Remembering the Beautiful Mind of Oliver Sacks

Sacks at the Music Has Power Awards Benefit. Getty Images.

Dr. Oliver Sacks lived a messy, complicated, and unlucky life. His cause of death was the epitome of this fact: though a lifelong fitness enthusiast who swam a mile a day into his eighties, an old ocular melanoma that had left him blind in one eye metastasized, leaving his liver in shambles and ultimately led to his death.

In addition to his physical loss of sight, Sacks had suffered from face-blindness throughout his life, which rendered him unable to distinguish the faces of even those closest to him when seen out of context; he once spent twenty minutes looking for his lifelong assistant who was seated in the same small waiting room, and a neighbor who walked her dog down the street every morning, when seen on the street without the dog, would become a total stranger.

Sacks, from time to time, even confused his own face in the mirror with someone else’s, or the face of someone else with his own. Parties, conferences, and social gatherings were the cause of intense anxiety, which can be quite a problem when you reach Sacks’s level of esteem.

Shabbat candles. Creative Commons

Oliver Sacks grew up in a warm and familial Orthodox community in Northwest London, where Sabbath afternoons were filled with the quintessential Jewish pleasures of sweet red wine, freshly baked challah, and gefilte fish bathed in horseradish. But while he recalled those small pleasures with delight, Sacks’s youth was not the happiest of times.

In 1939, at the age of six, Oliver Sacks and his older brother Michael were sent to a dismal camp in the countryside due to the threat of a Blitzkrieg from Germany. At the makeshift school, they subsided on turnips and beetroot, and suffered at the sadistic hand of the terrible headmaster. In his book Uncle Tungsten, Sacks added that “The horribleness of the school was made worse for most of us by the sense that we had been abandoned by our families, left to rot in this awful place.”

Even when Sacks returned to his family home after the war, he struggled to find meaning in the ritual observance so central to his community’s way of life. He lost interest in much of Jewish practice shortly after his bar mitzvah, and was disturbed by his mother’s initially cold reaction to his admittance that he liked boys instead of girls.

Canadian Mountains. Creative Commons

After graduating from medical school at Oxford, he fled to Canada, ostensibly on vacation, but sent his parents a telegram with just one word:

“Staying.”

He then travelled to California for an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, then took a position at UCLA as neurologist. He fully immersed himself in California muscle beach culture, lifting record amounts in weight-lifting competitions and racking up thousands of miles on his motorcycle, even joining rides through the Grand Canyon with the Hells Angels.

Getty Images

In 1966, Sacks switched coasts, taking a position at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. But his early career as a medical researcher proved disastrous, as he lacked both the proper temperament and requisite hand-eye coordination. “I lost samples,” Sacks told an interviewer in 2005. “I broke machines. Finally they said to me: ‘Sacks, you’re a menace. Get out. Go see patients. They matter less.’”

In his 30s, depressed and with plenty of time on his hands, Sacks suffered from a crippling addiction to amphetamines that nearly killed him, which he later described at length in a New Yorker piece, Altered States:

“December, 1966, was a bad time: I was finding New York difficult to adjust to after my years in California; a love affair had gone sour; my research was going badly; and I was discovering that I was not cut out to be a bench scientist. Depressed and insomniac, I was taking ever-increasing doses of chloral hydrate to get to sleep, and was up to fifteen times the usual dose every night. And though I had managed to stockpile a huge amount of the drug — I raided the chemical supplies in the lab at work — this finally ran out on a bleak Tuesday a little before Christmas, and for the first time in several months I went to bed without my usual knockout dose. My sleep was poor, broken by nightmares and bizarre dreams, and upon waking I found myself excruciatingly sensitive to sounds. There were always trucks rumbling along the cobblestoned streets of the West Village; now it sounded as if they were crushing the cobblestones to powder as they passed.”

Washington Square Park NYC. Creative Commons.

But Sacks’s career was just beginning. The life-altering crises Sacks overcame, and indeed the very attitudes which rendered his initial research career a disaster, were exactly what he needed to become the prolific healer, writer, and thinker he is remembered as today.

In 1989, on an interview for PBS, Dr. Sacks was asked how he would like to be remembered in 100 years:

“I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this. And, to use a biblical term, bore witness.”

There is little doubt in my mind that this is precisely how Sacks will be remembered.

The Bronx. Creative Commons

In 1966, Sacks began consulting for various New York City nursing homes as well as the Bronx Psychiatric Center, and for New York University’s epilepsy center near the end of his life. In November 2012, Sacks released Hallucinations, in which he explains how ordinary people can sometimes experience the phenomenon and attempts to remove the stigma behind the word. “Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane,” he writes. “Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness or injury.”

His writings and books also introduced syndromes like Tourettes and Aspergers into the everyday lexicon, but more importantly, his writing turned patients with debilitating conditions into persons of uncanny and brilliant complexity.

“I love to discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any,” he told People Magazine in 1986.

His 1973 book Awakenings, later turned into a film starring none other than Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, is based upon his work treating a group of patients suffering from a baffling disease which left them immobilized temporarily regain the freedom of movement.

His 1988 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, perhaps his most well known collection of stories, brought 24 stories of patients with bafflingly complex neurological conditions into a story format comprehensible by the average reader.

Old piano. Creative Commons

Sacks was also a brilliant pianist, and spent four decades committed to the development of music therapy programs, during which he helped create the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham. He devoted an entire book, entitled Musicophilia, to the relationship between music and the mind. “I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another,” he told an audience at Columbia University in 2006. “I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether — for all I know, language piggybacked on music.”

Artistic rendering of Oliver Sacks. Bradley Wind/Flickr

Referring to Nietzsche’s claim that listening to Bizet had made him a better philosopher, Dr. Sacks added, “I think Mozart makes me a better neurologist.”

But though generations are certain to remember Dr. Sacks as a prolific author and researcher, perhaps his greatest contribution was neither his research nor his writing, but rather his ability to make us feel okay with not feeling okay.

14th Street NYC. Creative Commons

I often joke that if you’re not depressed your first few years in New York City, you’re not doing it right — and the late Dr. Sacks would probably agree. He often told reporters he much preferred living in New York to his time in California. “Living there was too easy and too sweet,” he said. “I needed ugly and violent, ferocious and challenging…There is a tremendous richness of life here, Tourettes visibly present on the streets.”

An Oliver Sacks lecture. Creative Commons

Upon learning he had terminal cancer, he wrote a refreshingly candid piece in the New York Times, defying the expectations we hold of a man who knows that death looms near:

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.”

Another artistic rendering of Oliver Sacks. Creative Commons

Sacks also gave us hope in love and laughter. After 35 years of celibacy brought on by debilitating shyness, Sacks overcame his impediment, and began a relationship with writer and photographer Bill Hayes in 2008, whose collection of candid portraits of the late Sacks are heartrendingly beautiful.

On top of his intellect, Sacks had a wicked sense of humor. On his 65th birthday, he filled balloons with Xenon, which is five times more dense than air. “I loved these balloons,” he said. “One normally thinks of balloons going up, but these balloons came down and fell on the ground like cushions.”

“I’m rather fond of xenon,” he admitted, “partly because it’s so rare, partly because its name means stranger. But specifically, it was the first inert gas which was persuaded to combine with other elements. So at the point when someone as solitary as myself is finally tipped into relationship and community, then I feel like xenon.”

Metal Cube. Creative Commons.

Xenon wasn’t the only element Dr. Sacks used for birthday surprises. “Tin is element 50 and since 10 people have turned 50 lately, I’m out of tin,” he once told a reporter who noticed several chunks of metal upon his desk. “A good friend of mine was 80 recently,” he added, “and I said to him, ‘I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you’re 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.’ I’m waiting for one elderly friend to be 83 so I can give him some bismuth.”

Near the end of his life, Sacks received nearly 10,000 letters a year, and remarked that he would “invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison.”

Oliver Sacks. Creative Commons

In 1974, at the age of 41 and mountaineering alone, Dr. Sacks tore his left quadriceps while running from a bull on a Norwegian mountaintop. In his book A Leg to Stand On, he recalled an aunt visiting him in the hospital and telling him: “You’ve always been a rover. There are rovers, and there are settlers, but you’re definitely a rover. You seem to have one strange adventure after another. I wonder if you will ever find your destination.”

But with one strange adventure left, that of moving on from this life, and with his roving days behind him, Sacks’s final pieces in the New York Times may serve as the best reminder that the destination is hardly what’s important:

“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for 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.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

The first photo of earth from the moon. Creative Commons

Though not a religious man, Sacks would celebrate Jewish holidays, and when he would pray in a synagogue, he preferred praying in an Orthodox shul, citing the positive emotions the Hebrew language evoked. Perhaps it is fitting that in his final piece, Sacks reflected on the Sabbath, and drew a parallel between his own life and the Jewish day of rest:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one?s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

A version of this story was first published on Sept 02 2015 in Slant News.