Thom Gunn, left, in 1960 at Hampstead-White Stone Pond. Oliver Sacks, right, with his beloved BMW motorbike at Muscle Beach. Courtesy of the Oliver Sacks Foundation. Photo taken from Sacks’s memoir On the Move.
Back in the early eighties, when I first met up with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, he was still largely unknown. Though his masterpiece Awakenings had appeared in 1973, it had gone largely unread and was actively dismissed, if read at all, by the medical community, since its layering of nineteenth-century-style case histories ran against the double-blind, quantitative-tracking, peer-reviewed conventions demanded of medical writing at the time.
Newly arrived at The New Yorker, I persuaded Sacks to let me attempt to frame him as the subject of one of the magazine’s legendary multipart profiles, and we began to spend a lot of time together. Ever so gingerly, Sacks began to broach a quite astonishing prehistory—how at age twenty, when his Orthodox Jewish mother, one of England’s first female surgeons, first learned of his homosexuality, she had torn into him with hours of “Deuteronomical cursings” (filth of the bowel, abomination, the wish that he had never been born); how a few years later, in the late fifties, having completed his initial medical training at Oxford, he bolted free of homophobic England, like a bat out of hell, racing toward California, where he undertook four years of medical residencies, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles, and threw himself into a leather-clad, motorcycle-straddling, bodybuilding, drug-fueled scene. His original impetus for heading to San Francisco, he told me, may have been the presence there of the poet Thom Gunn, who was openly dealing with material Sacks felt he still couldn’t. Sacks urged me to go visit Gunn to get his sense of things, which I happily did, meeting him at an espresso place in the Castro.
After I’d worked on the profile for more than four years, Sacks asked me to shelve it: still deeply closeted, and in fact entirely celibate at that point for the fifteen years since he had left California for New York, he couldn’t deal with the prospect of having his sexuality revealed—and I certainly had no intention of outing him if he did not want to be outed. Seven years before his death, after by that point thirty-five years of celibacy, he finally allowed himself to fall in love and be fallen in love with, by the superbly kind and elegant writer Bill Hayes—and indeed a few years after that, Sacks wrote about his sexuality in his late-life autobiography, On the Move. And then, on his very deathbed, Sacks urged me to return to my original intention, to write up the multipart profile I’d been planning to all those years earlier. “Now,” Sacks said. “Now, you have to do it!”
At last, the book I produced with his blessing, And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks, has been released this week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book includes my 1982 interview with Gunn, which is excerpted below.
How’d you first meet Oliver?
I met Oliver here in San Francisco in it must have been 1961, shortly after he’d arrived in California as a medical intern. He rode a motorcycle and called himself “Wolf,” which is apparently his middle name. One time he kiddingly said, “What would my maternal grandfather think if he knew the way I am using his name?” It sounded nicely ferocious. And he wrote a great deal. He wanted from very early on to be a writer, and he kept extensive notebooks. Extensive. I remember at one point there being something like a thousand typed pages of journal. One summer he decided to chronicle the trucking life, had gotten on his motorcycle, which broke down, and ended up hitching with truckers and coming back with a long account of what it was like to be a trucker.
Another time he took his motorcycle down to Baja, Mexico, very remote, I’m not sure where he even got his gasoline, but he told me about it when he came back, how he’d slept in his sleeping bag by the side of the road. I said it must have been wonderful, and he said, yeah, except for all those vultures circling overhead. And I said, yeah, but everyone knows that vultures don’t attack a living person, to which he replied, “Yes, but it kept crossing my mind that there might be the odd schizophrenic vulture that didn’t know that.”
I don’t know what happened to that journal, at one point I had the whole thing, I wish I could show it to you right now, it may well have gotten inadvertently thrown out a while back when I moved, I know I haven’t seen it since I’ve been living in this house, which has been ten years.
What was he like, especially on just arriving?
Well, this is something I really wanted to tell you about, because he has gone through the most extraordinary changes of anybody I’ve ever known. I wasn’t present for the change, but I witnessed both the before and after. Going back to the journal, for example, there was one bit that became quite notorious among his acquaintances, because he wrote a scathingly satirical piece about a sadistic eye doctor, a guy who in the meantime unfortunately has gone mad, but at the time he was sane, or as sane as he was ever going to be, though slightly odd. I mean, he wasn’t a sadistic doctor; he was sexually sadistic. So Oliver wrote this satirical piece on him, referring to him as Doctor Kindly, and the piece was quite funny. But it was very unsympathetic toward someone whom Oliver basically liked personally. And then he went and showed the piece to the guy. And the guy didn’t like it at all, was actually quite hurt, as who wouldn’t be, nobody would like being made fun of in such a way. And Oliver was quite taken aback by the reaction.
My criticism of him at the time, and I don’t know how overt it was but it was there, was that the piece was well written, wonderfully observant, obviously good training for some kind of writing career, but … It was as if he was the only person there, everybody else was being judged so harshly, so contemptuously, and so sarcastically. He seemed to have a great inability to put himself inside the skin of others, or even to be able to imagine how they might react to him. Not that he did this so much in person, it was entirely literary. I mean, obviously it had something to do with what he felt about people, but it was not at all what he really felt about people: he was a much nicer man than he appeared, than he presented himself as being in his writing. He was much more transparently self-dramatizing in those days. I mean, there is of course still a sense of drama about him, though you don’t feel it is in any sense posturing. It was never unpleasant posturing at all, he was always nice, but in his youthful enthusiasms he was always trying on poses.
Then he went down to Southern California, and I saw less of him. I didn’t start seeing him frequently again until after he’d moved to New York, by which time he was an entirely different man.
This would have been before he wrote Awakenings?
Oh yes, but he was obviously the man who would be able to write Awakenings. The first Oliver I knew would have been the last person I would have thought capable of writing Awakenings. It was precisely his problem that he couldn’t sympathize with people enough. It wasn’t that he was lacking in kindness; rather he was lacking in sympathetic imagination. And that is of course what he has now—in his conduct and his talk and his life and his writing—more than anyone else I know.
Now, what happened in between, I don’t know. I’m sure it was a great complex of things. There was obviously a maturing. When he arrived in California, he still had no sense of who he was or what he wanted to be—as I suppose none of us do when we are young and everything is changing. And he was unhappy. Maybe it’s just that whatever we mean by maturing, the sort of thing most people go through in their early twenties, he still hadn’t gone through any of that.
Perhaps it had to do with his having been something of a prodigy, the way that a child who is already the intellectual equal of adults at, say, age five is likely nonetheless to lack the emotional maturity to go along with it, and indeed may still have the emotional maturity of a five-year-old well into his adulthood.
I think that could be right, and that other maturity didn’t really come till his late twenties or early thirties, though when it did, finally, it was a much deeper and more meaningful and more thoroughgoing maturity than maybe any I’ve ever seen.
As to how it could possibly have arisen, I know it’s unfashionable and dated to say this kind of thing, but I think Oliver might support me in saying this: I think it may have had something to do with his taking a lot of acid, at a time when we were all taking a lot of acid. We didn’t exactly coincide in this, he’d already left San Francisco by the time I myself started, but he did do a lot of chemical experimentation, I mean, outrageously extreme, far more than anyone else I knew.
His old slogan: “Every dose an overdose.”
Right! Precisely. And I think that may have had something to do with it. I mean, there are a lot of outrageous claims made about acid. Nevertheless, I find that it helped me get insight into myself and my life and other people that I might not have attained otherwise.
But going back to the before version of Oliver, when his brilliance was coupled to a certain—what shall we call it?—shallowness.
A bit, yes, maybe, but any word I could use makes it sound more vicious than I intend. Self-centered? Perhaps, but it wasn’t so much self-centered as there was an inability to get beyond the self. There was that cleverness at the expense of others, an inability to recognize how he might be hurting others, as with Doctor Kindly. The sort of thing we all go through perhaps in our teens, being smartasses as a way of proving ourselves, defining ourselves by scoring off others, but here he was approaching thirty. He was never very nasty, if anything I was sometimes nasty to him. He was always generous, but there was this other … Actually, I often found him a bit irritating in those days, and embarrassing because he was so enthusiastic about me, and I just didn’t feel there was much to be enthusiastic about. He seemed to be finding things in me which I honestly didn’t think were there.
What kinds of things?
Wisdom and stuff. I don’t know. The motorcycles in my poetry. I know Jonathan Miller first got him to read me.
One thing he has said about you is that in your poetry you were so much more at ease with issues that were still causing him grief, the homoeroticism in particular being what I suspect he is referring to.
Well, he did seem to be just beginning to come to terms with that, fitful terms perhaps. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my telling you how he seemed to fall for a series of what struck me as rather silly little boys, who were immensely attracted to his motorcycles. A series? Maybe it was only two or three, but it did seem endless, and they were all very butch, and very nice-looking, and very young, and very rough. They seemed to be off the streets, and obviously he was a great big burly father figure to them, and a wonderfully romantic figure.
What with the motorcycles and all, did you have the sense that he was living dangerously?
I think he is a dangerous rider, yes, or a reckless driver, let’s put it that way.
And also dangerous in terms of the people he hung out with?
I don’t know that they were dangerous. I mean, I don’t think they had knives. As I say, they tended to be more like little street boys. But no, he hung out more in leather bars, as I did, and they’re not dangerous. He was a boisterous presence, and I suspect he probably charmed half the people and annoyed the other half.
I could easily imagine him getting into trouble with those he annoyed.
Well, yes, no. I mean, he might have gotten beaten up, though remember he was very strong, still there was an obliviousness to danger with him. On the other hand, you’re really no more likely to get yourself beat up in a leather bar than anywhere else, it’s all just for show.
And then, of course, he got to know Mel, I guess you know about Mel …
Not that much.
Well, Mel was the … a wonderful boy. He was probably about the same age as the others, physically he looked like them, but he was—is—a person of great sensitivity and intelligence, and they did live together in Southern California. I found him rather attractive myself. I didn’t get to know him that well, since they were down there, the last time Oliver visited here was with him—that was many years ago. Mel seemed to me, without oversentimentalizing things, to be the great love, and a worthy love he was, too. I don’t know what difficulties there were, or I suppose there must have been, since he never moved to New York with Oliver. They are still friends, I believe, and they obviously feel a great deal for each other. He struck me as very fine, on the few occasions I met him, I liked him a lot. Today he lives somewhere up north, Oregon or something. I don’t know whether Oliver has had any love relationships since then. My sense is he hasn’t.
Did you have a sense of his living a very split life in those days, with his medical work to one side and the rest to the other?
No, I didn’t see it as split, on the contrary it seemed wonderfully integrated. All of the enthusiasms would spill over into each other. Part of the richness of his mind comes from the fact that there are all these interests, and all this knowledge of different sorts, and none of it is categorized. He’s not like the professor of eighteenth-century literature who hasn’t read any of seventeenth- or nineteenth-century literature since having taken his Ph.D. He’s more like Ezra Pound or somebody like that.
Indeed, he strikes me as coming from the period before the sciences and the humanities split apart. Leibniz and Browne and people like that seem his contemporaries.
Just the other day he was quoting William Harvey on the musicality of movement.
Yes, it’s as if they were all his contemporaries and he was merely adding his observations to theirs, almost as if he were expecting them to reply, and sometimes even hearing their replies.
Pretty early on, I think before the migraine book or else immediately afterward, he said to me how he longed to write a book that would be good science and good literature. Maybe not exactly those words, but something close. And then he went and did just that.
Though of course this capacity of his is still all tied up with the most remarkable sense and pressure of compulsion. I mean, I recognize a certain compulsiveness in myself, the sense sometimes that I just have to do things, or that I can’t write, or whatever—but nothing like him. My blocks are never so lengthy or so absolute. On the other hand, when I do then write, I could never write the way he does either, you know, through days and nights, nonstop, thousands of words all perfectly ordered in just a few weeks. Migraine in nine days, that kind of thing: the ability to tap into demons like that. The epic blockages, on the other hand, seem in some way allied to his feeling of sympathy with the patients in Awakenings, who are more completely blocked than anyone else one can imagine. When he describes how they are running and their steps are getting so much smaller and smaller until, ultimately, they are just running internally—one sees this imaginative sympathy, perhaps also coming in some way from his brother, who I sometimes think he conceives of almost as an alternative self.
Indeed, what about his brother?
Well, as you may know, he is, I don’t know the word, maybe schizophrenic or something. Oliver once apparently overheard him say, “I went mad so the rest of you could stay sane.” Most extraordinary remark. I’m not sure what one makes of that, though I am sure he means a lot to Oliver, over and beyond his just being a relative.
[A long silence, and then, as if to leaven the gravity of that last remark, Gunn breaks into a wide smile.]
The funniest thing he ever told me, or I should perhaps say the strangest, though he was himself laughing when he told it to me, was how at a very early age, maybe six or seven, maybe even earlier, he conceived a sort of presexual desire for a blimp. A sensual desire. I mean, who but Oliver could desire a blimp?
But he was serious, he was not making this up, this was not a retrospective fantasy. I cannot imagine Oliver lying, when I think about it—almost less than anyone else. And if he were to exaggerate, he would believe the exaggeration.
[As I am getting set to leave, I ask Gunn if he still has a copy of the letter he wrote Oliver after Awakenings came out in 1973; he rifles through some files, finds it, makes a copy, and hands it to me, graciously offering permission for me to cite or reprint it.]
Lawrence Weschler, a longtime veteran of The New Yorker and a regular contributor to NPR, is the director emeritus of the New York Institute of the Humanities at NYU and the author of nearly twenty books, including Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Everything That Rises, and Vermeer in Bosnia.
Excerpted from And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?, by Lawrence Weschler. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 13, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Lawrence Weschler. All rights reserved.
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