• Marina

Oliver Sacks

This year I read the entire bibliography of Oliver Sacks. He has two wonderful autobiographies — “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood” and “On the Move”. I want to share some interesting facts from them both:

Oliver's grandfather was from Russia, at the age of 16 he emigrated to England using a false identify and passport. Arriving in London, he joined the Jewish community and became a kosher butcher. He was a passionate autodidact, he read voraciously, learned what he could and strove to provide his children with solid education. In total he had 18 children.

His daughter, Oliver's mother became one of the first female surgeons in the world. His father would say "I am the humble husband of a great surgeon."

One of their sons’ Oliver, born c1933 grew up surrounded by science and art with his parents encouraging him constantly, even creating a separate room at their home so he could undertake chemical experiments. In their living-room was a huge library and two pianos and at least once a week, the family went to the theatre or concert.

Unfortunately, and despite their open minded attitude, his parents were a product of their time. When his mother found out he was gay, she said “You are an abomination, I wish you had never been born”. Despite this, his family quickly came to terms with his sexuality, but this hurtful phrase remained with him forever, setting the foundations for failure in his personal life.

Oliver experimented consistently with drugs. The book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’, includes a chapter describing a student who overdoses on amphetamines. This character ‘Stephen D’ is actually Oliver Sacks himself.

Amphetamine were his drug of choice, improving his concentration and helping read with clarity. One day he came to the library under the influence and became infatuated with a book by Edward Living. Oliver was struck by the mixture of science and humanism in his work and this day changed his life forever. He finally understood how and what he wanted to write about.

Since adolescence Oliver was a keen bodybuilder and long distance swimmer; participating and winning in some professional competitions.

Since childhood, Sachs preferred classical music and was completely unaware of what was happening in the contemporary scene. When all of New York mourned the death of Michael Jackson, he could not understand who he was (he wasn’t using google either).

This did not prevent him from being friends with Bjork, who had become a big fan of his. Her album 'Biophilia' was inspired by his book published in 2007 Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Almost all his life he lived alone. However, in 2008 when he was 75 years old, he fell in love with a journalist named Bill Hayes. They were together until Oliver's death in 2015. Hayes dedicated the book "Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me" to his beloved.

When Oliver found out that he had six months to live, he took a notebook and wrote “Sad, shocking, terrible, but ...” and then wrote the “pros” of the situation:

1. AN EASY DEATH (relatively)

2. TIME—to “complete” life

3. LOVING SUPPORT (Billy, et al.)

4. BOOK PUBLISHED (open at last about myself)


6. ENJOYMENT ALLOWED (6-A) MJ now legit



He lived the last weeks of his life with dignity and humility and at the end he was left holding the hand of a loved one. What more can we all hope for.

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