Oliver W. Sacks talks with Studs Terkel
BROADCAST: Mar. 15, 1995 | DURATION: 00:54:22
Discussing the book "An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales" (published by Knopf) with the author, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks.
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Oliver Sacks "I am writing this with my left hand, although I am strongly right-handed. I had surgery to my right shoulder a month ago and am not permitted, not capable of, use of the right arm at this time. I write slowly, awkwardly--but more easily, more naturally, with each passing day. I am adapting, learning, all the while--not merely this left-handed writing, but a dozen other left-handed skills as well."
Studs Terkel That's Oliver Sacks reading a deceptively casual preface to his most recent book. Oliver Sacks, who has the, he's a wonder of a neurologist who has the soul of a poet but the writing gifts of a fine novelist, as you know having read his other works. His most recent book is called "An Anthropologist on Mars," and the subtitle, "Seven Paradoxical Tales." You remember the movie "Awakenings," that, too, based upon his writings, case histories of some, of Tourette people--I won't use the word victims because that's something entirely different. Tourette people, as well as autistic people, too. And this most recent one, that opening tells me a lot about you, Oliver--why you are so remarkable in your reaching out to those who are your patients. You, yourself speak of your own experience with something that could be a handicap becoming something of a new avenue, a new opening for you.
Oliver Sacks Well, I, when I first found the arm immobilized I kept, I was in big trouble because I'm so strongly right-handed and my balance was off. But it was--I was very intrigued to find how quickly things started to change and even now I've sort of got use of the right arm back completely, I've kept some of those left-handed skills and so it did actually add something to my repertoire.
Studs Terkel These left-Handed skills that--even left-handed can, you know, be a metaphor for hitherto untried skills come into play because you had this accident.
Oliver Sacks Oh, absolutely. I was challenged and my nervous system was challenged in a way which it had never been before.
Studs Terkel And so you have "Seven Paradoxical Tales." I suppose the operative word is paradoxical, in which you have people who have certain symptoms of diseases but because of that they've developed, what, adaptation is the word. They develop new kinds of skills they hadn't had before.
Oliver Sacks Right. And sometimes more deeply they have become reorganized and sort of developed different centers, almost, to their lives.
Studs Terkel Is it fair to say that you, yourself--we'll come to, you, Oliver Sacks, revealed some of your own vulnerabilities as you talk, as you and the [patient's?] together? They recognize that, don't they? That you're a fellow passenger?
Oliver Sacks Yes. Yes, I think so. Perhaps I've changed. Originally I used to think of myself as remote and detached and, you know, almost a sort of a godlike figure. But now I feel I'm quite as vulnerable as they are and they can see that. And I think there's certainly a sort of sharing.
Studs Terkel Let's start with the first tale. We start with "The Colorblind Painter." And here's a rather distinguished, successful painter who is a master, by the way, of color. And you have [by him?] some illustrations in the book.
Oliver Sacks Well, I got a letter from him at the start of 1986, saying that he had had a car accident and a head injury three weeks before. He'd been stunned. He'd been briefly amnesic but then he found that he had lost all his sense of color. And later he amplified the letter and he described to me how he had driven to his studio the following day. He knew it was a bright, sunny day but everything looked gray and misty. The police stopped him for going past two red lights. He said he hadn't noticed them. His paintings were drained of color and since color had been so important for him, [well?] they were drained of meaning as well. And then in a sort of panic he went home and he found his wife had been transformed, that she had become, as he put it, an animated, gray statue. And then as he looked at his own flesh, he shuddered at the grayness of it. He closed his eyes, trying to bring color back but he found his imagination and his memory had been voided of color, too. And so this was the story and he wrote to me and said, can you understand, can you help, what's happened?
Studs Terkel And so this is how it begins. Here he lost color, which provided so much, if I may say so, color to his life. Suddenly everything is gray. The oranges are gray, and dull, and leaden, and deadly. Now, we're in a quandary here, aren't we? Now what happens?
Oliver Sacks Well, I saw him. He was very depressed then. He felt this was the end of him as an artist and as a man. Neurologically, the matter was relatively simple. You know, neurologists are employed to make diagnoses and fix things if they can. I tested him and it became evident that two small areas at the back of the brain, in the visual parts of the brain, had been knocked out. One needs these areas to construct color. Color isn't just given to us. Color has to be constructed by the brain from information which comes to it and he, and if that's knocked out then you can no longer see color, or imagine it, or remember it, or dream it.
Studs Terkel So here is an artist, a painter, known for his color and his [art?], but now, daily, something is happening unexpected. He's developing something called a night vision. The darkness suddenly becomes, in a sense, light to him as it would be dark to others. Or am I wrong about that?
Oliver Sacks Well, I think something like this happened later. But at the time he came to me he was conscious only of impoverishment, ugliness, horror, and a sort of nightmare vision. One could find that these two little areas had been knocked out. I said I didn't know if there'd be any recovery. But I, you know, and I couldn't do anything to promote recovery, but I hoped that he might start to feel more at home and at least cope with this black and white world.
Studs Terkel Ah, now wait. Now, I forgot, I eliminated you here. You, now, are seeing him and you see the quandary he's in. And you, yourself, by the way, in writing this, you're just recovering from the loss of the right hand temporarily. But you're developing something else with your left [and? in?] other aspects. So, in a way, subconsciously that might have been a work with you? Maybe he can, something else can happen to make up for his loss of color?
Oliver Sacks Well, I hope that this might be the case. What did happen was really rather dramatic. About four or five weeks after the injury, as he was driving to the studio one morning, although he hadn't done any work in that time, he saw the sun rise. He can't see red and the sunrise [to him?] seemed smoky and dramatic and, as he said it, apocalyptic. He thought it was like some huge nuclear explosion. He wondered if anyone had ever seen such a sunrise before or sunrise in such a way before. And he went back and he did a very powerful black and white painting which he called "Nuclear Sunrise." And this for him was the beginning of a change.
Studs Terkel Now, that "Nuclear Sunrise," which is stunning, and you have reproductions here, that "Nuclear Sunrise" that he did, that is apocalyptic, and stark, black and white--he could not have done had he not lost a sense of color. Or could he?
Oliver Sacks No, I think it did represent a new, the beginnings of a new sort of sensibility for him. And now the world, which had lost its meaning and power with color, regained meaning and power but in different terms. And he also felt that the sense of texture and movement was heightened. He felt that his night vision was heightened. He started to feel that he hadn't just lost something but that something new and important was coming to him. And this charged up his painting and sensibility again.
Studs Terkel As you say, so, here's the thing: adaptation and something new is developing that might not have been. And even light--he saw light in a new light, [unintelligible]? You know, I was thinking of something strange, but I was thinking of Hopper. I don't know why.
Oliver Sacks Yes. Well, it's, interestingly I know another sort of totally colorblind person who loves Hopper's work more than any other.
Studs Terkel Now explain that. I said it because it hit me.
Oliver Sacks Well, this is part of your clairvoyance. I think, of course, a lot of Hopper's paintings are night scenes.
Studs Terkel Well, of course, "Nighthawks."
Studs Terkel Well, in my case it's personal, because below the hotel where I was a little boy was an all-night restaurant, much like the diner in Hopper's. So night scenes, and now we come to night, don't we?
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel To our friend, Mr. I., this painter.
Oliver Sacks Well, he started to become a night person, as he said. He didn't like the glare and brightness of the day. He would--but he started exploring at night and he said he felt the equal of anyone else at night. And many of his paintings were nocturnal scenes. But one saw how the whole organization of his, of his life changed.
Studs Terkel Yeah. See, and, [so formed?]. And now, in other words, we come to the end of this--well, there's much more to it, of course--to this case history. It was a new world of seeing. Using your words, a new world of seeing. He saw a new way and, so, forms, oh, forms--somehow Mondrian. Explain the use of the Mondrian test.
Oliver Sacks Oh, well this is a complicated sort of thing.
Studs Terkel Oh.
Oliver Sacks But in, sometimes one can use geometrical abstracts, rather like the paintings of Mondrian to test color vision. You know, the perception of color isn't just some simple, physical translation of wave length, but it depends on making a survey of a whole scene and this is tested with a Mondrian's. One could show with this test, in fact, that this painter was receiving the wavelength information in his brain but he couldn't connect it to construct color. And this, in fact, led to a suggestion by a colleague that it might be possible to train another part of his brain to construct color. And the painter's response to this was very interesting. He said if you would have offered this to me at first, he said, I would have loved you. You would have given me what I had lost, back. He said, now I don't want it. He said color has become meaningless. He said my world is reconstructed and it's complete, and coherent, and fine as it is.
Studs Terkel That's fantastic.
Oliver Sacks And you keep color.
Studs Terkel And he's doing it now?
Oliver Sacks And he's doing it now.
Studs Terkel Sans color. This is the first
Studs Terkel Right. This is the first of Oliver Sack's, new book, it's called "An Anthropologist on Mars." We'll come to that, the very title itself--alien place for this particular person, this woman, who's remarkable. And, of course, we'll come to "The Last Hippie," to the surgeon with Tourette's, to a special kind of artist, to re-see, he re-sees the home town of his childhood, landscape of his dreams. And an autistic kid who becomes a remarkable artist. But in every case, Oliver Sacks, you find this new avenue opening that would not have opened had they not had that disease. That's the paradox.
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel Well, having Oliver Sacks as a guest is always a delight because it's exciting, but always that added element involving the human spirit; the body befouled, diseased in so many ways, and yet overcoming it. And a new something occurs, as in the case of, well, "The Last Hippie" is more of a wistful one. This was a, well, describe "The Last Hippie."
Oliver Sacks Well, this, Greg was born in the 50s and he was a hippie, part of the hippie generation in the 60s, and he was very musical. He was one of the first Deadheads. He loved the Grateful Dead. But he also smoked pot and he took acid. He used to go down and listen to Allen Ginsberg declaiming in the Village, and then he joined the Hare Krishna movement. And there things went wrong. He complained that he wasn't seeing properly, that something was happening with his vision. But this got interpreted spiritually, as an inner light, as illumination.
Studs Terkel State of bliss. Bliss.
Oliver Sacks State of bliss. And other symptoms also got misinterpreted and, really, in a very tragic way he was allowed to develop a large brain tumor which blinded him and altered his personality. It pressed on the frontal lobes and it pressed on the memory centers and the temporal lobes. When the tumor was removed, it was a benign tumor, the damage had been done. And so, when he came in to our hospital in '75, he was a young man with no future, in a sense. And with an amnesia which had marooned him in the 1960s because nothing new could be registered.
Studs Terkel So things registered with him in the 60s, even the songs of the Grateful Dead, music now and then would pick him up, rock 'n roll, especially Grateful Dead. That would help him. There was a figure, almost clay-like, coming alive and hearing some of the music. For a moment.
Oliver Sacks Well, for a moment, sometimes for minutes. I'm fascinated by this power of music. I saw it in the "Awakenings" patients and I've seen it in so many and I experienced it myself when I was a patient.
Studs Terkel Was that when you broke your leg and you were in a cast and you were laid up for a while, if I remember right, a mountain climbing accident?
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel "A Leg to Stand On." It was Mozart and music that saved you.
Oliver Sacks Yeah. I mean, in a sort of way I'd forgotten what the use of the leg and what walking was like. And I think, I think music sort of brought back the rhythms. But certainly with Greg, this, who would be blank and zombie-like for much of the time, he came alive completely with music. And at one point I wanted to sort of see him have more of a life. And when I heard the Grateful Dead was in town, in '91--
Studs Terkel You took him to Madison Square Garden.
Oliver Sacks Right. And the first half of the concert was all early music. He knew it all. He loved it. And no problems. Although he kept questioning me about--he knew all the Grateful Dead people--but he kept saying, he asked where they were, I pointed them out, and he said, "Where's Pigpen?" And I said to him, he's not with them anymore. And he said, "What happened? He got busted or something?" And I said, no, Greg, he died. And he said, "That's awful." And then 30 seconds later he said, "Is that Pigpen there?" And so he couldn't--
Studs Terkel So there isn't that, so there's an Alzheimer kind of--
Oliver Sacks Well, he's--not Alzheimer-like, he's not demented. I think Greg is very bright. But he's like an amnesic, like Jimmie, "The Lost Mariner," whom I wrote about.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I remember that.
Oliver Sacks But, certainly, he knew everything of the first half and then he didn't seem like [unintelligible]--
Studs Terkel So that's it, everything went dead after the 60s. He knew all the 60s songs of the Grateful Dead but not the new. So when he heard those, now, I have to come back to you, Oliver Sacks. We can't leave you out of this. You took him to Madison Square Garden, and you sat with him there, and you become part of the lives of these people, themselves. You are, as I said earlier [unintelligible], you're a fellow passenger on this journey. You are.
Oliver Sacks Well, I, yeah, I think one needs to share the experience as much as possible. In the second half, Greg got very puzzled. He said it's weird stuff. He said it's like the music of the future. And that gave me a chill when he said that because, of course, it is a future for him which, in a sense, he can never know. But he was in a great mood, sort of, coming back from the concert and said, he said, I'll never forget it, you know, wonderful--
Studs Terkel There was a great moment, do you remember, now, did he forget it?
Oliver Sacks Well, the next morning I went up to the ward and he was looking sort of a bit blank. But I brought up the subject. I crossed my fingers, I said, you know, "What about the Grateful Dead?" And he said, "Oh, they're a great group." He said, "I heard them in Central Park, I heard them in Fillmore East." And I said, "Yeah, but have you heard them lately? Have you heard them in Madison Square Garden?" And he said, "No." He said, "I've never been to the Garden."
Studs Terkel And that was the night before. He was there.
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel So what--the last time you saw him, he's back in that [unintelligible]--
Oliver Sacks Right. And yet, and yet--and this is my footnote to the end of the piece--the interesting thing was he remembered some of the new music even though he didn't know where he had heard it. And I think musical memory may have somewhat different mechanisms.
Studs Terkel Yeah. I notice, musical memory, before we go to the third life, the surgeon with Tourette's, a remarkable Canadian figure, before that--musical memory. I remember there was talk about, [unintelligible] years ago, it was in Hungary, and some old women--no, old women came to America and they were, you know, they lost mind, and memory, and all, but someone played Hungarian folk music as collected by Bartok and Kodály. And they heard the Hungarian folk songs of their young girlhood. And suddenly they came alive.
Oliver Sacks Oh, absolutely. No, one sees this again and again. And you mentioned Alzheimer's disease, but I think with people who have often become disorganized and very lost through Alzheimer's disease, music from their youth or familiar music will suddenly recall them to themselves and to their former worlds, and even, sort of, the EEGs get better--neurologically, they can be much better for a few minutes. And I think this sort of, you know, the music has a great power, I think to--
Studs Terkel Oliver Sacks, "An Anthropologist on Mars." We'll save that story for, it is the last story. We spoke of a surgeon--there's a surgeon, a remarkable, in Canada named Bennett and he's got Tourette's. Just a word about Tourette's for those who may not know? You were the first, well, Tourette's was known, but you were the first one to really make it known to the great many of us through earlier of your books, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," and some of the earlier stories. Tourette's involves tics of various sorts and, isn't it--
Oliver Sacks And all sorts of convulsive movements, and noises, and sometimes thoughts as well. And people who have it sort of seem, seem sort of accelerated and sudden. And this was certainly so with this man Bennett, whom I'd seen at a meeting in, actually, in Boston and some of his tics were very extraordinary. One of them consisted of suddenly putting his foot on top of people's heads. It was a very, very agile, and, you know, one somehow felt, affectionate tic.
Studs Terkel By the way, he was a highly respected surgeon lecturing to some of the young medical students. But as he's lecturing--it's funny. By the way, you don't mind, and I imagine Tourette's people wouldn't mind too much if people laughed, too. Because they know sometimes what they do is funny.
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Oliver Sacks Oh, absolutely.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And so what he's doing is he's kicking his feet in the air, I think. I forgot what it was, as he's lecturing, and the students are listening, deadpan, seriously, to his very excellent lectures as he's kicking his feet.
Oliver Sacks Ah, no, well, when he told me he was a teacher and a surgeon I couldn't believe it. But then I, when I as you say, when I visited him in Canada I saw him talking with his colleagues, sort of lying on his back and sort of kicking his foot in the air. And but, you know, but with a sort of perfectly composed discourse.
Studs Terkel So there's a split here. That is, now, well, he is able to--and we'll come to some autistic people, [remarkably?]--he is able to concentrate so much on his work as a surgeon that the Tourette's syndrome tics all disappear, don't they? At that moment he's doing that operation.
Oliver Sacks Well, I scrubbed with him for a long operation. It was two-and-a-half hours and there was no hint of Tourette's in it. And he wasn't controlling it. He--there was just no impulse to tic at that time. And all his, all, his whole mind and he said he just was thinking of his work and thinking of the operation. And one can see this in other ways with, sometimes with Tourettic artists or musicians that, when they're in the mode of art or whatever, they may not have any tics.
Studs Terkel Well, one of your patients earlier, in an earlier work [you describe?], this guy, weekends, was a great jazz drummer [and other work?]. And he had wild Tourette symptoms. Explain that--what happened.
Oliver Sacks Well, yeah this is the man I call Witty Ticcy Ray in the "Hat" book. Well, in his excited state he was a very good jazz drummer. He might suddenly, convulsively hit the drums and then very rapidly he would improvise on this. And he was famous for these improvisations which were actually partly--
Studs Terkel While he had Tourette's?
Oliver Sacks Partly Tourettic, yeah. And when he was on medication to damp things down, he in fact, he lost the ability to improvise or even play decently.
Studs Terkel So, when he lost the Tourette's symptoms with the medication he could be, whatever, he was a good accountant or something. I don't mean to put down accountants, but [other than that?]. Whereas the great jazz drummer with Tourette's!
Oliver Sacks And now, you know, with Bennett the surgeon, I don't know whether he lost his Tourette's when he was operating or whether, as it were, the Tourettic energy was somehow cohered into a creative [way?].
Studs Terkel Is it fair to say--I may be jumping, maybe assuming--that Tourette's is really a symptom of creative people? Not all the cases, but there's a creative aspect. Or is that assuming too much?
Oliver Sacks Well, anyone can have Tourette's. You can be a genius, you can be a moron; it sort of makes no distinctions. But it does have a sort of energy of its own. Indeed, there's been a recent book about Tourette's called "A Mind of Its Own." And something like Tourette's, with its sort of strange energy, and its swerves, and its fancies, I think, can connect with the mind, and if it's present, with the creativity of the person to produce an intriguing sort of compound. And I think that when this sort of Tourette-ized creativity, or create, or personalized Tourette's--
Studs Terkel So, the word here: you brought up the word energy. There's an energy here. As, you were describing a woman--this may have been an addendum to the "Hat" book.
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Studs Terkel It's called the "Hat" book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." This woman who has Tourette's, somewhere along 42nd Street goes into the alley and starts mimicking all the passers-by. They recognize themselves, she's so good, that they're furious.
Oliver Sacks And although this wasn't a conscious mimicry, it was a sort of convulsive taking in of other people's gestures and faces, and even in split seconds. But there is, no, there's a huge energy in Tourette's. And it can tear people apart. But it can--and be very disabling--but it can also be focused in a very positive way.
Studs Terkel Yeah. So this is Dr. Bennett, then, and the operations, and he's highly respected. And as you leave him, you're with him, of course, he has you wash up with him and watch the operation. In another case you take part in some adventures with some of your patients. So, he flies a plane, an airplane--Dr. Bennett, the Tourette guy. And you're his passenger.
Oliver Sacks Yeah. I was a bit taken aback. I thought I was just going to take a commercial airline back to Calgary and he suddenly said that he'd fly me in his little plane. He said, "I'm the world's only flying Tourette-surgeon." And I was a bit alarmed. But he did have sort of little tics in the plane--he would sort of touch his eyes, his nose, the cockpit. I kept having fantasies that he would have big tics and sort of spin the plane, or loop the loop, or he'd suddenly leap out and touch the propeller. You know, people with Tourette's are often fascinated by spinning objects and they like, sometimes, playing with danger or playing with boundaries. But, in fact, none of this happened and he was a superb pilot as he was a superb surgeon.
Studs Terkel So as you left him last, he's a surgeon with Tourette's. Simple as that, isn't it?
Oliver Sacks Right. And, you know, and after I'd originally written the piece, five more surgeons with Tourette's came out of the closet, as well as some other medical men. And I think, Studs, you told me that you, yourself, had once known a psychiatrist with Tourette's?
Studs Terkel Well, this guy who was a, remarkably, very well-respected one. But he would bark like a dog. He barked, continuously, in the middle of conversations and you hear that sound, and then--but when he got up to lecture, and I heard him a couple of times, he was just like Dr. Bennett--he was remarkable: easy, cool, control, eloquent. Not a bark in a carload, you know. And so there it was, that aspect. So adaptation, or what? I guess the word is concentration on what you're doing at that moment.
Oliver Sacks I don't know what happens but whatever it is I think the whole sort of, you know, nervous system is reconfigured.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Oliver Sacks. You realize, like with Joe Louis, there's more where that came from. Always, it seems, of course, your books continuous, your stories, your case histories. That, of course, theatrical--that is, not accidentally so many of your works have been adapted. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat," or "The Man Who," now a play enthusiastically received in New York, directed by Peter Brook. It's also become the basis of an opera.
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel And then, you know, the movie in which Robin Williams played you. Was that a pretty good interpretation of yourself?
Oliver Sacks It was disconcertingly close at times.
Studs Terkel And, but it's true, though, that your work, then, is by the very nature theatrical, isn't it? Because what we're describing is theater.
Oliver Sacks Yeah, I know. I think there is a sort of living theater when, you know, in the clinical life people open themselves, they tell you these stories of how life has, you know, how a strange sort of neurology has wounded them or pushed them in various ways in their responses. And, but I think even with, you know, there's a sort of bad theater, I think--it would be awful to portray people as a sort of freak show. But I think with respect one can convey the drama.
Studs Terkel But also, to me, it's overcoming; the idea that you overcome. I don't mean a sentimental overcome. I mean the fact that, you and that, again, that surgery on your right hand and your left hand gets to work. You know, they used to say the right hand doer, the left hand is the dreamer, some of the jazzmen say. And, so, the dream. So, how to describe you? Neurologist, yet, you know, you're a wonderful writer. But you're also a chronicler. And, in fact, there's a poetic touch. But it can't be helped--that's what you are, and that's the work you do. And so there is this artist. His name is Magnani.
Oliver Sacks Franco.
Oliver Sacks Right. Here, again, it was a sort of, a happy accident that we met. The museum in San Francisco, the Exploratorium, had an exhibit on memory and he was billed as the memory artist. They had 50 of his paintings there of the little village where he'd been born in Italy, Pontito. And next to these photos taken by the Exploratorium's photographer, in exactly the same places wherever possible, as the paintings were done from. Now the resemblance was uncanny. But Franco had not seen his village for thirty years or more. And he, this, in fact, was entirely the village as it was before he was nine years old. And so he was somehow retrieving apparently very, very early memories. And was haunted and obsessed by them, but putting them down very accurately. And this whole business struck me as very strange. I wanted to sort of learn more about it.
Studs Terkel It's the "Remembrance of Things Past," as Proust does, but there's something else here. It's not inward, as you point out. It's outward.
Oliver Sacks Well, I found myself wondering whether he was a sort of visual Proust. Although there were no events and no people in his paintings. It was just the stones and the masonry. Almost like a stage set, this strange sort of motionless Pontito, ready to be populated but never actually populated. But this had, things had come on him suddenly, actually, when he was in his early 30s when he decided to start life in America. And then he had an illness and he had a high fever, seizures, convulsions, and strange dreams in which he would dream of Pontito every night. And when he woke in the morning these dreams were solid, like three-dimensional hallucinations or visions in front of him. And though he'd never drawn before he felt he could take a pen and trace the outlines. Now, I think it's very odd and complex. I think Franco has a sort of epilepsy, as it were. An epilepsy of memory.
Studs Terkel An epilepsy of memory because it takes a jump, sudden starts. You say he had details, almost photographic and yet it's not. And yet, for example, I'm looking at one right now of his, it looks like a Magritte for some reason.
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel It's not real. It's dream-like.
Oliver Sacks Yeah. Well, these, I think, seizures are the sort, you know, which used to be described as literal memories, also have, may have all sorts of dream-like qualities. And certainly he, himself, if he has an organic malady here, a strange sort of epilepsy, he's certainly using it in a way both obsessive and creative to recreate a vision of this village.
Studs Terkel You know, it's funny, throughout these tales the creativity appears. Except, perhaps, in the case of "The Last Hippie," but even then [unintelligible]--but in almost every other case the creativity comes out of the disease.
Oliver Sacks Well, here again, with temporal lobe epilepsy, in a strange way this can sometimes incline people in a sort of mystical direction, or can incline them to verbosity, or compulsive drawing. It can sometimes ruin a life, as Tourette's can, but also, sometimes it can be held together in a creative way and heighten a life which, I think, it's certainly done with Franco, although it's complex because his life is also impoverished in the present. Because his mind is always in the past.
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] A paradoxical tale. We haven't come to autism. Now we have to come to--autism immediately is a frightening word, as it is a frightening burden, we know, to young people, others. Autism, and a couple of people in it who are remarkable, though aut--not though autistic--autistic and remarkable. We'll start with Stephen Wiltshire, the West Indian kid of 13, 14. The artist. The painter.
Oliver Sacks Well, again, I first heard of Stephen because a publisher sent me some of his drawings and, along with some history of him. And I was staggered by these exquisite drawings of London, and puzzled. When I was next in London I spoke to my brother, who is a physician there, and strangely he said, "Stephen? He's a patient of mine!"
Studs Terkel He's your brother's patient!
Studs Terkel You come from a family of medical people, neurologists and [unintelligible].
Oliver Sacks And so my brother, David, filled me in with the early history that Stephen had been manifestly autistic at the age of two, rocking and screaming. Everything had become much worse with the death of his father when he was three. He was sent to a special school but he was really regarded as hopeless and ineducable. And then when he was 6, a teacher had discovered him doing exquisite tiny drawings of the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. And Stephen hadn't gone through any of the usual stages of doodling and drawings which other children do. Just suddenly there were these, these exquisite drawings and very rapidly, sort of, these won an exhibit. They were sent in. And, so, when I heard about things, Stephen had become nationally famous in England. There's been a television program and he was about to have a book published. So he was certainly a prodigy. An autistic and retarded boy with a so-called savant gift for drawing. And I was very curious to meet him. And I got a chance to do so for the first time the following year when he came to New York. At that time his language was very poor. He would nod his head, and smile, and he had a few words. We went outside. He glanced at my house and then he went back and did a beautiful little drawing of it. Actually, I felt he could have done the entire street. I think in that single indifferent, but all-comprehensive glance, I think he'd taken in the whole street. I was puzzled, you know. He, on the one hand, one couldn't interrupt him and there was, it was almost as if there was a tremendous sort of concentration in a sense. And in another way, he seemed to be looking around, and whistling, and listening to a tape recorder, so it was as if only a part of him was doing this drawing. And the rest of him, sort of, seemed unconnected.
Studs Terkel So it's, it was concentration on the drawing but his ability was such that, even though he may not have been fully concentrating on it--of course, there were distractions--he would come through with these remarkable works. Like one, he was doing a takeoff on Matisse. But the fact is you have illustrations here, this is Matisse. I mean, he caught the spirit, or what you called "Matisseness." It was not simply recr--it's not simply imitating. It's more than that.
Oliver Sacks Well, I'm not sure what it is. And, incidentally, I know one, of one autistic artist who became a great menace as a forger. He is now employed in one of the great auction houses and he's very good at telling other people's forgeries!
Studs Terkel Really?
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Studs Terkel This is interesting. So this guy became, so a, someone, a creative autist can go two ways. I can't do well--can do people good, and do people good.
Oliver Sacks Right. Absolutely. Well, Stephen seems able to catch anything, whether it's a Matisse, whether it's the Grand Canyon, whether it's a cathedral, whether it's an elephant. And but, you know, and so brilliantly, I mean, his drawings are quite wonderful and they've brought joy to millions of people.
Studs Terkel [You know?], I'm thinking of one Dr. Bettelheim, head of the Orthogenic School in Chicago. One of his, in "The Empty Fortress," his book, he speaks of Joey the Mechanical Boy.
Oliver Sacks Right.
Studs Terkel And Joey the Mechanical Boy was so good, he was an autistic, that people would--there were no wires, but he said there were wires. And he acted as though there actually were all kinds of wires. People, visitors would step over the imaginary wires or walk around because they believed Joey. So one day, Dr. Bettelheim asked if he could come to WFMT studios, he's interested in being a radio engineer, and I met him. And he's quite remarkable. I wouldn't, I couldn't tell one thing or another whether he was or--he seemed quite normal. He was Joey the Mechanical Boy and learning things from our engineer, listening, and I think he became a sound engineer somewhere else. But it's that constant, but it's that making others believe it's actually so.
Oliver Sacks Well, a good number--something like at least 10 percent and sometimes, I think, it may be much more than that--of autistic people have these, these strange gifts and concentrations, sometimes visual, sometimes musical. Stephen is very musical, as well. Although sometimes these seem to be unconnected with, you know, with personality or the mind as a whole. They're very isolated, strange gifts. But of a prodigious order.
Studs Terkel So we have the strengths. I don't mean to be Pollyanna, not that, there's tragic stuff, but we have these strengths that come through as a result of the disease. What is it, you're quoting the celebrated Osler here at the beginning, in one of your epigraphs. What is it you say? "Ask not what disease the person has, rather what person the disease has." So it's that--you were about to say?
Oliver Sacks No, well, it's never just the disease. There's always this conjunction. So how much has autism brought to Stephen, but how much has Stephen brought to autism?
Studs Terkel Yeah. Oliver Sacks. This recent book is called "An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales," and it's almost a continuation of all your others. But more and more and more we find out about this crazy thing called the human, what, psyche. But possibilities within that which is definitely a disease.
Oliver Sacks Right. And the different ways in which people can make their worlds and how, paradoxically, disease can almost force one to make another world, and a different sort of world.
Studs Terkel And so, with Oliver Sacks, you know, it's amazing how quickly, I feel [like doing?] another hour with you, but we shall meet again, and again, and again. And certainly when your play based upon "The Man Who"--it's called "The Man
Studs Terkel Will be coming to Chicago. Perhaps you'll be here with your next book, too. And before I forget, I remember also a book on the world of the deaf. What was that called again?
Studs Terkel "Seeing Voices." And then, just to name some of the books, of course, "Migraine," that's one of your earliest ones. "Awakenings," of course, we know. "A Leg to Stand On," your own adventure. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." And then the new one, called--this one: "An Anthropologist on Mars."
Oliver Sacks Well, the title was given to me by this remarkable woman, Temple, who at three was screaming, and rocking, and seemed as autistic as Stephen. But then, perhaps partly because she had a different form of autism, sometimes called Asperger syndrome, she was able to acquire good language and all sorts of intellectual skills. And, indeed, she is now a professor in Colorado. She's a professor of animal behavior and she is, in fact, the world's expert on cattle psychology and behavior, as she understands them and she loves them deeply. It was very, very moving to see her with cattle. A tremendous rapport. By contrast with this, she is bewildered by human beings. She finds us opaque, sort of bizarre, dissembling, complicated. She has learned various forms of, sort of social behavior by rote. And she says she's studying us closely. And at that point she's--
Studs Terkel Studying us? The human species?
Oliver Sacks Yes. She's studying the species closely. And she, and at that point she said she felt like an anthropologist on Mars.
Studs Terkel Ah, that's it. So on a distant, on an alien planet, she, the autistic woman who understands animals, especially cattle, [very well you said?]. The human being is a strange species, our fellow human. So, you think she might dis--just asking you this, Oliver--do you think that she, because of her situation, that intelligence that is there, at the same time the autistic condition that separates her from the rest as far as emotions--I'll ask you about that--might be able to come up with something that someone non-autistic could not?
Oliver Sacks Well, she certainly can see with a very, very clear eye. You know, it's also been suggested that perhaps Sherlock Holmes was autistic.
Studs Terkel Ah.
Oliver Sacks And, you know, that somehow this mixture of high logic and observation with a certain detachment from human concerns. I think, amongst other things, Temple is a very good judge of scientific papers because she's never swayed by hostility or rivalry. But there's, no, I think there's a sort of great, great single-mindedness, and honesty, and extreme clarity in a mind like this.
Studs Terkel So she, one of the great authorities on animal behavior, especially cattle. And you describe the scene with her and cows. In fact, she took you into it. She managed a trick way to get you to pass whatever the security might be there. Now, her feelings about emotions such as love or sex are not there.
Oliver Sacks Well, no, I think the emotions are there. And I think she sometimes yearns for relationship. As an adolescent she was terribly puzzled by dating. She didn't really know what was happening, what was expected, what was intimated, what was implied, how she should respond. I mean, perhaps one doesn't have to be autistic to be puzzled by dating, but, and she, but it was too much for her and she decided to be celibate and be a scientist.
Studs Terkel But she's invented a machine. A hug machine.
Oliver Sacks Yeah. I saw this strange machine in her room. It had a, big slanting sides, and a sort of trough. And she said when she was very young she had longed to be hugged but had been terrified of all contact and wondered whether one could have a machine which would administer a hug but be controllable by her.
Studs Terkel Oh, controllable by her? In other words--
Studs Terkel That hug is kinesthetic, that hug is--whatever it is--it's physical feeling? A physical feeling.
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Studs Terkel But she controls it.
Oliver Sacks Well, and so, then she went--now when she was an adolescent she saw what's called a squeeze chute--
Studs Terkel Squeeze?
Oliver Sacks For holding calves, for squeezing calves and restraining them. And she decided--she's very practical--to adapt this to human use. And, so, she developed this for herself. And she demonstrated its use to me. She lay down in it, and she sort of, it sort of works by compressed air.
Studs Terkel How did she feel about you? Of course, you now are getting to know her pretty well.
Oliver Sacks Yeah. Well, I was a bit taken aback and sort of, a little embarrassed to be sort of taken into her bedroom and sort of shown this strange machine. She herself showed no diffidence, and no embarrassment, which I think are really emotions unknown to her. By the same token there was no exhibitionism and no shame. I mean we're so used to these complicated emotions with others and, you know, her transparency is complete.
Studs Terkel Yeah. But now we come to something else: her feeling about animals and being killed, and she sees a connection between that and capital punishment.
Oliver Sacks Well--
Oliver Sacks Yes, indeed. Well, she certainly connects the mishandling of people with the mishandling of animals, and cruelty to both, she thinks, go together, and abuse of both. She is sort of passionately against abuse of animals or of people. And, but she said yes, she thought that in certain states like Georgia where capital punishment was in, that they were cruelest to animals.
Studs Terkel She saw that connection?
Oliver Sacks Well--
Studs Terkel They were cruelest to animals who were also most fervent about capital punishment. Vehement about capital punishment. Yeah. That's interesting.
Oliver Sacks Well, whether she saw it or she created it, certainly it was something she, you know, which was in her mind.
Studs Terkel So, she also said that, didn't you say, that she could be non-autistic? Somewhere along the line she said--
Oliver Sacks Well, you know, she--I remember a lecture she gave in New York, and she said if I could flick my fingers and be non-autistic, she said I wouldn't, because autism is part of the way I am. And I have met other autistic people who, you know, who are also conscious of some of the, if you want, some of the positive sides of autism. And are prepared to be, to take pride almost, in being another species, rather than being seen as disabled versions of us.
Studs Terkel But it is the work. The work. Work is all. The work becomes the key, doesn't it then? And that overcomes everything, doesn't it?
Oliver Sacks Well, certainly with Temple, she seems to work, work all the while. And I think she loves her work. And so the Freudian sort of prescription of work and love, I think, was also true of her.
Studs Terkel Lieben und arbeiten.
Studs Terkel And so, in her case the lieben is secondary here. It may or may not be, but it's arbeit. Yeah.
Studs Terkel It is arbeit, yeah. Yeah. And, so we're, it's a remarkable a book that Oliver Sacks has done once more. So toward the end you speak of something out of disorder. Order.
Oliver Sacks Well, right at the end she got into a very remarkable state of mind. And we were driving, I was due to go to the airport, and she started speaking of herself. She said that she had been brought up religious, that she had given up belief in a personal God or agency. I think, incidentally, this may have been partly because of her autism, because agency is hardly conceivable by autistic people. This is part of the nature of autism--that intentions and states of mind are, you know, not well conceived. But she said she had a scientific notion of God as a sort of evolution of order out of disorder in the universe. And then she went on to say that other people could transmit genes--she felt she couldn't--but she could, perhaps, transmit something of herself, some thoughts and some words.
Studs Terkel You said God creating order out of disorder--that is, some would say, those are the description of art. Order out of chaos. Ben Shahn, the artist said that: order out of chaos. In a way, she's saying that, too, isn't she?
Oliver Sacks Yeah. No, she's certainly, you know, Nietzsche once said the world is a work of art that is creating itself. And I think this notion of self-creation, self-organization is something she has strongly.
Studs Terkel I think the last paragraph of your book you should read because it's a lulu. It's about her and the farewell to you. It's on page 296. Temple Grandin, she's driving you to the airport and you're talking about God, and order out of disorder, and then she starts crying. The last--
Oliver Sacks Well, she says, "'Most people can pass on genes--I can pass on thoughts or what I write. This is what I get very upset at.' Temple, who was driving, suddenly faltered and wept. 'I've read that libraries are where immortality lies. I don't want my thoughts to die with me. I want to have done something. I'm not interested in power, or piles of money. I want to leave something behind. I want to make a positive contribution--know that my life has meaning. Right now, I'm talking about things at the very core of my existence.' I was stunned. As I stepped out of the car to say goodbye, I said, 'I'm going to hug you. I hope you don't mind.' I hugged her--and (I think) she hugged me back."
Studs Terkel Boy. Oliver Sacks, thank you very much. The book is "An Anthropologist on Mars." The title thought of by Temple Grandin. "Seven Paradoxical Tales." Knopf the publishers. Thank you.