Life & Culture

The man who investigated the mystery of being human

A new documentary tells the story of the life and death of Oliver Sacks, the writer and doctor


When the documentary filmmaker, Ric Burns received a telephone call asking him to come and film the renowned writer and neurologist, Oliver Sacks, he did not hesitate. It was early January 2015 and Kate Edgar, Sacks’s long-time editor, assistant and researcher explained that Sacks, aged 81, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Within a matter of weeks, Burns and his film crew found themselves in Sacks’s eighth floor Greenwich Village apartment. But when they arrived, to their surprise, they found a roomful of people there too: members of Sacks’s family and some of his colleagues and closest friends, including Edgar and Sacks’s partner, the writer and photographer, Bill Hayes.

“It was Oliver’s idea — a kind of floating dramatis personae that stayed the same and also shifted over the course of five days,” explains Burns over Zoom from New York. “And the remarkable thing about our first interview was that it lasted five days in a row, 9-6pm. We thought, Oliver is sick, we’ll see how it plays out, we’ll be here for half an hour or so but no. He ran us ragged.”

Sacks had made the decision that he was going to talk about himself in ways he had never done before, says Burns. Over those five days, Sacks scrutinised, reflected and reminisced about his life and work, often reading from his extraordinarily candid memoir, On the Move: A Life, which he had recently finished writing and which also forms part of the structure of Burns’ moving and illuminating documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.

Burns, whose work has won numerous film and television awards and includes profiles of Andy Warhol, Eugene O’Neill and Ansel Adams, admits that, until he received that call, he knew little about his subject. Although he had read some of Sacks’s essays in The New Yorker and was familiar with some of his books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist from Mars and both the book and film, Awakenings, he knew nothing about the man behind the words. “The image we had of Oliver was created by his writings: empathetic, obviously brilliant, a beautiful writer. But, for example, who he was and how he felt about himself was difficult for him. I didn’t know that he was gay, and you know what, you didn’t either,” he says with certainty. “Nobody knew.”

Burns was only too aware of the enormity, and privilege, of his task. “There were, largely unspoken, gestures of complete trust and commitment and that brought with it a huge responsibility,” he says. “Right away there was a sense of needing to tell it totally right, totally honestly, but in a fashion that had the requisite delicacy and respect for this person, his life, and the moment he was at.”

Filming in Sacks’s apartment, with some of those who knew and loved him only enhanced the experience. “His apartment faces up Eighth Avenue and a lot of light and a lot of New York comes drifting in. He had 10 - 12,000 books, and what you felt, and what was so great, was that this [place] was his natural habitat.”

Born in London, in 1933, into an Orthodox, high achieving family, Sacks was the youngest of four children. His father was a GP and his mother a gynaecologist and one of the first women surgeons. Their large, close extended family included writers, scientists and politicians. According to Burns, it was an environment that nurtured Sacks’s fundamental scientific curiosity and “the culture of thinking, feeling, connecting and wondering about the reality of the world was so clearly a legacy.” In his obituary for the Observer, his nephew, Jonathan Sacks wrote that his uncle loved family and was always very connected to his. According to Sacks, he also possessed, a strong sense of genealogy and belonging.

Yet, despite his strong Jewish identity, Sacks later rejected orthodoxy, deeply affected by his mother’s reaction to his sexuality. When she found out he was gay, aged 18, she told him he was “an abomination,” and cursed the day he had been born. In the film, Sacks says that her words haunted him and, for decades, played a major part in inhibiting his own sense of sexuality and guilt. In 1960, Sacks left England, initially for California, on an “extended vacation,” and although he returned to visit England, he never lived there again.

The film celebrates Sacks’s scientific achievements: from his research and treatment of sufferers of encephalitis lethargica (also known as sleeping sickness) and the subject of his 1973 book, Awakenings on which the film, starring Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, is based; to his studies into visual agnosia, migraines, colour blindness, as well as autism and Tourette’s syndrome. But it also reveals his personal battles. Sacks was painfully shy and insecure and struggled with drug addiction, self-inflicted homophobia and, for many years, acceptance by the medical establishment. He rarely placed himself into his writing but Burns thinks that Sacks utilised his experience of otherness, or “outsiderness,” to engage with his patients, “Because of Oliver’s own traumas, he was locked in, in his own way. Even before he wrote Awakenings, he [understood] that those patients were all a little bit the same but a little bit different, just as we’re all quite a bit the same but quite a bit different.”

As well as filming Sacks at home, Burns accompanied Sacks to some of the “the crucial Oliver Sacks places,” such as the former Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he worked for many years. “Oh, my freaking God, it was incredible to be there with him,” Burns says, gesticulating wildly. Sacks had a reputation for humanising his patients and his version of an MRI, “was an infinite amount of time with them: talking, note-taking, recording.”

Burns refers to Sacks as a brilliant, idiosyncratic doctor, who was hellbent on conveying the essential mysteriousness of what it is to be a human being. But, he says, smiling, his impression was also of a man who, “could reliably walk into a light bulb while he was talking to you. And yet, at the same time give, you an extemporaneous account of the development of the philosophical, psychiatric, neurological understanding of consciousness from Descartes, then get up and spill his coffee.”

For much of his adult life, Sacks revealed little about his himself until he wrote his memoir. At one point in the film, he tells an unexpected, sexually explicit, personal anecdote about Jell-O, which is, says Burns, almost the meta moment of the film. “He’s looking down at the camera and he’s thinking to himself and kind of chuckles. It shows both sides of Oliver: a little self-inhibition but helpless exuberance. That affirmation of his own sexuality was crucial. I will never again make a film that has the phrase, ‘turgid penis’ in relation to orange Jell-O, or anything else!”

Burns believes that Sacks finally found a measure of acceptance and peace in his later years, thanks to his relationship with Bill Hayes. “Finding romantic, sexual love, late in life, he found grace with himself.” Sacks died in August 2015 and although he never saw the documentary, Burns feels strongly as, he says, does Kate Edgar and Bill Hayes that, “Oliver would have been pleased beyond belief by the film, because he would have recognised himself as complete. It captured the salient things. And most importantly,” he continues, pausing briefly, “It captured what Oliver was from the inside. As his friend, the writer Lawrence Weschler said, Oliver’s first question was, ‘How are you?’ meaning, how do you be?


Oliver Sacks: His Own Life will screen in cinemas on September 29 and will stream on demand from October 4


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