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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?

A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks

Lawrence Weschler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Going for a Row

My next time out to the island, I arrive a bit frustrated because I’ve just been caught by the local police in an unconscionable speed trap. Oliver sympathizes, takes me out to his driveway, and points to the grille on his car, out of which a little clear plastic spur protrudes.

He tells me how he was always getting tickets for speeding, too, but that one day in Canada he was pulled over and told by the cop himself, “Look, our radar had you clocked at eighty-five.”


“Of course. You should get yourself a Fuzzbuster.”

“A Fuzzbuster?”

“Sure. Look, we use electronic surveillance; you have to use countersurveillance. It’s only a game.”

Oliver pauses, dreamily, before going on. “For a while I had the record for motorcycle speeding tickets in California. I used to belong to a semiprofessional racing club in San Francisco, and one afternoon I came tearing off the northern spur of the Golden Gate Bridge rounding that gentle curve right past a highway patrol car that must have been going about half as fast. Later they said I was going 122, although I think that must have been an exaggeration: I could swear I wasn’t going a mile over 115.

“It’s not an antinomian tendency,” he goes on to clarify. “I just like speeding—you know, the sense of movement.”

Our conversation shifts to the current state of play with his Leg book.

“Like Gaul,” he says, “my Leg book falls naturally into three parts. One: A prologue, Encountering the Bull on the Mountain, fall, and rescue. Two: The ordeal in the hospital in a single room, largely inside my head, provoked to a climax by relentless introspection. Three, and now yet to be composed: A rural Turgenev-like pastoral recovery, making peace, expanding.

“I love Turgenev. My mother used to read me Turgenev.

“My friend the poet Thom Gunn reports that when his mother was pregnant, she read him the whole of Gibbon.”

Which brings us around to a wider discussion of Thom Gunn and Oliver’s doctor colleague Isabelle Rapin and their roles in his life.

“With Thom, as with Isabelle Rapin, I started out imagining them as the sternest people I’d ever met, and now see them as the kindest—stern, that is, but compassionate. In both cases, grounded in integrity.

“With both of them the integrity can be felt as sternness or sweetness, depending on which side of the integrity you were on—I mean, over time I had occasion to show them prose occasioning responses of both kinds.

“Thom is relentless on falsehood.”

Oliver leaps up to show me a copy of Gunn’s new book, a volume of autobiographical essays, inscribed:

To Oliver, a book of limping prose

to a man whose prose strides, runs … leaps!

At which point, as if taking a cue, Oliver suddenly asks me, “Shall we go out for a row? I mean,” he continues, “there will be no problem with speeding out there. At best you can only row three miles per hour!”

We head out to the clapboard garage on the side of his little backyard—inside, a series of oars lined along the wall, one of them with its handle shattered clean off. We pick up the oars and oar grips and walk down toward the narrow beach at the nub end of his street. (I roll up my dress slacks, Huck Finn style.)

The boat, a fifteen-footer, is moored upside down in a little sand alcove, the new keylock jammed with sand. “Only a Jewish intellectual,” Sacks grumbles, wrestling with the mechanism, “could get himself into such a fix.” And yet we two Jewish intellectuals finally manage to free the thing.

And soon we are out on the water (with my notebook curled in my lap at the prow of the boat, I feel like a damsel with her parasol), Oliver pulling with a clean steady rhythm as the boat slices out toward the open channel. Oliver proceeds to row for well over two hours, a continuous steady rhythm, talking cheerfully all the while. A spangle of sweat soon appears on his brow, but not once does the conversation flag for breath—there is no change whatsoever in his breathing, despite the fact that such exercise would quickly exhaust anyone else I know.

Back in California, in his Muscle Beach days, Oliver recalls, he was known as Doctor Squat or Doctor Quads. He had the strongest legs in the state—he has a photo of himself winning the state weight-lifting championship, hoisting six hundred pounds! (In the photo he shows me when we get back, he is huge, his large face ballooning with exertion—he is sporting a trim Abraham Lincoln/Amish beard.) “Mine was called a ‘dead lift,’ and for good reason—it kills. And indeed, in time I damaged a disk in my back. My legs were stronger than my back! My back wasn’t weak—it, too, was strong, only strong and vulnerable.”

We continue on out. The Empire State Building glistens in the distance, on the far horizon to the south—a paperweight souvenir of itself. “My neighbor, whose boat this is,” Oliver tells me, “is an old sea captain: Sometimes he rows it to Wall Street, which is about sixteen miles.

“Over there,” he continues, indicating over his shoulder, “is the Throgs Neck Bridge. This is my favorite swim: from the island out to the pylons and back, about six miles altogether” (two beats) “although it can get a bit hazardous since the people in their motorboats don’t normally expect swimmers in these waters” (two beats) “especially late at night.”

A brief pause as he turns around, reconnoitering our drift.

“Swimming runs in the family,” he goes on. “My father loves to swim. The poor man’s equivalent of crossing the English Channel was a fifteen-mile course off the Isle of Wight—a race for which he has held a succession of records by decile, for swimmers in their twenties, their forties, their sixties, and, currently, for ninety-year-olds.”

And your mother? I ask.

“My mother was not so much into swimming.” (Two beats.) “She held several English records in the standing long jump.”

I can’t quite tell if he is kidding regarding this last. “Well, yes,” he avers, “obviously a very un-Edwardian thing to do. But my mother was very well coordinated, you see, not like my father, who like me is clumsy.

“I love to write as I row. Back in 1979,” he says, referencing a happier time, as if it were ages ago, “especially on Manitoulin Island in Canada, the rhythm of writing and rowing seemed in perfect unison—I was working on a version of the Leg book—I finally stopped short because my fingers got numb from so much typing, or maybe because I couldn’t write about getting better, about returning to the world, about ceasing to be the frantic solitary investigator in the laboratory of myself.

“Rowing allows an investigation of posture and action from the inside. I love performing experiments on and with myself. I also love to write as I swim. Sometimes I have to hurry ashore to scribble what I’ve thought—and then head out again!

“I’m not a fast swimmer. But steady. And I can swim forever.”

* * *

As we continue to slice through the water, Oliver indicates over his shoulder, to the west. “Beyond the dunghill, that’s Co-op City. It’s a public housing project that’s radically rotten. Architecturally dishonest. It’s not organic and it never quite became a community—no wonder.”

At one point he notices that he has the metal oar holds on backward and his attempts to resolve the situation turn progressively more slapstick—the oar splashing about, coming unhinged.

“You see how wrongheaded I am,” he giggles, “though hopefully on the right side of lethality.

“For its part,” he resumes, “City Island was originally a nautical community—its indigenous industry is nautical gear—this boat, all my boats were made on the island. Also living on the island, because of its proximity to Einstein [the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where he has an occasional affiliation] are a number of doctors—and then also, a number of strange folks. It’s a schizophrenic’s paradise.

“I’ve always loved islands. Do you know D. H. Lawrence’s story ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’? It’s about a wealthy man who sequentially isolates himself on more and more barren islands—his stabs at utopias, I suppose—till he dies on a craggy reef. It’s another story my mama used to love to read me. She also loved reading me ghost stories.”

More on his mother: “As for medicine, I was already a colleague of hers when I was nine.”

At approximately age twenty, Oliver ghostwrote with her a book on menopause that did very well.1 “Far better than anything I’ve ever done since: over 200,000 copies in print. You might recognize the style. Odd, of course, considering that at the time I had and, notwithstanding my subsequent medical education, still have no idea what women have down there. It’s a complete scotoma to me.” (Scotoma being one of his favorite words: not only a pathological hole, as it were, in one’s visual field, as in certain forms of migraine, but at times an uncanny gap in one’s very awareness that one is experiencing such a hollow.)

From there he drifts into a general chronology of his secondary education: Scholarship to Oxford 1950, Oxford 1951 to 1955. Middlesex Hospital in London from 1955 to 1958. Medical degree in 1958, followed by three six-month house jobs (English internships).

We round one of the pylons beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge, and head back toward City Island, his rowing steady, still not the slightest hint of labored breathing.

“Then in 1959, I launched out on a visit to Canada which I am still on.

“One reason I left England was that I was due to be inducted into the army in August 1960—one of the last inductees in a draft which was set to end that September.

“I felt a tremendous sense of injustice and yet, arriving in Canada, I decided I would love to serve—only on my own terms. So I decided to apply for service as an MD in the Canadian air force. I was taken to Ottawa and interviewed by a senior officer who ended up saying, ‘We’d love to have you, only we’re not sure—and we are sure you’re not sure—what your motives are.’”

He recommended that Oliver travel for a few months, which he then did. He bought a motorcycle and cruised cross-country, a time he subsequently memorialized in an unpublished long piece titled “Canada: Pause,” culminating, in compensation perhaps, with a stint fighting brush fires in British Columbia. After which he surfaced in San Francisco.

“I’ve always wanted to, and feared to, belong—I suppose it’s part of the Jewish thing. I deal with this, for example, at Einstein by belonging to the staff and never being seen. Or else, I would live in a Jewish neighborhood and work for the Little Sisters.”

Presently we make landfall back on the little strip of beach at the nub of Horton Street and drag the rowboat ashore. Then walk up the spur of road, stop for a moment at his house to retrieve his prosthetic/transition wedge of a back cushion, and head on up the road, turning right on the main drag toward some restaurants, and establish ourselves in one, where Oliver orders calamari. Which sets him to talking about his days back in secondary school, at St. Paul’s Academy in London. He, the antiquarian bookdealer and Times Literary Supplement columnist Eric Korn, and the doctor/dramaturg (and Beyond the Fringe veteran) Jonathan Miller were all chums in a legendary biology class in high school. They’d each adopted a favorite grouping: Jonathan—sea worms; Eric—sea cucumbers; and Oliver—cephalopods (including his favorite of those, the cuttlefish).

One day, while summering with Jonathan’s parents, Oliver recalls how he and Jonathan were walking past a fish market and heard a monger hawking “Cuttlefish!” at a cheap price. Oliver procured approximately a hundred of them, which the two boys then placed—without preservatives—in a sealed glass jar that they left in the basement of the Millers’ home.

“Well, after a few untended weeks,” Oliver relates, “of course, the jar exploded with a deep rumbling belch, unleashing what must be the worst smell in the world, that of putrefied cuttlefish. We tried desperately to cover the smell with copious quantities of lavender, so that the room became filled with alternating layers of smell—overripe lavender and rotten cuttlefish—smells that no amount of subsequent cleaning seemed capable of dislodging. We overnight reduced the value of the place, I’m sure, and I don’t think Jonathan’s parents fancied me around the house quite so much after that.”

His earlier passion, he tells me, when he was about ten, had been for chemistry. Returning from a hellish few years at his terrible school outside London, he’d been dazzled at the science museum by his “vision at the periodic table.

“Looking at that table, I saw the logic of the entire world, as if at a moment’s glance, and I soon had a lab at home. My parents were generous even though they were in constant danger of being blown up—I was careless, even then, and more than once some sulfur I’d left in the kitchen sink exploded, terrorizing our cook.”

Later, however, at St. Paul’s, his interest shifted to biology, though that interest was never as intense as had been the initial rush with chemistry. “Perhaps,” he surmises, “the relative decline in the level of such passion was connected with sexual disturbance” (he was entering puberty) “or perhaps because I was now forced to deal with others. Everything I’d done earlier, I’d done in secret and by myself. Jonathan Miller, for instance, first encountered me in a corner of the school library, curled over a book on electrostatics, utterly rapt.”

When Oliver arrived at St. Paul’s, avid for science, he was at first discouraged by the headmaster and steered onto a more conventional classics track. “But general education stopped when I was thirteen—after that it was pure science.”

Well, where then had he gotten all the philosophy?

“Between sixteen and nineteen, as I became less sure of science, I read outside, motivated by a philosophic urgency and need. I went through an enormous amount of useless, hopeless philosophic reading and really none of it helped. Later, at Oxford, where I lived across the street from the library, I read Keynes, the Bloomsbury group, Kierkegaard, but never through the college. In that sense, it was different for me than for Jonathan at Cambridge, where he was a member of the Apostles, a group that engaged in fundamental discussion. And I envied him for that.

“Though, as I say, nothing really held. I was moved by the transparency of Hume, though he didn’t give back anything positive. A decade later, in 1966, I experienced an intense Spinoza love that provoked a whole part five to the migraine book as a sort of ‘radiant afterspurt,’ much like Rilke after Duino, which I ended up leaving out, however, because it would have unbalanced the otherwise classical proportions of the book.

“My Leibniz illumination came much later still, in April 1972, a gloomy month when every day seemed filled with sunshine.” (This would have been in the midst of the Awakenings drama, well before he’d completed that book. It was also soon after Auden left America: Oliver had accompanied him to the airport that April 15.) “I wandered into a little bookshop on Third and Eighty-Eighth, and in a strange somnambulistically sure way pulled down a volume of Leibniz’s correspondence with Arnauld—and my universe blew up. Dewey, you know, had been likewise detonated by Leibniz. I think both of us were attracted by the organic inner activity in Leibnitz. (Thank God I hadn’t read Russell on Leibniz before that—it would have killed him for me.)”

He is silent for a moment, stirring the last of the calamari about with his fork. “The thing is, I need a philosophical framework, otherwise my patients would always be blowing my mind. And as I’ve been composing the Leg book, uniting the clinical with the philosophical, I can’t think why I didn’t hazard such a framework before—nor why everybody doesn’t do it all the time.”

We get up and head back toward the house. How’s the Leg book going? I ask. His mood turns suddenly dark and gloomy, and he is pretty much silent the rest of the way.

Copyright © 2019 by Lawrence Weschler