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Oliver W. Sacks discusses deaf experiences as detailed in his book "Seeing Voices"

BROADCAST: Oct. 26, 1990 | DURATION: 00:50:09


Dr. Oliver W. Sacks discusses people and concepts presented in his book "Seeing Voices"; the interview is for the paperback release.


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Oliver Sacks "Nothing is more wonderful, or more to be celebrated, than something that will unlock a person's capacities and allow him to grow and think, and no one praises or portrays this with such fervor or eloquence as these suddenly liberated mutes, such as Pierre Desloges: 'The [sign] language we use among ourselves, being a faithful image of the object expressed, is singularly appropriate for making our ideas accurate and for extending our comprehension by getting us to form the habit of constant observation and analysis. The language is lively; it portrays sentiment, it develops the imagination. No other language is more appropriate for conveying strong and great emotions.'"

Studs Terkel And that's Dr. Oliver Sacks. Not only a distinguished neurologist, who has done wonders with patients, but who is, in a sense, a poet as well. You know Dr. Sacks has been a guest on this program several times before with his essays and reflections. You know of the one entitled, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat," dealing with reality and illusion. And there's, of course, "A Leg to Stand On," his own experience with an accident and how music became his salvation. And "Awakenings," dealing with aphasia, and other patients and that's been made into a movie with Robin Williams, no less, playing the role of Oliver Sacks and Robert De Niro as the patient. And I was thinking, this book, from which you're reading, "Seeing Voices," you were a guest some time ago, dealing with Sign. "A Journey Into the World of the Deaf." And it's reissued, paperback, HarperCollins, and it's beautiful. You were describing Sign. The quotation of Pierre DesLoges, who was a, I take it, a mute himself?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Or, deaf, himself?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Right. He was, he wrote that in 1778. And he was one of the first deaf people to become educated and become a writer. Twenty years before, this would have been unimaginable. The first school for the deaf was in the 1750s and Pierre Desloges was one of the first pupils.

Studs Terkel You know, the book, that is so beautiful and moving, "Seeing Voices," dealing with the world of the deaf, deals--the recurring theme is this language--so long suppressed, was it not, by those called oralists? Perhaps you can take off on that and, of course, we know how beautiful and eloquent Sign is.

Oliver Sacks Well, in the 18th century schools for the deaf using Sign were French Sign, German Sign; there's not one sign language, there are hundreds. Signing schools were established all across Europe, and from 1817 onwards, in America. But then there came a strange, tragic reversal in 1880 when, at a conference in Milan at which no deaf person was allowed to go, the use of sign language was banned in education of the deaf. One sees cartoons from that time by deaf artists showing their hands manacled or hands amputated, and the deprivation of language like this is unimaginable to us. And all sorts of things from literacy to education to self-image, I think, collapsed with this. And they've only been coming back in the last few years.

Studs Terkel So it became, in a sense, a subversive language? Sign?

Oliver Sacks Very much so. Almost underground. Certainly--

Studs Terkel Underground language? They were called, those who were the opponents of it--by the--you said no deaf person attended this conference; it was much like your visit to the now-liberated university, Gallaudet, when the president for years and the chairman of the board were hearing people, and you were there during that great moment of liberation, [of? a?] revolution, when the deaf decided to take over their own place. So, we're talking about, now, the others are called oralists and it's interesting--Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was one of the preeminent, or perhaps some would say, you know, a dubious distinction, he was anti-sign and pro-oralist. Perhaps a word about that?

Oliver Sacks Well, he's a complex figure and, you know, he is sometimes called an ogre but I don't think a term like that is right. Certainly he was a man who had a passion for speech. His father and his grandfather had been elocutionists and speech teachers. And, strangely, both his mother and his wife were deaf, although people who denied their deafness and didn't sign, but insisted on speaking. Bell himself designed the telephone for the deaf. And he had the strongest feeling of speech being divine and Sign being not a thing to use--sort of, not, almost subhuman, though he was very conflicted. He was very good at sign language himself.

Studs Terkel Yeah. He sounds like a fantastic figure for a novel, doesn't he?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Right.

Studs Terkel The conflict and the [double there?]. But also the, you know, those called Fathers of an American public school system--Horace Mann was anti-sign.

Oliver Sacks Very much so. The, and around the 1850s, or 1860s a movement started.

Studs Terkel Yeah. You know, Oliver, I remember when I was a kid, young, I heard, you know, about this. That Sign was considered for retardees or something, Sign. That oral--lip reading, you know? Lip reading. And before, [a man in Ohio?] said, "Read my lips." And, of course, if you read his lips nothing comes forth, anyway, from it. But the idea of lip reading was IT. Isn't that funny? I remember in my time. And, so, when--but throughout there were these subversive movements, weren't there? At which people expressed themselves through Sign.

Oliver Sacks Well, I think deaf people, at least people who are born deaf, will have an almost irrepressible tendency to use their own language and create their own language. When one sees this in schools, perhaps where deaf children are compelled to speak, or even to use a thing called Signed English, but as soon as they get out of class they'll sign among themselves. And I think that if a child can lip read and speak as well, so much the better. But to not have one late in life, which--

Studs Terkel Yeah. It's a natural impulse, then, to use Sign? For someone who is, pre-lingually--is that the phrase?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel There are those that, what, those profoundly deaf are those who are born deaf--"stone deaf".

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel Is the word you prefer," stone deaf"? Because it's more to the, more of an image, isn't it?

Oliver Sacks Yes. I like the phrase. But to be "stone deaf" from the start, so that, you know, if one is deaf and, say, after the age of three, it's different because you've already started to speak. And speech and the idea of speech is ingrained in you.

Studs Terkel Right. So that's post-lingually deaf?

Oliver Sacks That's post-lingually deaf.

Studs Terkel In contrast to pre-lingually deaf.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel That's the "stone deaf", and not knowing language. Of course, you point out a very beautiful autobiography of a South African--David Wright. Now, he heard language. He became deaf at the age of six, or seven, or so.

Oliver Sacks Yes, yes. He got scarlet fever then which used to be a common cause of deafness. It was interesting--at first he didn't realize he was deaf, and others didn't, because he thought he heard their voices until, once, a cousin of his covered his mouth. But I think people who are post-lingually deaf immediately convert what they see.

Studs Terkel The nature of Sign and the eloquence of it. You use the phrase "space". It has to do with space, as well. And the person.

Oliver Sacks Well, in a way, speech is only an in-time, and signing can use the three dimensions of space and it does constantly. The grammar of Sign language has, is in space, and there may be all sorts of three-dimensional modifications, one on top of the other simultaneously.

Studs Terkel In other words, Sign language has an added dimension, has more dimension than oral language. Oral, you say, is time, whereas Sign is space. We see. In other words, the name of your book is "Seeing Voices," not accidentally so-named. "Seeing Voices." Feeling tone.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel We're back to that, yeah.

Oliver Sacks Well, one, I potentially, I think, there's an enormous richness of information and so forth if one uses space as well as time. And Sign does this to the full. It can certainly, I think, express anything which a spoken language can and sometimes, perhaps, some things which it can't.

Studs Terkel We know that more and more public gatherings has a Sign speech-maker there, as well as the speaker, or sometimes [a? the?] singer. And I'm sure everybody is affected by it. There's something tremendously exciting. And your opening quotation of a former, of one who lived long ago, some years ago--the liberating aspect of Sign--the word liberating is probably the operative word, isn't it?

Oliver Sacks It's interesting that this quote by Desloges doesn't just talk about communication but, as you say, liberating the intellect, allowing ideas to be grasped, and one needs language to think. And I think the frightening thing about not having language is not only can you not communicate, but you can't think properly.

Studs Terkel Talking to Oliver Sacks here. You know, in the case of Oliver's, with Joe Louis--there's more, always more where that came from. And the book, "Seeing Voices," HarperCollins, paperback, and it's a beauty. And very moving, and might I add: liberating. Dr. Oliver Sacks, and his more recent book--though there is one forthcoming, too--called "Seeing Voices," and the world of the deaf. We know that in Chicago one of the best of literary critics in the country edits the book section of the "Sun-Times".

Oliver Sacks Oh, it's--

Studs Terkel Henry Kisor, you know. And

Oliver Sacks

Studs Terkel Yes. And also wrote this very beautiful memoir of his own recently.

Oliver Sacks Yes, it's a lovely, lovely book and it's--Henry Kisor himself, I think, was three-and-a-half when he lost his hearing and, obviously, a very precocious and verbal three-and-a-half, and language was already well-developed. And so he is, he has had a wonderful, full life in the hearing world. It's interesting, in a way, to compare this with another autobiography by the deaf actor, Bernard Bragg, who was born deaf, and Bernard's autobiography was signed, although then it was translated in English and printed.

Studs Terkel You know, what's interesting about Henry--by the way, for those who may not know--Henry Kisor, book editor of "The Chicago Sun-Times." He's one of the very best literary critics in the country, and editors. And the book, his recent memoir, is a beauty. But back to, you were saying, in Henry's case he speaks of a teacher was understanding, and a family that was. Which leads to a study of two children in your book, "Seeing Voices." One, Joseph, and the other, Charlotte. Perhaps tell their story--how influences and attitude plays a role in the liberation of one, and the longing and hunger of the other not fully satisfied.

Oliver Sacks Well, Joseph was born in Mexico on a farm. He had no schooling there, he never met another deaf person. The family came to New York when he was 10. And at that point he was enlisted in a school for the deaf but he had no language; he had no sign language, no speech, nothing. He'd been partly treated as retarded or autistic. And when--he was neither of these--he was obviously rather intelligent but he couldn't do anything except gesture, and point, and draw. And he looked yearningly at our mouths as we spoke, and at our hands--he could obviously perceive that something extraordinary was going on; that meaning and feeling were being exchanged but he wasn't privy to it himself. It's very extraordinary to see someone intelligent who doesn't yet have the idea of language, and this has obviously affected him very gravely. I mean, not only could he not communicate, but he didn't seem to have any--he seemed to be rather confined to the here and now, and not have any clear idea of the past, of what was outside the room. He couldn't generalize, he couldn't abstract very well. And, actually, he had just started to acquire some sign language when I saw him. And this was already being--

Studs Terkel You did see him? Joseph?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Oliver Sacks I saw Joseph. Yes. And he was just beginning to acquire some sign language and this was exciting him very much. He didn't want to go home. He loved his parents but going home was a sort of vacuum for him.

Studs Terkel In a way, he reminded you of the savage boy--the wild boy of [Aveyron?], or the German classic figure, Kaspar Hauser, who was a kid who didn't know any humans. And [that kid?] became full of a tremendous hunger but absolutely on some other planet.

Oliver Sacks Right. There are all of these stories of wild boys who have been found in the woods like the wild boy of Aveyron, who was 12, and Kasper Hauser was--there's an extraordinary story written up in 1830 of how Kasper had been confined in a cellar and chained without human contact, without language or human contact, from the age of three to probably 15 or 16. You know, but I'd always thought things like this are far out, one in a million. I never thought I would actually see a human being without language. But this is something which can happen to deaf children if they're not given access to language.

Studs Terkel What happened to Joseph?

Oliver Sacks Well, I have seen him again relatively recently and he is now acquiring language and he is becoming very much more normal, and happy, and intelligent.

Studs Terkel You said, you know, this nature of this gap, or this chasm from, in other words, with being without language, without hearing. That's what Dr. Johnson said when he, that deafness, the most desperate of all human calamities. If there is such a thing as more desperate, say, one--blindness or deafness.

Oliver Sacks Well, I think it's not deafness as such, it's the, it's not having language. Now, if, on the other hand, like this little girl Charlotte--

Studs Terkel Now Charlotte.

Oliver Sacks One does have good language then it's not a calamity at all. Well, I always seem to have a sort of negative pole and a positive pole--Joseph, for me, represented the worst of what might happen with a deaf child. I had had some communication with the parents of Charlotte, who was a little deaf girl. The parents described how at first when they got the news of her deafness they were--

Studs Terkel The hearing parents?

Oliver Sacks The hearing parents. They were bewildered, they were upset, they were conflicted, they were grieved. They didn't know which way to turn. Then, I think, with great selflessness, they decided they would learn a sign language. And, first of all, they tried a thing called Signed English, which didn't work too well but was perhaps easier for them because Signed English is simply English on the hands. And then they decided to learn American Sign Language, which is a native sign language, and they learned this, and grandparents learned it, and neighbors learned it, and little Charlotte was surrounded by people who signed and wanted to communicate with her, and she did beautifully. When I saw her she was a wonderful little girl, and full of curiosity, and animated, and a third-grade reader at the age of six. And this was an example of things, things going right.

Studs Terkel Here, then, a sign--a sign language is a liberating influence. Her brother, too, her hearing brother, he knew Sign. He learned it as his parents did. And, so, Charlotte is full of life and vitality, very bright, thanks to Sign. In contrast to Joseph, who [unintelligible], because here is the contrast that--we're talking about, again, you, again we come back to Desloges, a quote at the beginning: "unlocking".

Oliver Sacks Well, thanks to language. Now, if it could have been speech, as fluently as she signed, then that would have unlocked her. But certainly Joseph was locked up and Charlotte was liberated.

Studs Terkel Yeah. This leads to a very interesting question--you pointed out several times, you said American Sign Language--ASL, or English--British Sign Language, German--so there are sign, so sign languages are as many as there are oral languages?

Oliver Sacks Very, very nearly, and in some areas, say, of South America where there's only Spanish spoken, there's sort of distinct Venezuelan Sign, and Uruguayan Sign. There was a wonderful thing--

Studs Terkel But tell me--can someone who knows Sign--American Sign Language, go to Germany, and there are German deaf people and they speak German Sign, does he understand?

Oliver Sacks Well, very much better than an American speaker going to Germany. Now, these are distinct languages, but deaf people have an amazing ability, I think partly, because the grammars of these sign languages are similar, to acquire the other person's language or to make a communication. There was an amazing thing last year, a festival for the deaf from 81 countries. People came from 81 countries [bearing? bringing?] their own sign languages to Washington. When I got into the hotel--

Studs Terkel Oh, you were there?

Oliver Sacks Yeah, I was there and I went to the, in the lobby of the hotel you could see 500 people signing--

Studs Terkel Ah, that must have been something!

Oliver Sacks But they were signing 20 different languages. It was an incredible scene. One feeling one had was that these people formed a community. They had different languages but somehow there was something similar about them all. But by the end of the week most of them could communicate moderately freely with each other.

Studs Terkel Well, this is something, let's stick with this. We read of the biblical Tower of Babel--we're talking of oral languages, and imagine 20 different languages, or 30, or 40, spoken in the lobby of that hotel where you were--it'd be a Babel, would it not? But

Oliver Sacks

Studs Terkel It'd be absolute Babel, yeah. But you are saying that there are certain universal signs, or there's something else that, even though there were many sign languages--German, Spanish, Russian, French, whatever there might be--Zulu. There might be. Maybe that, too? The different sign languages, that's, there was something, a community evolved out of it. [And, then, of course, to?] community.

Oliver Sacks Well, there are no universal signs but, there are certainly universals in grammar, and between different sign languages. And, paradoxically, I think the people who can be so isolated on the one hand, are the nearest to being able to form a global community on the other. And there were wonderful signed arts there. I saw "Oedipus" in Russian Sign, I saw "Hamlet" in--

Studs Terkel Really?

Oliver Sacks In Italian Sign. And also all sorts of plays written by deaf playwrights.

Studs Terkel You saw that?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Right. But also

Studs Terkel

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel You saw classics? But also in different languages?

Oliver Sacks In different languages.

Studs Terkel You might have seen "Oedipus" in Greek?

Oliver Sacks I might, indeed.

Studs Terkel In different languages!

Oliver Sacks Yes. But what was so interesting was that these--

Studs Terkel Chekhov in Russian. Sign.

Oliver Sacks Yes. Was that these signed plays were attended by signers of all nationalities. They could all get something out of it. And, certainly in Europe, even more than here, deaf people tend to travel a great deal, and they sometimes migrate and intermarry, and one does very much have a feeling of a sort of European deaf community.

Studs Terkel But, throughout, there is, as you're saying this, and it's terribly exciting and moving, is that liberation--the unlocking of the door, throughout, through Sign. Now, for years, as you've said earlier, for years it was suppressed, it was considered something for retardees, and oral was it. And you're saying the most natural impulse, especially pre-lingual--those born deaf--is to sign.

Oliver Sacks It's very difficult to stop deaf children signing or trying to make some language among themselves. Though I don't think children alone can, or no people alone can create a grammar. You have to have some access to a proper sign language. I mean, I sometimes imagine, you know, Adam and Eve--if there were a deaf Adam and Eve they would invent signs, but I don't think they would have a real language. It would have to wait for Cain and Abel. The children bring grammar to the language.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Oh, children? That's interesting.

Oliver Sacks Now, what some, one of the things some--Charlotte's parents were not the best signers--

Studs Terkel Charlotte, the bright little girl?

Oliver Sacks The bright little girl. Her hearing parents signed as well as they could, but they signed rather ungrammatically, where Charlotte's Sign, by the age of 4, was perfect. She had better grammar than anyone had shown her; she had somehow constructed or discovered the grammar for herself which is one of the things which Chomsky talks about--how the child's nervous system can somehow construct grammar even though it hasn't been instructed to do so.

Studs Terkel And this is Noam Chomsky's idea, is it not? That the child, naturally, has a bent for language. Isn't that it? Something in that vein?

Oliver Sacks Yes. He thinks there's a innate capacity which all human beings have. Though one could interpret things quite differently and say that the brain is not programmed to do language, but just somehow has an ability to make order from chaos, and to create categories, and to create language.

Studs Terkel That's interesting, Oliver, you said order--the brain--can make order from chaos, and you spoke of the child--Chomsky does. One of the great linguistic authorities in the world. A quite remarkable man in many other respects, too. Very outspoken and as honest as, day. In any event, he says the child has that capacity, you know, to make order out of chaos, in a way, to stretch a point of it.

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]. Oliver Sacks is guest and I've got to ask him about this city, the town on Martha's Vineyard. A town of the deaf that you visited. That's an incredible chapter, and a rather glorious one, too. And we'll come to that. The book is called "Seeing Voices." And both words figure in this title, seeing voices, and it's subtitled "A Journey into the World of the Deaf." And it's a beauty and it's the paperback, HarperCollins. You talk of a certain, you heard of this town in Martha's Vineyard, didn't you?

Oliver Sacks Yes. I read a book about Martha's Vineyard and this unique situation where there had been a hereditary deafness there for 250 years. At one point in the mid-19th century, one person in four was deaf. And the response was that the whole island adopted Sign. All the hearing people became native signers and there was the most complete integration of the deaf there. So much so that if one interviewed some of the people there, you'd ask about someone, you could ask about Ebenezer and someone would remember: "Yes. He was a fisherman. He was a scholar, a prankster." And you would say, "Yes, but was he deaf?" And people would think for a long, long while and they'd say, "Well, come to think of it, he was deaf and dumb," they said, "but one never thought of it. He was just the same as everybody else."

Studs Terkel That's amazing. They never thought of it. Of course, they spoke Sign?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Or they knew Sign?

Oliver Sacks

Studs Terkel Right. Is that it? So the whole community, the whole town--

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Know Sign?

Oliver Sacks The whole up-Island signed.

Studs Terkel And that it never occurred to them. By the way, there's another recurring theme, an undercurrent, of a world in which no one is considered handicapped. That is, aware of physical infirmities, but not psychically, in any way, socially handicapped. That still is yet to be seen, isn't it?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Or heard?

Oliver Sacks Perhaps one may have had a glimpse of it in this rather rare--

Studs Terkel Yeah, in this [time? town?]. I'm saying this town's almost a metaphor--the town is real, exists. Does it still exist?

Oliver Sacks Oh, yes. Yeah.

Studs Terkel You went there. And you jumped! And you read about it--you decide to do things almost impulsively, at times?

Oliver Sacks Oh, I do. No, I read this beautiful book by Groce about Martha's Vineyard and I had to see for myself. And I went up there and I went to one of the towns, West Tisbury, where there'd been such a high proportion of deaf people. And I saw four old people talking together on a veranda. They were just gossiping. Except they very suddenly dropped into Sign language. And then they went back into speech. And I found that amazing--that hearing, speaking people, might drop into Sign and then go back into speech. And, obviously--

Studs Terkel In your, in fact, [if I could?] just read this, this sequence from Oliver Sacks' book: "In the astonishing interviews recorded by Groce"--

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel This person, G R O C E. "The island's oldest residents would talk at length, vividly, affectionately, about their former relatives, neighbors, friends, usually without even mentioning they were deaf. And it would only be if it was a question asked about that person, 'Now,'" as you said, "'Now that you come to mention it, Ebenezer was deaf and dumb.'" The word dumb--isn't the word dumb a derogatory word? Or?

Oliver Sacks Yes. It was often attached for centuries. But I think it was just a verbal habit on the island. Of course--

Studs Terkel It's not used today, is it? No.

Oliver Sacks

Studs Terkel is it? No, no. No. But Ebenezer, they said, now, he was. And they speak of Ebenezer's deaf and dumbness, never having set him apart, hardly noticed. And then, they "loved, married, earned their livings, wrote, thought"--thought!--"as everyone else did--not apart." And then, often, they were educated at a certain place called Hartford Asylum, which [in the day?] was an enlightened sort of place, is that it?

Oliver Sacks That was the first school for the deaf in America.

Studs Terkel But then you come to this old woman who is thinking in Sign, and you've got to tell that story.

Oliver Sacks The oldest people on the island still, are still native signers, and I talked to one of these, a woman in her nineties who was a wonderful woman, very bright, very sharp. And, well, I'm going to read what I wrote.

Studs Terkel Why don't you read that?

Oliver Sacks I'm going to read it: "Speaking to one of the very oldest there, I found one other thing. This old lady, in her nineties, but sharp as a pin, would sometimes fall into a peaceful reverie. As she did so, she might have seemed to be knitting, her hands in constant complex motion. But her daughter, also a signer, told me she was not knitting but thinking to herself, thinking in Sign. And even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane--she was dreaming in Sign. Such phenomena cannot be accounted as merely social. It is evident that if a person has learned Sign as a primary language, their brain and mind will retain this, and use it, for the rest of that person's life, even though hearing and speech are freely available. Sign, I was now convinced, was a fundamental language of the brain."

Studs Terkel Now that is an astonishing thing. You learned Sign yourself, from talking to her?

Oliver Sacks Not terribly well. Not particularly well.

Studs Terkel No, but nonetheless you were talking? I used the word "talking," with her, and you were "seeing" her voice, here [is the title?]. And, so, she, in rev--was thinking! Perhaps you could expand on that a bit?

Oliver Sacks Well, I saw an example of this yesterday when I was in Minneapolis, and a young man was acting as an interpreter for me. A young man, who himself was hearing, but the son of deaf parents and who, therefore, had Sign as a primary language. And at one point he had to do a rather complicated arithmetical operation, and he got confused and he switched to Sign. He sort of did it on his hands, but he also did it in his mind in Sign. And, I mean, whether how much we do think in words, and how we think is sort of a great mystery, but to the extent that we think in language, I think native signers think in sign language. And just as we tend to have little vocalizations in the larynx, which we are unaware of, they tend to think on their hands. And even, I think, if one learns Sign this comes to some extent. When I was learning a little bit, the first sign I learned was "but." "But" kept coming to me because whenever I think of something I think of an exception.

Studs Terkel Yeah. But.

Oliver Sacks But "but" was on my hands almost before it was in my mind.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And, you know, the book is so full of history, too, and everything. Let's go back to the past, then we'll finally come to your going to visit Gallaudet, during those days of liberation--liberation of Paris!--when, it made the news, of course. When was that? How many years ago was that?

Oliver Sacks It was two-and-a-half years ago.

Studs Terkel Yeah. As recently as that? It was two-and-a-half years ago. But before that, the whole history: you speak of certain key figures, rather heroic figures. Both hearing and deaf.

Oliver Sacks

Studs Terkel Right. Who were pioneers in this world at a time when it was looked upon as something, they're people of, really, of another planet, in a sense. Abbé Sicard was one, wasn't he?

Oliver Sacks Oh, very, very much so. He was a pupil of de l'Epée and--

Studs Terkel And he, they lived when? He was 18th century or something like that?

Oliver Sacks Yes. And he wrote a, he wrote a wonderful book about his, about a pupil, Massieu, who had got to the age of 15 without language. In fact, he describes Massieu as a young Adam. And he describes Massieu's sudden liberation and his opening out as language became possible. It's a very, very moving book, though, and there hasn't been a book like that for a long while, although there will be one next year. Someone called Susan Schaller has written a wonderful book about a man of 27-- Knew

Studs Terkel

Oliver Sacks Ildefonso? Knew no language.

Studs Terkel Ildefonso?

Oliver Sacks Yes, Ildefonso.

Studs Terkel He's what? He's a Latin American kid?

Oliver Sacks Yes. He's a Mexican man.

Studs Terkel And this book is coming forth?

Oliver Sacks It's going to be called "Man Without Words". It's coming forth.

Studs Terkel And that's what? That book? I mean, tell about Ildefonso.

Oliver Sacks Well--

Studs Terkel Helen Schaller.

Oliver Sacks Yeah. The--Susan Schaller is--

Studs Terkel Susan Schaller.

Oliver Sacks Yeah. She encountered this man in San Francisco in a class for deaf people and she found that he had no language. Somewhat like Joseph, he had been born in a remote part of Mexico. He'd somehow escaped schooling, he'd never met a deaf person. With an uncle, he had crossed the border to and fro as a migrant worker. And he, and like Joseph, and perhaps even more, he obviously had some sort of passionate wistfulness to know what went on. I think the, whether or not someone of 27 can acquire language, I think would be considered very questionable. But he did. I think Susan Schaller was an amazing sort of teacher, and I think this book contains an amazing description of, in a way, of how a world suddenly expands. Although, in a strange way, she also wondered whether she had a right to do this. She thought, you know, does this man have a sort of innocence? Are we going to contaminate him with language and culture?

Studs Terkel And, so, she also felt a certain burden of playing, danger of playing God?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Of Pygmalion and Galatea, in a way.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel That fear she had there.

Oliver Sacks Yes. It's--

Studs Terkel So, there's something in that, your reference to that, to her work, Susan Schaller and Ildefonso--you said it reminded you of Helen Keller in a certain moment. When Helen Keller, who was both deaf and mute, and blind, the concept of water.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel Water. We know that [with?] Anne Sullivan--was it Anne Sullivan?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Right.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Water. In the case of Ildefonso and Schaller it is cat. What is it? Just something--cat?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Well, I think this had been chosen because it's such a striking sign, which looks rather like the cat's whiskers.

Studs Terkel Oh, you just did a sign?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel And that sign you did, like a French sign, there used to be an ad, years ago--free association--Ed. Pinaud. And, now, I'm going back 65 years. There was an ad on the El, or whatever--street cars and everything--Ed. Pinaud Tonic. And it's a French caricature, A French turned-up mustache barber, and he's got that OK sign.

Oliver Sacks Uh-huh.

Studs Terkel That's it. And you just did the "whisker"?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel It reminded me of that. A strange association. So the whisker is sign for cat?

Oliver Sacks Yes. I mean, most signs are not recognizable and they don't look like anything; the cat sign or some. But she repeated this, and tried to associate it with a drawing of a cat, hundreds and thousands of times, and it didn't work. And then suddenly, suddenly Ildefonso got the meaning and saw that a symbol, that this was an abstract symbol, and at that point, when you get one symbol you get the whole world of symbols, and you can move into a symbolic world. And I think her description of this, like Sicard's, almost two centuries ago, is quite amazing.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Isn't that something? You speak of this, you spoke of Sicard and his young patient, Massieu--it's almost like Doctor Itard and the wild boy of Aveyron.

Oliver Sacks Oh, yes. Very much.

Studs Terkel And Truffaut did the film on that. Remember?

Oliver Sacks Yeah. The Truffaut, yes.

Studs Terkel That, and so, there again, that some person, and that discovery. And so we're talking to Oliver Sacks, and we got to ask about, since we're on the subject of liberation and Sign, to Gallaudet, and what happened in that remarkable period. The book, "Seeing Voices," of my guest Oliver Sacks, and perhaps about a forthcoming book as well. And the film based on his "Awakenings". HarperCollins published "Seeing Voices." There is this university. Now, until two-and-a-half years ago, it was pretty much run by people who were pretty, shall we say, socially retarded, in that they were hearing people who thought that the deaf are not ready yet for--not ready yet, little children. Time to, and they were far more than ready. I suppose--well, you heard about it and you went out there?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Well, I'm not especially a political animal but it seemed to [be? me?] so, so right, and obvious, and natural that these students should have a president who was one of themselves; who knew their language, who signed, who shared their sensibility and perspectives. And they'd had a hundred and twenty years without a deaf president. And I went down there and I joined them. I thought it was very important that hearing people should support the students there. And, but, there was an amazing sort of coherence and purity of intention. It was a very--it was a rather gentle revolution, but a very clear, firm, good-humored, and, of course, successful one.

Studs Terkel Were there a lot of jokes told in Sign?

Oliver Sacks Yes. Yes, indeed. The one thing which went around--the whole thing took a week--and the students signed it: It took seven days to create the world and then it took seven days to transform the world. [For them?]

Studs Terkel Was that seven--that was a seven-day period? That too?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel That's funny. I'm thinking about--there was laughter then, apparently, and so, if one didn't know Sign, you wouldn't know what they were laughing about.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel By the way, the guy, the deaf teacher they chose finally as president, has a great name: King Jordan.

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel That's his name?

Oliver Sacks Oh, that is his name.

Studs Terkel That's a great name.

Oliver Sacks Yeah.

Studs Terkel For the first deaf president of a university for the deaf.

Oliver Sacks And he's a wonderful man, and a man of great charm, and people who meet him say, well, perhaps we should have a deaf President of the United States as well.

Studs Terkel Now, do those two women who--the hearing woman and Jane Spilman, who was chairman of the board; they're pretty--how would you--if you don't mind my saying it--pretty socially retarded in that they were not ready yet. Here they are. Did they learn, finally--well, did they finally learn anything?

Oliver Sacks Yeah, I think they did.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Oliver Sacks Finally. I mean, the president who resigned quite gracefully, sort of--really saying, "I didn't realize what had happened. I didn't know what had hit me." And I think there's probably not so much resistance on people's part, as unawareness. You know, sort of habit of patronizing. And, you know, and once they really see what it's like for the deaf, then things change.

Studs Terkel You know, this could apply to all minorities, couldn't it? To everybody, you know--"I didn't know they felt that way." You know? "I never knew they felt that way." In a way this is, again, it's real and metaphorical at the same time.

Oliver Sacks Yeah.

Studs Terkel See, the thing about Oliver Sacks: he wants to be there. We haven't talked about your own work as a neurologist, [unintelligible], so I have to ask you, first about--well, before that, you quote Clerc. Who is Clerc? And you speak of the diversity--that if there is no such thing as someone considered handicapped, aware of physical differences, it's because [of?] the diversity, the plurality of cultures and ways of living. Clerc, C L E R C. Who is Clerc?

Oliver Sacks He was a pupil of Sicard and a very gifted deaf teacher of the deaf, and he came from France with Thomas Gallaudet, the father of the founder, to open the first American school for the deaf in Hartford, the one which the Martha's Vineyard people went to. But Clerc was himself, obviously, a man of such vitality and intelligence that it was very difficult for people to think of him as sick, or disabled, or handicapped. And he said very strongly we are not, we are different. We have a different center, we need a different development, we need a different language. We will have a different culture, but we're just another form of being human. And as, you know, another form of life and as good as you. And I think this notion of a different identity and different, different sorts of human beings, you know, which Bell wouldn't allow. He said you've got bad ears--we must give you telephones, hearing aids. We've got to treat you, you've got to speak. And this business of allowing someone to be their own selves is--and in a way this was difficult for me, I think, as a doctor to see, because I'm used to thinking in terms of disease and cure, and here I had to start thinking in terms of identity and different sorts of human organization.

Studs Terkel Yeah. In the forthcoming film called "Awakenings," based on your, well, one of cases--case is a good phrase to use, isn't it? Case.

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Robert De Niro plays the role of the patient and Robin Williams plays you--

Oliver Sacks That's right.

Studs Terkel Oliver Sacks. And we're looking forward to that. And you have a forthcoming work, too, don't you?

Oliver Sacks Well, I'm working on something to do with different painters and the visual imagination. And, strangely, this has really come out of "Seeing Voices". The book, "Seeing Voices," is not about an auditory defect, it's about a visual heightening which all deaf people show. And, so, it's about seeing.

Studs Terkel Yeah. So, this is an extension, really, of "Seeing Voices"?

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel Now you're working with [that?], with painters and [creative?] imagination.

Oliver Sacks It's sort of a book on the neurology of the imagination, if that makes any sense.

Studs Terkel The neurology of the imagination?

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel You know, then, what--how far have we advanced? Of course, you end with the question--I'm going ask you to read the last passage from it, on page 163. But before that, how far have we advanced in understanding other, the other? And using the deaf person as almost, I say, symptomatic of our feelings about the other, whether it be color, or deafness, or--we'll just call it handicap--or blindness, or homosexuality. The different. Whatever is considered--and I say "considered"--the norm. What advance would you say has been made? Has there been significant advancement?

Oliver Sacks Well, I think there's a very interesting and important theory now which applies to all sorts of things. When one has theories of the brain being programmed--genetically programmed or otherwise--then I think this imposes a vision of uniformity--that there's only one way to develop. Whereas if one realizes that the--brains are very diverse, even at birth, even in identical twins and that the brain is set to develop in its own way, then I think this can become a theory of autonomy, of freedom, of diversity. And I think there's a very beautiful biological theory which Edelman, Gerald Edelman, has brought out, which really will become the biological basis of humanism, and of allowing a world full of different lives.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And you would worry about genetic engineering?

Oliver Sacks Oh, very much so.

Studs Terkel Absolutely. Yeah.

Oliver Sacks I mean, I worry about all standardization.

Studs Terkel Yes. Yeah. It's funny--I'm glad--we've got to, when you come, I know you have to go to San Francisco now, but when you come back--and you've got to--I want you to, your thoughts about that--about DNA, about everything, the genetic engineering--especially that. We have to, don't we?

Oliver Sacks I'd love that.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Oliver Sacks, as always, why don't you end, that, page 163. Of course, you asked that--Has it all been changed? This new sense of self. Page 163. Pick it up anywhere you wish.

Oliver Sacks Okay. "This new sense of themselves represents a decisive break from the past, which could not have been imagined just a few months ago. But has all been changed? Will there be a lasting 'transformation of consciousness'? Will deaf people at Gallaudet, and the deaf community at large, indeed find the opportunities they seek? Will we, the hearing, allow them these opportunities? Allow them to be themselves, a unique culture in our midst, yet admit them as co-equals, to every sphere of activity? One hopes the events at Gallaudet will be but the beginning."

Studs Terkel Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks, thank you very much. The book is "Seeing Voices".