Blockage and Release

An extended excerpt from And How Are You, Doctor Sacks? A biographical memoir of the author's thirty-five year friendship with the neurologist Oliver Sacks

Shortly before I moved to New York from Los Angeles (my heart’s true home) in 1981, to take up a new position as staff-writer at the New Yorker (following their serendipitous purchase of a long piece of mine on the California artist Robert Irwin), I’d begun corresponding with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, then himself living on City Island, just off the Bronx. His remarkable masterpiece Awakenings—about a group of post-encephalytic Parkinsonian patients, who’d been entrammeled in a seemingly vegetative stupor for decades following the sudden onset of their disease and were being warehoused at Beth Abraham, a home for the incurable, likewise in the Bronx; his administration to them of the new “wonder-drug” L-Dopa, and the drama that thereupon ensued—had been published almost a decade earlier, to virtually no acclaim (except for some great reviews by the likes of W.H. Auden and Frank Kermode) and to widespread dismissal on the part of a medical profession scandalized by its reliance on allegedly superannuated nineteenth century style case studies (“Merely anecdotal! Where are the double-blind controls, the peer-reviewed processes?” etc.). I’d happened to have read it, been thoroughly bowled over, and a tentative correspondence had ensued.

For his own part, Oliver was living a virtual recluse, except for his ongoing clinical rounds at local nursing homes and state hospitals, himself entrammeled in an at that point five-year-long writer’s block regarding his next book, one attempting to recount an existential neurological crisis of his own, brought on by the fact that shortly after the publication (and initial failure) of Awakenings, he’d heedlessly launched out on a solitary mountain hike above a Norwegian fjord, gotten into some sort of run-in with a bull, come crashing down the mountainside, badly mangling his leg and almost dying. During his subsequent recuperation, he experienced a radical bodily dysphoria, in which his injured leg no longer seemed his own—and his attempts since to evoke and analyze that crisis had him thoroughly bollixed and stymied.

I had just turned twenty-nine and he was forty-eight when we first met out there on City Island, but I quickly realized that he would make a wonderful subject for one of those multi-part profiles the magazine was famous for in those days, and across the next four years, I took on the role of a sort of beanpole Sancho to his capacious Quixote, traipsing about with him on his various rounds and travels, chronicling his in those days floridly neurotic ramblings, indeed, filling up over fifteen notebooks full of them, interviewing his friends and patients and earlier associates, and off to the side, trying to help him through that epic blockage, which, curiously, took the form of graphomania: he’d generated millions of words, just not the right ones, and, for his editors and me, most of the at times Sisyphean work consisted in pruning the damn thing back and then preventing him from mischiefing it yet further.

In addition, much of our growing friendship involved his trying to scandalize me with the horrible blight, as he saw it, of the fact that he was a (deeply closeted) homosexual. Actually, in fact, he had been celibate at that point for almost fifteen years (following a brief and vivid drug-fueled flowering during his medical residencies in California back in the early sixties) and would continue to be so for another twenty. But I refused to be scandalized and tried to ease him out of his own resolute self-loathing in the matter (product in no small part to the continuing reverberations of his own dear mater’s response to the news at the time she first found out when he was around twenty, during one of his visits home from Oxford: notwithstanding the fact that she was a highly accomplished surgeon, and one of England’s first female such, she was also an Orthodox Jew, and she’d launched into a three-hour Deuteronomical tirade—filth of the bowel, abomination of the flesh, and the wish that he had never been born—followed by an extended silence, the subject never to be brought up again in her lifetime). And it was still not at all clear to what extent Oliver was going to be willing to see the subject broached.

Anyway, by mid-1984, I took advantage of the fact that his leg book had finally been dispatched to the printers and was on the verge of publication to head up to Blue Mountain Center, a writer’s retreat in New York, where Oliver himself had spent some time the previous year, where I now began indexing my notes and crafting my tale. Which is where we join my own book, which is finally seeing the light of day this week, and from which the following excerpt is adapted.

—Lawrence Weschler

June 1984 (Blue Mountain meditations)

This time I am the one at Blue Mountain Center, trying to get Oliver down on paper. With the tide of his well-earned fame beginning to come in, the time has come for me at long last to move on from the endlessly diverting process of reporting and interviewing and note-taking.

During the day I am indexing my notes, more than fifteen volumes’ worth, transcribing and reviewing my interviews, and generating various chronologies. Evenings, sitting around the dinner table before a rapt audience of fellow colonists and friends, the colony’s administrators, Harriet and Allison and Ginny, and I spark Oliver stories off one another, as if—exactly as if—Oliver were some sort of wonder rabbi.

Talking to Oliver on the phone, I mention a chronology scroll I’ve been compiling, which is already several yards long.

“That’s funny,” he says, “I’ve been engaged in a chronological project of my own. The other day I noticed my bicycle’s odometer turning to 1933, as you know the year of my birth—I continued to cycle through my childhood, my teens, my academic years. A few days ago, I reached 1984 and was seized by a superstitious fright that I would now certainly be hit by a truck with my broken odometer reading 1984. So I didn’t stop till I’d raced it past 1990.”

Did you just pull over, I asked him, and spin your wheels?

“No, no,” he insisted, “that would have been cheating, that would have been confabulation, and the gods would then certainly have punished me—a truck would have leveled me on the spot!”



At dinner:

Herbert Shore, a theater-person colonist: “Does Oliver ever talk to himself?”

Kaye, who was in residence here last year: “Oh yes, especially when he’s talking to you!”


June 25

Though letters from Oliver have been growing increasingly fretful with the approach of the imminent release of the Leg book, on this day it appears he has received a letter from his great friend and anchor Thom Gunn in response to an early mailing of the book, a copy of which he now passes along to me:

San Francisco, Calif.
June 4, 1984
Dear Ollie,

I’m writing to you in London because you sent me your book when you were just about to fly there, and that was only the end of May. At last, the Leg Book, which contained many a good surprise (considering I had already read a shortened version) and was well worth waiting for. Different from your other books, not only in subject matter, but different in kind because of the subject matter. Personal and at times subjective—but that is much of the point of the book isn’t it? One of the most marvelous passages is the description of the migrainous scotoma on p. 69, into which Nurse Sulu enters, or in a sense disappears. This is not only exquisitely written but it forms an essential link in the chain of your small realisations that add up to a larger understanding. (And I seem to remember that it was not there in your short version, the London Review of Books article that I can’t lay my hands on at present, living as I do in a state of perpetual disorganization that looks like organization—as opposed to yours, which looks honestly like disorganization, I think, remembering your room on Christopher Street.) Another exceptional passage is on pp. 46–47, the explanation of proprioception. And of course the last which pulls everything together beautifully. At times, in the more ecstatic parts of the book, you read like Melville, and I admire Melville enormously, having read and reread him all through two years ago: it involves going forward for stretches on your nerve alone and is responsible for M at his best and worst (Moby Dick best and worst Pierre). It is a great risk-taking, a kind of effusion.

I think there are two small weaknesses in the book, both due to a momentary loss of control; first with the first description of the bull on p. 5, where you use the word huge(r) four times, and also stupendous, enormous, vast, and great. By the time I get to the last sentence (“IT became, first a monster and now the Devil”) I have a sense of leaving the clear-cut reality of the mountain and of being led into a thicket of rhetoric. And yet a central sentence is absolutely right: “It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up towards me.” That is startlingly right, but then we get into language for its own sake, it seems to me. On the other hand, when the bull returns in your dream, it is very real, distorted monster as it was. The other passage I don’t like is on pp. 130–131, the part about the “sweet haven,” too effusive.

Maybe I am wrong about these two passages, anyway, and forgive me for mentioning them: because they certainly don’t harm the book as a whole (any more than occasional effusiveness in Melville or Dickens harms their best books as wholes), which is sturdy and astonishingly varied in texture and tone—a very rich work indeed! Perhaps it is because of this richness and variety, in fact, that the book can accommodate what I take to be a couple of weaknesses. I feel properly honored that such a fine book takes my name as its first two words—thank you!

And I enjoyed it, and learned from it, as I always do with your writing. I hope to see you here in July.

Love, Thom

P.S. Reading through this note, I am not sure I make it clear on what level I am criticizing your book. I consider you literally of Dickens and Melville level—up there, indeed, with them! It is not interesting to me just because it is written by a perceptive friend; it is “classic” in its importance.

Alas, any sense of respite offered Oliver by his friend’s letter proved short-lived. In its June 21, 1984, issue, the London Review of Books (which, on June 17, 1982, had published a condensed version of what would finally become the Leg book; preceding that with “Witty Ticcy Ray” on March 19, 1982; and following up on May 19, 1983, with “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and May 3, 1984, with “Musical Ears”) published a truly devastating review of A Leg to Stand On, by Michael Neve, a historian of medicine at the University of London and the Wellcome Institute and a member of the LRB’s editorial board. Recall that Mary-Kay Wilmers, the LRB’s deputy editor, had been closely involved in publishing Oliver all the way back to her days at The Listener, which had printed the earliest version of Awakenings and received both praise and reproval for doing so. Neve’s review, by contrast, seemed almost precision engineered (I am speaking here of effect and not intent) to detonate virtually all of Oliver’s anxieties about the entire enterprise.

Beginning with an overview of what Neve saw as Oliver’s general project—a revival of the tradition of such literary-minded tellers of medical tales as S. Weir Mitchell in the nineteenth century, further leavened in the twentieth by the contributions of Henry Head on the one hand and A.R. Luria and the various Soviet neuropsychologists on the other—Neve went on to summarize how

Sacks is suggesting that neurology itself has had its own gaps. In ways that historians of neurology might well find interesting but highly selective, he is proposing an absence, an existential space that ought to have been filled, but wasn’t, and which has held the science back. The full involvement of patients themselves, in the practical task of recovering the self that has been damaged or lost, is the largest of these missing parts. To complete the progress that the Russians started, Sacks calls for “a neurology of the self, of identity,” a task of neurological completion which he (unconvincingly) proposes was resolved in the history of philosophy when Kant dealt with Hume’s philosophy of identity and restored “the self” to an existence that was not fleeting or transitory.

Going on to note:

What “happened” to Oliver Sacks to make him become one of the patients at the neurological interface that he believes now exists? Basically, he behaved like a silly twit. He went on a holiday in Norway, in the peak of health, and went walking in the mountains. He was (like all prophets) alone, and had not bothered to tell anyone his whereabouts. He came to a field, which had a huge sign saying “BEWARE OF THE BULL!” He ignored it, came face to face with a large white bull (which appears to have resembled the Devil), panicked and ran. In flight, he fell, twisted his left leg, and had considerable difficulty getting himself back down the mountain. Fortunately, a night in the open was avoided when two passing Norwegians picked him up.

The main part of Sacks’s tale follows from this incident, an incident that, as it were, turns one into the Doctor’s mother, making one want to give this burly man a hug and tell him not to go to Norway and have no one know where he is. This sense of protectiveness towards a man bent on resolving all the mysteries of human knowledge is reinforced when we learn that he has “fifty books” in his rucksack and no change of clothes.

Neve’s ensuing review descended at times to downright incredulity:

Now at this point, in the maternal way that the distressing if overblown story makes one come to feel, the advice might be: “Ollie, sit tight.” But this would be useless, since, Verne-like, the journey must get stranger. Limbo awaits, introduced by a suitable quotation from the Book of Job. There is no longer a way round the fact that if Sacks’s account of himself has now degenerated, into, most noticeably, literary ostentation and generalized exaggeration, then this matters. By not adhering, with some care, to the delicacy of the necessary linguistic account [. . .], Sacks is jeopardizing the very connection between outer and inner, surgical and perceptual, neurological and metaphysical, upon which the claims for his “existential neurology” must rest. [. . .]

The determination to exaggerate leads to two dreadful things: the reader, irony of all ironies, starts to disbelieve the writer. And worse, the truthful tension that must hold, between the organic experience and the psychological experience, between the science and the subject, starts to fail, and a dreadful thought enters, as the second thing: that a man who is having a bad time, who one wants to get well, is making this stuff up.

Culminating, witheringly:

The possibility that Oliver Sacks’s “existential neurology” is simply a way of talking about important things in unbelievable ways lingers in the mind. [. . .] The vexed relationship between subject and object that existentialism concerns itself with remains distressingly unclarified after A Leg to Stand On. Florid, fictive, without sufficient respect for the worldliness of pain and illness—let alone the need to be careful about what you say—the book takes its place among the more harmless products of medical egomania. I am very glad that Oliver Sacks got better, and I also wish that his autobiographical tale did not seem so full of the loneliness that comes with intellectual messianism.

The Neve review indeed sent Oliver reeling, as became clear in his correspondence with me and others across the weeks ahead. Thus, for example, in these typewritten letters:

July 1, 1984
Dear Ren,

I just got a couple copies of the US edition [of A Leg to Stand On, hereafter referred to by its initials ALTSO]—I think it looks handsome with its larger print, less crowded, easier on the eye—and herein one, with all my love.

I hope you are finding life at Blue Mountain enjoyable and perhaps productive (it is important that you enjoy it, even if it is not overtly productive) . . .

For myself, I get hints of something enjoyable and productive, but then the mood gets spoilt and dissipated. I was upset at a visious [sic] and vulgar notice in the London Review—quite an elaborate, sustained and malevolent “attack,” not merely on ALTSO but on everything I have written, and on what (the author fancies) I am . . . It was quite stupid, fundamentally, but calculated to hurt nonetheless: what I found particularly unpleasant was the obvious ill-will, and the sense that the London Review, Mary-Kay in particular, invited or incited such a review—for it is by a member of their editorial board, and as such, so to speak, an “official” review. I can only think that Mary-Kay has now come to hate me—apparently because (in her words) I was “unfaithful” to the LRB and to her in submitting a piece to the New York Review of Books [Oliver had published his first piece there, “The Lost Mariner,” earlier that year in the February 16 issue, following that up with the first chapter of ALTSO, “The Bull on the Mountain” on June 28]—and this being so, I have to be “punished.” The mutilation of the Music piece was one slap in the face, and this vicious review by their “house hatchet-man” is the other.

Very unpleasant, very bizarre. Not (objectively) so much damaging, as sad. I think neurosis is the worst thing in the world—at least if it is indulged and allowed in the real world. God knows I am myself neurotic as hell, but (hopefully) I rise above it sometimes and don’t let it contaminate work and thought. Whereas in this LRB business, it is precisely my work and thought, which cost me so dearly, which has been mutilated, or smeared, by others’ neuroses—(Mary-Kay’s gonads, I feel, and those of her boyfriend, the reviewer . . . horrible, incestuous, Freudian sexuality).*

*I had occasion recently to ask Wilmers for her take on this letter, and she had the grace and good humor to let Oliver’s hyperventilating remarks pass without comment. She did note, however, that “Neve was in no sense the LRB’s ‘house hatchet-man.’ I didn’t ‘hate’ Sacks, or think he needed to be ‘punished’ for anything, even if I was disappointed that he took those pieces to The New York Review without offering them to us first (and I still think he shouldn’t have done it). The prosaic truth is that, as always, we sent the book to the person we thought would write the best piece about it; Sacks’s personal feelings (and mine) were neither here nor there.”

I find that the feeling of this clouds my own mind, and makes it difficult for me to retrieve the tranquility, the elevation, I need for work. I can only recapture it vicariously, so to speak, by reading and rereading Helmholtz whom I love—I carry him around (as I did Hannah Arendt), I feel safe with him.

The letter breaks off at this point, continuing the next day:

July 2

I had been going (I think) to send you a letter—had half typed it, but it was becoming morbid; I felt extremely morbid this morning, a morbidity I first took to be spiritual (accidie) until I got a tingling around the lips and a perceptual illusion [. . .]; and a slightly confused and dizzy feeling, I got a bit scared, and thought of a stroke. The attack (? migraine) and its accidie, after some hours, went away, and now I am “myself” once again—not too happy, but not melancholy-migrainous mad.

Anyhow, it was very nice to get your letter, with its friendliness and its businesslike questions. I am relieved to hear there is some (internal and external) consistency in what I have said (and what has been said about me) in the past three years—the more so in that that lead review in the London Review, in addition to everything else, accuses me of confabulation—the words “disbelief” and “unbelievable” occur seven or eight times. Similar imputations of veracity/sanity appeared wholesale in that dreadful issue of JAMA, around December 15 [1970], and its poisonous effect lasted through January and into February, obnubilating any pleasure I might have got from the publication of Migraine. [. . .]

Unfortunately, I too readily introject the accusations of the JAMA doctors, or (LRB’s) Mr. (Dr.?) Neve, and can hardly believe the good words of a [Gunn], a Gregory, a Luria . . . Eric tells me I must be more philosophical—and less “vain”—but I think vulnerability, rather than vanity, is the problem . . . though perhaps they go together, or at least share too great a dependence on the reactions of others . . . At the deepest level, of course, there is no such dependence, and I judge myself and my thoughts evenly and justly.

[As for your comments in your most recent letter,] I think you are right to see my preoccupation with Order and Disorder as quite central. Curiously, I have at this very moment been reading a book on (one of my Victorian heroes) Hugh Miller, subtitled “Outrage and Order” . . . I enclose Neal Ascherson’s introduction. You will note that Hugh Miller committed suicide. This (writes George Rosie, the biographer), in a life  “highly successful and flawed with tragedy,” “lends a bleak symmetry to his life.” I was thinking of this, I could think of nothing else, in my morbid mood this morning, and thought (as I do at times) that this would be the ending of my own life, if I don’t end it “accidentally” beforehand . . . But not because I am torn between Order and Disorder, (though I am).

August 14, 1984
Dear Ren,

[. . .] I have a grief (and perhaps a grievance) about my “orphan” book, which cost me so much—and yet may be almost “valueless” for all that because the cost was in “private” feeling, in conflict, rather than in actual thought and achievement.

As you wisely say—as Eric says, as others say, as my own wiser self says—I must become immune alike to criticism and to praise. I am, to a considerable extent—at the deepest level certainly, the level I get to, not immediately, but after a while . . . But ALTSO, from the wicked Ward 23 incidents which set the whole train of events into motion, has been so charged with anxiety and guilt that this instantaneously gets reactivated by almost anything anyone says, at least anything adverse (and by the same token, if it is not adverse, I remain unreassured and feel that the critic is merely being “kind”— or deluded).

And then, on August 15, a long-delayed reply to Thom Gunn, a copy of which Oliver subsequently shared with me. He began by thanking Gunn for his wonderfully affirming letter, noting how, as Gunn had said, the book had been “a kind of effusion” (a characterization with which Oliver agreed though one over which to some degree he still agonized) but was nonetheless, despite all that, “rich and varied and sturdy” (this last having proved the word that most mattered to Oliver, since he now went on to note how he was being wracked by anxieties that both the book and he himself might simply be, as he put it, “flimsy”). Oliver went on to acknowledge that the eruptive (the blockage of many years followed by a sudden and projectile breakthrough) was a tendency he shared with many of his patients, especially the postencephalytics, but that the tendency toward effusion was not simply that, that it also, at its best, aspired to “the oceanic.” Furthermore, while acknowledging the imputations of hyperbole and the merely rhetorical with which some critics were charging him, he went on to insist, in italics, that “this was the nature of the experience,” and how was he to represent the hyperbolic without to some extent succumbing to it? He had lived through “the very stuff of nightmare,” and the book had in one sense been an attempt to exorcise such demons—but not, he hoped, only that.

Still, he now doubled back, “I don’t think I will . . . ever want to write, anything so personal and subjective . . . again. There is a safety, a sanity, built into my case-histories”—he could enter into his patients’ situations through the extension of a sort of “imaginative sympathy” without being swept away. And he seemed to have had enough of such privately charged transports.

In a postscript, he went on to castigate himself for the “cagey” if not downright “puny” quality of his comments the previous day, especially when compared to the tone of Gunn’s “grand” missive. He confessed to an enveloping misery, to the ongoing sense of having “lost or forgotten” himself, going all the way back to the time of the accident. “I have ‘forgotten’ too the landscape of ideas, of concepts, which can also be so grand . . . [and] I have lost my imagination—both ‘scientific’ and ‘bardic’ . . . But occasionally, I dare think, and you help me think, occasionally, when I feel good, something extraordinary is given to me at times,” concluding, “Your own letter was grand, and showed your grandness; and I can only hope that sometime I get a touch of my own back . . .”

He would, and he did . . . get a touch of his own back, that is. And in a big way. Though at first the caviling continued to bother him (“Every doubt that anyone can have I’ve had, only more strongly,” he assured me at one point, regarding both the Awakenings and the Leg books), as the weeks passed, such concerns tended to fall away, especially with the arrival of further countervailing praise (at another point he related his gratification at a recent letter from a neurologist in California, at first doubting then confirming his formulations on peripheral neural damage: “Page one raised my hackles,” Oliver reported, “but page two made them purr”). And he grew more and more preoccupied with the new patients, fresh clinical situations, and the ever-growing set of case studies (both in print and over the radio), and gratified by the admiration and adulation they were bringing him from wider and wider quarters (sometimes even the professional medical community, where a generational change in attitude appeared to be afoot). With its publication in 1985, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would prove an international bestseller, eventually to be translated into more than twenty languages, and the years of his reclusive seclusion would be coming to an end.

Meanwhile, I had descended from my own Blue Mountaintop—my notes in order, my chronologies complete, my thoughts arrayed—and was getting set to launch into the writing proper of my extended profile.

The elephant in the room, of course, was the question of Oliver’s homosexuality—or not the homosexuality itself (who cared about that, except obviously Oliver himself, exquisitely, lashingly, continuously) so much as Oliver’s attitude toward its possible revelation (which at the best of times had been torturously attenuated). Indeed, a good part of our relationship in those early years, as he slowly, tentatively, achingly revealed the dimensions of the calamitous blight, had consisted in my assuring him that (as I saw things, anyway), really, Oliver, hardly anyone cares, certainly no one who matters. Alas, to no avail.

Ironically, it had been around this theme that our conversations about Sartre had first begun. I was not unaware in such moments that I was to a certain extent casting myself in a role Sartre had glancingly condemned in a passage early on in Being and Nothingness in which he was endeavoring to specify exactly what he meant by “bad faith.” At one point, he launches into an example of two male friends, one of whom (a straight fellow) is trying to get the other simply to admit that he is a homosexual, assuring him that he would have nothing against the fact but that what was driving him crazy was his friend’s refusal to be open and candid and simply sincere about such an obvious state of affairs. In Sartre’s telling, the straight fellow’s friend refuses, saying that no, there were always extenuating circumstances, the first time he was in the army, the next he was in prison for a short stint, and as for that thing the other day, you have to admit that particular boy was exceptionally beautiful, and so forth. At which point, Sartre, asking which of these two gentlemen can be said to be in bad faith, surprisingly singles out the former, the one making the demand for sincerity.

Because, no, Sartre insists, the other fellow is in fact not a homosexual “the way a rock is a rock,” as discomfiting and anxiety-producing as that fact may be for his straight sincerity-demanding friend. He, like all of us (like any and every human being, that being the very definition of what being human is for Sartre), is free at any and every moment to constitute himself in any way that he chooses. The sincerity-demanding friend’s insistence that he constitute himself otherwise is precisely what constitutes his own bad faith (in this context Sartre counterposes “sincerity” to “authenticity,” the latter, though far preferable and indeed a sort of ideal, at best ever being provisional and momentary and itself perpetually subject to calcification over time).

Granted that this, like several of the other examples in this section of Being and Nothingness (don’t even get me started on the girl on a date), reads oddly nowadays, at best dated if not downright politically incorrect. Still, as I would acknowledge to Oliver, Sartre had been on to something. On the other hand, I wasn’t trying to get Oliver to “admit” that he was a homosexual, only to stop giving himself such a hard time over the eventuality, and if he could, to allow me in my telling of his life story to place certain events in his formation in the context of others.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

One evening several months before I’d left for Blue Mountain, for example, after a long, wending conversation about him and his relationship with his great California love, Mel, the disastrous ending of their idyll, and his more than fifteen years of resolute celibacy since, I sighed (channeling my inner Sartre) and said, “Well, yes, Oliver, but who knows what the future will hold?,” going on to recall the great line from Grace Paley’s fortuitously titled story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute about how “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” and following that up with my own lame insistence that “Life is always an open book.” To which Oliver responded, emphatically, “I agree, absolutely. Everything is an open book, everything, that is, except sexuality. Or at any rate my sexuality. Which is as resolutely closed a book as any book can be.”

Another time, after he mentioned how “I’ve recently been being visited by a certain nostalgia for the sexual, now that I am no longer monstrofied by obesity,” I asked him if he’d even noticed the advent of gay liberation. It had suddenly occurred to me that the great epochal events surrounding Stonewall in the summer of 1969 had been transpiring only a dozen miles away during the very same months that he had been logging those twenty-two-hour days at Beth Abraham in the Bronx, at the very peak of the Awakenings drama: There was a good chance he hadn’t noticed. “No,” he acknowledged, “not at the time, though of course I have in the years since, and granted, with a certain gladness, though it has never felt like any of it had or has anything to do with me. You sound like my analyst, who assures me he’s never met anyone less affected by gay liberation. But it’s true: I remain resolutely locked in my cell despite the dancing at the prison gates.”

The question, as I’d headed up to Blue Mountain that summer, was no longer so much whether I or anyone else was ever going to succeed in drawing Oliver out of his cell (helping to relax the tyrannical hold of that grim celibate resolve), nor even whether I was going to be able to convince him to let me write about the issue of his sexuality anyway—I certainly had no intention of outing him if he didn’t want to be outed. Rather, the question had become whether it was going to be possible to tell his story without reference to that elephantine (hippopotamoid?) backdrop.

And there, as I steeped myself in my notes, sorting and indexing and contemplating, allowing the arc of my proposed piece gradually to gel, it seemed less and less likely that I was going to be able to do so. Because to the extent that the question—or at any rate one of the principal questions—about Oliver’s life had continued to sharpen around that mystery of what had made him, and him virtually alone, certainly among his fellow doctors as he arrived at Beth Abraham in 1966, capable of recognizing that there was something essentially different about those various specific “living statues” scattered among the wider hospital community, and of imagining, most harrowingly and audaciously of all, that the patients in question might indeed be vitally alive somewhere deep inside—surely that capacity had everything to do (as Sister Lorraine surmised) with the precipitous depths of his own prior life experience, his sense of his own oddness, to be sure, of having been and still being damaged (the way “he belongs to and with the Community of the Refused,” as his friend Bob Rodman had put it), and then of course the ferocious intensity with which he’d dealt with those feelings during the immediately preceding decade, bursting out of England, hell-bent for California: the extravagant bodybuilding (and its requisite tolerance for physical pain), the motorcycling (the Newtonian passion for speed), and then the drugs (the subsequent addiction to speed) and the insights into near-terminally distant extremities to which such passions had privileged him. He knew there might well be life in those statues because at times he himself had been as thoroughly, deeply entrammeled in his own solipsistic recesses.

But the thing is, there really was no way to tell that story without alluding to his mother’s devastating maledictions and his consequent desperate need to burst free from such a strangulating atmosphere. Otherwise his California adventures would just come off as the hedonistic escapades of a wildly inchoate oddball, a senselessly masochistic thrill-seeker or the like.

Across the ensuing months, I told Oliver as much, and as the two of us pondered the dilemma, he balanced for a long while on the verge of agreeing, even going so far as to encourage me to go ahead “and we’ll see,” in the meantime coaching me on possible avenues of approach to the entire project.

Thus, for example, during the autumn, I invited Oliver to join me in an informal working seminar on narrative which grew out of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, where I was a fellow: It was a remarkable biweekly gathering, including the likes of Susan Sontag, Janet Malcolm, and Jerome Bruner. And on November 6, he wrote me all excited about a session on Samuel Beckett, which I’d been forced to miss, and its implications for both of our work.

[Handwritten scrawl above typed pages]

11/8 I came to doubt this letter as soon as I wrote it, but will send it all the same
Dear Ren:

I have just come back from an exciting afternoon on Beckett—indeed it precipitated me into a bookshop to buy him, all of him. I would not mention this, nor write this letter, if I did not think something fundamental had been touched, which concerns you no less than, or as, it concerns me.

I don’t know that I ever mentioned to you that I had a peculiar passion, practically a compulsion, for Beckett in the early 1950s—roughly speaking my Oxford days and a little beyond. [. . .] And now all this has got reignited, and makes sense, this afternoon.

What came up in the Narrative seminar was the explosion of the Narrative, the Narrator, in Beckett. I made an impertinent comment comparing Beckett to—delirium (in the sense of an endless saying, an endless changing, the absence of any fixed perspective or viewpoint; the absence of “tale” or “plot”; and the sense, perpetually, of waiting, or pending—for something always hinted, which never occurs). Bruner made an interesting comparison of Beckett with Wittgenstein—the taking back, the undermining, the subversion, of earlier thoughts, the explosion towards a half-nihilistic half-creative endless doubt. [. . .]

What this comes to is a sense that I must complete my present book of Tales [The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat]—in order to get on, if I can, to a book of “Anti-Tales,” which (as I now see them) would be four “Beckett-like” presentations—of Delirium, Dementia, Korsakoff’s, and Tourette’s. This movement to “anti-tales” may be making it difficult (as it makes it necessary) for me to complete my “Tales” . . . and I cannot help wondering if some of your difficulty—indeed you have half-expressed this—is that it may be difficult to tell my “Story,” my “Tale,” because it is also rich in elements of explosion, of “anti-tale” (in somewhat the same way as it might be difficult to present a straight “story” of Wittgenstein—reflected, perhaps, in that maddening, if fascinating, book [Thomas Bernhard’s] Correction that you gave me . . . There is (I like to think, I sometimes dare think) a “development,” a deepening, but I am not sure that it is in any sense linear. Indeed, it may involve (dialectically, if not literally) turning on myself, contradicting myself, subverting myself, all the time, a half-destructive, half-creative contest between views. [. . .]

[For] there may be some sort of fragmentation which is deeper and more truthful than any “unity.” There is a sort of explosion which is anarchic—and yet the deepest expression of life and law.

I no longer know what I want to say. Nor do I believe it.

Nor have I said it. Nor did I think it. I don’t think. [Handwritten] I have not written this.

Love, Oliver

A few weeks later, Oliver began getting a bizarre series of phone calls, one from a man identifying himself as Shapiro who claimed to have been referred to him by a noted retired neurologist and friend of Sheldon Novick, insisting (with badgering repetitive self-assurance) that Oliver take him on as a patient. Which was already freaking him out. Then, on top of this, a new caller, an elderly woman, began demanding to see Oliver to get him to call off the murderous rampages of her patient, one John P, holding Oliver responsible for John’s indecent behavior, and so forth.

Oliver, in a complete quandary, hadn’t a clue what to do, and began suspecting that both callers might in fact be John, hounding him and preparing his murder, as per earlier threats.

“That,” he joked, cutting the tension, “would certainly solve all your problems with regard to resolving my biography—what a perfect ending!”

In the event, the calls subsided and eventually just went away. And near the end of the year, Oliver sent me another note:

Dear Ren,

Lovely seeing you last night [. . .] I do enjoy your company now, fully, as a friend—it is a very good feeling, and it evolved (or rather emerged) very slowly. At fifty, perhaps, one no longer forms real friends as one did earlier.

Hannah Arendt writes: “I met Auden late in life at an age when the easy knowledgeable intimacy of friendships concluded in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with each other. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends.”

I regard you, now, as a very good friend—I am not quite sure if I have any intimate friends—or whether, indeed, I am capable of “intimacy.” Perhaps, defensively, I can only feel it at a distance, some safe “remove,” where I do not feel too engaged.

I am not sure how you regard me, or feel to me, but I am sure that friendship is part of the feeling. It is possible that this itself may make writing about me difficult—which is why I have offered to keep a due distance. But equally, it is possible that this does not impede you, and may indeed make your task easier, and give it depth and warmth it would otherwise lack . . . Certainly, in my own “profiles” of patients, I find friendly feelings to them make it easier to write; and hostile feelings (as to John) almost impossible to write . . . though of course the friendliness is at a distance, or within reserve (there is a danger, otherwise, that it will degenerate into sentimentality—which I am afraid I am sometimes prone to . . . Eric has chided me for this, and I do feel it as a danger).

Notwithstanding the open-endedness of that last paragraph, as Oliver continued to dwell on our common challenges as writers of profiles, he also continued to worry about any coming revelations of his sexuality, and those worries did not subside. Indeed, in the end, they came to a head one evening a few weeks later during a brisk sunset walk in Riverside Park, when after a good deal of stammering and stuttering, of hemming and hawing, he at length seemed to come to his final resolve. “As I wrote you a few weeks back,” he said, “I have come to value you as a dear friend, of whom as I say I don’t have that many. I think what I was trying to say in that letter but never got around to saying is that I value you more in that role than as any sort of biographer. And although I deny nothing,” he concluded, “I have lived a life wrapped in concealment and wracked by inhibition, and I can’t see that changing now. So please I must ask you not to continue. I don’t care what you do with all your material after I die. Just not now.”

And that was that.

Over the ensuing years, I’ve had occasion to further mull over my attitude regarding the relative stakes in Oliver’s position, or rather my own blithe assurance to him that hardly anyone would have cared one way or the other if he had simply acknowledged his sexuality. Bracketing the specifically biographical context in his case (the lingering trauma of his mother’s maledictions, the virulence of homophobia specifically in the Britain of his formation as late as the fifties and the sixties—the chemical castration of Alan Turing in 1952, with ”gross indecency” still being a criminal offense, the social milieu surrounding the Jeremy Thorpe scandal well into the seventies—and so forth), the wider social environment may not have been nearly as benign as I kept insisting. Certainly, homophobia was still widespread and could destroy careers and lives. At the same time, tens of thousands of men, and hundreds of physicians, and dozens of celebrities, had come out in the years since Stonewall—at least in New York City, it was no longer that much of a sensation in each individual case. (I sometimes wonder whether Oliver’s hesitancy regarding direct political engagement, notwithstanding his love of Arendt, didn’t have a lot to do with his internal conflicts over joining the wider struggles over gay liberation specifically, and conversely, whether his subsequent engagements with the deaf community, in the years ahead, may not have served, in addition to everything else, at least in some sense as a release valve for some of those internal pressures.) Meanwhile, of course, the next great turn in the social history of homosexuality was starting to well up all around us during the very years of the conversations detailed in this book (1981–84), the catastrophic upsurge, that is, at first a trickle but by 1985 a horrendous floodtide, of the disease which would become known as AIDS, and all the crosscurrents of engagement, solidarity, and denial that it was going to bring forth. (Over the years, Oliver and I had occasion to note the fact that his own self-enforced celibacy after the mid-sixties, for all its torments, had obviously had the ancillary effect of sparing him exposure to the rampaging disease.) Who knows how vividly Oliver, as an increasingly beloved public intellectual, might have been able to engage with the debates around that issue, had he allowed himself to come out earlier.

The main point here, though, was that at no time was I ever going to be the one to out him against his will, I’d only have done so with his active concurrence, which, for whatever reasons, he felt he could not provide, so that in the end, back then in the mid-eighties, that was indeed that.

On the other hand, some thirty years later, in 2015, not long after he finally outed himself in his late-life autobiography On the Move, itself completed several years after he had finally forsworn his by-then thirty-five-year siege of celibacy by falling in love with a wonderfully sensitive and engaging younger writer named Bill Hayes—and just a few months before he himself died, Oliver ordered me to return to our project and to tell the whole story.  Which I have now done.

An extended excerpt from
And How Are You Dr. Sacks?, by Lawrence Weschler (FSG, August 13, 2019).

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