– My name is Kai Bird I’m the Executive Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography This is our 12th, going on 13th year And, we’ve given out now 44 fellowships, published over 21, maybe 22 books now It’s a very important program Many of the books are essential reading to understand our world And they sometimes get prizes Thus, Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for biography We’ve also just started, and I want to put in a plug for this program, a new master’s program in biography that has just started up this semester And we’ve recruited 17 students who are hard at work learning the craft of biography and memoir And, a final announcement, we have our new fellowship recruitment period starting up right now, and the deadline is January 6th So if you know anyone who is working on a biography, or wants to work on a biography, we can subsidize them I’m delighted to welcome you all this evening to a most unusual program Instead of having one biographer on stage, tonight we have two One who has just published his biography of Dr. Oliver Sacks, and the other who has just begun her own long biographical journey (clears throat) This is Lawrence Weschler’s 18th book, I believe He is a longtime veteran of The New Yorker, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications And for many years he directed The New York Institute for Humanities at NYU Ren, as he is known to his friends, is a veritable polymath, writing on everything from Poland during the Cold War to art and physics But, for our purposes tonight, you just need to know that he was a close friend of Oliver Sacks over a period of more than 30 years Laura Snyder is our own very first recipient of the Leon Levy/Alfred P. Sloan fellowship for science biography And she has just started researching a biography of Oliver Sacks (coughing) Snyder is the author of three previous books, including Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, (laughs) and the Reinvention of Seeing, a winner of the 2016 Sally Hacker prize, the Society for the History of Technology She is also the author of The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World We aim to have a conversation about the peculiar problems associated with writing a biography of a scientist, and along the way explore the extraordinary life of Dr. Oliver Sacks We’ll converse for about 40 minutes and then open it up to questions from the audience (coughs) And afterwards Lawrence Weschler will sign books courtesy of Books on Call from New York City Thank you (audience applauds) Okay, Ren – Mm-hmm (coughs) – Your book is both a biography, but you call it a biographical memoir – Yeah – And, of course, you started out, I understand, when you were 29– – Right – working on a profile– – Just a few weeks ago – (laughs) Just a few weeks ago, working on a profile of Sacks, who was then a completely unknown personality for The New Yorker – Right – So, then something happened, four years into it, or thereabouts Why don’t you tell that story? – Well, it’s indeed the case One of the things that’s quite fascinating and surprising to most of you who, many of you will say that you first became aware of Oliver Sacks reading Awakenings No, you didn’t Nobody read Awakenings Awakenings, which is, in many ways, his masterpiece and certainly one of the greatest books of science writing of the last half of the 20th century, was published in 1973

I won’t go into the whole history of– – It got no attention at all – Well, what happened was it was celebrated by the likes of Auden and Frank Kermode and people like that It was almost completely dismissed by doctors, by the medical community It completely failed to follow the rules It had not been double-blind, you know, control-grouped, peer-reviewed, and it was doing case studies, which, in the mid-century of neurology, was really frowned upon I mean, that was just anecdotal What value could that be? One of my favorite reviews the book got in England was a neurologist who said, “Sure, if you’re gonna spend hours and hours with people, “you’re gonna get some interesting stories, “but who has time for that?” (audience titters) And, indeed, that was kind of the state of neurology in those days In any case, when I subsequently, nine years later, in 1982, I interviewed Colin Haycraft, who was his publisher in England, and he said that the first edition, he was the hardback publisher, of 1500 copies, had not yet sold out – Whoa! – There had been paperbacks, but none of them had been quite really successful either And So, anyway, he was largely unknown, and I had just arrived at The New Yorker Indeed, at age 29 I had spent the previous three or four years doing a similar project with Robert Irwin, the artist, the California artist, and I had published a book Or, actually, I had sold it to The New Yorker over the transom, I got very lucky And I arrived and I was kind of looking for somebody else who I could have a similar kind of relationship with I had been corresponding with Oliver The reason I had read it was because I went to Santa Cruz in the kind of wacky, experimental days of Santa Cruz, and my philosophy professor, Maurice Natanson, who looked like God and had the, the authority of God, as I was graduating, this is 1974, he thrust it in my chest, almost broke my ribs, and said, “Read this.” I didn’t read it right away, but when I did I began corresponding with Oliver This would have been in the late ’70s My first letter basically said, “Although you call the place Mount Carmel,” the hospital, “Your book seems much more Kabbalistic to me, “Jewish mystical, “than Christian mystical.” – So what year was this? – This would have been around ’79, ’78, something like that And that turned out to be the right question Six months later I got a letter which began that he had loved my letter, lost it for six weeks, found it, written the long reply I am about to read, lost that for four months (audience laughs) But here it is And basically was indeed, not only is, the place is called Beth Abraham, my first cousin is Ava Ebon, we are, parenthetically, both first cousins of Al Capp, from Li’l Abner (audience laughs) I was telling some other people recently, footnote here, that Jules Feiffer and Roy Cohn and Dick Morris are all first cousins – Whoa, really? (laughing) Oh, dear – It’s true what they say about those people Anyway, but, in any case, we began corresponding and when I arrived, I went to see him I was thinking maybe I could just read a few, just to give a sense of the (mumbles) of the book? – Sure – Yeah, so I went to see him and this is what it was like to first encounter him Let’s see here He was living on City Island at this point He’d just moved to City Island So this is now 1980, ’81 And As you know, City Island is kind of this little appendix that comes out of Helen Bay Park, part of The Bronx, it’s a fishing island And it was this little claptrap house The house itself with its rickety front porch and little back garden and its eccentric occupant, reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen of Joseph Cornell’s out on Utopia Parkway Sacks is a large, robust fellow given to impish, childlike outbursts His chest proportioned like a squat child, his motions and postures often awkward like a child’s as well When we first meet, I tell him he does not look like I expected “My physical look changes radically over time,” he replies “Sometimes I’m bearded, sometimes I’m not “Sometimes I weigh 190 pounds, sometimes I weigh 300.” “That must be some beard,” I hazard (Kai laughs) He is currently somewhat closer to the former He has severe back problems,

the result of several accidents “Worldly infelicities,” as he calls them Then we go to dinner A brief walk to the nearby fish restaurant He carries along a narrow, square, curved lumbar support pillow Quote, “Something of a cross between a prosthesis “and a transitional object,” he says (audience laughs) At dinner he suffers recurrent heat flashes, his face reddening and his brow glistening with sweat, and when we return to his home, he heaves himself before the air conditioner in a study, there is one in every room, and basks in its shivery flow, relieved at last He kneels before the thrumming machine, as in an ecstatic prayer, a contented seal He tells me he had to get a house for his home This is his first, in part because of his secret production This refers to what you’re going to be going through He points to a long shelf parallel to his bed atop which at least 30 notebooks are neatly arrayed “At most times I am either talking, “listening, or writing,” he says “That’s from the last six months.” – Right, now there are 750 notebooks – Whoa! – Yeah – For now (laughing) – And I’m sure he lost several along the way In other rooms, hundreds of casebooks, notebooks devoted to individual patients whose names appear on the spines, are piled one atop the next In one room, by the study, there is a veritable tilework of audio tape cassettes in their plastic boxes, a Wailing Wall of contained pain There are also dozens of videotapes He’s thinking of writing a book to be entitled Five Seconds, a detailed study of the myriad speeded-up lives that a single ticking Touretter can live through in any random five seconds He needs to use high-speed video equipment in order to even begin to capture it all He insists every face change or yelp a significant, and that they all relate, one to the next His bookshelves teem with philosophy: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, Heidegger, Husserl He tells me that as a youth he read philosophy uncomprehendingly, but that afterwards he tended to drift away, focusing instead on scientific studies His patients, he says, coming to him with their philosophical emergencies forced him back to philosophy He respects facts and he has a scientist’s passion for precision, but facts, he insists, must be embedded and entired by stories, and stories, people’s stories, are what really have him hooked And I could go on from there, and I could read more, but that gives a sense– – So, that’s the beginning of your relationship And he then, you become close to him and you begin working for four years, and then suddenly, I’m going to move this along– – Yeah, well, this, just to move on quickly, this was a New Yorker project – (laughs) Right – And Mr. Shawn had told me that I could do a three-part, probably 100,000-word piece on this guy – Fabulous – At that time, largely– – Those were the days (laughs) – largely unknown person And we went everywhere We went to London, we went to California He had stories in both places He gradually revealed this absolutely astonishing life, which we now know, I mean, his incredible drug use, his body building, he was the California state heavy weightlifting champion, he was a motorcyclist of extreme extremes (Kai laughs) And very gradually began to relate to me what was the blight of his existence, the great, well, I’ll say the cross he had to bear, which was that he was gay He had actually acted on it for about five years out in California, but had then quit everything, basically cold turkey At that point he had been celibate for 15 years, he would be for 35 years And a big part of the book is going on rounds with him I mean, he was church mouse poor in those days He was mainly working in state institutions and for The Little Sisters of the Poor, and – But then there came a point where he actually told you – Right – you had to stop – Exactly, so – That must have been devastating – Well, basically I started writing, or what I did first is I went and I indexed my notes I myself had compiled dozens of notebooks and so forth And then I went and I indexed my notes This is the index to my notes (Kai laughs) The index was 250 pages long – Handwritten (laughs) – Yeah And then I started writing,

and I’d say I’d done about 50,000 words And he, at a certain point, just asked, “Is there any way “you can tell the story “without mentioning the homosexual stuff?” And he was absolutely insistent that the homosexuality had nothing to do with his science He would say things like “I have blocked off “that part of my life.” And basically we couldn’t, I mean, I said that, no, that his homosexuality had nothing to do with his science, his attitude towards his homosexuality had everything to do with his science, that it made him part of the community of the refused, as one of his friends described it – Ah, so that’s an important point To establish that his personality is actually related to his science – Oh, of course it is, absolutely – Laura, do you agree? (laughing) – Well, I am looking through all these childhood notebooks now And there is a lot in his high school notebooks around his struggles with his sexuality, which is fascinating to have this viewpoint into There are pages where he’ll say something, and then violently cross out what he said, but then save the page somehow, and it’s remained (mic thuds) in the archive, for decades So I would say this was a struggle I think I will be looking at the extent to which it had something to do with his science later on As a biographer, I feel the fact that Sacks came out as a gay man in his autobiography, published at the end of his life, sort of frees me from ethical concerns about is it my place to bring this out – Right, so neither of you wanted to out him (laughs) – I wasn’t going to out him What I did try to say to him was that “Oliver, “nobody cares.” And he said, “You’re as bad as my analyst.” (laughing) I should mention here that he was in analysis two to three times a week for 50 years with the same man This is either proof of the failure of analysis, or of the triumph of analysis, I’m not sure That’ll be your call, I think – Right (laughs) – But his analyst used to say he was the least affected by gay liberation of anybody he’d ever met He had, by the way, one thing we haven’t mentioned is that his mother had absolutely cut into him horribly when she found out, when he was about 18, and that was the voice that was the commanding voice in his head, it seems to me, for many years – But it’s extraordinary He was living in Greenwich Village, just a few blocks from– – Well, he was living just a few blocks from Stonewall when Stonewall happened – And he was oblivious – Well, he wasn’t oblivious, it happened to be, for those of you who did eventually read Awakenings– (cell phone ringing) – Sorry (laughs) – That’s very funny You know it’s going through your microphone (laughs) – Just answer it, that’s – I forgot, I apologize – Anyway – There was this liberation period– – Well, that was before – Right, but it also was a very hard time to come out as gay, wasn’t it? – Well, that was – You know, if you were a doctor, and poor, and– – So that’s definitely the case And in ’69 he was living right near Stonewall, except that he wasn’t there because that was the summer of Awakenings That was the time of tribulation He was at Beth Abraham 22 hours a day and slept there and so forth, and he just missed it And he used to say to me, and he said, quite poignantly, at the end, that “I sit in my cell,” now this is many years later, this is 1984 we’re having this conversation “I sit in my cell, “the door blasted open, “but I don’t leave “I listen to the dancing and the singing “outside the prison walls, but I don’t leave.” – Wow – And if there was no way that I could tell the story, and there really wasn’t You couldn’t tell his story, about it – So, this reminds me On this stage, about a year ago, we had Edmund Morris and Sylvia Morris And they did a very funny routine Both of them have been biographers and both have written about the living and the dead And they did a routine where they went back and forth about the advantages or disadvantages of both And I think they concluded that the dead is better (laughing) – Well, maybe for the biographer, – The living are so, – so troublesome – not for the subject And your story about living with Oliver,

trying to write about him, illustrates this, I guess – Well, it was just– – And yet there’s enormous advantages to having known him, and your book is so intimate as a result – It also happens that those four years, I think, were really hinge years in his life I haven’t mentioned that he, following the failure of Awakenings, in his own mind, in terms to get an audience, he had gone to Norway and had a terrible accident walking by himself on a fjord This was about a year and a half after the book was published, after his mother had died, up in the cliffs above the fjord where he is attacked by a bull, although his friends are pretty sure it was a cow (laughing) And that he fell, he had a terrible leg accident, he had terrible sequels to the leg accident He could have died, but was rescued by people walking by He eventually had this operatic experience with his leg And started to try to write about it And threw himself into a ten-year writers’ block, basically The writers’ block, by the way, as you will find out– – As I already know (laughs) – To your eternal misery consisted in graphomania It wasn’t that he couldn’t write, he wrote millions and millions and millions of words, just the wrong words – Yes, I am now going through 30,000 pages of draft manuscript of Uncle Tungsten, his first memoir, because I thought it would be really interesting to see what stories were left out of the memoir about his childhood And I’m finding some really fascinating material in there But it’s a lot of pages – Well, you know, just admit to everybody that you’re not going to look at all the, don’t do it, just do not do it – I am halfway through 50,000 pages (laughing) – No, no, no Tungsten is one thing The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, believe me, I have seen so many versions of that But the point is he was on, it was really a downward spiral He was writing more and more and various people, and I was one of them, but also his English editor, you know, we’re all trying to get him to finish the book There was this tremendous pressure for exciting stuff that was building up behind it, but he just wouldn’t give it up and he wouldn’t finish it, and every time, he’d do 100,000 words that his friends would get down to 20,000 words and you just need 500 words right here And he would come back the day having done 50,000 words (Kai gasps) You know, and you say, “No, Oliver, that doesn’t help us at all!” – An editor’s worst nightmare – And the point is, if he had not finished that book, I really think that we would never have heard about him But luckily he did He broke his other leg the next day His publisher in England sent a telegram saying, “Oliver, you would do anything for a footnote.” (laughing) But, luckily, within a year, he published The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was a bestseller And from there he becomes this other person But it happens that these four years that I was with him the most intensely, before he asked me not to do it, I think, in retrospect, were really kind of hinge years And then he very quickly becomes the person we know today – Laura, you actually did meet him once in passing, as I understand it – I met him briefly In 2012, I was working on a little piece for The Wall Street Journal about upcoming science books And I knew he had a new book coming out, so I just went on the Barnes & Noble web site to see what the date was, to see if it fell into the parameters of the article And I saw there was a little link to Five Scientific Biographies That Inspired Me by Oliver Sacks, so of course I clicked on it and I saw Philosophical Breakfast Club on that list, which I had just published the year before, – Oh, lovely – so I was really excited about that And so, like a fan, I went to his web site and I sent a Contact Me message saying I was very excited to see this, thank you so much, I’m an admirer of your work And I thought that was the end of that And then about a month later, I was on sabbatical at the time from my university, working on my next book, and I get a letter with a return address illustrated by a squid And it was Oliver Sacks And he had written me a much shorter letter than his first letter to you, but it said how much he enjoyed the book, maybe we could meet after his tour for Hallucinations was over – And he only took a month to write that letter (laughs) – It was probably very fast, but it took longer for my university to forward the letter to me at home – You understand, people, this is how it was before e-mail and so forth – Well, there was e-mail then but he didn’t use it – Right, he certainly didn’t – And he wrote in his beautiful fountain pen, this blue-black ink – Mm-hmm, right

– that he started using when he was very young, in high school And so for one reason or another we didn’t finally get together until May of 2014 He invited me to his apartment for tea I showed up It was adorable, he didn’t know who I was because of his face-blindness, he couldn’t recognize me from my author photo So I said who I was And then he stepped back, he showed me he was wearing a T-shirt from the University of Rotterdam in The Netherlands And he said, “I wore this in your honor,” because he had seen that I was working on a book on the Dutch Republic in the 17th century And then he engulfed me in this giant bear hug And then we spent two lovely hours chatting I was telling him about the new book, Eye of the Beholder, which dealt with a lot of the issues he had dealt with, learning how to see with new optical instruments Because the book was about how artists and scientists were using lenses in a new way to change the way we see the world And it was hard to use the new optical devices and there needed to be a new theory of vision, how does the eye work And of course that was very interesting to Oliver Sacks So we had a lovely meeting, we said we would meet again, we said goodbye, and then eight months later he announced that his cancer had become fatal and come back He did provide a very generous blurb for Eye of the Beholder, which was kind of him But, so I feel now, sort of unexpectedly finding myself in the position of writing his biography, that it was wonderful to have that brief meeting with him, because I have a sense of what he was like in the world What he was like to talk to, how he filled up space, the twinkle in his eye, the tone of his voice, his kindness, but yet it was only two hours, it was a very glancing relationship, not at all like your friendship with him – Well, it sounds like you fell in love (laughing) – Well He did have that twinkle in the eye I think everyone fell in love with him a little bit, male and female But I think having the distance from him as well, not being so close, gives a perspective that helps in the kind of book I’ll be writing A kind of more dispassionate account without my own emotional involvement – Yeah, you didn’t know him at all like– – No, of course not – So what’s interesting, in terms of the timeline there, is that he basically said “Can’t we just stay friends?” back in 1984 It was kind of a stunning thing to have four years of work, it’s like “Mmm?” (laughs) But we did, and he became the godfather of my daughter, Sara And remained a very important person in our lives for years and years And then, for various, long story about why, but a few months after talking to you, after he had discovered that he was dying, about three months before he died, he basically for various reasons had seen some stuff, and he said, “Okay, now write the book.” So that is, you know, 30 years later basically And my joke about it is it was like having an aircraft carrier going 100 miles an hour and being told to stop on a dime, and then 30 years later being told, “Go back in that thing and start it up again.” (laughs) – So then you had to go back to all your old notes – I literally had all the stuff up in the attic – Luckily you saved it (laughs) – And I did And the first thing I did is I indexed my notes – All over again (laughs) – It’s really weird I mean, I knew about that, but the way I work, I still, in handwriting The major difference you’ll see between the two is that that’s really good handwriting and this is a disaster, you can hardly read it And it ends up being the same size and so forth But the thing that had happened, and this kind of comes back to your first question, is that it was never going to be a biography, it was going to be a New Yorker mid-life profile, which is something different than a biography But that’s the index for a New Yorker profile, this is the index for a memoir – I see – And so that I, for example, I mean, I am still going through all the interviews I did back then, and it’s lucky because most of those people have died Eric Korn and Thom Gunn and Bob Brodman and these people who were really important to him But I have these tapes and the interviews And so I was going through them and all this stuff, but it was in a different key, I mean a different kind of register And, for example, I would see things

that I didn’t at all look at when I first saw them, but I tell at one point he says, this is maybe in 1982 or so He says “I’m always,” I mean “regularly falling in love “with straight men “the godfather of whose child I become.” – Oh! (laughs) (audience gasps) You didn’t pick up on that initially? – Well, no, I mean, I, obviously, I mean there’s all kinds of stuff that was going all the way through those four years, he was saying things “I’ve just been reading a book “which is a tissue of anecdote “I hate it,” you know, he was doing all this stuff, putting his thumbs on the scales about how I was supposed to write this book, and I was aware of those, but there were things I wasn’t And in a sense, in the way you read this now, there is, I would say another thing, that he eventually, he does fall in love finally and he does, after the first verion of this, of the eye cancer he had and the brush with death, he finally, after 35 years, lets himself fall in love with a wonderful person, Billy Hayes And has a wonderful last seven years But it’s interesting, by the way, even three years into that, I was putting together a festival for his 80th birthday Five days of all kinds of programming around Oliver Sacks And he said, “I’m not going to come to any of it.” And I had people, panels on swimming, on bodybuilding, on the deaf, on Touretters, on Parkinson’s, on ferns, on stereoscopy We had all kinds of amazing panels, and I told him, and he had been living with Billy for three years at this point, publicly, although not announcing it, but he wasn’t hiding it And I said, “And I’ve already contacted “all these fantastic poets, “we’re gonna do an evening “of the poetry of your two favorite poets, “Thom Gunn and W.H. Auden.” And he said, “Absolutely not!” I said, “What do you mean absolutely not?” “You know, you know what that’s code for!” – Ah, yes (laughs) – And I said, “English poets “who lived in the United States and have died?” He says, “No.” Three years into living with Billy, he still could not stand that thing But what was interesting, he did come to all of the events basically, almost all of them And then the next day pretty much started working on his own autobiography But what I was going to say is that his autobiography is really thanks to Billy, and thanks to It’s written from a position of serenity Whereas, the way he had told me the same stories, 30 years later, was massively, operatically neurotic I mean, it was just– – So maybe he had to write it to process it – It might have been partly that But I also think that he had finally come to terms with things – So, speaking of Auden, I was struck by something you quoted, where you have Auden urging Oliver to write up his patient stories, and urging him to, quote “Go beyond the clinical, “be metaphorical, be mythical, “be whatever you need.” I mean, it’s a great description of actually what Oliver then did – And it was what Luria, his great hero, was already doing, and part of why he was drawn to Auden – But this raises a question, which Laura is going to have to deal with in her biography down the road, but how does Sacks’s stories differ from the standards of a biographer – One other thing I want to say about Auden before I answer that, he – About Auden? – About Auden The first galleys, the printed galleys, of Auden, the first copy he got, he immediately sent to Auden, who was the first reader of Awakenings And Auden, this was late Auden Thank You, Fog Auden, this is the man who was the master of adjectives And his letter back said “I want to thank you “for sending me this delightful book.” Which is the most uncanny description of Awakenings, which is harrowing, which is devastating, which is any number of things, but is also delightful! – And one thing I would like to add about that, the question is one thing I didn’t realize, just reading, say, Uncle Tungsten, his memoir of his childhood, where he talks about his love of chemistry and how that kind of saved him, in a way, in a very difficult period of his early life, was how self-conscious Sacks always was as a literary figure, or a literary figure to be Because looking through his notebooks from high school, where he really should have been taking better notes on organic chemistry,

because he was not getting good grades in organic chemistry, but he would just stop in the middle of taking notes and write stories constantly These science fiction stories a la Jules Verne, including one that was fabulous It was about a murderous, giant blue crab with mesmerizing eyes and mesmerized this explorer to death But then he would write these stories and, very self-consciously, as I said, write down who his influences were in writing that story, what story he had read that reminded him, you know, that gave him the idea of the story, what his assessment of the story was, how he thought it could have been better, how long it took him to write So I feel like at a very early age, he was– – He was already a storyteller – A storyteller, and a sort of a scientific storyteller – Well, this is a man whose mother, the first female surgeon in England, an Orthodox Jew, used to always read him, as a child, as a young child, her favorite author, D.H. Lawrence (audience laughing) – Well, she also shared with him, you know, Marie Curie’s book and her daughter’s biography of her mother – Yeah, I know, I know, but still, I mean Okay? There is a piece of biography you’ll want to hear about (laughs) – And you will (laughs) – Well, didn’t she also invite him to – Oh, yeah, well, let’s not even go there – dissect a child’s corpse? (laughs) – Yeah, she would – Yeah, that one is strange – They knew they had a prodigy, they just didn’t know what to do with it And she would, early on, when he was eight years old, she would bring home stillborn fetuses for him to dissect, just because that would be interesting As one does – Hmm (laughs) – Anyway, coming back to your question, though, and I think this is gonna be an issue for you And it certainly was the issue about him, was was he reliable as a biographer, quote-unquote, or as somebody who did case studies And I would say, I have a whole chapter towards the end of my book devoted to this question Because there is no question that all of his friends and he himself will say that he was a fabulist, that he was a confabulist, that he was constantly exaggerating in stories about himself where he doesn’t even remember what is right And his friends would just say, “I don’t know, who knows?” and so forth But then he would insist that when it came to science he was scrupulous, that his science was not infected by that And I would say a few things about that I have all kinds of people who agree with him on that Nurses and people who have seen things, and so forth One of the things I say is that he had two different kinds of writing Much in the way that Kapuscinski is a similar figure Kapuscinski was the great Polish chronicler, but in his day job he was a journalist and he filed stories And then, ten years later, 15 years later, he came back to the same story, and he gave them, as if it was around a fire with a snifter of brandy, told you a story, and it’s a different kind of telling And it’s conspicuous, this different And what people need to do with Kapuscinski is look at the original stories, look at how he tells it later on Oliver, similarly, had daily He claimed, and you’ll have a better sense of this, that he did 500 words a day on every patient he saw, every time he saw them I know he did a lot And he had, he had binders on his patients, not just the Awakenings patients, all kinds of patients, and– – And you have these 500 words on each patient? – I have, probably more And there are letters from patients afterwards, who have read the stories – Right, right – and who tell him how happy they were Maybe they disagree with one element, and then sometimes– – Those are clinical, scientific – Those are, but by the way they are not, they are specifically not the charts, quote-unquote, that other neurologists would keep – Uh-huh – They were very, quite detailed And then he tells it another time So, at one level, one needs to look at that The other point I would make, though, and I am emphatic about this, is that Oliver used to say he was a clinical ontologist, when we were driving between The Little Sisters By which he meant somebody for whom the diagnostic question was “How are you?” “What is it like to be you?” That’s the reason I have my title But another way of putting it, especially with these patients who he was so good with, patients who were pickled in remove, who hadn’t moved, who were in extremities of crisis and so forth The community of the refused, as Rodman put it so well Especially with them,

another way of asking the same question was “What’s your story?” – Right, I liked that a lot in that last chapter, when you talked about narrative as a kind of medicine – Narrative was the medicine! – And it made me think about, I don’t think you drew this explicitly, but it made me think about Freud and how his idea of case studies, forming a story with the patient, or sometimes for the patient, of their experience, he felt would be therapeutic to them And, of course, Freud was a big influence on Sacks and his view of case– – And on Luria also – Exactly, and on case studies This idea that you want to sort of story people – You make up the patient! – into a kind of humanity, and not leave them as the refused – Yeah, or as the object is to help them find their subjectivity, these patients who had precisely been treated, you know, as warehoused, as The previous doctors would come, literally would look at, you know, for a minute, say “Yep, yep, that’s right “Okay, a little bit more saliva today “Let’s up the ampage on this.” You know, so that was the treatment With Oliver it was precisely hours and hours of figuring out what the story was And then, by the way, he would go back and look at other 19th-century case studies to check on them He would do all kinds of stuff to verify He’d talk to the parents, he’d talk to all kinds of things But the point was to figure out what the story was And the story was the therapy – Right, I think that’s why he liked The Philosophical Breakfast Club, because now that I’m learning more about his early life and when he was a child and collecting herbs on the Hampstead Heath, and then understanding his love of 19th-century neurology and psychology, he wanted to be like that I mean, he saw himself as not a 21st-century scientist, but a natural philosopher, someone who wanted to understand the world and understand nature in a more humanistic sense So as part of a story, as part of art and science together – At one point I’m talking to Jonathan Miller, his good friend from his days, all the way back to junior high school, basically And Jonathan Miller, who was Beyond the Fringe, and then as a doctor and a great opera director and so forth himself And Jonathan is famous for just being incredibly dark about himself He is a failure, he is da-da-da And Oliver shares a lot of that with him And I was saying, “What is it with you guys?” And he said, “Well, you have to know “what we were measuring ourselves against.” And he gave me the names of three people I’ve never heard of but who were incredible anatomists from the 19th century, says “You try those names out on Oliver “and see what you get.” And Oliver just kind of quailed when I tried those names And those were the great people, you know – This is one of the values of this book is that there are long excerpts of these very detailed interviews of dead sources, people who have now moved on And, of course, Laura is gonna be the beneficiary of this – Yes, absolutely – So, Laura, you have (coughs), as I understand it, you have permission to run all over the Oliver Sacks archives – Yes, I have right now exclusive access to them – So some may call you the authorized biographer But you also have full editorial control, I understand So what are the Are there any disadvantages to being the authorized biographer? (laughs) – Um, well, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about this in the Center for Biography this year, and we had Ben Moser here a few months ago now – The biographer of Sontag – The biographer of Susan Sontag, and I liked how he put it, which was he had a similar arrangement where he had exclusive access to certain parts of the archive that no one else could see But yet he retained editorial control over the final manuscript, which means no one could say “You can’t publish this.” You know, The Oliver Sacks Foundation, for instance, can’t say, “No, we don’t want you to talk about this.” And the way Ben Moser put it was he’s the authorized biographer, but his biography is not an authorized biography So it doesn’t have any kind of seal of approval that “We like everything in this book” by the Susan Sontag people And I have a similar arrangement with The Oliver Sacks Foundation They want a warts-and-all biography I did not want to write something that was just going to be, you know, a hagiography And so we actually have a written agreement to that effect And so as I look through all the material, if I were to find there is confabulation or making up of things in his stories about patients, I would be talking about that I will address all the criticism

that has been made – By the way, I don’t expect that Oliver at any point intentionally confabulates – I know you don’t say that, some people do And I think it’s something that needs to be addressed – But I do think that he was given to his story being a story as it was happening – Well, in a way, I mean, you sort of say this too, that all narrative, in a way, is a construction – Of course it is, of course it is – Writing your book is a construction, writing mine is as well – I mean, this is something that I have dealt with all the time, going back to my New Yorker years and so forth If you go away to Bosnia for three weeks of reporting and you come back, people don’t say “Open your mouth for three weeks “and tell us everything that happened.” What they say is “Tell us what it was like.” – Mm-hmm – Which any story– – So, tell us a story Tell us a story – Well, yeah, but also any story, every story And we, our minds secrete stories the way that our gall bladder secretes bile or whatever it secretes, you know – That’s why I also don’t like the comment or the phrase “definitive biography.” – Yeah – Because I feel like every biographer tells a different story about someone’s life I’m lucky I have access to these archives now, which will later be made available to other writers I would hope that my biography would be interesting enough and rich enough that other people will want to write more about Oliver Sacks So I would never want to be thought of as writing the last word – Right, I hate the word “definitive.” – That’s like another way of burying someone, – There is no such thing – rather than – In my classes, I used to teach for 25 years, I would teach a class once a year called The Fiction of Non-fiction, which was about all the fictive elements Half the students were graduate journalism students and half were graduate poetry students I was trying to turn, create generations of lyrical reporters and investigative poets (laughing) – By the way the other half were PhDs, were trying to remember how to write, after having gotten the PhD But, in any case, the point is that I would insist on a first-person voice Not out of megalomania but out of modesty Precisely, that this is my best take, you would have had a different take And this is precisely what’s not allowed in most journalism – So I’m just thinking, to wrap up, one final question You know, I’m working on a biography of Jimmy Carter, but there are others in progress as I speak now And, over the years, I’ve done five biographies, and I have never once had to ask for permission to use material in an archive I know you have strong views on that Do you want to get into that discussion briefly and then we’ll go to the questions from the audience – Uh, I won’t go too much into it except to say that I think it was badly handled, and that the problem of fair use for biographers– – We’re talking about fair use of quotations – Of material, of quotations – Of material, right – For example, I had to ask for permission to use any kind of, it’s a long story, but any The claim was made by the foundation that everything he had ever written was the intellectual property of the foundation There were some things that were okay in my case because I had a special thing, but, for example, I had to have permission to use the New York Times essay that he did when he was dying, that he put in This is an essay that is online, everybody has access to it, and I was denied access to it And, leaving aside the whole thing, what’s been interesting among biographers is that this has been a huge problem all along Try doing a biography of Martin Luther King these days The Martin Luther King Foundation will not let you use the “I Have a Dream” speech In fact, I’ve just blown it, I’ve– – It’s not just biographers, because I do have a PhD and so I came from academia and scholarship And even if you have permission to go to an archive and take notes there, you still have to ask for special permission to quote in your published works, for anything – To which I say, by the way, I once did a whole conference on this, a weekend-long conference when I was running the Institute for the Humanities To which I say, bullshit (audience titters) And what I want to say, what I specifically want to say is that fair use, and by the way we have judges there who were telling us this, fair use is a very robust doctrine And there has now, wonderfully, been,

you can describe what it is exactly, but there has been a Best Practices for Fair Use for biographers And the first sentence in it is that fair use is not a permission you request, – It’s a right – it is a right you assert – And we’ve just published this on our Leon Levy web site as a statement of best practices for biographers – Unfortunately, publishers are so frightened that they don’t do it, and so you continue to get into this thing – Have a lot of lawyers in this country (laughs) – Well – So, on that note– – It just reminds me of one thing I’ll say at the end of this which is, when we did this great conference, it was the first time that everybody was in the pool together, so we had rap singers, we had academic writers, we had documentary filmmakers, we had biographers, and they were all hitting the same wall And at one point Jonathan Lethem gave a talk at the thing, in which he talked, he gave a talk on plagiarism, the last sentence of which was “Every single sentence “of this talk has been plagiarized.” And he handed out where he’d gotten everything from (Kai laughs) – But then he was on a panel and he was on a panel with Judge Kozinski, who has in the meantime, who was the senior judge on the most important circuit, the Ninth Circuit, which is the Disneyland circuit and so forth, so that was the circuit where these things would generally be fought out And he was saying, “We are dying for these cases!” Fair use is a very robust doctrine So, but, in any case, so Jonathan, at one point, said, I want to point to my wife out in the audience in the third row there Please, honey, stand up You can see she’s pregnant, seven months pregnant And I just want to say that, notwithstanding her presence here and our excitement about the coming baby, I say “Fuck the heirs.” – Whoa! (laughing) – And the point he was making, and it’s a point I would make, and I would insist on, is that the heirs who happen to be, you know, just contiguous, and, by the way, I’m standing on this ’cause I am the executor of an estate, my grandfather, the composer The people who really are heirs to my grandfather the composer’s music are other composers, other musicians Jonathan Lethem insists– – Who are being inspired by his music – Who are part of the chain of creation And much more so than the heirs And, in the case of Jonathan Lethem, that he is much more the heir of Philip K. Dick than anybody who got the rights down through this kind of thing and so forth And I feel very passionately about that It wasn’t of no value to me to feel passionate about it, but it’s a problem and I think it has not been sorted out and it still does need to be sorted out So, I’ll say that – So, on that note, we have time for some questions There are microphones on either end (clicking) (laughing) – I guess not From that gentleman Any others? (laughing) – Please, please, ah, great! (laughs) – [Doctor in Audience] Hi I started out working in movement disorders, as a very young woman in the late 70s, and met Oliver Sacks at that time And then I met him a number of times in between, and met him also in neuro-ophthalmology, as he was ill and dying And I have a couple of just commenting questions on what you said One is I was struck by the fact that you attributed his interest in movement disorders or the way he described Parkinson patients, ’cause I, too, work with patients who had extreme fluctuations I did that for years, running a drug study That his homosexuality influenced it And there were a number of prominent neurologists here and in Europe who did similar things without a background of homosexuality – Mm-hmm – The second thing is you said that it would matter to no one that he was a homosexual in this day And one of my colleagues in neuro-ophthalmology, who studied at the yeshiva one day a week, walked out in a lecture there where they referred to,

I think this is 20 years ago, homosexuality as an abomination And the third thing I want to mention is I was struck, probably about 30 years ago, more or less, by watching a Channel 13 show in which he was a commentator, I think it was just a brief commentator, where he discussed his psychedelic drug experience, which I was astounded, because I knew of no other physician practicing, that would publicly discuss that And I thought that was hugely innovative So, those are my– – Ren, if you have a– – A few quick comments I have a long footnote at the point where we’re coming to the point crisis in whether we were gonna do it, that I think, coming from California and so forth, I had an easygoing, it’s also worth realizing, by the way, that those four years were the beginning of AIDS – Right – It is also worth noting that if Oliver had been as sexual as he was during the five years he was in San Francisco and L.A., he probably might have been one of the, if he hadn’t stopped, he probably would have been one of the early people to die of AIDS, or very likely that he could have been In terms of the drug stuff, I think the drug stuff is extremely important to understand why he and he alone seemed to be able to walk into a room with these Awakenings patients who hadn’t moved for 30 years, basically, and had the audacity, the harrowing audacity to think that, not only were they different from everybody else, but they were completely alive inside And that, he got that from the drug stuff But my point would be, about the homosexuality, that you couldn’t write, he was saying, “Go ahead, you can write,” he didn’t care about that, he was very happy to talk about that He was also, parenthetically, he and Eric, his friend Eric, got the first batch of LSD from the Sandoz lab before Timothy Leary (Kai laughs) And spent their stoned time injecting it into snails to see whether snails got hallucinations (laughing) I asked Eric, “Did they get hallucinations?” Eric said, “How can you tell?” (laughing) But anyway, but, coming back, the point, my point Anybody who was dealing with anything has had a biography that leads them to a particular way of dealing with it I would make an argument that Oliver had a preternatural understanding or empathy or something that came out of the secrecy, the inwardness, the stuckedness that his homosexuality And there was no way, I felt, that I could write about the If I had written just about the drug stuff, by itself, it would have sounded like he was a maniac, you know And it wasn’t just that, it was something much deeper and more profound And so, so that’s why I say what I say – This is why it’s important to do biographies of scientists, right? To get at the human being behind the scientist – Well, I think, absolutely – Another question? – [Woman In Audience] Yeah There’s a neuropsychological state that includes hypergraphia, temporal epilepsy I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I remember being annoyed when I read, I think it was the third edition, of his Musicophilia book, that there were way too many footnotes in it And it really distracted from being able to read it And I figure, okay, he’s famous enough now, no one’s editing him So I have two questions One, did he ever write about hypergraphia and link his own ability, do we want to call it an ability to write a whole lot? Or his inability to edit his work? And link that to temporal epilepsy, although I guess we have no reason to believe he had epilepsy that was evident at all – He did have migraines, though – He did have migraines, but that’s not the same, as far as I– – No, no, I understand, I’m just saying that in terms of – [Woman in Audience] I’ve never heard of hypergraphia being linked to migraines – But the– – [Woman in Audience] And, how did that book get out? Man Who Mistook His Face For, His Wife for a Hat? Were there editors involved? – Yeah – [Woman in Audience] Was that how it worked? – There were always editors He considered editors to be another blight (audience laughing) He would complain There’s a lot of stuff about him telling stories about and making fun of his own hypergraphia I don’t think that he would describe it in terms of epilepsy or a kind of epilepsy I mean, he was that way from being a child and so forth – Yes – He did, by the way, have scotoma experiences as a child He would look up at his mother and not see her face – Right, I think he was both frustrated and appreciative of editors (laughs) – No, absolutely – Because he knew he couldn’t put out books with a million words And actually going through draft after draft after draft after draft of Uncle Tungsten, I can see, I mean, the stuff that’s left out

is very valuable for me as a biographer, because I’m just getting the texture of his childhood life, the car his mother drove, books that they owned in their house, people they had over for dinner Things that you wouldn’t necessarily want to put in a memoir – Right, right – about your childhood, but it’s great for me But I can also see the book becoming streamlined, literary, and a much better book – Mm-hmm – And also what I see is Oliver Sacks himself being so critical of his own writing, where he will have a draft, turn it in, to, actually, his personal editor, Kate Edgar, who’s here now, and who did so much wonderful work with him, and write in the margins, “I think this is very, very weak.” You know, “This needs to go.” And then she would circle things and move things around So I think he was very frustrated, but I also think he knew his works were much better for it – I think, by the way, that that also is something that comes in those four years (Kai coughs) He really hated editors in 1980, ’84 The whole drama of stupid light book It’s a wonderful light book, but it’s a stupid light book in terms of what it was like to live through it And it was driving everybody crazy And he really was angry I mean, for example, he did this incredible Costa Rica epilogue, which the English editor threw up, saying “No more vegetation,” exclamation point (Kai laughs) “I can’t stand all that vegetation.” And I suspect some of those are perfectly lovely essays and so forth, and by the way a lot of that will show up in Oaxaca and so forth But So I guess what I would say is I don’t think that this part of him was in itself a proto-medical epileptic kind of situation It was just him And by the way he did love the footnotes (audience laughs) And I always used to see, there was the old joke about, Freud’s comment about footnotes about the need to display something huge and pendulous down below (Kai laughs) That’s not me, that’s Freud Address your complaints, 39 Bergstrasse Street in Vienna But, in any case, he was immensely, wonderfully, maddeningly digressive – [Woman in Audience] What was annoying to me about those footnotes in the third version of Musicophilia was that he was basically including, it appeared, any letter that had been written to him supporting a small point of one of the phenomena that he was talking about Can we hear from his editor if she’s in the room? – She’s right there There’s Kate – Her take on what it was like to work with him? (muffled speaking) – Go ahead, you have to go to the – Well, I would say that– – I think you’re going to want to speak into the mic (metal clinking) (rustling) – [Kate] Oliver loved to rethink books all the time There are many editions of virtually all of his books He loved footnotes And we’ve often joked about publishing the best of his footnotes as a little collection (audience laughs) – [Laura] Well, his footnotes are fantastic! – Footnotes are fantastic in my humble opinion, and I will speak for many editors in saying that we left out far more than we included Trust me (audience laughs) We were hoping, you know, he saw the footnotes as almost a sort of hyperlink, if you want, before the internet And of course he didn’t really understand the internet, but (laughing into microphone) he would have other ideas, or he would want to disagree with himself Or, yes, occasionally he was very excited to find a scientific paper that had been published that supported one of his anecdotal observations So he felt that was worth including – [Kai] Jenny – [Deep-Voiced Man] Hello I was very curious to hear Laura say that he really thought of himself more as a natural philosopher than as a scientist And I wonder if you could expand upon that or Yeah, just expand upon that, ’cause that fascinates me – Oh, thank you In the 19th century, before a certain period of time Well, I can date it In 1833, the word “scientist” was invented in English

Before that, there was no word “scientist.” The people who did science were known as “men of science,” because they were mostly men or “natural philosophers.” And partly that lack of a special term indicated the very broad nature of what science was thought to be like at the time That you didn’t specialize in, you know, one very particular type of chemistry or physics, but that you studied the natural world, sort of as a philosopher would, in all of its different elements And so the formation of the word “scientist” arose at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1833, when the poet Coleridge stood up in front of the meeting and demanded that the men attending the meeting come up with a new word, because he felt that “natural philosophers” was for metaphysicians, sort of armchair philosophers who thought about the way that the world was, whereas the members of this association were, like, mucking around in fossil pits, getting dirty They were often lower-class, not high-born gentlemen They were making batteries with acid in their basements And so one of the members of the philosophical breakfast club stood up at that meeting and invented the word “scientist” in relation to the word “artist.” So the idea was that art and science were these two elements But then what happened is there was a parting of the ways, that once there was a term and certain organizations for people who did science, they began to specialize and veer off from artists and literary people And in my book, Philosophical Breakfast Club, I talk about how the people who helped bring this about would have been, and were at the end of their lives, sorry about that, because they themselves were natural philosophers And that’s how, I think, Oliver Sacks saw himself He was both a scientist who wanted to understand how the mind worked, who wanted to cure patients, a medical scientist But he was also, from his earliest days, a literary figure, someone who wanted to write stories about how the world was, about what crabs were like Not that he thought they were murderous But that he could go into such descriptions– – An ongoing theme in his life, by the way – Yes, well (Lawrence laughs) – You know, into these very careful scientific descriptions of crabs, but as part of a longer story, a fiction about them So, in that sense, I think he saw himself more as these earlier 19th-century figures than the later people who came up after Maxwell, who were more mathematically and physics-driven – Two notes on that One is that when he fled England in late 50s, after his mother’s horrible malediction and so forth, and just went to California, he very consciously was going to the California of Muir and Burroughs and so forth And he associated the malediction with Jewishness, he calls it Deuteronomical, that his mother had, much as the Shiva abomination comment, “I wish you had never been born.” He saw that as Jewish And he wanted, he at one point said to me, “I went to California so I could be “a gentile naturalist (audience laughs) “and not a Jewish neurologist, “but I became a Jewish neurologist “But as a neurologist, I remained a naturalist,” he said That’s one thing The second thing I would say is that when I was invited to be the head of the Institute for the Humanities at NYU, I said we’ll do it only on one condition, which was accepted, that we would stall that ridiculous thing and understand that the sciences are one of the crown jewels of the humanities What’s the problem? You know, and I think that is increasingly, I hope that we are coming to that – Right, and I feel like Oliver Sacks had a lot to do with bringing this back The idea that the humanities and science go together I think that’s one of his important contributions, not just to neurology, not just to literature, but also to the idea that you can bring together art and science, humanism and science, in a way that now, even in the medical profession, more and more people are recognizing this – By the way, he himself was unbelievably musical He was catastrophically unvisual For all his fascination with stereoscopy, he was useless looking at visual things or drawing pictures himself – Except for photography I mean, he had a very good eye – Yeah, he had a very good eye, that is true – And that was another way that art and science came together for him – For him, exactly, I think that’s absolutely right – That, even as a child, he was inventing ways to make color photography – Right, right That’s absolutely true, but he could not appreciate a painting

or draw, I mean, you’ll see in the book there’s a picture of him trying to draw a horse, which is just startling (laughs) – Well, on that note, we’ve gone way over time, but this has been a fascinating conversation (audience applauds) – Thank you very much again – Thank you Thank you, that was great