When I was a synagogue rabbi in Atlanta, I would make regular visits to hospitals and old age homes. It was part of my job and it also was a mitzvah, a good deed. The visits to the old age home were more difficult than the hospital visits. In the hospital, there was the expectation of getting well and going home; in the old age home, there was no such hope, and it generally was a depressing visit. No matter how good the care was, there was a feeling that the residents were simply being warehoused until death asserted itself. Watching Awakenings reminded me of those visits.
In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a doctor focused on research, not people, accepts a job at a Bronx hospital caring for catatonic patients who survived an encephalitis epidemic in their youth. Soon he discovers that beneath their rigid exteriors are minds capable of communicating with others. Sayers learns about L-Dopa, a drug that has been used successfully with Parkinson’s sufferers, and wants to use it in medical trials on his patients. He wants to “awaken” them and bring them back to reality. Leonard Lowe is his first subject and, miraculously, he awakes from his catatonic state and slowly begins to function as a normal human being. This motivates Sayer to run the trials on all of his patients, for which he desperately seeks funding.
Success comes to the patients, but it is short lived as the effects of the drug wear off. Leonard, his prize example of the efficacy of the L-Dopa protocol, sinks into depression and develops obsessive tics, putting Sayer’s whole plan into limbo. But there is a redeeming outcome of the research, especially in the life of Dr. Sayer.
The clinical trial, flawed as it was, sent a message to Dr. Sayer and many others; namely, that all of us are asleep to some degree even when we are awake. Dr. Sayer begins to experience life more fully when he becomes more empathetic to his patients, when he sees them not as specimens but as people with overwhelming physical disabilities. Leonard, the catalyst for Sayer’s new understanding of life, in a moment of lucidity encourages the doctor to connect with others when he passionately exclaims: “We’ve got to tell everybody. We’ve got to remind them how good it is. People have forgotten what life is all about. They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”
Dr Sayer ultimately recognizes this truth. When he speaks to the donors who sponsored his research, he observes: “ What we do know is that, as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place; that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug – and that is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’d forgotten – the simplest things.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to see the world anew each and every day of our lives and to take nothing for granted, which is what the Psalmist meant when he said that God renews the world every day.
I first saw Awakenings in 1990. Viewing it again almost 25 years later, I remember vividly the indelible performance of Robert DeNiro as Leonard Lowe. It was a masterpiece of acting, in which he conveys the human soul trapped in a sick body, yearning to communicate with the outside world of normality. His characterization was disturbing, touching, and intensely honest, capturing nuances of mind and body that are still etched upon my memory. It called to mind my visits to the old age home and reminded me that beneath the stoic exteriors I saw, there may have been dormant secret lives waiting to be discovered.