Lawrence Weschler Remembers Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks and Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, a former staff writer at the New Yorker and director emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities, has a genius for spotting “convergences,” concepts that mirror other concepts and yield electric connections—like the way Lee Friedlander’s photo of a winter tree rhymes with both the capillaries in an eyeball and with Ruth Asawa’s tied-wire sculptures.

In And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?, subtitled A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks, a rich, wry pleasure, Weschler uses this talent for dot-connecting to portray neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. He considers the multiple influences and experiences—the neurologist A.R. Luria, prodigious drug consumption, a homophobic mother, the philosopher Edmund Husserl, several horrific years at boarding school, etc.—that shaped and sometimes stymied Sacks. Weschler’s affectionate memoir reveals a man who was, at his core, propelled by wonder:

Oliver calls me, tremendously excited, crowing, “I’m in a pre-Cambrian bliss!” During the next few minutes, it develops that he was out swimming and was returning to shore when, putting his foot on a rock, it moved! The rock, and its neighbor, and their neighbor—the whole field of rocks—turned out to be a horde of horseshoe crabs, beached for mating.

“My people,” Oliver proclaimed, “my people have come!”

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? gives us the ins and outs of a brilliant, funny, conflicted soul. A man who considered Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind an essential traveling companion; broke a California weight-lifting record in 1961; luxuriated in ferns; and swam, in great cetaceous arcs, around City Island . . . at night. He used his own creative block to understand the physical block of his patients, those “living statues.” And turned what was meant to be his exile—a post at Beth Abraham rehabilitation center in the Bronx, the slightly disguised site of his book Awakenings—into the birthplace of modern neurology.

I recently met Weschler, who’s known as Ren, at the Pelham train station in the New York City suburbs. We walked to his 1950s brick house, stuffed with art (including Art Spiegelman’s original sketch for a New Yorker cover), photos (“Reb Ren” officiating at several weddings), and stacks of notebooks; drank a couple of Coronas; and talked about the pioneering neurologist.

BOOKFORUM: Most of the heart of your memoir transpires in the early ’80s, when you put in four years hanging out with Oliver Sacks almost continuously in the time before he became well known in preparation for a New Yorker profile, which you then didn’t write. Why not?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Indeed. I’d just been hired by the New Yorker on the basis of an earlier project, a midlife biography of the California light and space artist Robert Irwin, and as you say, alongside several other New Yorker projects, I began hanging out with Oliver Sacks, who, yes, was still largely unknown, even though he had already published his masterpiece Awakenings. But that book had gone largely unnoticed when it was originally released in 1974, and in fact was pretty much dismissed by medical types. It had consisted largely of twenty harrowing case studies, delivered with literary flair but without the standard double-blind peer-reviewed sorts of conventions, and a lot of doctors simply didn’t believe it. Which in turn threw Oliver into an almost decade-long writer’s block on his next book, the account of a neurological crisis of his own following a leg injury, and he was living a fairly reclusive, neurotic, and conflicted sort of existence, largely unknown, so he indeed had plenty of time for me, and we spent a lot of time together. And he proved to be an altogether fascinating subject.

After four years of that, I went off one summer to index my notes—the index alone came to 250 pages—and I threw myself into the writing of the profile and after several months, and near a hundred pages into the writing, he asked me not to do it after all.


He was terribly conflicted about his sexuality. A significant portion of our relationship up to that point had consisted in his ever so gingerly revealing the hideous fact—the blight of his existence, to hear him tell it—that he was gay, though in fact he’d only ever acted on that orientation for three or four years fifteen years earlier, during the days of his residencies in university hospitals in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and he’d been completely celibate ever since.

What he actually asked was whether there was any way I could tell his story without alluding to his sexuality, and my detemining that no, I really couldn’t, that the sexuality—or not his sexuality so much as the knottedness and self-abnegation involved in his attitude toward it, along with the wild drug experiences he’d thrown himself into back in those California days, were central to understanding the openness he subsequently had when encountering the sort of infinitely removed and impacted patients he came to treat across those Awakenings days and throughout his ongoing practice thereafter. A large part of our relationship had consisted in his revealing the depths of the blight of his sexuality, and my telling him, over and over again, how really, Oliver, nobody cared. He would tell me how his shrink used to tell him that he had never encountered anyone less affected by gay liberation, how yes, he’d told his shrink, he remained in the prison cell of his self-loathing, listening to the dancing outside the open gates.

What accounted for the extent of his internalized homophobia?

Well, the answer to that takes up a good deal of the first part of the book. In part it was a question of the times: He would have been coming to terms with his budding sexuality in the very years when no less a genius than Alan Turing, for example, was being chemically castrated for his homosexuality. There was a terrible background homophobia in England and most of the rest of the world, with the exception of California, through most of the ’40s and ’50s and well into the ’60s. It was against the law: A person could get fired, etc.

In his own case, beyond all that, his parents, though both doctors (his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England), were Orthodox Jews, and his upbringing was likewise fairly orthodox. He was almost inordinately close to his mother, and at one point, when he was about eighteen or nineteen, his father asked him why he never brought home girlfriends, and after some further prodding, Oliver declared, “Father I am a homosexual,” even though at that stage he hadn’t had any actual homosexual experiences, imploring him please, not to tell Mother, because “It would devastate her.” However, the next morning, his mother came storming down the stairs, launching into several hours of “Deuteronomical” curses, as he characterized her tirade—how he was an abomination, filth of the bowel, how she wished he had never been born, etc.—after which she fell silent, and stayed silent for several weeks, whereupon, when they resumed talking, the subject was never mentioned again in her lifetime. Even though after medical school at Oxford he stormed out of England as fast as he could, and on to the freedoms of California, that was the voice he never seemed to be able to get out of his head, even after he gave up drugs and all sexuality almost cold turkey several years after that. His consequent self-inhibiting celibacy would last a good twenty years beyond our initial conversations around the matter.

Anyway, of course I honored his request and instead we remained close friends. He even became godfather to my eventual daughter, and then, over thirty years later, just a few months before he died, he virtually ordered me to return to the biographical project.

How did that come about?

Well, thank god, some seven years before he died, after an earlier brush with the cancer that, resurging, would eventually come to kill him, he finally allowed himself to fall in love. I mean, he used to fall in love and be fallen in love with all the time, he just wouldn’t allow himself to act on the feelings—but now finally he did, with a splendid younger man, the writer Billy Hayes, and those last several years were completely wonderful, I think, for both of them. It even got to the point where he was able to write his own autobiography, in which, that very last year, he outed himself. He read from the manuscript to both me and my daughter Sara, and he was pleased and very much at peace with it, but looking over at me sternly, he said, “And I’m not giving any interviews!” The very next day, I got a call from Cullen Murphy, an old editor friend of mine, at that point with Vanity Fair, who crowed how he’d just seen that Sacks was going to be coming out in this soon-to-be-released autobiography, and wouldn’t this be a great occasion for my interviewing and profiling him after all, at long last. “He’s not giving any interviews!” I shot back, but at length it occurred to me that Oliver might allow me to publish a medley of passages from among the fifteen teeming notebooks I’d kept back in those earlier days, and he did, and so I did, and by the time he read them, the cancer had come surging back, and it was in that context that, apparently quite moved by them, he ordered me to return to the project.

I’m sure that wasn’t easy.

No, actually, not at all. I used to tell people that it was a little like having an aircraft carrier going a hundred miles an hour and being told to stop on a dime, and then over thirty years later being told to get back in that thing and rev it right back up, even though the propellers had in the meantime fallen off, the anchor was rusted through, the control panels all cob-webby, and so forth. Beyond that the project quickly got all trammeled up with the immediate period of my grieving over his passing and the complicated welter of feelings that brought up. For he hadn’t been an easy person to know. Everything that most people by that time imagined about him was all true—he was in fact as wonderful and generous and empathic and brilliant and polymathically gifted and grace-flecked as all that. But he was also deeply self-absorbed, often to the point of maddening exasperation; he could be monstrous and peremptory and unreliable and all sorts of things one minute (projecting out onto the wider world the sorts of curses his mother’s voice inside himself continued to press down upon him), completely lovely the next (one could almost say projecting onto the world the more positive graces his mother had at other times impressed onto him). That aspect of his being had hardly been touched upon in other portraits up to that moment. But I was hoping to capture the man in full. And that was somehow scary.

Beyond which, he had in the meantime now published his own account, revealing many of the secrets I’d been privy to for lo those many years, and some of the same stories: He’d scooped me to some extent. And yet, that seemed less and less of a problem. For one thing, he’d recorded his memoirs at the far side of his life, and they were steeped in a sort of retrospective serenity, for which one can only feel grateful. I had a different approach. I quickly resolved to focus my account on those first four years of our friendship, hinge years for both of us but especially for him, since once he finally got past his decade-long writer’s block, everything else that had been dammed up behind it, all the stories that would presently come to make up his breakthrough bestseller The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, came surging forth. During those four hinge years, he had been anything but serene: He’d been wildly neurotic, self-lacerating, often hilariously manic, roiling with complicated and complicating memories, all of which made for an entirely different sort of saga. And part of my task—across the heart of those four hinge years and then in the decades that followed and that I in turn cover in an extended afterword—was to account for how the one man grew out of the other.

And yet for all the dark roiling you describe, your account is often wildly funny.

I’m glad you felt that, because on top of everything else he could be the most hilarious character, and often at his own expense. One of my favorite descriptions of the book—the selfsame Cullen Murphy’s, as it happens—was that it constituted “a picaresque romp.”

The book is hilarious at times, but it can also be achingly poignant. And at times even disturbing. But then completely endearing.

Well, such was the man. The man in full, as I say.

What are you working on now?

I usually have several projects going at once. These days, I am still incubating a decades-old project on the late assemblage and tableaux artist Ed Kienholz, another very funny and often extremely exasperating friend of mine from back during that period of the late ’70s and early eighties, and in particular the saga of a particular work of his, a lynching tableau called Five Car Stud that proved to be too utterly harrowing even to be shown in LA, New York, or London when it was first created, only premiering in 1972 at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, from which it was sold to a Japanese foundation, only to disappear for over forty years, persisting only as a dark whisp of a sordid rumor, until it reemerged about a decade ago. Ed Kienholz, that is, at the fraught crossroads where race and class and sex and violence keep intersecting across American history. So part memoir of Kienholz himself, and part inquiry into what may be the key question in America, that of what on earth those guys are doing to that guy, and why, and to whose benefit.

So there’s that, and then I am also preparing to publish a sequel to my 2006 book of convergence pieces, Everything that Rises, which naturally will be titled All That is Solid. And several other projects as well, in line with my ongoing tendency, as they used to describe things during my days at the New Yorker, of caroming between political tragedies and cultural comedies. Passion pieces, all.

Karen Schechner is an editor at Kirkus Reviews and volunteers at the Lambda Literary Foundation. She lives in South Salem, NY.