Dr. Oliver Sacks- The Inspiration for Music Therapy Tales
Dr. Sacks, the inspiration for Music Therapy Tales
On August 30, 2015, Dr. Oliver Sacks passed away from an earlier cancer that only had a 5-percent chance of returning. With such low odds, it was inconceivable that we could lose our great champion, friend and advocate of music therapy!
Since his first books were published in the 1970s, Dr. Sacks’ clinical stories have meant the world to me personally and to my development as a music therapist and educator. I was impressed and deeply touched by his early writings that described the capacity for ability to be nested in disability. Young readers have to understand, and we all should appreciate, that this was a revolutionary idea at the time. Honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every individual was completely novel in the world of the diseased and disordered. His clinical descriptions came well before the use of Person First Language and cultural aspirations for political correctness. Back in the day, people were labeled in reductionist ways. There was an emphasis on describing them by what they couldn’t do and devaluing them accordingly. For example, “he can’t talk, can’t walk, and can’t see,” therefore “he’s deaf, dumb and blind.” Dr. Sacks’ writings focused on and emphasized his subjects’ strengths and gifts. He elevated and honored their humanity with his warm and humanistic narratives.
In many of the cases that Dr. Sacks wrote about, music or art was the strength that shone like diamond in the rough of a disease or disorder. In the well-known story and book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he wrote of “Dr. P.,” whose life was threaded from one moment to the next through song. If his song for dressing was interrupted, he was utterly lost. Music was the glue that held him together in his daily functioning.
Dr. Sacks wrote eloquently of how music remained alive in patients with dementia, notably Woody Geist, described in Musicophilia. Woody’s ability to sing long into the progression of this disease is astounding. Check out the wonderful HBO documentary series The Alzheimer’s Project: Memory Loss Tapes and listen to his music and how much it contested with his functioning in daily activities. I also recommend Measures of the Heart, the touching book by Woody’s daughter, Mary Ellen Geist.
Dr. Sacks was portrayed by the late, great Robin Williams in the film Awakenings, which beautifully showed Dr. Sacks’ devotion and efforts to solve problems of patients long forgotten in the back wards of dreary hospitals. With the invention of the drug L-dopa and his determination to use it on this population, patients became enlivened, awakened and brought back to life. They could voluntarily move again, communicate and engage in life, even if only for a while. Before the drugs were available, he observed and wrote about music’s power to enliven them beyond their frozen states.
The website Music Therapy Tales (www.musictherapytales.com) is my way to pay homage to
the “poet laureate” of medicine, Dr. Oliver Sacks. I feel that we must carry on this legacy of storytelling as a means of informing and transforming people’s opinions and understanding of our beloved field. The website will feature interviews with music therapists and all those who are moved and inspired to record and share their stories about the beauty and power of music: clients, physicians, therapists, parents, family members and others. You will find new stories uploaded at the website as we collect them, mainly in the “Clinical Stories” and “Power of Music Therapy” sections.
With this project, and all of my endeavors as a clinician, teacher, researcher and lecturer, I very much hope to do Dr. Oliver Sacks proud and honor his legacy with respect for the power of story as a light to shine on the inherited dignity of all.
-- Kathleen M. Howland
Kathleen M. Howland, Ph.D., is a certified music therapist (MT-BC, NMT/F) and speech therapist (CCC-SLP). She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at Berklee College of Music.