Sacks calls these the “lost years,” and he writes in depth about them for the first time in Hallucinations. “I was nowhere and nothing in the sixties and very pessimistic about the future,” he tells me. “I was somehow on the periphery of things, or I felt I was. But there was, obviously, hunger for much more. And a lonely sort of compensation in drugs, lonely and often risky and dangerous.”
The drug memoir buried inside the book is eye-opening for anyone who knows the genial picture he’s cultivated for himself as a terminal wallflower. “I started with cannabis,” he writes, then moved on to LSD, morning-glory seeds, and a synthetic belladonna-like drug his friends from Muscle Beach recommended called Artane. “Just take twenty of them—you’ll still be in partial control,” they told him, and he did, then hallucinated so fully a visit from two friends that he cooked them an egg breakfast. When he realized his mistake, he ate all three plates, then heard his parents descending in a helicopter.
“The only time I feel free and happy is when I’m writing,” he tells me, using the present tense and speaking of the ferment of his life in the sixties as though it were the very recent past. “The idle times are dangerous for me. If I don’t take drugs, I brood or I lie in bed, or I eat too much,” he says. “I think Sherlock Holmes was very similar. When he wasn’t hot on the case, he would shoot up cocaine.” While back in London for his 32nd birthday, Sacks stole morphine and needles from his parents’ drug cabinet. “At a certain point, he just looked at himself in the mirror and said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this,’ ” Weschler says. “ ‘If I keep this up, I’ll be dead in six months.’ ”
That self-intervention seems to be also, functionally, the end of his sex life—a near-total withdrawal from the social world. Sacks had described himself as having been “celibate” now for a period of decades, after moving to New York from California in 1965 when, he writes in Hallucinations, a “love affair had gone sour,” in what might be the first reference in his work to his own romantic life. “I lived alone, I’ve always lived alone,” he says. “I am, I believe the phrase is—one speaks of people as being ‘married to their work.’ ” The drugs had seemed to halfway solve the mind-body problem for him, and recovery meant a kind of relapse. “I’ve never, as they say, shared my life with anyone,” he says. “You’ll have to ask my analyst about that.”
New York in the mid-sixties was a psychoanalytic city, Freud in ascendance and Woody Allen in the wings. The arriviste Sacks was an exile in neurology, doubly an exile at an out-of-the-way “chronic hospital” in the Bronx, and triply an exile as a neurologist who found his discipline “mechanical” and “veterinary” and hoped to humanize it by importing lessons from psychoanalysis. Fifty years later, with Freud given way to psychopharmacology and neurology conquered by fMRI, he is just as much an outlier.
“Here, it’s been such an odd life,” Sacks says. “I remember one of my former professors from UCLA meeting me in 1977 and saying, ‘You have no position,’ ” he recalls. “But when he met me again in 1992, he said, ‘You’ve climbed to the top of the ladder.’ Now I think these were both wrong. I’ve never actually taken any notice of the ladder. I’ve skirted universities. I’ve been a sort of solo physician.”
Of course, there have been appointments (Beth Abraham, Albert Einstein, Columbia and, just this year, NYU) and honors (American Academies of Arts and Sciences and Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a position called “Columbia Artist” that the university created for him, funded in part by the Sainsbury supermarket family). But to hear Sacks tell it, his most important work has been inside nursing homes, most notably the Little Sisters of the Poor; even those doctors who’ve shared appointments with him at one or another area hospital say they could go years without seeing him on campus. “He’s in his own orbit,” one of them told me; another said he’d caught only a glimpse of Sacks, just once, during a neurology conference, in the swimming pool. These days, he sees a dwindling number of patients, referred by like-minded neurologists or by themselves, by letter, eager to commune with the legendary devotional doctor.
But to many psychiatrists and neurologists, devotion isn’t medicine, and even some of Sacks’s admirers acknowledge that his storyteller case history isn’t, actually, science. One called his work “liturgical,” another wondered whether he had ever actually improved the lives of his patients, and a third described his writing as diverting memoir. Many of his friends agree that he has made, at most, a trivial contribution to brain science.