Sacks’ works was very fascinating to me. At first when I watched the documentary clip, I found myself very curious about the lives of people living with Williams syndrome and applauded Sacks for his caring nature and keen mind. I did have one problem with how he addressed them though, which I will mention later. But on the whole, I enjoyed the film and made him out to be a keen observer of the human condition with a depth of knowledge.
Upon reading the article, though, my point of view of him shifted. Couser made some very important observations that should not be glossed over. He mentioned that Sacks received much criticism for the nature of his work, one critic even going so far as likening his style of work to the Bedlam Institute and the ‘Freak Show’ phenomena. However, Couser mentions that that particular judgement is not accurate “Cockburn’s analogy, however, over-simplifies a complex phenomenon.” (3) And I agree with Couser here. Cockburn has a very strong opinion that Sacks is essentially putting up his subjects for a close look from a genteel, upper-class crowd. Couser effectively denounces that by regarding the humanity with which Sacks treats his patients. It is, as Couser said, much more complex – Sacks understands the sensitivity of his topic, in my opinion. However, there is one vital key that Sacks is missing which makes me question the ethical intention behind Sacks’ explorations. I notice a lack of empathy.
In my opinion, if Sacks were really and truly able to put himself in the shoes of someone with Williams syndrome for example, my guess is that the documentary clip would come across less “exposing” and more informative. The part of the documentary I found to be off-putting about his nature was when he kept referring to people with Williams syndrome as a separate species. To me, that term alienates that specific group from the rest of the human population. It essentially groups them into a world of their own. His desire for the use of this term could originate from many places, and I think a lack of empathy could be one of those places. I’m sure that people who suffer from any mental disability know at the end of the day that they are human beings just as much as able-minded individuals are. They are worthy of the same respect and dignity. This is not to say that I believe that Sacks does not treat them badly; he displays a depth of love and respect for the people shown in the documentary. However, there is that slight feeling that he is either belittling them or ever so slightly putting them on display for us as viewers, because he continues to address them as a separate species.