Aug 30, 2015

Remembering Oliver Sacks

In memory of one of our dear friends and one of the truest inspirations for Radiolab, a re-release of the last conversation we had with Dr. Oliver Sacks. 

When Radiolab was just starting out, Robert asked Dr. Oliver Sacks if he could help us, maybe send us a few story ideas. Over the years he has shared with us stories of chemistry, music, neurology, hallucinations and more, so much more. Because Oliver notices the world and the people around him with scientific rigor, with insight, and most importantly, with deep empathy. ‪When he announced a few months ago that he had terminal cancer and wasn't going to do any more interviews, we asked him if he'd talk with us one last time. He said yes‬. So Robert went, as he has done for 30 some years now, to his apartment with a microphone, this time to ask him about the forces that have driven him in his work, in his unique relationships with his patients, and in his own life.

This performance was scored live by the incomparable Sarah Lipstate/Noveller. Her new album Fantastic Planet is out now. 

The lullabies you hear in "Dr. Sacks Looks Back" are sung by Carrie Erving, whose current project is Ponyhof

Though it probably goes without saying, we highly recommend Dr. Sacks' new autobiorgraphy, On The Move. 

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Robert: We want to finish the night with a salute to a guy who's been on our program and part of our family pretty much from the beginning, I have known him for more than 35 years. Early on when Radiolab started, I asked him if he'd help us out and send us a few story ideas, he didn't send us a few. He sent us bushels, tales of chemistry and medicine, hallucinations, music, people, so many extraordinary people that he knew or found or helped because the guy just doesn't run out. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist [inaudible 00:00:33]


He is a guy who notices everything. He's deeply interested in everything that happens around him and to him. Tonight we're bringing him back on tape for what alas may be his final offering for us. As many of you know, Dr. Sacks recently was diagnosed with liver cancer and he wrote about this in the New York Times. He said he plans to spend the time that he has left writing being with friends, not doing interviews, but he did agree to share his thoughts exclusively with us tonight for you gathered here because he's one of our family.

As I've done for decades now, I went over to his house in Manhattan with my mic and I said to him, "We just need to know what just happened. A month and a half ago you were fine and then what?"

Oliver: At the beginning of the year I was fine. On the 3rd of January, I felt a little queer and I passed some dark urine. I thought I had a little gallbladder attack and didn't pay that much attention, but thought I better get things checked. The x-ray, which was expected only to show a couple of gallstones showed hundreds of cysts in my liver. Although my doctor said he didn't know what these were and I would need further tests, I knew what they were. I said, "It's happened."

Robert: He was right. The doctors eventually confirmed that a cancer that had been found in his eye, nine years ago had spread to his liver. Were you frightened or relieved or consoled? or what?

Oliver: No, I think my first feeling was one of overwhelmed sadness. There are all sorts of things I won't see and I won't do. One or two people have written to me, consoling me, and said, "Well, we all die," but fuck it, it's not like, "We all die." It's like, "You have four months."

Robert: What is your prognosis at this moment? Because I know you had an [crosstalk]

Oliver: It gets revised. It depends, of course, on how the cancer responds to treatments or how quickly it spreads. So far, the metastases from my eye are only in my liver. I'm told they love liver. Actually, I love liver as well. One of the magical things I did was to go and have liver and onions soon after the diagnosis, and thinking, "That liver looks better than mine [inaudible 00:03:22].

Robert: See, this is what he's like. Instead of being frightened by the thing that's trying to kill him, he's thinking about loving liver and liver lovers and looking for connections and wondering. He doesn't stop. He just notices it. Case in point a few months ago, his doctor said to him, "We're going to run a line up your liver and in effect, we're going to try to shave off or starve some of the cancer cells first on one side, then on the other to see if we can give you a little more time," but they warned him.

Oliver: As the metastases die they put out various unpleasant chemicals-

Robert: That may exhaust you, tax your system badly.

Oliver: At one point-

Robert: Shortly after the procedures.

Oliver: -I started talking a little strangely and as I was talking, I was also writing. You will be the first person to see this.

Robert: He showed me a notebook and we're showing it to you in just a moment. You can see there is writing there on the left. He's writing a book, actually a children's book about the elementary table, but as he was writing if you look to the next page, if you can see that it gets a little bit wobbly the letters.

Oliver: Then there was some crossing out there, and then rather dramatically the writing changes.

Robert: Actually there's a large slash across it and then it seems a little incoherent at the bottom, and then it turns to pure scribble.

Oliver: That is delirium. It crept up on me. All this happened in the course of 10 minutes.

Robert: See what he's doing here, he's figuring, "Okay, I'm writing at a constant speed. I know pretty much how fast I write and so I can time this out. I can figure out exactly how long it took me to slip into delirium, and then out of this delirium." He's doing this very, very sick man, "It's science all the time."

Oliver: If I had to write it out in a more medical way, I think this would form a lovely illustration, you put on a timeline of delirium, just coming like that.

Robert: Unusual for any doctor and a man of science, you don't seem to worry at all when things become incoherent or strange. You're now showing it to me as it's like, "Ooh, how interesting? I was crazy here for a little bit."

The truth is, Oliver is fascinated by what goes on in the human mind, no matter how strange he gets up there. One time when he was a young resident in California driving his bike-- By the way, I should show you what he looked like back then when he was driving his bike. This I think it's him in New York, a [unintelligible 00:05:56]


In the 60s, he was also a champion weightlifter, they call them Dr. Squat. In this picture that I'm showing you here, that's him raising 600 pounds in order to win a trophy. He was a champ. You can see more pictures like these because we have signed copies of Oliver's new memoir out for sale in the lobby. It's a pretty good book too, by the way. [clears throat] In any case, at this time, [clears throat] in the 1960s, in addition to being all muscled out, Oliver was a serious recreational drug taker.

Because he's Oliver, he was extremely curious about his highs, no matter how weird they were. One time, for example, he took 20 pills that he shouldn't have-

Oliver: Then, to my surprise, there was a spider on the wall, which said, "Hello." It had a voice like Bertrand Russell.

Robert: A famous mathematician.

Oliver: It asked me a rather technical question as to whether Russell had exploded Frege's paradox, and we had this conversation-

Robert: You answered the spider?

Oliver: Sure I answered the spider.

Robert: You discussed Frege's paradox with the spider?

Oliver: I did indeed because you trust your perceptions. Many years later, when I mentioned this to an entomologist friend at Cornell, and the philosophical spider, he said, "Yes." He said, "I know the species."


Robert: Thinking Oliver's way, taking it all in talking spiders, whatever, the generosity of his curiosity becomes profoundly moving and transformative when he's treating his patients. I want to tell one story here really quickly to demonstrate what I mean. Oliver once had a patient whom he called Mrs. OC. She was an old woman. She was 88 years old living in a nursing home. One night she was awakened, jarred awake by a loud sound.


It was a song.She thought, "Well, somebody has left the radio on," but when she looked, the radio in the room was off, her roommate sound asleep, which was odd because the song was really loud. After that, it was another song, and then another song.

This is what she thought, "Maybe my roommate can't hear these songs because the songs are coming through the fillings in my teeth. I've heard that's possible," but no, Her doctors told her, "This is something in your head. You need to see a neurologist," which led her to Dr. Sacks. When he met Mrs. OC she could barely hear him, the song sung by the female voice were coming and coming. She was frightened and justifiably worried that she was going crazy, but Oliver said, "No, no, no, I'm going to do some tests." When he was done, he said he'd found a slight stroke or condition that had triggered musical epilepsy, the sudden production of music in her brain.

Now, a normal doctor might say, "Okay, we've got the diagnosis," and he thought that the songs would probably fade and it'll pass so they would be done, but Oliver did not stop. He doesn't stop.


He kept talking to her. She told him she was born in Ireland in the 1890s. Her father died before she was born, her mother when she was only five.

Oliver: Orphaned, alone, she was sent to America to live with her rather bidding maiden aunt. She had no conscious memory of the first five years of her life, no memory of her mother, of Ireland. She had always felt this as a keen and painful sadness, this lack of forgetting of the earliest, most precious years of her life.

Robert: We asked her about the songs. "What are they like?" Mrs. OC said, "Well, I think they're lullabies." "Can you sing them for me?" She did. Then, after checking, and I'm not sure who, Oliver figured out that these songs happened to be popular Irish ballads from the 1890s when Mrs. OC was a little baby, and that gave him an idea. Now what he does next isn't science. It isn't in any traditional way medicine. He just told her a story and it goes like this. You know how nobody remembers anything that happens to you when you're one or two or three? There was a theory once not honored much today, but it said that those earliest memories get locked away, deep in our brains in a special safe that we can never open.

"Let's suppose, Mrs. OC that your stroke by some crazy chance opened the lock that none of us can break and release those first memories in you just for a little while. That the voice you're listening to.


Maybe that isn't a radio voice. Let's think that it's your mother's voice. That's your missing mother. At the ripe old age of 88, you finally get to be back in your mother's arms. You get to be a baby again." Mr's OC thought and said, "Okay, it fits."

Oliver: I'm an old woman with a stroke in an old people's home, but I feel I'm a child Ireland again, I feel my mother's arms. I see her, I hear her voice singing.


Robert: Shortly thereafter, the songs began to fade the pauses widened. Mrs. OC who had been so frightened by this music in her head was now sorry to see the songs go, but it was Oliver who noticed how those songs had touched her, who noticed that the songs might become a comfort to her because that's what he does. He listens closely. He can hear another person's heart.

This is really the profound puzzle for me of Oliver because reading the new autobiography, you see that while he was so full of heart as a doctor in his own life and in the relationships that really mattered, it turns out he didn't get a whole lot of affection. He was for a long time, a lonely guy. I'd say he was very lonely. He's talking about that now for the first time. Let me talk about love for a minute. In this book, you tell the story of your very first love, a fellow by name of Richard Selig. Can you just tell me what happened with him?

Oliver: Yes. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and a poet, handsome and beautiful beyond belief. I fell for him although I didn't say anything because I was very haunted by my mother's accusations.

Robert: What did your mother-

Oliver: To go a couple of years back then, my father had opened a conversation that I was about to go to Oxford, a father-son conversation. He said, "You don't seem to have many girlfriends." I said, "No," wishing the conversation would stop. He said, "Something wrong with girls?" I said, "No, they're fine." "Perhaps you prefer boys." I said, "Well, yes I do." I said, "I've never done anything, but I do."

Robert: You knew that then?

Oliver: I knew that then. I had known it for six years, probably since I was 12. I said, "Don't tell ma. She won't be able to take it." My father did tell my mother the night and the next morning she came down with, I somehow want to say, a face of funder and raged at me, and among other things said, "You're an abomination. I wish you had never been born." Then she suddenly shut up and said nothing for three days. That was never mentioned again in her lifetime. Then two years later, I found myself for the first time in my life falling in love.

Robert: This was the young guy, Richard. Oliver at the time was in college.

Oliver: It was a very positive feeling where I didn't know whether it was one which I did express, but I did say so with my heart and my mouth to Richard.

Robert: Do you remember what you said?

Oliver: I said, "I'm in love with you." Richard gripped me by the shoulders and he said, "I know." He said, "I'm not that way, but I love you in my own way." I was glad I had said that. I'm glad that it had been received in such a warm, friendly way. I thought we might be friends for the rest of our lives, but then one day he came into me, he said, he'd been bothered by finding a lump in his groin and he was worried, could I have a look at it? I looked at it and I felt it, it was hard, and tethered. It turned out to be a particularly malignant form of lymphoid tumor, what was called a lymphoma sarcoma. He never spoke to me again after that. I don't know whether, since I'd been the first to recognize the ominous import, I don't know whether he saw me as a harbinger of death or a messenger of death, whatever.

Robert: You were left with that silence?

Oliver: Yes.

Robert: A few years later, Oliver met a man named Mel. He was young, he was a sailor. Like Oliver, he was into weightlifting. They became close friends, and they began living together.

Oliver: I adored him, was in love with him, and loved physical contact with him.

Robert: They'd work out and they'd wrestle and ride motorcycles tightly. They never talked about what might or might not be happening between them. One day they were together and Oliver was giving Mel a back massage, which Mel often asked him to do.

Oliver: I loved doing that.

Robert: Oliver says, sometimes he'd get a little excited.

Oliver: So long as I gave no explicit indication, it was okay. One day things went a bit too far and I went over the brink and settled just [unintelligible 00:16:14] the brink. Mel immediately got up and had a shower and said, "I can't stay with you anymore." I found that very cruel and upsetting and heartbreaking, and it made me feel, "I don't want to have anything to do with people. I mustn't fall in love. I cannot share lives with anyone again."

Robert: He didn't share his life with anyone for a long, long time. In fact, he told me a story about something that happened to him maybe eight years ago.

Oliver: I was just joining the faculty at Columbia and I was having an interview. At one point, the interviewer said to me, she said, "I have something rather private to ask you. Would do like Miss Edgar, your assistant to leave?" I said, "No, she's privy to all my affairs." I then said, thinking she was going to ask me about sex, I said, "I haven't had any sex for 35 years." In fact, she was going to ask me my social security number.


She burst into laughter and said, "Oh, you poor thing." She said, "We must do something about it."

Robert: The truth is Oliver didn't do anything about it because he didn't think he could. He'd chosen Richard, lost Richard, chosen Mel, lost Mel, it wasn't the point he was thinking. Then finally, and who knows when or why these things happen to people, but a man came along who for the first time chose Oliver.

Oliver: I had met Billy as I meet a number of people because I'd been sent a manuscript or a proof for a book, and an intimacy grew between us. I don't think I quite realized how deep it was, but then there was a particular episode in Christmas of '09 when he came up and in a serious way he has, a serious careful way, he said, "I have conceived a deep love for you."

Robert: I have conceived a deep love for you?

Oliver: Yes.

Robert: That's got a few extra words. "I have conceived-

Oliver: Yes. [inaudible 00:18:33]


Robert: Was he scared to say, "I love you."?

Oliver: No, he likes the English language. I think it couldn't have been put more cautiously and yet more strongly. I think it was a beautiful way of putting it, and then I realized at that moment with his saying that I had conceived a deep love for him. Among other things, I thought, "Good God, it's happened again, I'm in my 77th year-

Robert: That's amazing. 77.

Oliver: -what next?" Things basically have gone happily ever since, and surprisingly [unintelligible 00:19:32] because then again, I'm not dealing with a what, I'm dealing with a who. I'm dealing with an individual. I'm not dealing with a condition defined by medicine or law.

Robert: Oliver still doesn't know how much time he has left, but for the moment as you can hear, his mind is totally intact. He's still writing. He has two books in addition to the one you'll find in the lobby that he's writing and the children's book, a bunch of New Yorker stories in the last few months, and a New York review of books story. He's got energy to spare. I want to do one last thing before we close. This comes from yet another conversation I had with him. It's a story I know Oliver would hate because he's not a "Religious" guy. He is somebody who definitely embraces mystery. For a long time, he's been mystified by a color called indigo.

Oliver: Indigo, which Newton had inserted between blue and violet. No two people seem to agree as to what Indigo was like. I built up a chemical launch pad.

Robert: Meaning he took a lot of drugs.


Oliver: A base of amphetamine for general arousal, then some acid and a little cannabis. When I was sufficiently stoned, I said, "I want to see Indigo now." As if in reply and as if drawn by a giant paintbrush there appeared a huge trembling pear-shaped blob of what I instantly realized was pure indigo on the white floor in front of me. It had a wonderful luminosity. In particular, although I am not a religious person, I thought, "This is the color of heaven." I leaned towards it in ecstasy and then suddenly it disappeared.

Robert: He says he had one more moment like that this time no drugs. He was in a museum staring at an Egyptian artifact. He sees this brilliant color back again, just for a beat.

Oliver: I was given five tantalizing seconds of radiant, ineffable, beauty.

Robert: Then again, it vanished.

Oliver: That was in 1965 and I've never seen Indigo since.

Robert: Who knows? Someday, I like to think Dr. Sacks may get to see that color again.




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