Oliver Sacks has died at eighty-two of the cancer he knew would end his life. Many have offered apt and moving remembrances—my own feels little and late. But like the others who knew him better and have more to say, I mourn deeply the passing of someone who lived a truly remarkable life and left a lasting body of work.
He is one of a handful of writers who were, to me, a life-changing discovery. I first encountered his writing at a roadside gift shop on some long family car trip of my childhood. I remember there was a model train, that it was Christmas time. I also remember picking up what I think must have been The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I had pretensions to understand more than I did, but his clear, vivid writing on obscure and astonishing neurological cases had me hooked.
I didn’t buy the book then, but it stuck in my mind. A few years later I tapped out various search combinations into our dial-up Internet–The Man Who Married a Couch, things like that. Through the miracle of search algorithms, I discovered the name of the man who wrote something I couldn’t shake, and ordered an intimidating stack of his books, which have kept me good company over the years.
If you’re new to Oliver Sacks, there are a few places you might begin your acquaintance with him. The Atlantic has put together a list of his shorter pieces. He published in the New Yorker for many years. For full-length works, I recommend beginning with something episodic, like An Anthropologist on Mars.
In the titular essay of that collection, Sacks speaks to Dr. Temple Grandin, the now well-known autism activist, as well as revolutionary animal scientist who has worked to make the beef industry more humane. Sacks’s piece brought her into the public eye, discussing her life with Asperger’s which she described as being like “an anthropologist on mars” in dealing with “more complex emotions and the games people play.” Sacks, too, granted us the scientific nuance to see with fresh eyes the many absurdities and joys of human life.
The clarity with which Oliver Sacks wrote about complex and rare conditions is matched only by the great compassion that radiates from his work. In less capable hands, writing about the severely Parkinsonian or the Tourretic or child savants could be exploitative. Sacks’s work is anything but. Instead, he sought out and dignified those often marginalized because of the ways they vary from standard human behavior and experience. He offered them care and attention as a physician, but also as someone invested in discovering potential where others see none.
Neurobiological difference has always been, well, different, but we are at a cultural moment where neurological variance is particularly pathologized–reduced to a condition, a disease, a course of treatment. Sacks, an atheist and deeply committed to scientific investigation and discovery, managed not to lose sight of his subjects as whole people, worthy of respect and interest. He demonstrated deep humanism–deep humanity–in his attentive record of the existential, as well as biological, realities of his patients.
One instance, highlighted in his moving last interview with the podcast Radiolab, where Sacks was a frequent guest, comes to mind. An elderly patient of his suffered from musical hallucinations: she suddenly and continuously heard a woman’s voice singing very loudly. The patient was worried for her sanity and was bothered by the constant barrage of music. Sacks discovered that the voice was, in fact, an after-effect of a small stroke. But he also took the time to find out that the songs were Irish ballads, popular during the time of her very young childhood in Ireland–a childhood spent with parents she had lost early and could not remember.
He suggested to her that the music might offer a connection to her mother, echoes of lullabies she couldn’t consciously recall. This reframing of a troubling hallucination allowed her to feel, at the end of her life, a strong connection to early love, and she found herself missing them as they faded. This is only a small instance of what Sacks could do, for his patients and readers alike: through conscientious and sustained attention, he demonstrated a new way of seeing value in what we otherwise might fear.
Friends of mine who are not spiritual come close to venerating Oliver Sacks–as do I. He reminds me of what another polymath, Simone Weil, wrote in her notebooks, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” Although the theological nuances of this need teasing out (I have occasionally prayed to a cheese platter, given Weil’s definition), the impulse to equate close loving attention to something like worship resonates with me.
He speaks in his memoir with immense fondness and respect for the community of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order with whom he worked, who provide dignity, community, and unstinting love to those they take into their care. His resonance with this religious order makes sense: their work is closely aligned with Sacks’s own legacy, of lifting to our attention the rich variety of human experience and the startling resilience with which his patients so often overcame and adapted to severe challenges.
It is clear to me that Oliver Sacks played the role for many of a “secular saint.” One thing saints have done throughout history is model a kind of insight that most of us don’t achieve. In Jewish tradition, saintliness has as one of its characteristics “wide learning” (the Oxford-educated Dr. Sacks was no intellectual slouch), but also wisdom in how to apply that learning. The saintly often approach wisdom through contemplation and through a rare dedication to calling. Sacks was someone who devoted himself, with staggering effort, often amid very real opposition and isolation, to seeing the world in a fresh way, and to communicating that vision to others.
Although Sacks never tried to erase himself from his writings, and, in fact, wrote about himself as patient in A Leg to Stand On, and a test subject in Hallucinations, the last book published during his lifetime is his remarkable memoir, On the Move. In it, he offers the most complete picture of a compelling and varied life. The powerful beam of his engaging literary prose swings back in this last book to search the life of the writer, and his incisive gaze doesn’t diminish by turning inward. He speaks frankly, for the first time, of how his mother’s rejection of his homosexuality helped alienate him from his family’s Orthodox-leaning Judaism, and how he found love and companionship late in a life often devoted solely to his work.
Of course, along with teaching us how to live, saints also show us how to die. We commemorate martyrs in our religious traditions, because they live out our closely held values in their last moments on earth. Sacks gave his readers unusual access to his diminishment over the course of months, primarily through articles in The New York Times. His latest and last published article, “Sabbath“, turns on memories from his childhood observance of Shabbos. Sacks describes how, later in his 82 years, he found welcome and love from the Jewish faith community that he had, at other times, felt distanced from.
His attention in dying, as it was in living, was “not on the spiritual or supernatural, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life” and on “achieving a sense of peace within myself,” echoing a detachment many holy people have sought. Ultimately, however, Oliver Sacks did not shy away from the religious language and imagery of his childhood. Toward the end, he found his thoughts “drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”