A Heartfelt Farewell to My Hero, Oliver Sacks, a Man Who Cannot Be Mistaken for Anything Else but a Human Phenomenon
By Inna Rozentsvit
I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this. And to use a biblical term, the feeling, ‘he bore witness.’
— (Oliver Sacks on how he would like to be remembered in 100 years – during 1989 “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” interview)
On August 30, 2015, Dr. Oliver Sacks passed away… He bore witness!
Many times in my life I wanted to reach out to Oliver Sacks to discuss a “difficult” neurological patient or some unusual observations, when nothing in “material” neurology, based on physical brain matter’s pathways, made sense. Instead, I would remember what he said at some of the grand rounds (at the Albert Einstein’s neurology residency program), read his books (which I have a full collection of), or watch some of his videos on-line, and make my own conclusions about how to approach the question.
Oliver Sacks passed away recently, at the age of 82, after announcing to the whole world, in the Op-Ed article in NY Times, that his cancer had spread. Later, he updated us about how it felt to be in-between life and death, and how he turned to “nonhuman” (numbers and chemical elements) when death felt near. And a little later, he shared the idea of this time being a Sabbath of his life, time to rest and to be with the family, and to reflect on life. It felt very sad (with a tiny hope that this, somehow, will not happen), but it also felt good that he had included all of us, those who knew him personally and those who did not, in his close friends-and-family circle, and in his Sabbath. Any Sabbath has its end, but for most of us, who’ve read every book Oliver Sacks wrote and listened to every interview he’d given, and saw all the available videos related to the most fascinating neuro-meta-psychological stories, cannot believe that there will be no other story, no other pearl of wisdom, no other Oliver Sacks! phenomenon.
My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
People write books for many reasons: the need to share what’s on their mind and what they had achieved, to deliver a “message,” and just because they can. Some books are brilliant, and others are boring; some are written in prose, and some as poetry or picture books. Oliver Sacks never produced a boring book, and did not publish poems (if there were any), but he was given the title of a “Poet Laureate of Medicine,” and he deserves it. Just listen to the beautiful poetry in one of his last written (prose) essays: “My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.”
I wondered, why did Oliver Sacks write books? It seems that this was the “intercourse with the world” (as Nathaniel Hawthorne would say) for Sacks, who admitted to be so “agonizingly shy at 80 as…at 20.” Oliver Sacks was a brilliant storyteller, and he just needed to share what he’d learned – from his observations at the hospitals, clinics, his “anthropological house calls” (Sacks’ term) – as he was “addicted to patients… [and wished he could] be in their shoes.” (There are not so many doctors who ‘wish’ to be in the shoes of their patients.) In one of his earlier interviews, Sacks said this about living in his patients’ world: “It is a rich world there, which we will never know about unless we make an effort.” He shared that he found inspiration (instead of despair), when he dived in someone’s neuro-story. So, by telling us some very complex and mysterious stories about neuro-atypical people, he was teaching us – in his kind and down-to-earth way – what humanized neuroscience is, with all its unthought of complexity and its breathtaking beauty. Just read (or re-read) his Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, The Island of the Colorblind, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, to name a few. I am grateful to Dr. Sacks for all of these books, for being so generous, and for spending so much time looking into conditions that would never be supported by big pharma, and which will never be cured, at least in our life time (ALS, Autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and others). If there will ever be a Nobel Prize for Humanizing Neuro-Science, Dr. Oliver Sacks should be nominated, together with Alexander R. Luria and Erik Kandel; not too many candidates out there.
I’m also grateful that he wrote about his own life, with all its ‘goods’ and ‘bads’; his “C” diagnosis, and how he dealt with it. By doing so, he actually taught us how to be very vulnerable and very “connected” humans, and how to feel the joy from it, despite all the sadness about all things one never will experience because his/her life will be cut short. Dr. Sacks also had some other qualities, which were very human and worth mastering: he never sounded judgmental, or like a know-it-all doctor, or a prude. He was inserting his own life stories while describing some ‘questionable’ examples from the lives of others. When he wrote about the “literary kleptomania” (also known as ‘plagiarism,’ not a very positive term) that Helen Keller, George Harrison, Samuel T. Coleridge, and William Wordsworth were accused of, he told a story from his own life, which helped us have another look at plagiarism as a possibility of it being a “creative criptomnesia,” which is a subconscious and a benign state of one’s memory. Another example is in Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations, which he wrote to “exonerate” those suffering from this condition, and to “normalize” a biased perception about these people. In his piece “Face-Blind” (in The New Yorker), Sacks wrote about prosopagnosia (face blindness), which he was himself battling since his childhood. It is interesting to note that while writing with extreme kindness and empathy about others, Sacks wrote about his problem with “faces and places” with the greatest tease and humor, as he described not recognizing his analyst and having a hard time to proving to his analyst that it is “neurological,” not psychiatric.
Oliver Sacks is an example (and an enormous source) of intellectual curiosity, empathic imagination, strong connection to nature (botanical garden was for him a “tranquilizer!), and emotional intelligence. If his books were introduced to the school curriculum, we would not need any anti-bullying programs: after reading Oliver Sacks, no one would be left immune to kindness, openness, and consideration for others.
Oliver Sacks is an example of humility – watch any of his video clips on-line: there is never “I, I, I,” only Sacks talking kindly about others. In his reaction to his Awakenings becoming an award nominated movie (with Robin Williams, whom he called his “twin,” and Robert De Niro, a great portrayer of his patient), Dr. Sacks said that it felt great to go back to 1969 and to feel young again, and that he was “relieved, delighted, and excited.”
As Oliver Sacks’ Sabbath candles burn out, and his body put to rest, we say our heartfelt farewell to this great neurologist, a witness to the human condition, a humble man, and “a sentient being, a thinking animal,” who felt that it was “an enormous privilege and adventure [to live] on this beautiful planet.”
“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You are nothing but a pack of neurons’.”
– Francis Crick