Oliver Sacks 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. A physician, professor of neurology and bestselling author, he wrote many books about his patients, his own disorders and nature, including the notable Awakenings.
In his final compilation of essays released earlier this year, Everything In Its Place, Sacks, who died of cancer in 2015 at 82, 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.
Sacks lived alone, focusing on his work most of his life, but in his seventies he fell in love –and enjoyed a wonderful eight years– with author and photographer, Bill Hayes. Hayes wrote the must-read memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, along with three other non-fiction books, and a book of photography called How New York Breaks Your Heart.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Bill Hayes, who shared more about Sacks’s life and their unsurpassable relationship.
He told how Sacks 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. He had no romantic relationships for most of his life while he concentrated on his work. 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, Hayes moved to New York City to reinvent himself after the devastating loss of Steve, his long time partner of 17 years, passed away suddenly. Previously, Hayes had written to Sacks about one of his books, and coincidently, once in NYC, they ran into each other in the west village and developed an intellectual and romantic kinship.
Sacks enjoyed the new-found companionship with Hayes, savoring the time they spent together making dinner and everyday chores like loading the dishwasher. According to Hayes, the two had a deep connection despite their 30-year age difference. They were kindred spirits, and both had been through a lot. Hayes said Sacks was “chronically quotable, hilarious, eccentric and philosophical.”
Hayes recalled how Sacks mastered the art of writing and 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.
Sacks insisted Hayes keep a journal, and six months after he passed away, Hayes 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.
Sacks wrote 16 books. His writing includes medical case histories, essays on human behavior, nature, swimming, and other interests.
As for Hayes today, he said 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.
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.