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A Brain With a Heart

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Sacks in his thirties.  

His office is a converted two-bedroom and fans out from a central living room, now an open workspace for Sacks’s personal staff, who are, among the sea of people kept at arm’s length, those closest to him. One is Hailey Wojcik, a young woman with a dyed-pink streak in her hair who helps manage Sacks’s curiously active website (“As some of you asked after our last newsletter, how come the famously computer-illiterate Dr. Sacks has all this social media???”), and the other is Kate Edgar, a longtime collaborator who began as a sort of assistant and is now something like a best friend, first reader and editor, and stage manager. She is the dedicatee in Hallucinations, the one who deciphered his handwritten, water-soaked third manuscript; the one who accompanied him to the doctor when he learned he had cancer; and the one who abruptly cuts in when I ask Sacks if we might set up an additional meeting: “No, no, we have to keep him writing.”

To the right is Sacks’s room, where he’ll work longhand, see the occasional patient, and sometimes spend the night. To the left is a small seventies-era Formica kitchen, which holds a hobby collection of chemistry-themed kitchenware. When he offers me a glass of water, it was in a glass frosted with a periodic-table element. On the cabinets appear an array of crude black-and-white portraits, photocopy cutouts like you might see mounted to poster board at a science fair. They’re reproductions of drawings of Sacks’s “chemical heroes,” which he pasted up while working on his “memoir of a chemical boyhood,” Uncle Tungsten, and hasn’t touched in the decade since. “He’s really like a little boy, you know,” Edgar says.

Sacks grew up in “a large, rambling, untidy house” in Jewish northwest London just before the war. His father was a forbidding house-call-style G.P., devoted to conversational medicine, who read the Talmud at night, told Oliver to never trust a stethoscope, and three times won a fifteen-mile swimming race off the coast of the Isle of Wight. His mother worked at the Marie Curie Hospital and was among the first female surgeons in all of London.

Sacks would occasionally stumble into the surgical theater his parents shared elsewhere in the house—“a mystical room that emitted strange lights and sometimes noises and smells”—to discover his mother performing obstetric surgery. From time to time, she would show him “malformed fetuses,” some of them stillborn and others that she had drowned at birth—“Like a kitten,” she once said. Beginning at 11, Oliver was directed to dissect them; at 14, she brought him to the Royal Free Hospital and instructed him to autopsy part of the corpse of a girl his own age.

England was oppressive to Sacks—he’d later call it rigid and constricting, especially its medical culture. “I felt in a sense—it’s a terrible thing to say—that London was infested by my parents in various ways,” he tells me. “I imagine people might say to my parents, We saw your son in the delicatessen on Yom Kippur, We saw him in the swimming pool, or whatever. This is probably extremely unfair to them. But we all have to make a break, and for me I think it had to be to another country.”

On a 1960 trip to Canada at 27, in which he traveled by motorcycle, fought fires in British Columbia, and contemplated joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, he sent a one-word telegram back to England: staying. He chased his way to San Francisco, where sex, drugs, and liberated desire were just beginning to crack open the city—and made a kind of pilgrimage to the Jekyll-and-Hyde poet and gay bohemian antihero Thom Gunn.

Gunn had been a sort of idol for Sacks even before they’d met: “I felt unformed, like a fetus in comparison.” Sacks’s middle name is Wolf, and probably his favorite of Gunn’s poems is “Allegory of a Wolf Boy.” “This corresponded with a certain duplicity I felt in myself,” he wrote, “a need to have different selves for day and night. By day I would be the genial, white-coated Dr. Oliver Sacks, but at nightfall I would exchange my white coat for my motorbike leathers and, anonymous, wolflike, slip out of the hospital to rove the streets.”

In 1962, he took a residency at UCLA, where he became a regular at Muscle Beach and set a California state weightlifting record with a 600-pound power lift: “I was known as Dr. Squat,” he says, “which rather pleased me.” And he continued to motorbike, riding solo and loaded with amphetamines as far as the Grand Canyon, stopping only for gas. One day, a patient paralyzed from the neck down and blind from neuromyelitis optica heard Sacks was a biker, and asked to come along for a ride; with the help of weightlifting friends, he abducted her from the hospital, strapped her against his own torso, and rode up and down Topanga Canyon.


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