Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

I have been steeling myself for the death of Oliver Sacks since he made his terminal illness public earlier this year, but it's still a hard one to process.

I never really met him personally (I saw him speak several times, and we exchanged letters), but he was my literary hero, and more than just a literary hero: more like my childhood hero Jane Goodall, I think, than like most of the many writers I've been obsessed with since, many of whom one couldn't really persuade oneself it would be actually enjoyable to meet (Gore Vidal, Anthony Burgess - I felt significantly reconciled to the fact that I never met Burgess before he died when I read Paul Theroux's "my other life/my secret history" piece about AB).

I found so many things to love in Sacks's last memoir (powerlifting!), but one thing I didn't really write about in that post is the way that Sacks inspires me because he is both hero and everyman: his struggles with depression and weight gain and substance abuse, his wrestling with his sexuality, his long periods of self-dissatisfaction are balanced out by his joy in the natural world, his remarkable empathy, his love for music and his lucid literary intelligence. What a life!

Some links:

Here's what I wrote in Bookforum some years ago about his hallucinations book.

A delightful NYT bit from 2008.

Maria Popova's thoughts on the recent memoir (great pictures).

I am 90% certain that Oliver Sacks had a membership at Chelsea Piers, unless it was some other increasingly frail elderly Englishman who swam there so regularly. I did not want to accost him and introduce myself, not least in case I was mistaken but mostly because I didn't want to bother him! But I wished I could invite him to come to our powerlifting club at the "Iron Arena" by the sand volleyball court. I think he would have liked the vibe...

We had one good friend in common, a friend who died about six months after I met him but who left an indelible impression on me. That is swimming teacher and life coach extraordinaire Doug Stern, who I wrote about here and also here in connection with Sacks.

Doug was a remarkable person. I signed up for his deep-water running sessions when I had to stop running due to a stress-fracture (this was about 1.5 years into my mega-fitness mid-30s transition), and I knew right away - THIS WAS THE GUY WHO WOULD TEACH ME HOW TO SWIM PROPERLY SO THAT I COULD START DOING TRIATHLONS! It was all wrapped up in a slew of emotions, distress about the stress fracture and then more intensely distress at my friend Helen Hill's murder, which happened the first week of January 2007 and which sent me into a mental tailspin. Signing on for swimming lessons with Doug was like entering a magical new world, a refuge from real life but also something more real than life itself usually feels.

But Doug had something wrong with his shoulder and neck that turned out to be cancer, and those lessons that spring were bittersweet due to his frighteningly rapid physical decline. (I remember staying after the session one time because Doug wanted to get in the pool and he'd promised family members he wouldn't swim without someone else present, but he had lost so much fat and muscle that it was too cold for him to stay in: he had to get out after just a few minutes, it was heartbreaking.)

Doug was anxious to tell his life story, and I sat down with him and a tape recorder for one initial session. He was too sick after that to record anything more, and the piece (which I shared with his family and a few friends) had to stand alone. He talked about being a patient in hospital, empathy, pain, life, death and bicycles.

(Links: Tom Demerly wrote this letter to Doug after Doug first got the cancer diagnosis; here's Doug on arm recovery; and here's a memorial thread for Doug on the Slowtwitch forum.)

Doug ran an annual swim camp in Curacao. I was hugely keen to attend - only Doug died, and also I am romantically involved with a fellow who lives on another Caribbean island, so there was no way it made sense to go there for the swim trip the following year (January is my precious Cayman time), though his friends and swimmers kept it going.

But I was tantalized by my knowledge (I am a person of the internet, Google is one of my natural senses!) that Oliver Sacks had once written a short piece about the Curacao swim camp, and I got up my nerve to write Dr. Sacks a letter in which I enclosed a copy of Doug's thoughts and asked him whether he had access to the old story in Triathlete magazine, which not all the powers of Columbia library access and internet persistence seemed to be able to grant me.

This is what I got back in the mail. (I've transcribed the text at the bottom.)

Jan 3/10
Dear Jenny Davidson.

Thank you for writing to me - and especially for sending me that immensely moving, and utterly Doug-like, comment/conversation with Doug about being disabled, trussed up, losing muscle and strength, foreseeing his end, being maddened by the stupid rituals of the hospital (being woken at 2AM to have one's BP taken, etc), but, equally, his characteristic efforts + power to make personal, human contact with his fellow-patients - his nurses, his doctors etc. --

I enclose a copy of the "Triathlete" piece I wrote in 1997.

Perhaps I will see you in Curacao one year, tho' I am still somewhat disabled myself at this point from two operations (L knee replacement, R hemilaminectomy) on top of each other.

With all good wishes,

And the article itself:


  1. It's "tho' I am still somewhat disabled myself," I'm pretty sure. What a lovely letter!

  2. Thanks - have silently corrected!

  3. Ah, Jenny, I remember reading about Doug when I was a more regular reader of this blog, but I didn't realize the link to the loss of Helen. I'm so sorry, and thank you for sharing the letter from Oliver Sacks. His work was an early eye-opener for me about how science could be as humane as the humanities.