Studs Terkel discusses "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and Other Clinical Tales" with Oliver W. Sacks
BROADCAST: Mar. 3, 1986 | DURATION: 00:53:01
Oliver Sacks sits down with Studs Terkel to discuss aspects of "other clinical tales" from his book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales". Sacks discusses the important role played by the visual arts, music, drawing and math in the lives of people suffering from autism, Parkinson's disease, and mental challenges. He also discusses the repercussions and loss of unique abilities to make patients more socially acceptable. Sacks discusses two separate patients that have eidetic memory (photographic) and although being stigmatized as mentally challenged are able to memorize volumes of dictionaries and calculate six figure prime numbers in their heads. Music and math transforms them!
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Studs Terkel With Oliver Sacks as my guest, who, I suppose is the poet of neurologists who speaks of a doubleness of his life, not simply the physician but the naturalist, sees not simply the single organism but the world around which his patient is. And music was the -- I was thinking, Oliver, here you are a guest again. Let's talk about some aspects of the new book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat." some of the parts of the book we haven't talked about, in one aspect the importance of music in the lives of these people who may be aphasiacs, who have Parkinson's, who are considered ill in one way or another. Music and art and theater. We open with a part of the Bach chorale from "St. Matthew's Passion" and how this applies specifically to one of your patients. As you hear this Bach chorale section of "St. Matthew's," Dr. Oliver Sacks, your immediate thought.
Oliver Sacks Well, it reminds me of my patient Martin, who had a passion for passions, in particular for the Matthew Passion. Martin was was a retarded man. He'd had meningitis as an infant. His father had been a professional singer, operas and oratorios, and although Martin was in some ways so defective intellectually, his his own musical powers and love for music was was absolutely unimpaired and this was remarkable and and held his life together. Bach was particularly important for him, and he was also a man with a most amazing memory. He knew the, he knew the whole of Grove's dictionary by heart. In fact, I called the piece "A Walking Grove," and he immediately quoted something for me out of Grove when he said music to Bach was the apparatus of worship and this was clearly so with him, as well.
Studs Terkel But he has memorized all of Grove's, thanks to being with his father and he knows the librettos of 2000 operas. He knows 2000 operas and arias, this he knows, and what is his condition when you meet him?
Oliver Sacks Well, he he was he was quite distressed and he'd sort of in a way lost his life or lost touch with his life and his world when he when he came into the home. In some ways it hadn't been much of a life. He'd, he was always being, he couldn't hold a job for long. He was sort of simple. He had a very close relationship with his father, who was who was a wonderful musician and Martin sort of wanted to be like his father, but he couldn't, he couldn't sing as a start. He, his voice was also affected, although he loved trying to sing. He used to, he used to be put somewhere in the choruses at the back of the Met and in churches. But the part of him which had been treated as a retardate was sort of miserable and mean and he he needed to to get music back. We didn't, we didn't quite realize this at first.
Studs Terkel You, at the time you are treating him, and you know about this, and he's having a very hard time at this home. And one of the sisters says, "Something is gnawing at him, a sort of hunger." Quoting from Oliver Sacks' work, the sequence called "A Walking Grove" from the clinical tales that are so magnificent. "And his annoying hunger we can't assuage," says the sister to you. "It's destroying, we have to do something." And you're trying to figure out what to do. And then he, Martin, said something to you.
Oliver Sacks He says, "I've got to sing." He says, "I can't live without it. There's not just music, I can't pray without it." And then as I mentioned, with a flash of that memory of his, he says, "Music to Bach was the apparatus of worship. Grove, article on Bach, page 304." And he went on and said, "I have never spent a Sunday without going to church, without singing in the choir. I first went there with my father when I was old enough to walk, and I continued going after his death in '55. I've got to go!" he said. "It'll kill me if I don't."
Oliver Sacks Well, there were, there were many churches near the home and especially the church where he used to go. And in a word, we, you know, when we saw what was missing, when he told us what was missing and knowing him, he he started to go back to the church. And even though he was retarded, he knew all the chorales by heart, he knew all the dates on which they should be done, and he'd and he'd really followed in his father's footsteps at this church and this came back, you know, his old role in the church was sort of given back to him, and he really, he became a changed man, completely fulfilled, sweet. And one of the, one of the most extraordinary things was actually to see him singing. As I say, he didn't have much voice but he he felt the music down to his his depths. And when he sang, he no longer, he didn't look Parkinsonian or retarded or blank, I mean his face would light up he'd be he'd be a different being altogether, and I mean the very incarnation of the music.
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Studs Terkel Whereas before he did this, he is described in the hospital, he was nasty and like a snotty little boy, very unpopular, without the music. So you're really talking about Bach helping one transcend, aren't you?
Studs Terkel You know, throughout this book, or in certain aspects of the book,"The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat," and we had this last time, we talked about, he's a musician himself, of course, and a very good one, and who somehow has this difficulty in discerning the specific thing, he doesn't know what a glove is, but he can, he sees the overall thing but he confuses the hydrant with the head of a boy. Mr. Magoo!
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Studs Terkel But music again. It trans-- In your case, too, Oliver, Dr. Sacks, when you had the accident on that Swiss mountain and you fell down and you were in bad shape, in that hospital, it was music, wasn't it?
Oliver Sacks Yes, well I I had quite a lot of damage to the nerves of the leg, and it and it felt paralyzed and I couldn't feel it properly. Obviously, one has to wait for the nerves to repair and things, but you know one one can really forget how to walk and do things and something which was crucial for me, and I think this was not just a quirk because I've heard the same now from from so many other people, you've got to get your music back, and for me it happened to be some someone brought me in a tape cassette. The radio didn't work there. There was some Mendelssohn. And when it was time to walk, the Mendelssohn suddenly played itself for me, and it gave me its own rhythm and melody and feeling and and I was able to walk, although then the music suddenly stopped for awhile and the nerve terminals got fatigued. I see this with my Parkinsonian patients, and one of the patients who was photographed, who was filmed by Jonathan Miller for "The Body in Question," was actually a music teacher with Parkinsonism, and she said she had been 'unmusicked,' that was her phrase, by Parkinsonism. She said that her walking had become mechanical, robotic, and that she needed to be 're-musicked,' and either it would have to be music from the outside or something played in her mind. She had to get the feeling of music. Luria, the great Russian psychologist, he liked to talk about kinetic melody.
Oliver Sacks Yes. And you [from?] -- But I I think everything, walking, speech, thinking, seeing, I think everything has got to be articulated musically or or just artistically somehow. I think the final integration is --
Studs Terkel As you say this, the aspect of the book, the part of the book we'll talk about, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales," it's these other clinical tales we're talking about. And that is the theme, music, theater, and there's the visual art with Jose the artist, and even numbers, we come to that with the twins, of course, harmony, you speak of harmony and the connection between numbers and music. Talking to Oliver Sacks and, of course, every time he's a guest on this program there's more and more we want to talk about it, it's one of the most stimulating of all guests I've ever had is Oliver Sacks, and Summit Books are the publishers of the most recent one that has, as you probably know, been receiving rave reviews as a work of literature, because it's, when he writes of his experiences, it deals with artistry and poetry as well as disease and the interrelation here between the two. And therapy, of course. You were talking about the connecting link between these various patients of yours.
Oliver Sacks Well, you know, this is not a conscious thing, Studs, and until you brought the subject up this morning, I didn't know that I realized it had so often come up, with many of these were pieces written at different times. But it does come up again and again and again and in all forms, as you say, whether it's visual art or acting or music this seems to be finally the thing which which brings a person together.
Studs Terkel As you say that, I put I put down the word 'harmony' here on the side, looking for a certain harmony, a certain way of being part of something connected. And so, if we could just wonder, say, what's this do with music, the twins, the two idiot savants you have? Suppose you describe it -- Theirs is primarily a certain, an incredible facility with certain kinds of numbers, and yet it's musical. Suppose you describe the case of the twins. This became -- This has become a celebrated and often unfortunately misused and abused and exploited case, too. The twins.
Oliver Sacks Well, as you say, they were, they had been well-known and and on television. I originally met them in 1966. They were in a psychiatric hospital, they were again regarded as rather severely retarded, and and maybe psychotic as well. They didn't seem to have much in the way of normal communication with people, although they had a great deal with each other. Now, there were certain repertoires which they had; if they were asked a date -- I'm sorry, a day for any date in the last or next 40,000 years, they'd give it straight away. They could give you the date of Easter any time over this 80,000 --
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Oliver Sacks And Easter is a difficult one. It's the the rule for working it out is extremely tricky, which is against their, they themselves using a rule, I mean, but their memory seemed to be prodigious. If you asked them about any day in their lives, they would tell you all the events in an emotionless, flat voice, the trivial and the important.
Studs Terkel Just to describe them, before you go on telling about their facility, they are, this is John and Michael. "Indeed, unprepossessing at first encounter," writes Oliver Sacks, "A grotesque Tweedledum and Tweedledee, indistinguishable mirror images, identical in face, body movements, identical too in their stigmata of brain and tissue damage; undersized, disturbing disproportioned head, hands, high arched palates, monotonous squeaky voices, peculiar tics and mannerisms, requiring glasses so thick their eyes seem distorted, and giving the appearance of absurd little professors." So there they are, almost grotesque, a comical picture physically they appear.
Oliver Sacks Well, that's that's one picture. But there's another picture which is almost like a like a caricature. I mean, it doesn't show the deeper part of them, but the, it was, in fact, partly when I saw saw one of them on a on a on a television program and I was with a friend and I said, "I know him." I said, "There's something much deeper, much much more mysterious," and and it was partly this which made me write about them; how in particular I once found them in a sort of strange converse or communion. They were often rather agitated and ticcy and distracted but they were absolutely quiet and serene and they had a little smile on their face as very peaceful. One of them said a number. It was a six- figure number and the other listened and he seemed to savor it like. And then he smiled and he said a six-figure number back. They looked like like a couple of connoisseurs wine tasting, or they seemed to be exchanging something, I couldn't make any sense of, you know, in sharing feeling couldn't make any sense of this. But I made a note of all the numbers, and I tracked them down and I found these were all prime numbers.
Oliver Sacks Now, there is no -- Not only were they themselves bad at arithmetic, in the conventional sense, but there is no simple way of arriving at a six-figure prime number. I mean, mathematicians would call this a non-trivial problem. I stole in with a book of prime numbers and the second day and they were doing this again, and I looked up, I cheated, but --
Oliver Sacks I said an eight-figure -- They they pulled apart a little bit, and I said an eight-figure prime number from the book. And they let me into their -- There was a long pause, about about half a minute. Then suddenly they both burst into smiles because they saw it as a prime number, you know, and a great prime, an eight-figure prime, a super one, and also that I'd seen what they were doing, and so they sort of let me into their game.
Studs Terkel Now, how did they see -- They can neither add, they're no good at simple arithmetic, adding, subtracting they can't do. But they are masters of [snaps fingers] like that. You spoke of something called the inner landscape. They see. They see.
Oliver Sacks They can see vast numbers. And a sort of landscape of of numbers. I mean, we can maybe see half a dozen numbers [snaps fingers] straight away. On one occasion with them, a box of matches fell off the table. They both said, "Hundred and eleven." They saw it at a glance. I think they can see a million numbers at a glance, you know, and certainly unimaginable.
Oliver Sacks Oh. yeah. Yeah. And one of them said, "37," and the other, and then the third one. And now they don't know what factors are. But I asked one of them, I said, I said, "How did you say that?" and he just made a gesture with his hands which seemed to either to trisect the number or for them it was as if the number 111 had fallen naturally into three equal parts.
Studs Terkel You said like a musical chord, remember at the beginning we spoke with a musical aspect. You quote Sir Thomas Brown here: "Whoever is harmonically composed delights in harmony and a profound contemplation of the first composer, something in it, the soul is harmonical and has as near a sympathy unto music, and you might say unto mathematics as well." As both. You speak of them and Bertrand Russell and you think, this is not so wild an idea, even though wholly in two different spheres. But they have one thing in common, don't they?
Oliver Sacks Well, the, it's, Bertrand Russell talks about, he says in his preface it's a beautiful thing, he says, "I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux." And of course, Pythagoras himself was a great musician and also the originator of so many theories.
Oliver Sacks Yes, well, either after seeing something, or if it is summoned up in your imagination, you can see it with absolute precision and vividness as if it were really there, so that someone with eidetic memory, say, could have a whole book by heart or a whole calendar or a whole life.
Studs Terkel So Martin, who was in "The Walking Grove," all nine volumes of Grove the musical dictionary, has an eidetic memory. John and Michael, the twins, have an eidetic memory for certain prime numbers, say.
Oliver Sacks Yes.
Oliver Sacks Yes. And there were, really again rather like Martin, one might say there were two lives. Part of the time they were stigmatized, retarded, agitated. But then there was this transcending transforming thing which for them was some sort of communion in numbers. Now, there were all sorts of, I prefer the word 'communion' to 'game,' because it had such a feeling of devotion on, and almost of, of the holy. They had many other number communions, I don't know what it was about. I was lucky to have spotted one of them as being about prime numbers. I'm sure they weren't random, because their love was really for for order and for and for beauty although apparently only in the world of numbers. And I think this is perhaps one of the most difficult. You know, this whole book is an attempt to imagine the unimaginable but, you know, the powers of these twins are so far from my own. From anyone's own.
Studs Terkel And you are speaking of perhaps a new approach to neurology toward the end, learning from patients. But there are others who go along more conventional lines, and they're cured, that is, they were treated. What finally happened? We have to talk about that.
Oliver Sacks Yes. I didn't want to, and it was originally a sort of footnote, and then it had to be brought into the piece. I didn't have much contact with with the twins after the after the '60. In 1977 they were separated. One felt that they had to be together. They were separated for their own good, it was said, to prevent their unhealthy communication together in order that they could come out and face the world, you know, in an appropriate socially acceptable way. You know, this the sort of jargon, you see. So, they were separated. They have been separated. Each of them now lives in a sort of halfway house and if they give in a token, they can take a bus, they can do a little menial work under supervision. But this, this, the bond between them, the communion has been broken and with this, somehow, the magic has gone.
Studs Terkel Just as you said, deprived of their numerical communion. Oh, they have pocket money, they can do menial jobs under close supervision, you know, they're a part of our society quote unquote, but they're now, they're jostled from one job to another, but they've lost their strange numerical power. This chief joy and sense of their lives gone, so they're socially acceptable. I got to ask you, is it worth it?
Oliver Sacks I don't think society benefits that much from them. I don't think they benefit that much from society. I think they are terribly deprived of each other's society which in some sense was the only one which mattered. It is but considerations like this are sort of very very tricky. Now, I was immediately put in mind here, and also some other patients put me in mind, there was a remarkable book written in 1977 called "Nadia."
Oliver Sacks Well, this this was about a remarkable autistic child, a sort of an infant Picasso who at the age of three was doing incredible drawings of of horses and bullfighters and things. As you say, Nigel Dennis wrote a critique --
Oliver Sacks Yeah. The -- Now, it was felt again that they mustn't be allowed -- That Nadia mustn't be allowed to be autistic and go drawing all the time. She had to be made verbal and socially acceptable and, or as it says in the book, the same sort of jargon, they had to find ways in which her potentialities and other directions could be maximized. So the effect of this was she, she started talking a bit, and she stopped drawing, and Nigel Dennis wrote a powerful critique. He says, "We are left with a genius who has had her genius removed, leaving nothing behind but a general defectiveness. What are we supposed to think about such a curious cure?"
Studs Terkel You add about the twins. You add just on that very point. And now they are separated. Now it is gone. It, that quality they have, that sense of harmony with numbers. There is no longer any sense or center to their lives.
Oliver Sacks But, you know it is tricky. I have to say this. There were some identical twins studied by Luria, who wrote about them in one of his first books, who bonded together with a sort of nonsense language and they couldn't they couldn't grow. Now, they were separated and this really allowed them to become creative individuals. There's an extraordinary book which has just been published in England, there's been a remarkable television program called "The Silent Twins," about two identical twin girls in Wales, brilliantly gifted intellectually, one of them published a novel when she was 15. They're now in a rather tortured state where they can't bear to be with each other and they can't bear to be away. Very complicated things can arise with twins.
Studs Terkel Talking with Oliver Sacks, Dr. Oliver Sacks, and just thoughts concerning this is his third trip here, third visit here, and each time there's more and more, more and more insight and dimension. This is in connection with his book, the American edition of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Other Clinical Tales," and we're dealing with some of the other clinical tales in which the connecting link in this case, the common denominator, is this feeling, quest for harmony, music, for mathematics, we'll come to theater and drawing, as well, the visual arts as well, and therapy of one sort or another, but mostly the understanding of what it's like, that which is missed and that which is there, manifoldly. Oliver Sacks, you're talking about the twins and before that with Martin, the walking Grove, and then toward the end of the book even though we spoke about this during a previous conversation, "The Autist Artist" Jose, you came across this autistic young man Jose and the attendant says to you, "Why are you dealing with him? He doesn't know what you're talking about." And you see him, you gave him your watch, you got this pocket watch.
Oliver Sacks Actually, this isn't the original one I gave to him. This is a successor. Now, I'd I do wish they'd been asked to see him, he had some seizures, but, you know, I prescribe for that. I, for some reason I always like to to play with patients at some level or other, sometimes as playing ball, sometimes I will start a doodle and they will continue the doodle. With Jose I hadn't been able to have a word with him. He looked distracted. I hadn't had any feeling of contact with him or of him being in contact with anything, but he didn't look like an idiot to me. I wanted to find the point of contact and on an impulse I gave him my watch and I gave him a pen. And he took the watch very sort of reverently, as if it were something beautiful. And he took the pen, but he certainly made something beautiful of it. He really really did a sort of portrait of the of the watch, which was which was uncannily accurate, it was identically accurate but it was also full of a sort of humor and character which which was obviously some expression of himself.
Studs Terkel You have you have a photograph of the watch you gave him but then his drawing of it, and the figures are different sizes, but the [inset?] second hand is big, it's hardly in your watch, but there is a whimsical aspect even to these numbers.
Oliver Sacks And so I, I was sort of haunted by this. I wanted to go back and I, to see him again and I I wasn't called to see him again, but I needed to. The next time I am -- I carry lots of strange things in my neurological bag. One of those is a magazine I love called "Arizona Highways." I love traveling in Arizona, I still get this. And so I always I always and I use it partly for neurological purposes to see people's powers of perceiving and identifying. I gave him a copy of this. The cover showed a really idyllic scene of a couple of people in a canoe on a lake at sunset and I gave Jose the pen again. First he started doing the foreground, but he obviously needed a paintbrush. I pointed to the canoe and he looked at that intensely, then he looked away. And then he himself did a canoe which again was was wonderfully accurate but it was better than the original.
Studs Terkel Oh, with fire! I'm looking at both, the reproduction, the one you gave him, and Jose's drawing. Jose's drawing is exciting! There's two, you know, something dramatic has happened, they're fishing and one guy is leaning advising the other, in the original it's static. Here, it's very active.
Studs Terkel And so you're -- He's doing this, he's getting excited. Now, until you came to him with the watch the pen, and then that, I'm going to come to the fish in a minute, and that fish is something incredible, Jose's fish. What was his state before this?
Oliver Sacks Well, he he didn't speak, he didn't appear to understand speech. He really didn't have much interaction. He never quite looked at one and he was he was restless, he was agitated, sometimes you'd see him rocking to and fro as as people with autism may rock. Originally I didn't know anything of his story. The story I got was that he had been normal, apparently, until the age of seven or eight or so, it was said, and then he had some sort of high fever with convulsions and what seemed to be a sort of meningitis encephalitis. Following this, he had had tremendously severe seizures, sometimes 30 convulsions a day. Medication didn't seem to help. His mother was afraid to take him out in the world and he really spent the next 15 years in a cellar without any contact with reality, except that magazines, and especially natural history magazines, you know, would sometimes be thrown down. I don't. And he himself would get stubs of pencil and he drew the whole world on the walls of the cellar: Animals, plants. I mean, this was the one door which was still open for him. I think again there were hereditary gifts here as there were with Martin. His father was an excellent draftsman and he had an older brother who was an artist.
Oliver Sacks Yes. And somehow even though all through the -- Whether he had aphasia or not with his lack of language or whether he was autistic and through this, but despite everything, those drawings were the one thing which was preserved. I learned this later, I didn't know it originally, I sort of found it by accident.
Studs Terkel And so when you gave him that watch and the pen, despite the comments of the attendant who said, "He don't know what you're talking about," that started him off and then the guys in the canoe. And now we come to something I find absolutely incredible. The fish. You showed him a picture of a rainbow trout and there's his fish. And now we come to something inc-- His fish, Jose's fish has human eyes. There's character to it. Now, it's almost the fish you find in the Grimm fairy tales or in the Andersen fairy tales and folk tales, the fish with human attributes.
Oliver Sacks Yes. Oh, absolutely or like like the frog footman in "Alice." Now, the, I mean there's obviously somewhere or other Jose's mind moves in the realm of a fairy tale and myth and and and you know and imagination. And again, it's much better than the original. The original looks sort of stuffed.
Studs Terkel So I'm thinking as you're saying this, now Jose is opening up again. You say he was in a cellar most of his life even though he drew the world there. Now he's coming out and he sees the natural -- I know that you yourself like plants and flowers very much. Jose does, too.
Oliver Sacks Yes. That reminds me, I still have to see the Botanic Garden in the city. Well, right at the, right at the end I am I, it was about the fourth or fifth time I saw him. I suggested we we go out, which he, he had become very fearful of the world. And he he came out and it was it was, the sun was shining, there's a sort of overgrown sunlit garden at the back of the hospital and he was he was so delighted by the clover and the different forms of grass, especially by the dandelions. I think maybe their openness somehow called to him, and this time he, I didn't have to give him a pen, he took a pen, he took the clipboard and he did a picture of a dandelion which was which was so accurate and so beautiful. I mean, it was full of love. I think it really showed his love for another being, another organism, even though that was a plant.
Studs Terkel As you say that, maybe one of the most moving arcs of of all of them of the book and the tales is the one I see on page 214 of Oliver Sacks's observations of Jose. There was a drawing, a picture of a bird, a robin or no, it's a little bird.
Studs Terkel A robin, and it's a, but it's a winter scene, and he drew it and he made the winter spring. It became a spring scene as he did it. We saw the flowers and the robin close up now, and suddenly we saw that which is bleak become that which is warm and vibrant. Jose the autistic young man doing it.
Oliver Sacks Well, this is the, this again for him is sort of the escape route, the liberation in a way from his autism and from the sickness, what whatever it is it's it's it's art, play, imagination.
Oliver Sacks Well, you know, I was, I am, very, very tantalized because I think his, first his gifts are, you know, I think really of, you know, of of professional order, almost professional order, and he's he's a man who's had no training, but the dandelion he drew would grace any herbal or any botany text. On the one hand, with his powers of depicting I, I could imagine him as an illustrator of of zoology or botany or anatomical texts, but also with the thing you've mentioned, the thing which is like Grimm's fairy tale, I could I could imagine him almost as an illustrator of children's books, of myths. I -- But this kid, he has never seen the world and he has never seen art. I mean what what might he do if he were give -- If he were exposed to the world and this is, and can he be.
Studs Terkel There again, Nigel Dennis says, "How many of the world's Nadias," or Joses! "May be crumpled up and consigned to the trash can treated without thought as an odd talent, irrelevant to interest?" And that's the question you're asking.
Oliver Sacks Well, I think there is, this is not just some freak talent. This is his soul. This is a deep sensibility and a real power. And it's, I'm not denying the pathology there, which may be very, very severe, physical or mental. But we're seeing something which is which is the other side. When Novalis used to say, "Every disease is a musical problem, every cure is a musical solution," and we've moved from music now. But I think I think this is generally so with art.
Studs Terkel This is what you're asking. On the subject of the autistic child, a special one, when Bruno Bettelheim spoke of Joey the Mechanical Boy in "The Empty Fortress," was it, I believe. Joey graduated. Joey, because he was so good mechanically, you know, he imagined things that were so real that you would hop over those imaginary wires and avoid them. He became a radio engineer, I think. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales" and it's the other clinical tales we're talking about, that are very poetic tales, with a very understanding and poetic man nearby. That's Oliver Sacks. Summit Books are the publishers. And throughout, Oliver Sacks, this hour we've been connecting the people you meet and work with in the hospitals and homes who have Parkinson's, who are retardates of one form or another, who have aphasia, who are autistic. But the connecting link, that which distinguish them, the possibilities of breaking through, is art, music, mathematics. Rebecca. Rebecca.
Oliver Sacks Well, Rebecca again with another rather uncouth retarded woman who had been brought along to our clinic. Some, some retardates have have obvious physical problems as well. Some don't. She was she was she was very rather clumsy, except except when she danced. I got to know Rebecca quite well. I saw her frequently. I visited her at her home. She loved stories and poems. She wanted to read so much, but she couldn't. She didn't have the power to read, but her grandmother used to read stories. We all need stories. As children we can't fall asleep unless we're told a story. The world's got to be turned into a story for us and Rebecca especially loved, she loved Bible stories. She loved poems. Now, this is someone who often couldn't follow a simple instruction. But sort of evocative language, language from the heart, language full of symbols with a concrete, this moved her very, very much. We put her along with a lot of our clients. As you say, they used to be called 'clients.' I think the word should stay or stay and stay in a lawyer's office. In the sort of workshop where many retarded people are put, where mechanical things are done, and she just couldn't do them and it frustrated her and it drove her mad, and finally finally this burst out of her and she and she said she felt this wasn't doing her any good, and she would never get any better, and it was just failure and failure and failure, which she didn't defeat, which she had known all her life, and then there was a pause and she suddenly said, she says, that what she really loved was theater and and she wished she could act. And there was in fact a special theater group for the for the handicapped. And we managed to get Rebecca into that. And there again, as as with the others, there was a complete transformation, sort of sort of offstage, one saw this, this clumsy defective woman. But when she was acting a role, I mean the role seemed to fill her and the, she became the person she was portraying and and all, you know, all the pathology disappeared.
Studs Terkel Because acting is an evocative exercise. And so it's evocative words and metaphors. It wasn't a specific prosaic pedestrian thing she could do, she was bad at that. But it was evoc-- As you say, you see her one day sitting out outside on the bench gazing at the April foliage quietly, with obvious delight. And she sat there like a Chekhov heroine, you say. And then as I approached she said, wordlessly gestured as though to say, look at the world, how beautiful it is, and suddenly these poetic ejaculations, words like 'spring,' 'birth,' 'growing,' 'stirring,' 'coming to life,' 'seasons,' these are the words that came forth, and so did the poetic aspect.
Oliver Sacks Poetry goes goes deeper than intelligence. I think poetry and art, music are the deepest things in the world. They are in every human being. And they have got to be touched and this is the point of contact, of healing, of integration.
Studs Terkel The point of healing and integration, you're saying. Perhaps, you know, I realize I knew it was gonna happen. The hour is almost up as we're talking, but perhaps the connecting link might be the chapter you start, you call "Reminiscence." And this is dealing with precious childhood memories lost. If these two Irish women who have radios in their heads were singing, would you mind?
Oliver Sacks Well, this was, both of these ladies had had seizures of a very strange sort. One can have a sort of autobiographical or personal seizure in which a segment of one's life is played, sometimes as a segment in which as it was in these two ladies, in which a tune or some music is very important. With one of the ladies, there were two or three tunes which played in her head. the tunes always associated with a feeling. One of the tunes for her was associated with with a particular church on 31st Street, where it was always sung after after a novena. With the other lady, it was very moving, because what came back to her, it started with a dream which continued after she woke up. She dreamt she was a child, that she was four years old, that she was with her mother in Ireland, and that her mother was singing. When she woke up, the singing went on. And first she thought she was still dreaming. And then she thought there must be a radio on somewhere, but no one else seemed to be disturbed. She couldn't find a radio. She finally, when the music went on and there were other things, she says "What radio would play my songs, only songs that I know, with no commentary?" Then she said, "The radio must be in my head." And then she wondered if she were mad. But she saw a psychiatrist who says, "No, I don't think you're mad, but you may, there's something odd going on. Go see a neurologist." So she came to see me and she wondered if she'd had a stroke. Which, in fact, she had had a little stroke affecting, if you want, the musical and the reminiscent parts of the brain and she she wasn't confused or anything, she says, "You know, I know I'm here. I'm an old lady. I'm 90 years old. You're the doctor," she says. "But all I can hear is the music is my mother singing. I feel the farm house," and Hughlings Jackson, the neurologist, talks about consciousness being doubled. What was so moving with her was that this very early memory which a convulsion was bringing up, which the epilepsy was bringing up, was something which had been lost from consciousness, as her mother had died when she was four. And she had been sent to America to live with a rather forbidding maiden aunt. She'd had a sense in some way of never having had a mother, never really having had a childhood. And somehow for her the seizures, the illness, brought back in the form of really of a truthful hallucination, this very early experience of music and love and the presence of her mother and when, as the stroke healed, the hallucination sort of stopped. At first she felt that a door was closing. She didn't want treatment, but the sense that something precious and true had been had been recaptured.
Studs Terkel Recaptured. So it's funny, and then we haven't time to talk about the other woman who didn't like the songs, and you said Shostakovich had suffered from a shell fragment that did something that enabled him to hear music, much as Mrs. O.C, the first old woman, did. And the second one woman doesn't like this, says, "I'm no Shostakovich. I can't use my songs and I'm tired of them. Musical hallucination may have been a gift to Shostakovich, only a nuisance to me. He didn't want the treatment. I want it badly." But back to the first woman. Something came back. Perhaps to end this, you and others speak of the mind, the human mind, as an enchanted loom. The phrase 'enchanted loom.' So there's something computerized users cannot ever recover.
Oliver Sacks No, I mean one sees from this that that memory and life are sort of like a tapestry and it comes out as a tapestry full of sight and sound and feeling and an art if you want. And this is the this is the very nature of life.
Studs Terkel The last thing I ask you now, you know we're going to meet again, Oliver, Oliver Sacks, I know that, but the last one for now to ask. Do you see the signs that, I know you're you're encouraging or listening to the patient, learning from the patient more and more and more, in no way denigrating the use of the new machinery. But there's something beyond that. And you see this is pointing you indeed, possibly in neurology of the future.
Oliver Sacks Well, I like to think so. I also think it's necessary because although we have a tremendous computer in our heads, there is also a poet and a musician and an actor and an artist there, and I think that one cannot comprehend life and the organization of a living being without without seeing it as a work of art and as using art continually to articulate its life.