And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?


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Many thanks to Sue Barry for the recommendation about this new biographical memoir of Oliver Sacks by Lawrence Weschler.  Portions of the book were previously published in Vanity Fair in June 2015, two months before Oliver passed away.  The chronology of the book is such that much of what Wecshler had originally planned to write through extensive interviews in 1984 was put on hold because Oliver was sensitive about the societal implications of his drug use as well as his earlier sexual proclivities.  However, Dr. Sacks decided to reveal his forays into self-prescribed drug use in his book Hallucinations, and the details about his sexuality in his memoir, On the Move, published shortly before Weschler’s Vanity Fair piece in 2015.

Sacks on the Move

We in the optometric vision therapy, behavioral/developmental optometry,  and neuro-optometric rehabilitation communities are of course very fond of Dr. Sacks for his compassionate research and writing that led to the original story of Stereo Sue, subtitled Why Two Eyes Are Better Than One.  The story of Stereo Sue was also featured as a chapter in Oliver’s book, The Mind’s Eye.  It still strikes me to this day, in revisiting this, how cautious Oliver was in accepting Sue’s experiences through her initial letter to him at face value.  As I have recounted elsewhere this was not surprising given the lack of experience with therapy patients that would have allowed Oliver to bridge the gap between the dogma of his time regarding binocular vision and what optometrists were accomplishing  through their interventions.  And it is worth recalling that when the visual posse of Oliver, Bob Wasserman (an ophthalmologist) and Ralph Siegel (a vision scientist) made the trip to the office of Dr. Ruggiero who had aided Sue through  optometric vision therapy, they did not hang their hat solely on her perception of random dot stereograms which are artificial and a constrained form of stereoscopy.  They seemed more interested instead in the types of binocular stereoscopic cues that would reveal elements of space in the real world – one might say a reality of virtue rather than a virtual reality.  And Sue was able to bridge this gap with Oliver in a magnificent way that was without precedent in the public domain.

Weschler devotes only one paragraph in his last chapter to the story of Stereo Sue, so before delving more into his book permit me to make special mention of Sue’s blog entry titled Me and Oliver Sacks in 2009; her talk as part of the the Authors at Google (Cambridge) series in in 2012; and her presentation at Optometry’s Meeting of the American Optometric Association in 2016.

And now to Weschler’s material, but with a personal preface of my own.  I attended Yeshiva University in Manhattan for undergraduate school from 1969 to 1973.  I distinctly recall during that period of time several instructors and professors speaking about a controversial neurologist who was doing off-the-beaten-path things at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the medical school being run under the auspices of Yeshiva University.  I had no idea at the time about what he was involved with, or the significance of his subsequent book Awakenings that would detail a very special case series of patients.  With that thought in mind, listen to the opening of Lawrence Weschler’s discussion at the Hammer Museum of UCLA.

Here is an infrequently viewed interview that Lawrence Weschler (“Ren”) did with Dr. Sacks  at the New York Academy of Medicine in 2013, in which he details how crucial letters he received from Auden and Luria were in bolstering his fragile self-esteem after Awakenings was largely ignored or trivialized in the public domain following its publication in 1973.  This is given significant treatment in Wrestler’s new book.  While the acoustics washed out Weschler a bit, they are crisp for Sacks and his wit as sparkling as ever.

Another video that should have a wider audience is Lawrence Weschler’s moderation of a panel of a neurologist (Orrin Devinsky), neuroscientist (Aniruddh D. Patel), and two philosophers , Jennifer Hecht, Alva Noë during the New York Live Arts Program.  It essentially begins at the 6:00 minute mark.

This serves as a nice bookend to another wonderful multimedia tribute created posthumously and posted in 2016, Awakening the Mind: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Oliver Sacks, produced by the World Science Festival in partnership with the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

When Weschler initially wrote to Sacks in the Fall of 1980, it was to propose the idea of turning his book, Awakenings, into a film.  As Weschler notes in his book, several months passed before he received a reply in which Sacks began his letter: “One always has the fear that one lives/works/writes in a vacuum, and letters like yours are very precious as evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, I never regard the writing of anything as ‘completing’ it – the circle of completion must be made by the reader, in the individual responses of his hear and mind – then and only then is the circle of the Graces – of Giving, Receiving, and Returning – complete.”

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Weschler makes it clear in his prologue that his book is more of a memoir, focusing on four years in the early eighties before Oliver changed his mind about Ren writing a biography of him.  After Sacks died, and with the wealth of notebooks he left behind, Weschler speculates that someday someone is going to take on the project of a full-length Oliver Sacks biography.  “It is going to be an extraordinary book when it happens”, observes Weschler, “but that person is going to have to be a lot younger than I am now.  I wish him or her well – and I envy them.”

The chapters in Weschler’s book are revelatory, each in their own way.  Among the many individuals that Ren interviews for his book, one of the more insightful portraits of Dr. Sacks was rendered by a collaborator of his in the early days, Margie Kohl.  In a chapter devoted to the question of reliability in Sacks’s observations she remarks: “He trained me.  I am a fantastic observer today, and it is all thanks to him  ‘Go in there’, he would say ‘and tell me what you see’.  Most neurologists are so stuck in their checklists and their Medicare-mill fifteen-minute drills that they miss everything.  Oliver missed nothing.” To which Ren adds: “Such a method may indeed run counter to the strictures of conventional positivist science, with its insistence on valuing only that which can be measured and quantified (ideally by way of double-blind and peer-reviewed experiments), but Oliver’s entire point is that certain things cannot be quantified …”

As if timed to create the perfect complement to Weschler’s new book, there is a new documentary of Oliver’s life about which Shayla Love has written beautifully on vice.com.  “The film captures so much of Sacks’ charm”, she notes.  “Just by being who he was, Sacks showed us there’s more than one way to be, to connect. That you can be shy, and different, and still create a bond with others. That you can mess up, be rejected, and still end up revered. For Sacks not only accepted others as they were, but also remained unapologetically himself.”  Love concludes, “Ultimately, seeing this film and talking with people who knew Sacks made me ask myself: How can we create a world in which we allow people like this to grow and be supported? The ones who are still in the phases of their lives where they’re feeling rejected and alone, but within them lie idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and genius that goes by unnoticed.  It may be that we don’t want to let Sacks go because it means that we will have to take up that difficult work ourselves.”

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