analysis of the lost mariner

Analysis of the Lost Mariner


            The Lost Mariner is one of the essays in the book The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat written by Oliver Sacks, a neurologists. The entire book is a collection of essays narrating different cases about people with problems on the brain, particularly the right-hemisphere—either losing memory or having memories that did not actually happen. The Lost Mariner in particular is Sacks’ account of a patient he previously encountered. Jimmie G. is a war veteran that does not show symptoms of any diseases, he is practically a healthy old man and he remembers vividly the details of his experiences during the war despite his old age. The problem is he can’t retain short term memory, he still believes that the year is 1945 and that the Americans have just won the war. The moment the doctor stepped out of the room, Jimmie G forgets all about meeting him. Through Sacks’ dialog with the Jimmie G, apart from learning Jimmie G’s condition, he learned that breaking the sad news to the patient can have great emotional effects.

Jimmie G’s Case

            Jimmie G’s case is interesting because it reminds us that despite the fictional characters created in movies, there are characters that resemble real people with depressing illnesses. Jimmie G is Sacks’ patient in the essay. His case is a very rare—an illness that was recently used by Hollywood in one of its movies. The movie 50 First Dates had characters with the same illness. Viewers might think at first that it was only possible in the movies but upon reading The Lost Mariner, the characters of Lucy and especially Ten Second Tom seemed very real. The likes of Jimmie G. are not insane, they have brain damage but they are not insane. As shown by Jimmie G.’s own words. “What’s happening to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I insane?” (Sacks). He firmly believes that he’s in a different time not because he is insane because it is what his brain tells him.

            Sensitivity has always been an issue with doctors. Aspiring doctors were always taught to break bad news to the patient and the patient’s family slowly or as solemn as possible. Then again no amount of solemnity can reduce the pain that a bad news can bring to the patient and the patient’s family but it somehow helps to be sensitive to their feelings and not just bring bad news to them right away, being straight to the point can add trauma to an already traumatizing ordeal. In The Lost Mariner however, Sacks immediately pointed out to Jimmie G. his illness. “Here,” I said, and thrust a mirror toward him. ‘Look in the mirror and tell me what you see. Is that a nineteen year old looking at the mirror?” (Sacks). Doctor Sacks was not being sensitive at all when he said this to Jimmie G. He could have just let it pass because he already had suspicions over the condition of Jimmie G. But the condition of Jimmie G. may have very well made him do what he did because he knew that he would not remember him asking the question. After asking the question, Dr. Sacks felt guilty, and realized an important lesson that he must always consider when dealing with patients with brain damage. He learned the virtue of being sensitive towards patients with delicate conditions. Although it can be argued that he already felt that he didn’t have to show Jimmie G . his reflection, he felt guilty nonetheless. Dr. Sacks even felt that it would have been his most cruel act had Jimmie G. had the capacity to remember. “It was, or would have been, the height of cruelty, had there been any possibility of Jimmie’s remembering it.” (Sacks).

This realization is of course beside the fundamental lesson that Jimmie G. has short term memory loss, meaning he does not remember past events that happened to him after the war. His memory before and  just after the war is still sharp, but events following that were unable to retain in his memory. This loss of memory is talked about in the first part of Sack’s book The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sack’s even claims that Neurology’s most talked about topic is losses (which is also the title of the first chapter of the book). “Neurolgy’s favorite word is ‘deficit,’ denoting an impairment or incapacity of neurological function….loss of memory…” (Sacks, p.3).

The illness of Jimmie G, is not yet fully understood by science, the brain, specifically the right hemisphere of our brain is a complicated organ, or rather a less understood hemisphere. What Neurology reveals about the right hemisphere is that “it is the right hemisphere which controls the crucial powers of recognizing reality.” (Sacks, p.4). Thus, the failure of Jimmie G’s brain to realize that new events are happening and have happened in his life. Because of this lack of knowledge on short term memory loss, institutions that cater to the like of Jimmie G should handle their patients with care. And not expose them to experiences that can possibly harm them.

Sacks, obviously did not set a good example in how to deal with patients like Jimmie G. Making Jimmie G. realize his condition only put a lot of emotional stress on the patient. Despite some slight hesitation on his part, the temptation to try to knock some senses into Jimmie G overcame him. As a result, Jimmie G, panicked and underwent severe emotional stress. The panic attack of Jimmie G. was only alleviated when Dr. Sacks made him relax by making Jimmie look out the window to watch some children playing baseball. In a sense, Dr. Sacks showed two examples of how to handle brain damaged patients. The first is his direct but insensitive approach while the other is a soothing, sensitive approach. The latter is of course the better of the two and should be followed by institutions everywhere.

            As shown by the reaction of Jimmie G, the direct approach is harmful to patients. It was a good thing that Dr. Sacks knows how to settle the nerves of his patients, if not, Jimmie G.could have done anything, and may even be driven to madness. Institutions are supposed to heal their patients, not make them worse. Hospitals may need to keep the truth away from patients in order to help them more, just like in Jimmie G’s case, although his case is special because he does not remember anything practically within two minutes.


            Oliver Sacks on the surface may look to have just published a case study book about his patients with brain problems but these cases can be of value to future studies regarding the possible treatment of brain problems such as memory loss or the failure to retain short term memory. The story of The Lost Mariner also provides a good account of how institutions should deal with patients like Jimmie G. It serves, as a basis for comparison for other neurologist or anyone who interacts with people with brain damage.

            By publishing the book, Sacks have made it possible for people to have a glimpse at the Neurological world, particularly in brain damage cases, which in turn, would hopefully make concerned individuals more sensitive with their words and actions towards people with brain damage.

Works Cited

Sacks, Oliver. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. New York: Touchstone. 1998.

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