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The bull that changed Oliver Sacks’ life (and nearly took it)

Oliver Sacks with his 250cc Norton motorcycle in 1956. Photo: Oliver Sacks Foundation

“I was alone. I found myself face to face with a huge bull – and started to run.” It was an overcast summer morning in 1974 when famed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks traded in his medical coat for hiking shoes. He was determined to summit a mountain in the Hardangerfjord in Norway.

The hike would ultimately lead to a dramatic run-in with a bull, a severely injured leg, a scrape with death, and finally, a revelation. But when it began, Sacks felt confident, exhilarated even, by the opportunity to hike on a quiet morning in Norway. He wrote in a 1984 essay for The New York Review of Books, “I foresaw no particular problems or difficulties. I was as strong as a bull, in the prime, the pride, the high noon of life. I looked forward to the walk with assurance and pleasure.”

It had been a long and trying year for the doctor. His trip to Norway was meant to be a time of healing and rest, an escape from the recent hardships he’d left behind in New York City.

The year before, Sacks had published the book “Awakenings,” in which he told the stories of patients he had worked intimately with, who suffered from encephalitis lethargica, or “sleeping sickness.” Sacks wrote “Awakenings” as a tribute to his late mother. He poured himself into his writing and by the time it was finished, Sacks was quite proud of his work.

Unfortunately, the book was not the raving success that Sacks hoped it would be. It failed to gain him credibility among his fellow doctors and scientists — who believed that Sacks was embellishing his patients’ stories. This reaction was a massive letdown for Sacks.

Around the same time, Sacks was working as a consultant one day a week at Bronx State Hospital. It was intense and often emotionally laborious. He recalled working “on a ward with youngsters who had autism, or childhood schizophrenia, or fetal alcohol syndrome. They had been warehoused together. This ward had a strong behavior modification philosophy that behavior could be changed by reward or punishment — especially punishment — and what they called ‘therapeutic punishment’ – isolating people, depriving them of food – gave me the shudders.”

Seriously disturbed by the hospital’s methods, Sacks shared his complaints at a staff meeting. He told his fellow doctors that he believed “the therapeutic punishment was cruel, useless, and maybe appealed to sadistic instincts in the staff.” Days after this confrontation, the ward chief told Sacks that a rumor was going around the ward that he abused the younger patients. He was asked not to return to Bronx State Hospital.

Sacks was not only devastated, he felt outraged and helpless. He even considered publishing a defamatory book about the hospital. Sacks later recalled, “It was in this mood of rage and guilt and accusation, that I went off to Norway in the summer of ‘74 – where I had a series of self-destructive accidents, culminating in my encounter with a bull on a mountain, and badly injuring my leg, and almost ending my life.”

It was dawn when Sacks embarked on the hike on that fateful day in Norway. He was hiking alone and there were no other people in sight. He appreciated this isolation at first, content to have the “whole mountain to myself,” as he wrote in his 1984 essay, “The Bull on the Mountain.” He planned to reach the summit by noon, hoping that by then the cloudy skies would clear and he would stumble onto a spectacular view of the town below him.

Around 10 a.m., he came across a sign that read in Norweigan, “BEWARE OF THE BULL!” Below the bizarre and cryptic warning was a picture of a cartoonish bull hurling a stick person over a cliff. Sacks marveled at the sign, perplexed. What would a bull be doing near the top of a mountain? He decided the warning must be a joke and continued on his way without much thought.

About an hour later, Sacks recalled coming upon “a boulder as big as a house,” as he wrote in “The Bull on the Mountain.” The hiking path snaked around the enormous boulder, but it blocked the view of anything beyond it. As Sacks continued onward, he had no idea that a giant white bull was sleeping just a few feet away.

By the time he saw the massive creature, he was nearly tripping over it. Sacks remembered in his essay that, “it had a huge horned head, a stupendous white body, and an enormous, mild, milk-white face. It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up toward me. And in that moment it changed before my eyes becoming transformed from magnificent to utterly monstrous.”

Sacks, afraid for his life, bolted down the mountain – running so hard and fast he mistook his own footsteps for that of the raging bull, who he was convinced must be chasing after him. He ran with all his might – until he slipped and tumbled downward, landing with a thud near a rocky cliff. His left leg was twisted beneath his body, and Sacks was writhing in unimaginable pain.

Sacks performed a brief examination on himself and determined that his quadriceps were completely ruptured in his left leg. His muscles were paralyzed, indicating nerve damage, and his knee was dislocated. Incredibly, Sacks crafted a make-shift cast out of an umbrella he carried with him, and was determined to get himself down the mountain. If he didn’t, he feared he would never be discovered, and knew that he would never survive.

With his leg in the umbrella cast, Sacks slid his body, in a sitting position, down the mountain. There were multiple times when the slope was especially steep and Sacks was unable to control his speed. In those times, he landed with a crash at the bottom of the incline, exacerbating his injury (and his pain).

Sacks also had to navigate a stream with a heavy current. He had struggled to cross the stream on his way up, with both legs working, and was terrified that this might mean the end for him. He described in his essay: “The water was fast-flowing, turbulent, and glacially cold, and my left leg, dropping downward, unsupported, out of control, was violently jarred by stones on the bottom.” He managed to pull himself across against all odds.

By the time he arrived again at the bull warning sign, he realized that he was still hours from the bottom of the mountain. He checked his watch. It was 6 p.m. The shadows were growing longer beneath the setting sun. With a mixture of horror and utter disbelief, Sacks realized that he had been slithering down the mountain for seven excruciating hours. He wrote, “thus what had taken me little more than an hour to climb, had taken me, crippled, nearly seven hours to descend.”

Sacks knew that he had no chance of making it down the mountain before nightfall. Still, he continued to drag himself down and down and down, stopping intermittently to fight exhaustion and check his makeshift umbrella splint. It was while he was resting that he suddenly heard the voice of a man and his son, just yards away. A pair of hunters were on the prowl for reindeer. They heard something move and thought it might be their prey – but instead found Sacks, on the brink of death, on the side of the mountain. And with that, Sacks was saved.

Unfortunately, Sacks’ rescue was just the beginning of a long and agonizing recovery. Shortly after undergoing surgery in London, Sacks noticed something peculiar about his leg. “For two weeks or more,” following the surgery, “I could neither move nor feel the damaged leg. No information was coming from the leg to my brain and none could be sent. I had lost the sense of ownership. It felt alien, not a part of me, and I was deeply puzzled, confounded.”

The only time that Sacks felt like his leg belonged to him was when he played music. With music playing, Sacks’ leg was able to move, to stand, to walk, as if it was actually reacting to it. At the same time, while Sacks’ leg remained numb long after his cast was removed, he discovered that when he swam (a favorite sport of his before the injury), the leg moved normally, instead of with a limp.

Fascinated by his findings, Sacks wrote “A Leg to Stand On,” which took eleven years to finish and publish. Sacks recalled that the book, “was tremendously difficult to write,” because for the first time in his career Sacks himself was the patient in question, the subject of the case study. It was a deeply personal account.

In the end, “A Leg to Stand On” was met with critical acclaim. It combined neurology with poetry, a unique opportunity for readers to learn about the body and mind from a scientific and emotional perspective.

In the end, the bull may have given Sacks just the push he needed. He had left for Norway to escape the chaos and pain of life at home, and was at first grateful for the isolation he found on that mountain, but by the time he was rescued he was glad to re-enter the world again. “I was back,” he wrote in “The Bull on the Mountain,” “God be praised! [Back] in the good world of men.”


♪♪ -Listen, can you repeat your question... -Yes.

-...more shortly? -Mm-hmm.

-I only have an attention span of about 12 seconds.

-Shouting out... -So, are we rolling?

-I suppose I could always stand up if I wanted.

-You can do whatever you want. -Yes.

-You are -- -I just felt like -- -The whole idea, Dr. Sacks, is you can move anywhere you want.


-Now, listen, should I be, as it were, looking at you, looking at you?

-Looking wherever your emotional kind of wherever... -On analytic days -- and Monday is an analytical day -- I have my Freudian cup for coffee.

I first saw my analyst in January of '66, and so we are now in our 50th year, and we're beginning to get somewhere.

-[ Laughter ] -Eh.

Incidentally, um, when I first saw Shengold, my analyst, in '66, I was taking a great deal of amphetamine at the time.

And I was sort of psychotic, or half-psychotic, for much of the time.

And having a schizophrenic brother, I once said to Shengold, 'Am I schizophrenic, too?'

He said, 'No.'

And then I said, 'Am I then merely neurotic?'

And he said, 'No.'

And we left it there.

[ Laughter ] ♪♪ Now, um, I'm -- I'm also going to say something which, if you want, for the moment, is off-record.

-Yes. -Um. Oh [bleep]. I'm afraid some -- some of my -- Oh, bugger.

Sometimes it's '[bleep],' and sometimes it's 'bugger.'

[ Laughter ] And sometimes it's both. Sometimes it's 'bugger [bleep].' I do a lot of cursing.

Multisyllabic cursing.

♪♪ I've been asked, 'Are you a doctor first and then a writer?'

I think the real answer is that I'm equally both, and, in important ways, they blend together, and in a way, they can certainly be united in case histories.

And one way or another, I have been turning my life into writing.

♪♪ Mostly my clinical life, but a certain amount of my personal life, as well.

♪♪ I'm an inveterate storyteller, and I tell many, many stories, some comic, some tragic.

I was about to say 'some true, some untrue.'

Sometimes a little tuning here and there.

♪♪ This was an earlier me, in an earlier incarnation.

I came to America in 1960 on my 27th birthday.

I'm now three times 27, or 81.

I never expected to make 80.

In fact, I never expected to make 40.

I was rather destructive when I was younger.

♪♪ Much of my life has been spent trying to imagine what it's like to be another sentient being, what it's like to be a bat, what it's like to be an octopus, what it's like to be anyone else, for that matter, what it's like to be another human being.

I mean, we all have our solitary consciousnesses.

♪♪ 18 months ago, I had a sense of wanting to complete my life, whatever that meant.

And one thing was to try and look at it as a whole and articulate it, which I've tried to do here.

Now, incidentally, are we on film? Was that all on film?

-Yes. -Good. Okay, good.

-Oh, yes. Everything's... -Good.

Oh, yes, yeah, yeah. And let me introduce.

Um, there is Hallie, who is one of my helpers.

Here is invaluable, unique Kate, who has been my editor, collaborator, friend, and ghostwriter for many years.

And somewhere or other, um... Billy!

-He's right here. -Oh, there you are.

Here is Billy, who is a fellow writer and who lives in the building and to whom I dedicate the present book.

Despite all sorts of contradictions and odd directions, there does seem to be a single person here... and one who, though seemingly unstable and actually unstable in many ways, has steadily tried to look at human nature from the viewpoint of a clinical neurologist who sees neurological disorders.

♪♪ -Here's Dr. Sacks. -Oh, hello.

Mr. Capparelli. How nice to see you again.

How are you doing?

-Fine. -Fine.

You think this is the condition which your mother had and... -Yeah. -...and her mother?

-Yeah, and her mother, yeah.

-Do you have any movement here at the fingers?

-He was a person with a question.

I think the question was always... -Can you usually look at a newspaper most days?

-...'Who am I? Why do I feel these things?

Why don't I feel what other people feel?'

-What sort of work did you used to do, Mr. Capparelli?

-I was a foreman.

-But in order to answer his question, his method was to look into other people.

-This illness, you look on the positive side.


-And you've been able to keep your spirits up... -Oliver saw medicine a lot differently from the way other people saw it.

He was trying to conceptualize how people thought and how they saw the world.

-Okay. Bye, Elena.

-Oliver believed that there was some sort of cognitive-perceptual inner world for everything you saw on the exterior as a movement disorder, as a tic disorder, or even as a dementia.

-Let me just look at you. I'm just going to... -He was somebody for whom the primary diagnostic question was, 'How are you? How do you be?'

He was extraordinarily empathic with his patients.

♪♪ -He was asking as hard as a person can, 'Who are you? I need to know.

I need to know more. I need to know even more.'

And his attention would release people.

He could get secrets. He could learn things.

-Everything in... -And then he will tell stories about people in terrible trouble, who are brave and special... and full of heart... paralyzed but not over.

He will take this thread of them, and he will pull them out, pull them slowly out.

But what he also did simultaneously, which was the great part, is he pulled the whole world in the other way.

He would tell these stories so well that other people -- playwrights, actors, poets -- would pick up the stories he tells, retell them, or tell them in their own way.

And the net effect is that people who are lonely and left out -- autistic people, Touretters, people in all kinds of mental difficulties -- are storied back into the world.

♪♪ -He was in a way the archetypal patient, not doctor.

The one who could see from inside the person he had in front of him, and the person was himself, first of all.

So that is a case which has no parallel.

-Dare I hug a sister?

-Doctor. Oh, surely. Take care of yourself.

It's wonderful to see you, Doctor.

-Thank you very much.

-Sister Lorraine at Little Sisters said, 'Clearly he has been through something.

You know, he never talks about it, but, clearly, you don't get like this without deep, deep experience.'

-Life threw so many things at him.

Not finding his niche for a long time, being ignored by colleagues, being criticized.

And then his own personal travails, some of which he brought on himself, he was the first to admit.

-He had always been very reluctant to discuss certain parts of his life.

Most of his adult years were so troubled that he really wasn't ready to explore that.

-Listen. I'm going to get on to a bit of narrative.

We've advanced now... -But now he very much wanted to go on record, not only in the book but on film, to say, 'What do I need to say before I'm done?'

♪♪ -There's quite a lot of things which are not in the book.

The most essential one is that last month I was told that I had metastatic cancer and that it's a matter of months, maybe a year, if I'm lucky.

♪♪ -The day after he got the diagnosis that melanoma had spread to his liver in early 2015, he had really just delivered the manuscript of his memoir two weeks before.

I called the publisher, and I said, 'We can't wait until September to publish this book because Oliver may not be alive by then.'

♪♪ It was very important to him to be alive to see it.

♪♪ [ Piano playing ] ♪♪ -This was my haunt for 40 years.

Beth Abraham, in the Bronx.

50 years later, coming in for a visit, I think I'm sometimes looked at as if I were Lazarus.

'What, you here? You still vertical?'

♪♪ When the hospital opened, it was for people with chronic neurological disease.

This particular area and floor was a horrific one.

♪♪ For people with severe dementia... and also some people who were in coma or vegetative states.

♪♪ I came here in October 1966 and spent some months getting to know all of the patients here.

And among them, I found some remarkable patients who were motionless and sometimes in strange postures, many of whom had been admitted here when the hospital opened in 1920 in the height of the epidemic of sleepy sickness.

♪♪ -It seemed to me that the great seminal moment in his life, as a creative person, as a doctor, and as a writer, is him arriving at Beth Abraham and noticing that some of these patients are not like the other ones... and he has the moral audacity to think that some of these patients, not only are they different, but they're alive, something's going on inside there, which is a terrifying thought.

And the question was, how was that possible?

What in this person's life had made it that he might have this insight?

♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] -Our house was in Northwest London, in Kilburn, near Golders Green, at the intersection of two roads.

I was born there on July the 9th, 1933.

♪♪ Our family was a typical Orthodox Jewish middle-class family.

From an early age, it was understood that I was going to be a doctor.

My mother and father were both physicians, and so were two of my three older brothers.

♪♪ -His father, Sam, was a classic GP.

He was part of the community. He was on call 24 hours.

People called him at all times of the day and the night.

-His mother, Elsie, also had a very busy practice as a gynecologist and surgeon.

-She was clearly brilliant.

She was one of the foremost surgeons in England and certainly one of the first women surgeons.

-It was an incredibly talented family.

And Oliver was the brilliant prodigy and favorite, doted upon by all.

Effervescent, exuberant, enthusiastic, but also painfully, painfully shy.

-I was accident-prone, always injuring myself.

I was face-blind, and I suffered terrifying migraines.

My mother also had migraines, and she explained to me how part of the brain would be affected for a while then come back to normal.

My mother, we were close, although it was perhaps an uneasy closeness, and sometimes too close.

I think she wanted me to be like her.

♪♪ Sometimes, especially when I was very young, she might deliver a baby or a fetus with anencephaly, so-called, with the top of the head missing and non-viable, and she would sometimes bring a fetus home and suggest I dissect it.

And that was not -- not so easy for a child of 10 or 11.

[ Bombs exploding ] ♪♪ -When the Battle of Britain began, all kids were being evacuated to the countryside, but especially kids whose parents were doctors.

-We were all evacuated to a country town during the war, but I was with my family.

Oliver had this separation to endure, and, of course, it was devastating for Michael.

That seemed to have been the trigger of Michael's problems.

♪♪ -My brother Michael and I were evacuated together and spent 18 months at a hideous boarding school in the Midlands.

We were bullied. We were beaten.

And I think the circumstances did something to push my brother Michael towards psychosis.

♪♪ Soon after this, when he was 15, Michael became psychotic.

He was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

He could no longer sleep or rest, but agitatedly strode to and fro in the house, stamping his feet, glaring, hallucinating, shouting.

[ Young Michael shouting ] I became terrified of him, for him, of the nightmare which was becoming reality for him.

What would happen to Michael?

And would something similar happen to me, too?

♪♪ -The shadow of the brother was immensely powerful in his mind.

The terror. The terror, simply.

♪♪ -The effect on my parents was devastating.

A sense of shame, of stigma... of secrecy, entered our lives, compounding the actuality of Michael's condition.

♪♪ It was at this time that I set up my own lab in the house and closed the doors, closed my ears, against Michael's madness.

I felt a passionate sympathy for him, but I had to keep a distance, also, create my own world of science, so that I would not be swept into the chaos, the madness, the seduction, of his.

♪♪ -He was very close to Michael.

Oliver cared very deeply about Michael.

He felt tremendous empathy and sorrow, as well, that Michael's life had been allowed to slide so far down the ravine.

Michael was one of the reasons why Oliver did what he did professionally.

-Oliver's empathy didn't start with people.

It goes much beyond that.

The first friends he had, at 6, he says, were numbers.

Numbers, then he went to minerals and metals at 10.

Then elements, plants came before.

And people.

Humanity was the very last thing.

That was a reaction to great suffering.

♪♪ -The love of chemistry and of the periodic table was an absolutely constant with me from an early age.

I've loved the elements since I was 10 or 11.

I have a periodic-table bedspread on my bed.

I have shopping bags with periodic tables.

I have many periodic-table T-shirts.

And I have some periodic-table socks.

-From the very beginning, he had a real relationship with inanimate objects.

He carried a periodic table in his wallet like the rest of us carry a driver's license.

-I love it very much.

It stands for order, stability, but it also stands for imagination and mystery.

-He liked to get an element for each year to celebrate his birthday.

Number 77 is iridium.

And he came to my very primitive laboratory in London 10 years ago, and together we melted the iridium.

♪♪ -As I was going through my 70s, I felt I was living through them all.

Hafnium, tantalum, tungsten.

Rhenium, 75.

Osmium, 76.

Iridium, 77.

Where's me platinum? Somewhere. 78.

If you doubt reality... -[ Thud ] -...drop tungsten on your foot.

[ Children shouting ] -I first met him at St. Paul's School in London.

At that time, Oliver was just oddly eccentric.

He was interested in biological classifications and his interest in animals, and he would collect animals.

And minerals, as well.

He did weird things with his collections.

-He had lumps of sulfur and things that he would throw out onto the lawn to show that they exploded.

[ Explosion, fire crackling ] -Both he and I and Eric Korn were all Jewish.

We were the only Jews at St. Paul's, but we had no interest in being Jewish.

We were just 'Jew-ish.'

-I was in awe of my two closest school friends Jonathan and Eric's intelligence and couldn't think why they hung around with me.

Even though I was regarded as bright, I never had much intellectual self-confidence.

But we all got scholarships to university.

-I went to Cambridge, and Oliver went to Oxford.

It was at that time, or a little bit later, when they discovered that he was gay.

♪♪ -When I turned 18, my father thought this was the time for a serious father-to-son talk.

We talked about allowances and money.

And then my father got on to what was really worrying him.

'You don't seem to have many girlfriends,' he said.

'Perhaps you prefer boys,' he continued.

'Yes, I do,' I said.

'It's just a feeling. I've never done anything.'

Then I added, 'Don't tell Ma.

She won't be able to take it.'

But my father did tell her.

And the next morning, she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before.

'You are an abomination,' she said.

'I wish you had never been born.'

♪♪ My mother was speaking, though I am not sure I realized this at the time, out of anguish as much as accusation, the anguish of a mother who, feeling that she had lost one son to schizophrenia, now feared she was losing another to homosexuality.

♪♪ She did not speak to me for several days.

When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said, nor did she ever refer to the matter again.

But something had come between us.

Her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt my sense of my own sexuality.

[ Bells ringing ] When I got my scholarship to Oxford, I faced a choice.

Until then, I had been obsessed with both science and literature, but now I wanted to understand how the human brain worked.

It was my first step towards becoming a clinical neurologist.

[ Flash bulb pops, clock chimes ] -I saw practically nothing of him when he was at Oxford.

But we became acquainted with him once again when he was doing medicine at the Middlesex Hospital, and we would occasionally go in and see him in the ward.

And one would see him lifting weights as he walked up and down amongst the patients.

[ Indistinct conversations ] -I always felt insecure and shy and rather timid.

And I thought that if I became strong, physically strong, this would alter my personality and I would become confident.

But it didn't work.

I became very strong but remained equally timid.

♪♪ I think maybe a specific contributor to shyness has been my feeling of having had to live a life, in a way, of dissimulation.

♪♪ It was not easy or safe to be a homosexual in the London of the 1950s.

Homosexual activities, if detected, could lead to harsh penalties, imprisonment, or, as in Alan Turing's case, chemical castration.

♪♪ My house jobs came to an end in the spring of 1960, and I was in state of uncertainty about my own future at this time.

♪♪ I think I was quite resentful and carried resentment.

I was -- Especially on the matter of sexuality, I was angry with my mother, I was angry with religion, I was angry with England, I was angry with [bleep] homophobic society... although I partly shared the homophobia, mostly directed at myself.

♪♪ In June 1960, I told my parents I would be leaving England on my birthday, July the 9th, on an extended vacation and might not return for a while.

[ Motorcycle engine passes ] -His great luck, I suppose, was to leave England, to leave the source of a lot of his pain, and to come to sunny California, where there's guys, weights, drugs, and hospitals, and, you know, great teachers.

He found that.

I mean, that's an American success story.

Not many people are that lucky.

Where do you go when your mother calls you an abomination, is you go to San Francisco and stop writing home.

[ Rock music plays ] [ Weights clanging ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -Soon after arriving in San Francisco, I got an internship at Mount Zion Hospital.

I think I felt something of a split in myself, which actually went with my names, Oliver Wolf Sacks.

Oliver was the kindly doctor -- Dr. Oliver.

And Wolf was the lupine part of myself, which would put on my leathers and get on my bike and sort of be a lone motorcyclist at night, with a peculiar sense of freedom and wildness.

♪♪ -I think he was exploring possibilities for an adult life that was an expression of who he was.

And I think he was attempting to create an adult self that was authentic.

♪♪ But I think what he was really looking for was a partner.

♪♪ -I first met Mel working out at the Central YMCA early in '61.

He was in the Navy, stationed in San Francisco, and he trained when he could at the Y.

And we became friends.

There was an erotic element for me, but no explicit sexual element.

-They were muscle-builders.

What they were into was motorcycles, faster and faster, scuba diving deeper and deeper, weightlifting more and more.

It was very incarnate.

-I liked to push myself to the maximum, so I bulked up to about 280 or 290 and, to my delight, was able to set a California weightlifting record, a squat with a 600-pound bar on my shoulders.

♪♪ In 1962, Mel's Navy service was coming to an end.

I was committed to moving to Los Angeles for a three-year residency in neurology at UCLA.

♪♪ As the summer approached, Mel and I had arranged to share an apartment in Venice, California, close to Muscle Beach Gym, where we could train.

♪♪ And evenings could be a strain.

Mel liked being massaged and would lie naked facedown on his bed and ask me to massage his back.

I would sit astride him, wearing my training shorts, and pour oil on his back.

It would bring me to the brink of orgasm.

♪♪ On one occasion, I could not contain myself and [bleep] all over his back.

I felt him suddenly stiffen when this happened, and without a word, he got up and had a shower.

♪♪ The next morning, Mel said tersely, 'I have to find a place of my own.'

I felt desperately lonely and rejected when Mel moved out, and I wondered whether it was my fate to fall in love with straight men.

♪♪ I rented a little house in Topanga Canyon, and I resolved never to live with anyone again.

And it was at this juncture that I had turned to drugs as a sort of compensation.

♪♪ -We encountered each other on the neurology ward at UCLA in October of '62.

I was a psychiatry resident.

Oliver was a neurology resident.

In the mornings, we would gather for rounds, and Oliver was a continually disruptive presence.

♪♪ He would drift away from the group.

At times, he would be halfway down the hallway at the patient's tray eating the leftover food.

And I remember many occasions when the chief resident flew into rages and was yelling and screaming at Oliver, calling him back.

He was this brilliant, generous, empathic, loving person who couldn't find his way.

♪♪ Raw talent in abundance, but a tremendous amount of unhappiness and confusion, and, uh, not knowing what direction to go in.

There were a lot of drugs then, handfuls of drugs, which suggests something of the casual, self-destructive element in it.

♪♪ -In the irresistible thrall of amphetamines, sleep was impossible, food was neglected.

I gave little thought to what this was doing to my body and my brain.

I did and did not realize that I was playing with death.

♪♪ -He would take milkshakes of speed, ten times more than would kill a normal person, and to be able to account for that, you had to talk about his bodybuilding.

-[ Grunting ] -He was absolutely built like an ox.

And so he would get on his motorcycle and motorcycle without stopping, except for gas.

36-hour, nonstop.

♪♪ I would set out for the Grand Canyon, 500 miles away.

I would ride through the night, lying flat on the tank.

And crouched like this, I would hold the bike flat out for hour after hour.

♪♪ Sometimes I felt I was inscribing a line on the surface of the Earth, poised motionless above the ground, the whole planet rotating silently beneath me.

♪♪ If I held the bike near its maximum speed, I could reach the Grand Canyon in time to see the sunrise.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Bird calling ] -Oliver was already at this point.

One of a kind. There was no other like him.

One patient that I remember very well, we would see her when we went on rounds.

This very, very deteriorated woman.

And what Oliver did was he went in there one day, and he took her out, and he took her to his motorcycle, and he took her for a ride on his motorcycle.

And I was stunned by the gesture, just the simple act of giving that he had for this woman.

It's extraordinarily unconventional, and it was typical of Oliver.

-On one level, I can't put together the weight-lifting, motorcycle-riding, drug-imbibing, self-destructive Oliver Sacks with the careful, gentlemanly, fastidious person of exuberant, enthusiastic observation and curiosity about people.

On the other hand, the connecting part for me is that, in all respects, he was deeply an outsider, floating in and out of the periphery, just barely hanging on.

I have to think that virtually every professor, every attending physician who'd seen him and helped mentor him must have been flabbergasted to discover he became anything in his life.

He was a kind of supreme [bleep]-up at multiple times along the way.

♪♪ -When I finished my residency at UCLA in 1965 and came to New York, I thought I would try and become a bench scientist.

So I got an interdisciplinary fellowship in neuropathology and neurochemistry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

-Well, that ended up badly.

Because, although he worked in detail on earthworms... all his data flew off his motorbike on the Cross Bronx Expressway, and he didn't have copies.

And, well, anyway, he was clumsy in the lab.

So, at that time, they said, 'I think you'd better go see patients.'

Which was, I'm sure, perceived as a putdown.

♪♪ -It was an absolute disaster, and I was sort of flung out of that.

They said, you know, 'You're a menace, Sacks.

Get out. See patients. You'll do less harm.'

♪♪ Part of it was my drugging had increased when I got to New York.

I had started to call in sick for days at a time.

I was taking amphetamines constantly and eating very little.

On New Year's Eve 1965, I looked at my emaciated face, and I said, 'Oliver, you will not see another New Year's Day unless you get help.'

♪♪ 'There has to be some intervention.'

And so, the beginning of '66, I sought out an analyst, who insisted that this would only work if I gave up drugs.

And he said, 'You're putting yourself out of reach, and you have to stop.

Otherwise, we won't get anywhere.'

♪♪ Six months later, I started seeing patients, partly chronic patients at Beth Abraham Hospital but also patients with migraine in a headache clinic just up the road at Montefiore in the Bronx.

And I was fascinated, and moved very much, by hearing people's stories, their experiences of migraine and how deep and strange these could be.

♪♪ I started reading about the subject, and I found myself driven to the older literature... and, in particular, to an old book I found called 'Megrim' by Edward Liveing, published in the 1870s.

In February of '67, as I was struggling to give up drugs and still mourning the fact that I did not have what it took to be a research scientist, I had one last drug high.

But instead of surrendering to mindless ecstasy, I started reading this 500-page book with great concentration.

I identified with Liveing.

I almost saw his patients as my own.

I was deeply moved by his descriptions.

I read through the whole book in a state of ecstasy.

And with the amphetamine in me, sometimes it seemed to me that the neurological heavens opened and that migraine was shining like a constellation in the sky.

♪♪ I resolved to write a comparable book, a 'Migraine' of my own, a 'Migraine' for the 1960s, incorporating many examples from my own patients.

It would be the first book I ever published, and I never took amphetamine again.

I didn't need it anymore.

Nor have I touched it since... and partly because of this and partly because life became and work became much more interesting.

This was really the start of a remarkable turning point in my life.

In the fall of 1966, I started seeing patients at Beth Abraham, a chronic-disease hospital affiliated with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

♪♪ I soon realized that among its 500 residents, there were some 80 patients, dispersed in various wards, who were survivors of the extraordinary encephalitis lethargica, or sleepy-sickness pandemic, which had swept the world in the early 1920s.

♪♪ ♪♪ Many were frozen in deeply Parkinsonian or catatonic states, and some of the patients had been like this for 30 or 40 years.

♪♪ The nurses, who knew these patients well, were convinced that behind their statuesque appearance, locked in, imprisoned, there were intact minds and personalities.

♪♪ The nurses also mentioned that the patients might have occasional, very brief liberations from their frozen states.

Music, for example, might animate the patients and allow them to dance, even though they could not walk, or to sing, even though they could not speak.

♪♪ What fascinated me was the spectacle of a syndrome that was never the same in two patients, a syndrome that could take any possible form, a syndrome that included an enormous range of disturbances occurring at every level in the nervous system.

[ Monitor beeping ] A syndrome that could show, better than any other, how the nervous system was organized.

♪♪ It had been established in the late 1950s that the Parkinsonian brain was deficient in the transmitter dopamine, and I wondered whether l-DOPA could help my own very different patients.

♪♪ The license to use l-DOPA took several months to come, and it was not until March of 1969 that I embarked on a double-blind trial with six patients, putting three on l-DOPA.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -And suddenly there's this incredible flowering.

♪♪ ♪♪ -There was a thrilling beginning, an exhilarating beginning, and everyone shared this exhilaration.

We were all a bit manic and euphoric.

♪♪ And within a few weeks, the effects of l-DOPA were clear and spectacular.

♪♪ And I decided to offer l-DOPA to every patient.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ -I once asked one of his patients, 'Do you remember when you first came to?'

And she said, 'Oh, yes,' very quietly.

'Suddenly, I was talking.'

And I said, 'Do you remember your first words?

After not having been there for 30 years, what were your first words?'

She said... 'I said, 'Ooh, I'm talking!'' ♪♪ -And after her awakening in 1969, Rose immediately burst into fluent talk about Gershwin and others who were around in the 1920s.

And I asked her -- She was a very bright woman.

She said, 'I know it's 1969, but I feel it's 1926.'

She said, 'I know I'm 64, but I feel I'm 21.'

She said, 'Nothing much has happened in the last 43 years.'

So there had been not quite unconsciousness, not sleep, but some strange timeless suspension of consciousness.

♪♪ At first, nearly all the patients' responses were happy ones.

There was an astonishing, festive awakening that summer, as they burst into explosive life after having been almost inanimate for decades.

♪♪ But then almost all of them ran into trouble, developing specific side effects of l-DOPA, sudden and unpredictable fluctuations of response, and extreme sensitivity to l-DOPA.

♪♪ Some of the patients would react differently to the drug each time we tried it.

♪♪ I tried altering the doses, titrating them carefully.

But this no longer worked.

There seemed to be, with many of the patients, nothing between too much l-DOPA and too little.

♪♪ The system now seemed to have a dynamic of its own.

What was going on was so complex, in both neurological and human terms, that I felt a need to keep detailed notes and journals, as did some of the patients themselves.

I started carrying a tape recorder and a camera and, later, a little Super 8 movie camera.

Because I knew that what I was seeing might never be seen again.

I had to have full biographic detail, along with full sort of biological insight.

I mean, this was a point where biology and biography intersected.

♪♪ All my patients are at this intersection.

I mean, all of -[ Shouting ] -Ms. Sandoval. Ms. Sandoval.

-There were times in the first year when everything went bad, when I wondered what sort of awful situation I had got the people into.

And one of the patients said, 'That stuff should be given its proper name, hell-DOPA.'

♪♪ The majority said later they were glad they had it.

But not all of them.

♪♪ Rose said very clearly that everything and everyone which had had meaning for her was gone.

She didn't like our world, and she said this quite explicitly.

And after 10 days of this extraordinary awakenings, she went back into this state, with her head thrown back and the eyes gazing at infinity, or nowhere.

And despite altering the medication, we could do nothing, and she stayed like this for another 10 years.

♪♪ Was this physiologically necessitated?

Was it a defense against an intolerable anachronism?

I don't know.

It was, you know, an infinitely complex situation.

♪♪ -The breakthrough with awakenings is that there are no breakthroughs.

I mean, you try with chemistry, you try with surgery, you try with all kinds of things to change things, you know, but then there comes a point where you're dealing with not just the human condition, but the condition of life.

The breakthrough is that you come to live within your means and that the project of the doctor and the patient is, together, to find a way of living with what can't be changed.

The whole point of his practice was to spend hours together trying to compose the story which will help them go from being just abandoned objects in the corner to being subjects of their own lives.

That is his basic insight, a sense of biography where you wouldn't think there's a biography.

The layer on top of that is being able to help people experience themselves as stories and, together, to turn their situation into a narrative, into a story.

So that the storytelling in Oliver, it's not just spinning tales.

It is also that he is, himself, on a therapeutic basis, giving people a sense of narrative, that narrative itself is therapy.

-1972 remains sharply etched in my memory, with the awakenings and tribulations of my patients.

The previous three years had been a time of overwhelming intensity.

Such an experience is not given to one twice in a lifetime.

Its preciousness and depth, its intensity and range, made me feel I had to articulate it somehow.

It seemed to me that I needed to return to London, to go home to write.

♪♪ -Despite the fact that his mother had laid this awful curse on him, in fact, Oliver never stopped writing home.

He was very close to her.

She was such an important figure in his life.

And he returned again and again to home, 37 Mapesbury, to his childhood, to his family, to a milieu that he knew so well.

[ Birds chirping ] -My mother had been fascinated when I told her about my post-encephalitic patients.

She had been urging me to write their stories, and in the summer of 1972, she said, 'Now. This is the time.'

♪♪ I spent each afternoon writing or dictating the stories of 'Awakenings.'

She would listen intently, always with emotion, but equally with a sharp, critical judgment, one honed by her own sense of what was clinically real.

♪♪ In a sort of way, then, we wrote many of the case histories of 'Awakenings' together that summer.

And there was a sense of time arrested, of enchantment, a privileged time, out from the rush of daily life, a special time consecrated to creation.

♪♪ In September, I returned to New York and to the apartment next to Beth Abraham, where I had been living since 1969.

♪♪ I was there on November the 13th, when my brother David phoned me to say that our mother had died.

She had had a heart attack during a trip to Israel.

♪♪ My mother's death was the most devastating loss of my life, the loss of the deepest and, perhaps in some sense, the realest relation of my life.

It made me feel that I must complete 'Awakenings' as a last tribute to her.

When the formal mourning was over, I stayed in London and returned to writing, with the sense of my mother's life and death dominating all my thoughts.

And in this mood, I wrote the later sections of 'Awakenings' with a feeling, a voice, I had never known before.

♪♪ -When 'Awakenings' came out in 1973, Oliver described the on-off effect of l-DOPA.

This had never been seen by doctors, neurologists who took care of Parkinsonism.

Because they had never seen it, they were very suspicious that this was embellishing... that this was somebody who wanted to make a splash and was exaggerating.

Not creating completely, but exaggerating, embellishing.

Neurologists didn't know what to make of this guy, and so they sort of didn't embrace him.

-There's a misconception about Oliver that he became famous with the book 'Awakenings,' but the hard truth is that the book, though it was quite well-received, didn't sell especially well and was absolutely dismissed by fellow neurologists.

[ Plane engine roars ] ♪♪ -July the 9th, 1973, was my 40th birthday.

I was in London.

'Awakenings' had just been published.

And I was having a birthday swim in one of the ponds on Hampstead Heath when I met a handsome young man with an impish smile on his face.

It was just as well that I had no foreknowledge of the future, for after that sweet birthday fling, I was to have no sex for the next 35 years.

♪♪ -He was celibate for 35 years.

This part of his life and personality he sort of squelched, and nobody knew anything about it.

You can imagine 20 years ago.

I mean, it was grounds for dismissal.

It was grounds for prosecution, for heaven's sakes, in both America and in England.

If you're a physician, you could be defrocked.

I mean, no way.

It would have been suicide to talk about that.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Doors open ] [ Cart rolling ] In 1973, I was working as a consultant once a week at Bronx State Hospital on a ward with youngsters who had autism or childhood schizophrenia or fetal alcohol syndrome.

They had been warehoused together.

♪♪ This ward had a strong behavior-modification philosophy that behavior could be changed by reward or punishment, especially punishment.

♪♪ And what they called therapeutic punishment, isolating people, depriving them of food, gave me the shudders.

At a Wednesday staff meeting, I said that I thought the therapeutic punishment was cruel, useless, and maybe appealed to sadistic instincts in the staff.

♪♪ There was a deadly silence.

Then, a couple of days later, the ward chief came to me.

And he said, 'There's a rumor going around the ward that you abuse your young patients.'

♪♪ That evening when I left the ward, the director of the hospital said, 'Don't come back.'

I wanted to write a denunciatory book, to be called 'Ward 23.'

And it was in this mood of rage and guilt and accusation that I went off to Norway in the summer of '74... where I had a series of self-destructive accidents, culminating in my encounter with a bull on a mountain and badly injuring my leg and almost ending my life.

♪♪ I was alone.

I found myself face-to-face with a huge bull, and I started to run.

Suddenly I was at the bottom of a cliff, my left leg twisted grotesquely beneath me.

Eight long hours passed.

The temperature was going down.

Suddenly I heard a voice.

I saw two figures on a ledge. They rescued me.

♪♪ [ Helicopter blades whirring ] I was flown to England and operated on to repair the torn quadriceps.

[ Monitor beeping, machine hissing ] But following the surgery, for two weeks or more, I could neither move nor feel the damaged leg.

♪♪ No information was coming from the leg to my brain, and none could be sent.

[ Crackling ] I had lost the sense of ownership.

It felt alien, not a part of me, and I was deeply puzzled, confounded.

♪♪ My English publisher exclaimed, 'You have to write about it all!'

This 'Leg' book, in fact, occupied 10 years of my life.

♪♪ -I began corresponding with Oliver in the late '70s.

I had read 'Awakenings,' which not that many people had done at that time.

This was a period, I subsequently realized, when Oliver was in the middle of this incredible blockage on what would become his 'Leg' book.

[ Typewriter clacking ] His blockage took the form of graphomania.

It wasn't that he couldn't write.

He wrote millions and millions and millions of words.

They were just the wrong words.

And he kept on getting stuck.

And the major reason he was stuck was the issue of the credibility of whether people would believe it.

-The medical profession had not only rejected 'Awakenings,' they ignored it, they stonewalled him.

And he was, I think, undermined by that.

♪♪ -This period was nothing but really travail and disappointment for Oliver and publications.

He was seeing patients in a variety of places, and then he would go home and write.

He would send them in to major medical journals like 'Brain,' and they would all get rejected.

He was rejected everywhere.

♪♪ -During all this time, I continued to work on 'A Leg to Stand On,' much of it while swimming at Lake Jeff in the Catskills.

It was tremendously difficult to write.

There was draft after draft.

Sometimes the words and paragraphs and narrative would come so urgently to my mind that I would sort of rush out of the lake.

I didn't have time to dry myself.

And then I sent these yellow pads to my then-editor, Jim Silberman, at Summit Books.

And he said -- 'First,' he said, 'no one has sent me a handwritten manuscript in 30 years.

And, secondly, this looks like it's been dropped in the bath.'

He said, 'I know no one who could do anything about this, except one of our editors freelancing on the West Coast.

Her name is Kate Edgar.

She is amazing.'

And, so, in 1982, the soggy manuscript was sent to Kate.

And what came back was not only beautifully typed, but had all sorts of interesting critical and creative comments all over it.

-It took many, many rewrites and revisions working with Kate to get that book completed, but 11 years later, 'A Leg to Stand On' finally came out.

-Separate the sheets. -I understand.

-I came along about 10 years after his mother died.

And I became the person who was encouraging, supporting, critical but not condemning.


I think in some ways our conversation continued from the conversation he would have with his mother.

But as an editor, I began to realize that in order to keep him from getting stuck, it was important for him to have almost a writing therapist on call and there next to him.

So we did develop a way of working back and forth that was...very intensive.

♪♪ -Kate came as his editor, but over the years, she became his everything.

I mean, Kate ended up doing everything for him.


Finding a place to live, buying his tickets for trips, making every arrangement.

I mean, the whole structure that he has around him he owes to Kate.

-Oh, where did people put the music?

Oh, there, yes, I think there. -Maybe here. Maybe here.

-Hello, Yolanda.

Yolanda, you should be introduced to everyone.

-I know them. -You know them.


-Oliver initially struck me as rather uncouth in many ways.

♪♪ -Oh. Stop. Too nervous to play.

-He was very fastidious, but at the same time he didn't seem to care much about his appearance.

-What is that?

-He could be very shy but at the same time he could be disarmingly or shockingly honest about himself.

He was a handful.

-[ Clears throat ] Hi, Yolanda.

The Jell-O is particularly good today.

[ Chuckles ] -What are you thinking?

-I daren't tell you what I'm thinking.

[ Laughter ] All right, okay, I will. Um... Time was -- It doesn't occur now, but it used to occur until a few years ago, when I would wake up at night with an erection.

This sort of erection is actually nothing to do with sexual excitement.

Sometimes goes with a need to empty one's bladder.

Probably sometimes just with the autonomic stimulation which goes with dreams.

And it was sometimes irritatingly persistent.

And I would sometimes cool my turgid penis in orange Jell-O.

[ Laughter ] Now, I -- I -- I knew I shouldn't have said it.

[ Laughter ] Did I say something?

-He was a man of the extremes.


-He was immoderate in all possible directions.

[Laughing] He was one of the most childlike friends I ever had.

And up to the very last day, I think.

-Beautiful mother baby.

-In some ways, he was so separate from the physical world, sometimes not in tune with his own body.

But he seemed to feel an affinity somehow, a need to embody others, to physically act out what he was talking about.

Some people felt he had Tourette syndrome, because he could rarely mention Tourette without ticcing himself... in a sort of very sympathetic way.

He found these ways to identify with all kinds of people, whether they were Nobel physicists or brilliant literary people or the most compromised patient in a hospital bed, sometimes even a person who couldn't speak.

He would imagine himself into them.

He had some unconscious way of sensing this.

That was the reason he was able to revive the tradition of the case history at a time in the late 20th century when case histories were in disfavor, because everyone wanted science and statistics and quantitative medicine.

-[ Laughs ] Lovely.

-Oliver made the case always for qualitative medicine.

-You know, but sometimes... -Writing, description, observation, sympathy.

And imagination.

♪♪ -In spending as much time with the patients as he spent with them, he became involved in their lives.

He got to know them, he spoke to them all the time, he saw them at home, he saw them in other places.

He kept detailed notes on every encounter he had with most of his patients.

At a certain point, he knew them so well he had no choice but, really, to chronicle them and to pull these together as case histories.

-Now, during the 10 years he was working on the 'Leg' book, there was never a moment when he wasn't writing.

You have to understand that he was writing up these case histories that were piling up behind him, ready to come out.

-In 1983, a friend and colleague asked me if I would join him in giving a seminar devoted to agnosias, the peculiar inability to recognize anything, including faces.

And at one point during the seminar, my colleague asked if I could give an example of a visual agnosia.

I thought of one of my patients, a music teacher who had become unable to recognize his students, or anyone else, visually.

I described how Dr. P might pat the heads of water hydrants or parking meters, mistaking them for children, and how he even mistook his wife's head for a hat.

I had not thought of elaborating my notes on Dr. P up to this point, but that evening, I wrote up his case history.

I entitled it 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' and sent it off.

It did not occur to me that it might become the title story of a collection of case histories.

-This was far from best-seller material.

A book of neurological case histories.

It was fascinating, but no one expected this to be a popular success.

Sure enough, it was, and strictly by word of mouth.

-Please welcome Dr. Oliver Sacks.

[ Applause ] -One year after 'A Leg to Stand On,' 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' would really make his career explode and make his name.

-Here is a remarkable man of medicine.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Oliver Sacks.

[ Applause ] -What amazed and moved me were the letters which poured in.

The reality of the situations and struggles I'd written about touched the hearts, as well as the minds of many readers.

They said, 'You're a menace.'

-He was the first major public intellectual in the area of medicine who really spoke about diseases to the general public in a way that they could understand.

-His writing brought back a central aspect of medicine, which is you treat the person and not the disease.

-I sometimes feel more at home with my patients than with my neighbors, say, but at some level I think we are all patients.

-We published, I think, something like 29 or 30 pieces by him over the years, on many different cases.

♪♪ -Each one of his people that he wrote about was experiencing the world in a different way.

-Scientists know it's the brain that gives rise to our conscious perception, to consciousness.

-Hello. -And we've been trying to understand forever what's the relationship between the brain and its various constituent parts and the experiencing 'I.'

And Oliver Sacks, of course, was very good at studying this experiencing 'I,' and what happens in this condition or in that medical condition.

What is it to live with certain types of afflictions?

What is it to live with migraine attacks?

What is it to live without a memory?

What is it if you're stuck always in 1982, as one of his patients was?

What does it actually feel like from the inside?

-There was the case, for example, of the colorblind painter.

-This was fruit as Isaacson saw it.

Oliver found that the very absence of color also revealed a certain basic sense of order.

-After a few weeks, 'Mr. I' started to feel that perhaps he was seeing a more delicate world than others.

-He was also fascinated by Sign Language, the language of immense complexity, subtlety.

It's not based on any system of communication we know.

It's an entirely separate language.

And it has its own charm and humor.

-He was constantly talking about taking off his white coat and getting out of the clinic and going into the world with people.

-Hello. It's nice to see you.

♪♪ What was that about?

-He was interested in how the person experienced that, really getting inside the minds of people that had various neurological differences.

-Oliver specifically wanted to be in the skin of a person with Tourette syndrome, with Temple Grandin, in the skin of somebody who had Asperger syndrome.

-Well, they used to think that people on the autism spectrum had no inner world.

Oliver really got emotionally where I was at.

That, he really, really understood.

He got inside my emotions in a way that other people hadn't.

It was sort of kind of mind-blowing.

-Oliver brought Temple Grandin to life, in the full breadth of her humanity, in his portrayal of her in and 'An Anthropologist on Mars,' simply by writing about what she did and what she thought about.

He undermined stereotypes of autistic people that had prevailed for decades.

-What you have to bring to the illness and to the patient is you bring yourself.

You don't just bring a pocketful of medications.

You bring yourself, and you interact.

And throw it back.

In Parkinsonism, parts of the brain are damped down and low in dopamine and tend to make one immobile.

I feel that one of my patients in particular has taught me so much about Parkinsonism.

Right from the start, he thought Parkinsonism for him had not presented as stiffness or tremor or motor symptoms, but as a change in the quality of his dreams and then of his imagination, that an inner Parkinsonian landscape arose within him, which had driven him towards art.

♪♪ Now, with Tourette syndrome, parts of the brain are spontaneously hyperactive.

They're firing spontaneously.

Tch, tch, tch, tch! Sparking off.

-Oliver said that Tourette wasn't a deficiency; it was an excess.

So I don't think of myself as less than normal.

I think of myself as than normal.

-We met in 1987.

I remember exactly.

I got a call one day, and it said, [as Sacks] 'Um, um, hello?

Um, are you Shane Fistell, the young man with Tourette's?'

And I said yes. 'I know who you are.'

He said, 'Well, I'm Oliver. Oliver Sacks.

I would like to come up to see you, if I may.'

You don't have to stop for me.

♪♪ No, no, I know. I know -- I know you have to.

So, he came up right away. He was there in about week or so.

And he spent a few days with me.

It's not even real!

-This is the Charcot Library, and, you know, here -- -It smells sweet. Do you smell that sweetness?

The books have a sweet -- old sweet smell?

-Okay, well, you're getting very close to your original description.

Ohh. -[ Smooching ] Oh.

Oh, nice to see you!

-My pleasure, yes. Okay, and, uh -- uh -- -Ohh!

-And Tourette's personal description of seven Shanes.

-Seven -- Seven Shanes?

So meeting him was wonderful.

I felt -- I said it -- I felt good.

It was wonderful to have Tourette, that I could revel in it and marvel at the good things.

It wasn't all negative and clinicized and pathologized and reduced to a non-entity, you know?

Oliver invited people to look at themselves, and people, when they're looking at people with disability, they're also looking at themselves, and they're afraid to look in the mirror.

So he was -- People think he was saying, 'Look at the others.'

He's not saying that.

He's saying, 'Look at Dad? Dad! the whole human race.'


-His body movements are so sudden and violent.

-He wasn't -- He wasn't searching for a panacea.

-Look here, Shane. -[ Laughs ] You know, he's like a country doctor making house calls to the whole world, you know, to the whole planet.

-How are you feeling, Mr. Benifontaine?

-His great gift was storytelling about the human condition in a medical context and humanizing each one of his patients... and emphasizing not so much the loss, as the richness of their experience, the difference, the fact that they saw the world in different ways.

-There's no resistance here. -He always saw the particular.

He always saw each unique individual and each unique patient.

And so that makes him a very astute observer of the human condition.

As long as we have human nature, as long as we have experiences, this is something that is for the ages because that description is still gonna be valid 1,000 or 2,000 years from now.

♪♪ -He established himself first really in the literary realm, but he did not want to see himself as a literary person only.

He very much wanted to be accepted as a scientist, and he couldn't understand why he couldn't be seen that way.

♪♪ -I do go my own way.

I may not be entirely easy to decipher.

I'm not easily categorized.

And I think this can give rise to bewilderment and ambivalence.

Am I a writer or a doctor?

Where do I belong in what is sometimes a fairly rigid hierarchy?

As the same time, I am haunted, as someone who writes about patients, by the fact that others have sometimes accused me of exploiting them, betraying them.

There have been some very stinging comments.

-Not everyone appreciated him. He had his critics.

Someone described him as the man who mistook his patients for a literary career, which is a low blow.

-I think that's completely wrong.

I think Oliver genuinely cared about his patients, and I think the descriptions he had of all these different kinds of neurological problems gave tremendous insight.

For someone to say that he exploited his patients by writing those articles, I think that's absolutely wrong.

-People would often come up to me and say, 'Sacks, what's your theory?'

I would say, 'I don't have any theories.

I just describe. I just observe.'

But there's no such thing as 'just observing.'

A great theorist of the brain and the mind, Gerald Edelman -- at one point he said to me, 'You're no theoretician.'

And I said, 'But I am a field-worker. I show things.

And you need what I do to do what you do.'

-New York, 1990.

Robin Williams and Robert De Niro are rehearsing to be doctor and patient in a new film, 'Awakenings.'

A Bronx hospital... -Hello.

-...provides the film's setting. -Won't you join us?

Here's the exciting world of editing.

On a multimillion-dollar film, this is what it's come down to.

This, a box... sound dubbing equipment.

Ooh! Coming in for a close-up. For those of you who... -Oddly enough, it wasn't until about 1990, when the movie version of 'Awakenings' came out, that his profession really began to embrace him.

♪♪ All of a sudden, medical profession, having held him sort of at arm's length for so many years, now embraced him and began offering him honorary degrees, honorary memberships in their institutions and academies.

-[ Applause ] -Thanks very much.

-He began to get invitations to lecture both in medical schools... -Please welcome Dr. Sacks.

-...and in cultural institutions open to the public... -...the museum again... -...saying, 'Come and speak to us,' because of this Hollywood movie, which I thought was ironic.

But perhaps he was a little ahead of his time, or else a century behind his time.

-Oliver was an observer.

That's why in the beginning Oliver didn't get respect from the science community.

See, some people think that you have to have a hypothesis and a controlled experiment to have science.

And I say, 'Okay. What is astronomy then?'

The Hubble Space Telescope just looks at things.

It's observation.

Observation is part of science.

Because without observation, you couldn't even make up a hypothesis.

What Oliver did is sort of like the Hubble Space Telescope of neurology.

It's astronomy of the mind.

♪♪ -One thing we talked a lot about was the hard problem -- consciousness, consciousness, which concerned him totally in his writings.

He was obsessed.

He was obsessed with that, as, by the way, every serious scientist is by now.

♪♪ -Much of my life has been spent trying to understand the relation of brain and mind, in particular, the biological basis of consciousness.

♪♪ -Consciousness ultimately is experience.

The essential core of consciousness is the fact that it feels like something from the inside to be a conscious being.

What does it feel like to be me?

What does it feel like to be you?

What's the exact relationship between the body -- in particular the brain, because we know it's the brain that gives rise to conscious experience -- and our experience?

And Oliver always expressed a sense of wonderment that literally, every day, I wake up in a world of color and sound and fury, and it feels like a miracle.

And he never lost that sense of wonder.

♪♪ -But for much of the early part of the 20th century, mind and consciousness got somehow pushed out of science.

♪♪ For how could science explain learning?

How could it explain the reconstructions and revisions of memory we make throughout our lives?

How could it explain the processes of adaptation, of improvisation and creativity?

How could it explain consciousness, its richness, its wholeness, its ever-changing stream, and its many disorders?

How could it explain individuality or self?

♪♪ -For many years, scientists tried to avoid this whole subject, to avoid this word 'consciousness.'

And then they realized that it was in the center of everything, and now you cannot avoid it anymore.

-In 1979, Francis Crick, who with James Watson had already won the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA, published 'Thinking About the Brain,' which, in a sense, legitimated the study of consciousness in neuroscientific terms.

Prior to this, studies of consciousness were felt to be irretrievably subjective and, therefore, unscientific.

[ Crackling ] -The new neuroscience excited Oliver hugely and gave Oliver almost a new creative energy.

Oliver was trying to meld the clinical presentations of these odd syndromes with what these neuroscientists were studying.

And he began to understand that his role would be to have a conversation with scientists like Francis Crick, with Christof Koch, with Gerald Edelman, about how his clinical insight could come together with this highly conceptual work they were doing, trying to understand the neural correlates of consciousness.

♪♪ -I first met Francis Crick at a 1986 conference in San Diego.

When it was time to sit down for dinner, Crick seized me by the shoulders and sat me down next to him, saying, 'Tell me stories.'

In particular, he wanted stories of how vision might be altered by brain damage or disease.

-They struck up a very intense relationship, and Francis just kept on pumping for more information.

'Tell me more about this patient. What about that patient?'

♪♪ -Something which Crick and I spoke about right at the very beginning was that, in attacks of migraine, sometimes the sense of movement would disappear.

And you would see a series of stills, like stroboscopic illumination or film run too slow.

♪♪ -This particular type of migraine, suddenly the sense of continuity is shattered, and you see the world only as discrete frames.

[ Crackling ] -I found myself wondering whether the apparently continuous passage of time and movement given to us by our eyes was an illusion... whether, in fact, our visual experience consisted of a series of timeless moments which were then welded together by some higher mechanism in the brain.

♪♪ I called it cinematic vision, and Crick was very, very interested in this.

-Of course, that's exactly what happens in a movie.

If you take something at 24 or at 30 frames, each frame is a static frame, yet we all see continuous motion.

But patients who have what's called akinetopsia, an absence of seeing motion, they typically have bilateral lesions here in the back of the brain, and to them the world looks like individual stills, like a strobe light, but they don't see continuous motion.

And that tells us that there's some relationship between specific parts of the brain and particular aspects of consciousness, that there is a particular part of the brain that's just responsible for seeing the sense of motion.

So this illusion of motion is revealed to be what it is, an illusion.

In fact, what the underlying reality are discrete frames.

That tells us something that may reveal the way, actually, we perceive motion in particular, and maybe the sense of time in general, the flow of time.

That is an interesting question that people now ask.

What are the mechanisms in our brain that lead us to perceive duration and flow of time?

And that all came out of these observations by Oliver.

♪♪ -I found myself thinking of time.

Time and perception.

Time and consciousness.

Time and memory.

[ Children shouting ] Time and music.

[ Piano playing ] [ Crackling ] Time and movement.

♪♪ -Soon after that, in fairly quick succession, he publishes 'Musicophilia,' about music and the brain.

He publishes 'The Mind's Eye.'

It's about various mostly visual syndromes.

He publishes 'Hallucinations.'

And all of these books are deeply informed by the neuroscience that's burgeoning at this time.

He becomes, at that point, not only a man of the 19th century, but a man of the 21st century.

And this, I think, was very deeply satisfying to Oliver to be able to pull these things together.

He was also hugely relieved to be accepted by his colleagues, to get some of the recognition that he had sought.

♪♪ -I was in medical school, actually, when I first came across his work, and it was like a revelation to me.

His writing showed me there's truth and there's knowledge, and there's important things about the human experience that you just don't get from medical text books.

And there were truths to be found in going deeply into people's lives and seeing what happens to them and how it unfolds over time.

Arguably, Oliver Sacks is the most important person for me in shaping my idea of what a doctor should be, about what a good doctor is.

♪♪ -The head of Columbia's neurology department recently said, these days, 70% of the applicants to do neurology as a concentration mention Oliver Sacks as the reason they want to become neurologists.

He has really made a generational -- made a historic difference.

[ Piano playing ] ♪♪ -I have difficulty saying what constitutes home for me.

I've been 50 years in New York, but I'm not a citizen here.

♪♪ I often feel my home is a mental home, in thinking, in medicine, in physiology, in science, perhaps above all in writing.

When I am absorbed in writing, I feel exempted from many of my own neuroses and problems.

I somehow seem to be in another realm and a sort of timeless realm, as well.

Oops. Sorry. Bugger.

I don't know whether you've met my editor, Dan Frank.

-We met. -I think Dan wants to give you something.

-So, Oliver, I realized that, when I was thinking about this, I first started reading you in in the early 1980s, and when one of the pieces from 'Man Who' started appearing there.

And I realize it's, like, been one of the greatest things in my career as an editor, is that I've had this association with you.

And I feel like this is just one of the finest books you've ever written.

-Ooh. Ah!

[ Laughter ] -This is the first one. Hot off the press.

[ Laughter ] And with my sexy picture on the cover.

[ Laughter ] -Until his late 70s, I think an enormously long stretch of his life was a very eloquent, careful groping for respect.

♪♪ And then Billy came along.

-In 2008, Oliver and I had had this little correspondence, and I had paid a couple of visits on my trips to New York.

But I didn't know he was gay.

And it wasn't until I moved here and we began to see more of each other that we developed a relationship.

I think, in a way, as unexpected for me as for him.

Oliver had lived this very solitary life and not had any long-term relationships.

♪♪ -We started to go out together, often to the New York Botanical Garden, which I had visited alone for more than 40 years.

It has been a great and unexpected gift in my old age, after a lifetime of keeping at a distance.

♪♪ -I remember early on he took me for a walk at the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx, and he started telling me about his love of ferns.

And I asked him why, and he said, 'Ferns are survivors.'

And that was his theme -- survival.

It was the theme of the 'Awakenings' patients, their survival, which was so incredible and moving, and which he had so much to do with... and, at the end of his life, in a way, his own survival, in articulating that and looking back on it.

-It was amazing for him, clearly, but it was amazing to see someone in his late 70s fall crazily in love and solve such a deep problem that he had.

Somebody finally told him you can love, you can connect, and, therefore, you can begin to complete this struggle you've made.

And the last four years, I think, felt like an enormous sigh, in so many directions -- to his friends, to his best friends, to pretty much everybody.

He'd found balance.

-This was the poster for the event at Julius', which is the oldest gay bar in New York City.

And they made their monthly party in May of 2015 themed Oliver Sacks, featuring the photo from the cover of 'On the Move,' which is Oliver in Sheridan Square on his new BMW.

Over 50 years later, finally he's able to make the walk from this apartment, arm in arm with me, to Julius', to a gay bar, the first time in many, many, many years.

[ Siren wailing ] [ Horns honking ] The night after he got his diagnosis, he took out a little pad, and he wrote a list, and that became kind of the blueprint for the essay 'My Own Life,' which he literally wrote within days of that, almost in the draft that appeared in ♪♪ -'Three weeks ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health.

But my luck has run out.

Last week, I had a biopsy and learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver.

Now I am face-to-face with dying.

The cancer now occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, it cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the rest of my life in the months that remain to me.

I have to make the most of what time I have, to live it in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.'

♪♪ So that's it.

♪♪ Um... I don't know what the next months will bring.

I hope I can work and play and love and be conscious and be myself to the end, or almost to the end.

Um... I haven't yet given way, fully, perhaps to emotion.

Um... Uh... I see tears all around me, but I have yet to shed them myself.

♪♪ -The piece of information that he delivered, that he had only about six months to live, was accurate, horrifyingly so.

And everyone who knew him was distraught by this and wondered what he was going to do, how he was going to react to it.

-The last time I saw Oliver was just about 10 days or two weeks before he died.

He was writing, writing in his characteristic way.

And I said, 'What are you doing?'

And he said, 'I'm writing about creativity.'

-It was a visit like any other visit.

We didn't talk about his illness very much.

It was totally un-morbid, remarkably non-stressful.

Non-emotional. No tears. No goodbyes. No hugs.

'This is the last hug I'm giving you in your life.'

None of that.

♪♪ -I saw him in May of this year, and we talked about his plans for writing various essays and writing a book on worms.

And we talked about Charles Darwin's last book, which happens to be also about earthworms.

I left a dying man in a very positive mood.

I was uplifted by my conversation with him, strangely enough.

-When I got the call from Kate, I was woken up by a text message arriving.

It was 5:00 in the morning. That Oliver had just died.

And I found myself, oddly, with a great, great swelling, welling up, of gladness.

The word I had was not sadness. It was gladness.

He'd really pulled it off. He nailed it.

He nailed the landing.

He gave a master class in how to die.

♪♪ -'There will be nobody like us when we are gone, but, then, there is nobody like anybody, ever.

When people die, they cannot be replaced.

They leave holes that cannot be filled.

It is the fate, the genetic and neural fate, of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Even so, I am shocked and saddened at the sentence of death, and I cannot pretend I am without fear.

But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.

♪♪ I have loved and been loved.

I have been given much.

And I have given something in return.

I have read and traveled and thought and written.

I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and this, in itself, has been an enormous privilege and adventure.'

♪♪ -Do any of you know what the old Jewish toast is?

L'chaim? To life?

To you. To you. To you.

To Especially... -To Oliver. -To Oliver.

-All right. Thank you. -Cheers.

-To life.

♪♪ -Everything about Oliver was extreme.

He was extremely large and exciting to be around.

After a long, chilly swim once off Long Island, we sat on the beach and spoke about his life and work.

Oliver said that he saw himself like a comet, hurtling through the neurological heavens, observing things as he went speeding by, constantly in motion and not bound to a home.


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