This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York that catalysed the global gay liberation movement. ‘‘I remain resolutely locked in my cell despite dancing at the prison gates,’’ is how the late Oliver Sacks described the movement’s impact on his life, even though he lived in the city at the time.
Burdened by shame and confusion about the ‘‘closed book’’ of his own sexuality and earlier relationships with men, the neurologist had declared himself celibate. Only decades later, at age 75 and after a cancer diagnosis, did Sacks allow himself to openly fall in love. His partner Billy Hayes tells their story in his lyrical biography, Insomniac City.
This latest memoir, more a scrapbook of scenes than a seamless narrative, is drawn from four years of extraordinary conversations in the early 1980s between writer Lawrence Weschler and Sacks for a proposed biography, and with close colleagues and friends of the famous neurologist.
In 1980, 28-year-old Weschler was just embarking on his career with The New Yorker and sent a letter to Sacks asking if he’d consider being the subject of a screenplay. Sacks had attracted public attention for his 1973 book Awakenings, later inspiration for the film starring Robyn Williams and Robert De Niro. It depicted the miraculous re-awakening and then catastrophic decline of a group of chronically catatonic patients during the trial of a new drug, L-DOPA.
Sacks accepted Weschler’s invitation and so the conversations started (with ‘‘the first of his mammoth multipage handwritten responses’’). The original biographical project ground to a halt in 1984 when Sacks declared he didn’t want to be outed – his sexuality must remain suppressed – even from himself. ‘‘I have lived my life wrapped in concealment and wracked by inhibition and I can’t see that changing now,’’ he said. But their conversations stopped only when Sacks died in 2015.
The two authors developed an enduring friendship, with Sacks becoming godfather to Weschler’s only child, Sara, and their lives intertwined as if family.
Only now, at the insistence of a dying Sacks, and with considerable trepidation, has Weschler re-opened the ‘‘veritable shelf of notebooks’’ of those early interviews. The result is a revelatory and poignant read – a gently voyeuristic glimpse inside one of the most eccentrically brilliant minds of the past century in all its neurotic, melancholic and triumphant complexity.
And, oh, what a life. Sacks’ mother was trailblazing gynaecologist Muriel Elise Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England. The youngest of four boys, nothing about the prodigy Sacks’ childhood was usual. At six, he endured a brutal boarding school experience after being evacuated during World War II. At 12, his mother encouraged him to dissect the cadaver of a dead child. At 20, he ghost-wrote a bestselling book on menopause with her.
‘‘I think she very much saw him as a tool and an extension of herself,’’ said distinguished psychiatrist and close friend, the late Robert Rodman. When he was 21, Sacks told his parents he was homosexual, his mother became hysterical and they never spoke of it again.
When Sacks arrives in California via Canada in 1960, we meet a man at odds with the affable, Santa Claus look-alike we get to know later in books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. Instead, this is a leather jacket wearing, weight-lifting championship winning, motor-cycle cruising, drug-addicted, self-destructive hedonist. ‘‘He has gone through the most extraordinary changes of anyone I have ever known,’’ said friend and acclaimed poet Thom Gunn.
And How Are You, Dr Sacks? gives readers a potent sense of Sacks as a work in progress, boy-like and brilliant, as he develops as a neurologist, popular writer and public figure.
In 1973, Awakenings introduced the world to a medical maverick and a new literary talent (‘‘one of the best living writers in the living language,’’ Susan Sontag later opined). Sacks delighted readers and disgusted his profession in equal measure with his intimately humane stories about the inner struggles of his patients and his search for a philosophical framework to help him understand their afflictions.
He emphasised play over pathology and the personhood of his patients. ‘‘I want to give their souls their innings,’’ Sacks said in 1984. ‘‘I am a naturalist before I am a doctor.’’ His medical peers accused him of being a romantic rather than a doctor. ‘‘His entire passion is to make whole,’’ said Rodman. ‘‘But people, and especially his fellow doctors, are addicted to their fragmentations, their specialisations, they resent creativity …’’ So intense was the professional resentment, one jealous boss even stole a draft manuscript of Sacks’ first book, a treatise on migraines, and plagiarised the writings.
Sacks’ relationship with his patients wasn’t always straightforward either, with concerns he was exploiting them to create his neurological narratives. Weschler investigates the case of John, a volatile man with Tourette Syndrome, who fell out with Sacks during the production of a TV documentary. ‘‘Oomph. It’s such a pity such a wonderful disease was visited upon such a terrible person,’’ concluded Sacks.
Other scholars appreciated Sacks’ unusual genius, notably British poet W. H. Auden, who became a close friend, and the famous Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria, author of The Mind of a Mnemonist and The Man with the Shattered World, whose novelistic accounts of his patients and the human psyche had a defining influence on Sacks. When Luria died in 1977, Sacks said he wept for three days.
The last pages fast forward to Sack’s first diagnosis with cancer in 2005 and offer us further insights into Sacks’ passionate, poetic and flawed self.
Weschler is clear about what this book is not. For a definitive biography, read Sacks’ own accounts of his life in Uncle Tungsten and On the Move. What Weschler gives us is a moving glimpse of a man in motion and a loving friendship.
Natasha Mitchell is a science journalist and presenter of ABC Radio National’s culture and science program and podcast Science Friction.