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. Read More