By Ray Sawhill
The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks grew up in a house full of medical stories. Both of his parents were physicians, and his two brothers also became physicians. “Guests were frequently horrified, although sometimes enthralled,” he remembers. His latest work in the family tradition is “Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf” (University of California Press). Like his earlier books, it can spark an adult’s imagination the way fairy tales ignite a child’s.
Sacks has a voluminous and eccentric nature that suggests a Victorian reference book. London-born and Oxford-educated, he decided to move to the States when, on a visit in 1960, he became entranced by California’s vegetation. He has been a passionate motorcyclist as well as a weight lifter capable of squatting while holding up six hundred pounds (“It seemed like the right sport for slow, strong, solitary, clumsy people like myself”), and he once “kidnapped” a “devastatingly ill” woman from the Los Angeles hospital where he was doing his residency. She’d expressed a desire to take a ride on a motorcycle before dying, so Sacks put her on the back of his BMW and gave her a whirl. When he came to New York in 1965 he had fellowships to work in a lab, but “I was always having accidents. I would screw the microscope lens through slides. Finally they said, ‘Get out. You’ll do less harm with people’.”
Something clicked. “I loved the clinical life,” he says. “It called equally to the scientific and the emotional.” Some of his first patients in New York were survivors of an epidemic of sleeping sickness that dated back to the decade following World War I. Sacks administered a new drug and attended to them as, for the first time in nearly fifty years, they roused from a state of suspended animation; he called the book he wrote about them “Awakenings.” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” a copy of which made an appearance as a token of publishing-world intellectualism on Glenn Close’s bedside table in “Fatal Attraction,” is a collection of other, diverse case histories, and was a surprise best-seller in 1986.
Sacks lives in a house on City Island with a Bechstein piano and a huge stag’s-horn fern, looks forward to buying another motorcycle, and practices neurology at various hospitals and homes around New York. He’s wary of specifying the subject of his next book: “I can’t promise anything, because I don’t know whether anything will happen or what form it will take. I don’t even take book advances. I love the feeling of organic growth, of something happening almost outside my will.” Readers who know his work won’t be surprised to learn that he often finds composing the lengthy footnotes that can take up as much as a third of the length of his books to be the most pleasurable part of writing. “Sometimes I want to write footnotes to footnotes,” he confesses. “A friend once told me that I had ‘commentarrhea’.”
- There’s a lot to explore and enjoy at the Oliver Sacks website.
- The books of Sacks’ that I like best are “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
- Video interviews with the doctor can be watched via The Oliver Sacks Foundation’s YouTube channel.
- An informative obituary of Sacks, who died in 2015.
- Some reflections by Sacks during his final year about what it was like for him to live with terminal cancer.
- Billy Hayes, Sacks’ boyfriend at the end, recalls a couple of memorable nights out with Sacks, who comes across like a character from an A.A. Milne novel.
©1989 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.