Oliver Sacks, the bestselling author and professor of neurology wrote many books about his patients, his own disorders and nature, including the notable, Awakenings. In his final compilation of essays, Everything In Its Place, he talked about a myriad of topics, from his love of libraries, to how cold temperatures stop the growth of cancer, from dreams and near death experiences to medical case studies and a town where everyone has Tourette’s Syndrome. He was a true, deep thinker and scientist who studied the past.
Oliver swam every day, was severely shy and suffered from prosopagnosia (was unable to recognize faces). He was celibate for 40 years and was private regarding his sexuality. He passed away in 2015 at 82 years old from cancer. Everything In Its Place consists of his essays that were configured into this book and released post mortem.
Sacks lived alone, focusing on his work most of his life, but in his seventies he fell in love and enjoyed a wonderful 8 years with author and photographer, Bill Hayes. Bill wrote the must-read memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, along with 3 other non-fiction books, and a book of photography called How New York Breaks Your Heart. My book club and I had the incredible opportunity to meet with Bill and we discussed his unsurpassable relationship with the brilliant neurologist and learned about their interests and the wonderful friendship and love they shared.
Conversation with Bill Hayes:
Oliver grew up in a Jewish home and left England at 27 years old. He lived at the hospital where Awakenings patients were being housed and he put all his efforts into his job as a physician and neurologist. Oliver had no romantic relationships for most of his life while he concentrated on his work.
Bill Hayes lived in San Francisco for 25 years. He wrote a trilogy about medical history and the human body, and he studied anatomy at UCSF. At 48 years old, in the spring of 2009, Bill moved to NYC to reinvent himself after the devastating loss of Steve, his long time partner of 17 years, passed away suddenly. Previously, Bill had written to Oliver Sacks about one of his books, and coincidently, once in NYC, they ran into each other in the west village and they developed an intellectual and romantic kinship.
Oliver enjoyed the new found companionship with Bill, savoring the time they spent together making dinner and everyday chores like loading the dishwasher. According to Bill, the two men had a deep connection despite their 30 year age difference. They were kindred spirits, and both had been through a lot. Bill says Oliver was “chronically quotable, hilarious, eccentric and philosophical”.
Oliver had prosopagnosia, and discussed it in his books, bringing this condition to the surface. He was not able to easily recognize faces, something he deemed a “neurological hiccup”. He studied how people adapt to different conditions including bipolar, Alzheimers, dementia, Tourette’s and autism, and wrote about them.
Bill told us Oliver mastered the art of writing. It came easily and fluidly. He wrote longhand with a fountain pen on yellow lined paper. He used no technology, no wifi, and no computer. He had two assistants in his office and they transcribed what he wrote. He composed in his head and generally there were not a lot of revisions.
Oliver insisted Bill keep a journal and six months after he passed away, Bill felt free to write. Using conversations he recorded in his journal, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, was released in 2015. Today it is being made into a film.
Oliver published 16 books and Bill suggested we read Gratitude (4 essays about death that appeared in the NYTimes), and The Island of the Colorblind, which he described as most lyrical.
Oliver’s writing includes medical case histories, essays on human behavior, nature, swimming, and other interests. When compiling this collection, Bill fought hard to include the Why we Need Gardens essay in the book and it was added 6 weeks before Everything In Its Place went to press.
Bill’s memories with Oliver are joyful. They shared so much laughter, even during his failing health in the last year of his life. Bill says a lot had to do with Oliver; he was so clear when he learned he was terminal. He wanted to live out his life with Bill, writing, reading, traveling and spending time with friends. His old friend, Laura Snyder is currently in the process of writing a biography of Oliver Sacks. She had written The Philosophical Breakfast Club, his favorite book.
Our book group was luck enough to see Oliver’s apartment via FaceTime and we asked Bill a few personal questions about himself. He told us he is currently single and dating, although the bar was set high once he met Oliver Sacks. He also willingly shared the important significance of his five tattoos: the end of one life and the beginning of another, I am my own anchor, a Joni Mitchell song, his five sisters and Oliver’s middle name, Wolf.
I highly recommend reading some of Oliver Sacks’ work, and Bill Hayes’ memoir, Insomniac City. Both men are fascinating and a wealth of knowledge, compassion and creativity.
About the author:
Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, was a British neurologist residing in the United States, who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. CLICK HERE FOR MORE.
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