He saw a dead fetus when he was 10 years old. He performed his first dissection of a corpse when he was 14 years old. During his 22 hour hospital shifts, he walked around with 40 pound weights around his ankles. This was the bizarre and unconventional life of the late neurologist Oliver Sacks.
The Music Center Recital Hall was packed with attendees. UC Santa Cruz and Cowell College alumnus, Lawrence Weschler, returned to campus on Oct. 21 to discuss his biographical memoir of Dr. Oliver Sacks, “And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?”
The memoir is the result of a decades long relationship that started in the late ‘70s, after Weschler became fascinated with the doctor’s medical achievements and his compassion toward abandoned patients.
Sacks was unconventional, which is what made him such an intriguing figure.
“For Sacks, another way of saying ‘How are you?’ is asking ‘What’s your story?’” Weschler said. “He took patients that were seen as objects and helped them become subjects of their own story.”
In 1979, Weschler sent Sacks, the author of “Awakenings,” a letter about his book. The doctor wrote a 12 page response that would kick start their relationship. Years later, both living in New York, their professional relationship blossomed into a lifelong friendship. Weschler would even ask Sacks to be the godfather of his daughter.
“Awakenings” is Sacks’ magnum opus, documenting his work with 80 patients that Sacks describes as human statues because they showed no signs of life. Doctors at the hospital had given up on these patients, until Sacks arrived.
He was able to bring the patients out of their stupor after administering L-DOPA, a “miracle drug.” Sacks considered himself a member of the community of the rejected, so he naturally gravitated toward these destitute patients.
“Some of the people that I most admire in terms of their creative work has really been formed by these excluding or traumatic experiences they’ve had,” said community member Michelle Morton. “That was an interesting part of the story I didn’t really know about.”
Sacks was born in London in 1933, and entered adolescence during a politically and socially tumultuous time. His mother, one of the first female surgeons in Britain, inspired his thirst for knowledge. She brought Sacks samples from the hospital and let him come along for a dissection when he was only 14 years old. She was his hero.
But his early childhood was tainted by the atrocities of World War II. His parents, both doctors during the war, were unable to care for Sacks and his brother. Eventually they were sent to a boarding school in the English countryside run by an abusive headmaster. The boarding school shattered Sacks’ adolescence. He would spend the next two years healing by immersing himself in books.
“He was a really powerful and strong person. It was really inspiring to hear about his personal story and how he was able to overcome so much adversity,” said second-year Nayeli Dueñas. “He was going through so much, but he was able to deal with and go through it.”
When he was 21 years old, Sacks came out to his father while on holiday. Despite Sacks begging his father not to tell his mother, she found out and became furious. They did not talk for three days, and Sacks’ sexuality was never brought up again during her lifetime.
Being gay was the “blight of his existence,” Weschler said.
His sexuality created internal feelings of homophobia and self-loathing. For decades, Sacks struggled to come to terms with his identity, eventually turning to drugs as a coping mechanism. But he refused to dwell on that part of his life.
Weschler interviewed Sacks consistently over the course of four years, but ultimately Sacks told him to scrap it all because the stories revealed his personal struggles with sexuality. Weschler collected 14 notebooks worth of stories and anecdotes of Sacks’ life. He kept these notes for over three decades until the final years of the doctor’s life, when he finally got permission to write the memoir.
“Early on, Oliver had agreed to let me write his biography,” Weschler said to the audience. “Much of our time consisted of his telling me ever more scandalous tales in the hopes that I, too, might finally concur in his estimation that his homosexuality was a terrible blight, a disfiguring canker on his character, which I just as regularly refused to do.”
During the talk, Weschler recounted stories of Sacks’ drug binges while he was living in Los Angeles. Sacks made milkshakes laden with 10 times the amount of cocaine that would kill a regular person. Sacks was not normal, Weschler said. He was a regular at Muscle Beach and held a California record for squatting 600 pounds.
After finishing one of his milkshakes, he would drive his motorcycle to Crater Lake and back, nonstop. His drug abuse helped Sacks sympathize with people who were forced into the fringes of society, people whose stories were forgotten.
Sacks finally came to terms with his sexuality after finding a supportive community when he moved to the Castro district in San Francisco. In 1985, Sacks taught a seminar at Cowell College on his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Sacks died in August 2015 after cancer in his eye metastasized and spread throughout his body.
Sacks’ story resonated with many audience members. Attendee Maureen Davidson enjoyed the conversations around Sacks’ life because they highlighted his ability to overcome struggle after struggle.
“It is an extraordinary story,” Davidson said. “The fact that he had such a difficult early part of his life because he was conflicted and neurotic is actually quite reassuring to all of us as we struggle with our own neurosis. To think of someone who’s surfed that, who has accepted it, who has risen above it and has used it is inspiring.”