Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

Remembering Oliver Sacks

As a correspondent for People magazine, I spoke to many people who were famous, infamous, formerly famous, hoping to regain fame, or on the cusp of fame. Though I've forgotten most of them, a few of my interview subjects left me with indelible memories.

Dr. Oliver Sacks was one of them, because of his brilliant writing and storytelling ability, the way his boyish delights still worked their magic on him at the age of 67,  and for his seemingly enormous capacity for empathy--for his patients, family, friends, and even for one of the many reporters who were by then vying for his time. 

We spoke in 2001 at his Horatio Street office in the West Village, for a story slated to appear in a special Oscar edition of the magazine. I was to ask the doctor to look back at the release of the film "Awakenings" eleven years earlier. The film was based on Dr. Sacks's 1973 book by the same name, which told in compelling detail of his experience treating patients who had been rendered catatonic after contracting sleeping sickness. When the doctor administered a new drug to them, L-dopa, they underwent astonishing "awakenings."The movie starred Robert DeNiro as Leonard L., one of Dr. Sacks's patients, and Robin Williams as a stand in for his own character.

Dr. Sacks, I realized, was a kind of an intellectual fan-boy, and he loved to share his enthusiasms. He scurried off at one point to retrieve his autographed copy of Eve Curie's biography of her mother Marie, a gift from his surgeon mother when he was 10. The one memento from the set of "Awakenings" that he wished he had kept, he said, was a beautiful rendering of the periodic table. He had just finished his manuscript for the book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, in which he detailed his passionate boyhood love for chemistry. As we spoke, he he sipped tea from a mug imprinted with a the periodic table; another version of his beloved chart, in Basque (a gift from a friend), hung above his desk.

Although he would later write about his experimentation with drugs and his identity as a gay man, his then-forthcoming memoir detailed none of that, and, he noted, "finishes discreetly at age fourteen." But he did consider writing more. "The one thing I can't decide is whether to indicate that anything has happened, you know, subsequently, in the years thereafter," he said. "But I've certainly had enough about writing about myself for the time being, and will gratefully get on to other things, namely a book on botany (another of his passions), which became Oaxaca Journal.

After telling entertaining stories about DeNiro and Williams, the conversation turned to the making of the film "At First Sight," which was based on Dr. Sacks's book An Anthropologist on Mars and starred Val Kilmer as a blind man who regains his sight. The doctor gleefully described his fascination with the fact that the film's producer, Irwin Winkler, shared the same last name as the discoverer of the element germanium, one of his own "favorite elements." Then he leapt from his chair once again to find a book on the giants of chemistry, and showed me the entry on Clemens A. Winkler the scientist. "I kept asking Irwin if he was related to THE Winkler," Dr. Sacks said. "I think he said, 'I'm THE Winkler.'"

But it was the doctor's obvious empathy for his patients that was most moving to me. He told the story, which he's told before, of how, in 1988, during a Tourette syndrome awareness week in Cincinnati, hundreds of Tourette patients converged and met others like them (many for the first time in their lives), and the "remarkable feeling of community" they found in each other. "I'm regarded as an honorary Touretter," he noted, adding, "in fact some of my patients think I have the real thing."So when a member of their group got thrown out of the local Wendy's fast-food restaurant for twitching and cursing, he joined ranks with 200 young adults with Tourette syndrome to descend on restaurant in protest.

The patients he had written about so empathetically in Awakenings were all dead by the time of our interview, but they were still very much alive to Dr. Sacks. "When I had my house in City Island," he said wistfully, "I used to keep all the files of the Awakenings patients out. In fact they were out till last year. Then I said, 'What's the use of having these files out?' But they never quite died for me."

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