Thirty-five years ago, Laurence Weschler was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he was working on a biography of Oliver Sacks. The project was put on hold when Sacks refused permission for his sexuality to be included. Shortly before his death Sacks asked Weschler to finish the book. “And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?” published in 2019, is the result.
The biographical memoir portrays Sacks as a complex person, brilliant, quirky, passionate, endearing, loyal, perceptive, talented, clumsy, obsessive, restless, vulnerable, unpredictable, brittle, insecure, self-absorbed, flawed…
No one who knew him would say that he was a man of mild disposition. On the contrary, he was a self-described “man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all his passions.”
Sacks was a survivor, a survivor of a domineering parent, a traumatic childhood and an amphetamine-fueled twenties and thirties.
(1) A domineering parent:
His relationship with his mother was by his own account way too intense, too close. She was an accomplished gynecologist and one of the first female surgeons in England. Her emotional life was tied up with her patients. As a parental figure she came across as cool, withdrawn, correct and imposing. Her idea of being a good mother was to bring twelve-year-old ‘Ollie’ bottled fetuses to dissect.
(2) A traumatic childhood:
At age six, he and his older brother Michael, upon the onset of the Battle of Britain in June 1940, were hastily bundled off to “Braefield”, “that hideous boarding school in the country.” It was a world of fickle relations where no-one was faithful to anyone. For Sacks it was a time of isolation and loneliness. Sacks describes the headmaster an obsessive flagellist, his wife an unholy b. . . ., and the sixteen-year-old daughter a pathological snitch.
(3) An amphetamine-fueled twenties and thirties:
Sacks wrote extensively about his drug-fueled extravaganzas in his book Hallucinations. Much of his drug-related behaviour was excessive and dangerous. He says,
“All my friends on the beach were drinking and smoking marijuana, neither of which did anything for me. My experience with amphetamines, on the other hand, was altogether different, indeed involved a virtual conversion of the will: If I took two, I had to take four, six, eight.”
People with addictive personalities often flirt with death. Sacks pushed the boundaries, conducting his experiments on motorcycles, on journeys, and most crucially on himself. In a more pensive moment Sacks remarked,
Despite his upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish home in England Sacks was an atheist, who had no sympathy for fanatical and fundamentalist forms of religion. However, he conceded there were authentic examples of ‘sacrifice and service.’ For thirty years, he worked with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a devoted order of nuns who took the most extraordinary, selfless care of sick and elderly people. He says,
“For me, they represent the noblest side of religion, good works without any conditionality.”
Despite his rejection of the concept of a creator God, Sacks maintained ‘beliefs’ that resonate with ‘people of faith,’ namely, the uniqueness of the individual, the wonder of the natural world, and the power of story.
(1) The uniqueness of the individual:
Sacks believed that every human being is a unique individual and, as such, is deserving of our patience, understanding, and respect.
While working at Beth Abraham in 1966 he was drawn to the ‘living statues’, the sort of patients often referred to as ‘hopeless’ or ‘mere vegetables’, who were scattered among the wider hospital community. He believed they might be vitally alive somewhere deep inside.
Sacks had the ability to get at things, to see things, other, more conventional and reductionist neurologists could not see.
According to Sister Lorraine, a Little Sister of the Poor, he had an amazing depth of perception. She says,
“Everyone who reads his case notes sees the patients differently, newly. With him, the whole person becomes visible.”
(2) The wonder of the natural world:
Sacks was a naturalist. He loved to immerse himself in nature. He had a special interest in cephalopods (including his favourite of those – cuttlefish), and ferns.
Actor, author, and humourist, Jonathon Miller, was a close friend of Oliver Sacks. He recalls the joy Sacks experienced when seeing something of interest. He says,
“He lived in a sort of strange, tactile world. One can always remember moving through botanical gardens with him and his producing squeals of delight as he reached out to touch delicate ferns – Oeyim! Oooooh!”
Sacks reverenced ‘the book of nature.’ He says,
“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”
(3) The power of story:
Sacks saw himself as a storyteller. His case histories were collaborative, heavily reliant on winning the patient’s trust, something that could not be rushed. Sacks required hours at a time to begin to puzzle out their story.
His was a neurological narrative imbued with ‘imaginative sympathy.’ It was insightful, energetic, and transformative, forming an integral part of the therapy itself.
Sister Lorraine appreciated that Sacks was giving the patients back their humanity. She says,
“He was helping to turn an IT back into an I.”
Sacks believed that a case history – any narrative for that matter – is about how freedom interacts with fate.
Sack’s saw fate as that which distinguishes a person, their uniqueness, their humanity. He says,
“It is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
Fate is a given. Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to adapt to or surmount what is – the adverse conditions, the unmistakable threats, the unrelenting challenges – that come to all of us.
It is how we exercise our freedom and respond to life’s challenges that sets us apart. When we are committed to the struggle, we demonstrate patient determination and persistent endeavour. When we feel defeated, we surrender to our fate. We complain of our circumstances and allow anger and resentment to take hold.
Sacks bonded with his patients. It was because of his unflagging commitment to the individuals under his care, that he was able to explore what it is to be human, to stay human.
After learning he had terminal cancer Sacks wrote of his gratitude for his life. He says,