Lawrence Wascher: A Rare, Personal Look at Oliver Sacks’s Early Career

CNp7ZCZUcAActyA

The world was saddened to learn of neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks’s terminal illness through a recent op-ed. With Sacks’s new autobiography out this month, Lawrence Weschler shares early stories and diary entries about Sacks, his close friend, before Sacks achieved worldwide fame.

 writes: This past February 19, fans and friends of Oliver Sacks learned, by way of an article he published in The New York Times, that the great neurologist and medical chronicler had terminal cancer. “Nine years ago,” he explained, “it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones.”I have been both a longtime fan and a longtime friend of Sacks’s—and, what is more, had once, for a period of four years several decades ago, been his impending biographer. Back in those days, in the early 1980s—some years after the publication of his not yet celebrated masterpiece Awakenings and just before the spate of books, beginning with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, that would bring him fame—Oliver was something of a recluse, living alone in a modest clapboard house out on City Island, in the Bronx, commuting each day to his medical rounds at the state hospitals and nursing homes that constituted his principal employers. Back then, he had relatively few friends and was regularly available for the frequent meals and forays that came to constitute the early days of our friendship.I had originally written him a letter, sometime in the late 70s, from my California home. Somehow back in college I had come upon Awakenings, published in 1973, an account of his work with a group of patients who had been warehoused for decades in a home for the incurable—they were “human statues,” locked in trance-like states of near-infinite remove following bouts of a now rare form of encephalitis. Some had been in this condition since the mid-1920s. These people were suddenly brought back to life by Sacks, in 1969, following his administration of the then new “wonder drug” L-dopa, and Sacks described their spring-like awakenings and the harrowing siege of tribulations that followed. In the book, Sacks gave the facility where all this happened the pseudonym “Mount Carmel,” an apparent reference to Saint John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul. But, as I wrote to Sacks in that first letter, his book seemed to me much more Jewish and Kabbalistic than Christian mystical. Was I wrong?
Oliver Sacks, medical storyteller extraordinaire, in Manhattan on the edge of the Hudson, 1990. By Ken Shung/MPTVImages.com.

Oliver Sacks, medical storyteller extraordinaire, in Manhattan on the edge of the Hudson, 1990. By Ken Shung/MPTVImages.com.

He responded with a hand-pecked typed letter of a good dozen pages, to the effect that, indeed, the old people’s home in question, in the Bronx, was actually named Beth Abraham; that he himself came from a large and teeming London-based Jewish family; that one of his cousins was in fact the eminent Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban (another, as I would later learn, was Al Capp, of Li’l Abner fame); and that his principal intellectual hero and mentor-at-a-distance, whose influence could be sensed on every page of Awakenings, had been the great Soviet neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, who was likely descended from Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic.

Our correspondence proceeded from there, and when, a few years later, I moved from Los Angeles to New York, I began venturing out to Oliver’s haunts on City Island. Or he would join me for far-flung walkabouts in Manhattan. The successive revelations about his life that made up the better part of our conversations grew ever more intriguing: how both his parents had been doctors and his mother one of the first female surgeons in England; how, during the Second World War, with both his parents consumed by medical duties that began with the Battle of Britain, he, at age eight, had been sent with an older brother, Michael, to a hellhole of a boarding school in the countryside, run by “a headmaster who was an obsessive flagellist, with an unholy bitch for a wife and a 16-year-old daughter who was a pathological snitch”; and how—though his brother emerged shattered by the experience, and to that day lived with his father—he, Oliver, had managed to put himself back together through an ardent love of the periodic table, a version of which he had come upon at the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, and by way of marine-biology classes at St. Paul’s School, which he attended alongside such close lifetime friends as the neurologist and director Jonathan Miller and the exuberant polymath Eric Korn. Oliver described how he gradually became aware of his homosexuality, a fact that, to put it mildly, he did not accept with ease; and how, following college and medical school, he had fled censorious England, first to Canada and then to residencies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where in his spare hours he made a series of sexual breakthroughs, indulged in staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation, underwent a fierce regimen of bodybuilding at Muscle Beach (for a time he held a California record, after he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders), and racked up more than 100,000 leather-clad miles on his motorcycle. And then one day he gave it all up—the drugs, the sex, the motorcycles, the bodybuilding. By the time we started talking, he had been pretty much celibate for almost two decades.

[Read the full story here, at Vanity Fair]

Early on, Oliver had agreed to let me write his biography, and I began filling what would become 14 notebooks of accounts of our meetings and conversations. Much of our time consisted of his telling me ever more (to his mind) scandalous tales in the hopes that I, too, might finally concur in his estimation that his homosexuality was a terrible blight, a disfiguring canker on his character, which I just as regularly refused to do. He would not be assuaged. Midway through the process, he began to have second thoughts about our whole biographical project. Was there any way that I could tell his story without the homosexual stuff? Alas, there wasn’t.

Because I’d become increasingly convinced that the single most important moment in his professional life had come not on the day he began giving L-dopa to those living statues at Beth Abraham, summoning them back to life, but rather in the months before that, when Sacks had had the audacity to perceive that some of the patients were in fact not like the others—that, harrowingly, outward appearances notwithstanding, these particular patients were alive on the inside, completely conscious and lucid but trapped within their inert bodies. No other doctors had dared to imagine such a thing—and, really, how could they have been expected to? The answer, I thought, in Oliver’s case, had everything to do with insights Oliver gained from his epic drug bingeing, and there was no way to tell that story without exploring the sexual self-censure that had led him to seek escape in drugs in the first place.

In that case, Oliver came to feel, he would much rather have me not proceed with the biography. He would prefer we just stay friends. Which was all right by me. I stored the notebooks in the back reaches of one of my closets. And we remained close. Oliver was present at the party celebrating my own marriage and would become a doting godfather to our daughter. Over the years, we and the few other friends who knew of the issue would try to pith him of his self-contempt and self-denial regarding his sexual nature—for the longest time, to no avail.

But he did get over the writer’s block that had been afflicting him for years, and books began pouring out, to ever increasing acclaim….(read more)

Vanity Fair


One Comment on “Lawrence Wascher: A Rare, Personal Look at Oliver Sacks’s Early Career”

  1. […] Lawrence Wascher: A Rare, Personal Look at Oliver Sacks’s Early Career […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.