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

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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.
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Oliver Sacks, Neurologist Who Wrote ‘Awakenings,’ Dies at 82

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The acclaimed author, whose book Awakenings inspired an Oscar nominated film of the same name, reportedly died of cancer at his home in New York.

“He died surrounded by the things he loved and the people he loved, very peacefully, after an illness he had known about since January this year. He taught us a great deal, right up until the very end.”

In February he wrote about his illness – and being “face to face with dying”.

His publicist Jacqui Graham paid tribute to Dr Sacks, saying he was “unlike anybody I have ever met”, while JK Rowling said he was “inspirational”.

Dr Sacks was best known for his writing, including his book Awakenings – his account of how he brought a group of patients “back to life” after they spent years in “frozen states” after an illness.

Image caption Dr Sacks received a CBE from the Queen in October 2008

Image caption Dr Sacks received a CBE from the Queen in October 2008

The film version, which starred Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1991, including best picture.

“He always taught us what it was to be human, and he taught us what it is to die.”

— His publicist Jacqui Graham, paying tribute to Dr Sacks

Dr Sacks, who was born in London but had lived in New York since 1965, was also the author of several other books about unusual medical conditions, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and The Island Of The Colorblind.

He was awarded several honorary degrees recognising his contribution to science and literature, as well as a CBE in 2008 in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Read the rest of this entry »


EW’s Robin Williams Tribute


Apple Tribute: ‘Remembering Robin Williams’

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Apple – Remembering Robin Williams


[AUDIO] Foreshadowing Suicidal Thoughts: April 2010 Interview with Robin Williams

This link suggested by our Los Angeles Bureau Chief, KABC reporter and Pundit Planet‘s West Coast Correspondent Robert Holguin.

My impression: In customary Robin Williams style, he’s displaying an internal dialogue between different parts of himself. Only this time it isn’t comic. It’s part of a thoughtful discussion about recovering from heart surgery, fear of death, and the unexpected appearance of suicidal thoughts, reflecting on how he responded to the mysterious internal ‘voice’ that suggested it.

It’s a provocative interview. Also, characteristically, funny, and spirited.

This interview took place on April 26, 2010. The relevant portion that Robert highlights starts at 52 minutes.

What’s striking to me about this part of the discussion is Williams’ self-awareness, and insight. Evidence of being rational.

It amplifies my instinct that Williams could, and should, have survived this rough patch. Under different circumstances, perhaps only by a fraction, he could have prevailed over the morbid, self-destructive (and impossible for any outsider to know) thoughts that led him to take his life.

In what appears to be (I just watched the press conference, the preliminary findings confirming suicide as cause of death) an extremely desperate act. Anyone who heard the description has to conclude, this was the actions of a man committed to succeeding in this effort to kill himself. Read the rest of this entry »


Robin Williams Found Dead, Possible Suicide

Happy Feet Two - European Premiere - Inside Arrivals

EW.com reports: Oscar winner and comedian Robin Williams died this morning at 63. While his publicist wouldn’t confirm that his death was a suicide, a rep did issue this statement. “Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

“There really are no words to describe the loss of Robin Williams. He was immensely talented, a cherished member of our community, and part of the Fox family. Our hearts go out to his family, friends and fans. He will be deeply missed.”

Williams, who won an Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting, will reprise his role as Theodore Roosevelt in the third installment of Night at the Museum this December.

[Robin Williams Found Dead in Possible Suicide Variety]

[Sheriff’s office suspects Robin Williams’ death “to be a suicide due to asphyxia” but investigation not yet – Washington Post]

[Robin Williams Dead: Beloved Actor Dies In Apparent Suicide – HuffPo]roseanne-barr1

[Roseanne Barr deleted tweet: ‘ROBIN IS ALIVE, IT WAS A TWITTER HOAX’; Updated with screenshot]

[Breaking: Comedian-actor Robin Williams dead at 63, NBC]

[Legendary Actor Robin Williams Found DeadBlaze]

[Actor Robin Williams Is Dead at 63 – ABC News]

[Was it a suicide? Popular actor, comedian Robin Williams dead at 63
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[Robin Williams found dead in apparent suicide, police say – MiamiHerald.com]

[Comedian Robin Williams dead, sheriff says – CNN]

He had recently signed on to reprise his beloved role as Mrs. Doubtfire in a sequel to be directed by Chris Columbus, and was last seen opposite Annette Bening in the indie film The Face of Love. His sitcom The Crazy Ones premiered on CBS last fall, but was not picked up for a second season. Read the rest of this entry »


Cheerleader Effect: Why People Are More Beautiful in Groups

Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders (LM Otero/AP)

Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders (LM Otero/AP)

Who should I hang out with if I want to look the most attractive? And how many of said people must I acquire?

The basic idea of research published this week in the journal Psychological Scienceis that our asymmetries and disproportionalities tend to “average out” amid a group of faces, and our weird little faces are perceived as slightly less weird.

Drew Walker and Edward Vul of the University of California, San Diego, did five experiments wherein subjects rated the attractiveness of people in photographs. Some people were pictured alone, and others were in groups. (Sometimes the “groups” were actually collages of people alone.)

In every case, for men and women, the people in groups got higher attractiveness ratings. Walker reasoned: “Average faces are more attractive, likely due to the averaging out of unattractive idiosyncrasies.” They refer to this as the “cheerleader effect.”

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