Awakenings is the remarkable account of a group of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness during the great epidemic just after World War I. Frozen in a decades-long sleep, these men and women were given up as hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Sacks gave them the then-new drug L-DOPA, which had an astonishing, explosive, “awakening” effect. Dr. Sacks recounts the moving case histories of these individuals, the stories of their lives, and the extraordinary transformations they underwent with treatment. This book, which W. H. Auden called “a masterpiece,” is a passionate exploration of the most general questions of health, disease, suffering, care, and the human condition.
The revised 1990 edition includes new essays on the making of several dramatic adaptations ofAwakenings, including Harold Pinter’s play, “A Kind of Alaska,” and the feature film, “Awakenings,” starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
Dr. Sacks on Awakenings:
Praise for Awakenings:“Awakenings came from the most intense medical and human involvement I have even know, as I encountered, lived with, these patients in a Bronx hospital, some of whom had been transfixed, motionless, in a sort of trance, for decades. Migraine was still in the medical canon, but here I took off in all directions–with allegory, philosophy, poetry, you name it.”
“Experiences so strange that they are difficult to conceive are not limited to travels up the Amazon or to the Moon, but can occur within the confines of the human head…This long sleep and sudden awakening to a strange new world…though so alien, have an immediate power to grip the imagination. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that through this book we live with the dead, brought back from the past…The book is an extraordinary compound of clinical observation and, one feels, deep understanding of the plight of these people…One senses in the author a passion to communicate his discoveries with all the power of his intellect, knowledge and deep compassion–so that we may “awake.’”
– Richard Gregory, The Listener
“This book is a neurologist’s account of his experience with a so-called miracle drug from the epidemic of sleeping sickness which swept the world in the 1920s. Dr. Sacks writes beautifully and with exceptional subtlety and penetration into both the state of mind of his patients and the nature of illness in general….Compulsively readable…a brilliant and humane book.”
– A. Alvarez, Observer
“It makes you aware of the knife-edge we live on.”
– Doris Lessing
“This doctor’s report is written in a prose of such beauty that you might well look in vain for its equal among living practitioners of belles lettres.”
– Frank Kermode, Daily Telegraph
In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a dedicated and caring physician at a local hospital in the New York City borough of The Bronx. After working extensively with the catatonic patients who survived the 1917-1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, Sayer discovers certain stimuli will reach beyond the patients' respective catatonic states; actions such as catching a ball thrown at them, hearing familiar music, and experiencing human touch all have unique effects on particular patients and offer a glimpse into their worlds. Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) proves elusive in this regard, but Sayer soon discovers that Leonard is able to communicate with him by using a Ouijaboard.
After attending a lecture at a conference on the subject of the L-Dopa drug and its success with patients suffering from Parkinson's Disease, Sayer believes the drug may offer a breakthrough for his own group of patients. A trial run with Leonard Lowe yields astounding results as Leonard completely "awakens" from his catatonic state; this success inspires Sayer to ask for funding from donors so that all the catatonic patients can receive the L-Dopa medication and experience "awakenings" back to reality.
Meanwhile, Leonard is adjusting to his new life and becomes romantically interested in Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), the daughter of another hospital patient and begins spending time with her when she comes to the hospital to visit her father. Leonard also begins to chafe at the restrictions placed upon him as a patient of the hospital, desiring the freedom to come and go as he pleases and stirs up a bit of a revolt in the process of arguing his case repeatedly to Sayer and the hospital administration. Sayer notices that as Leonard grows more agitated battling administrators and staff about his perceived confinement, a number of facial and body tics are starting to manifest and Leonard has difficulty controlling them.
While Sayer and the hospital staff continue to delight in the success of L-Dopa with this group of patients, they soon find that it is a temporary measure. As the first to "awaken", Leonard is also the first to demonstrate the limited duration of this period of "awakening". Leonard's tics grow more and more prominent and he starts to shuffle more as he walks, and all of the patients are forced to witness what will eventually happen to them. He soon begins to suffer full body spasms and can hardly move. Leonard, however, puts up well with the pain, and asks Sayer to film him, in hopes that he would some day contribute to research that may eventually help others. Leonard acknowledges sadly what is happening to him and has a last lunch with Paula where he tells her he cannot see her anymore. When he is about to leave, Paula dances with him, and for this short period of time his spasms disappear. Leonard and Dr. Sayer reconcile their differences, but Leonard returns to his catatonic state soon after. The other patients' fears are similarly realized as each eventually returns to catatonia no matter how much their L-Dopa dosages are increased.
Sayer tells a group of grant donors to the hospital that although the "awakening" did not last, another kind — one of learning to appreciate and live life — took place. For example, he himself, who is painfully shy, decides to go ask Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) to coffee, many months after he had declined a similar proposal from her. The nurses also now treat the catatonic patients once again with more respect and care, and Paula is shown visiting Leonard. The film ends with Sayer standing over Leonard behind a Ouija board, with his hands on Leonard's hands which are on the planchette. "Let's begin," Sayer says.