I came home today, exhausted after the day’s work, and decided to listen to RadioLab while I snacked on a grapefruit. This turned out to be the best decision I’ve made this long day, as I stumbled across an 80th-birthday-celebration interview with Oliver Sacks. P, as you know, Oliver Sacks is my favorite writer. Whenever I listen to interviews with him I always end up getting emotional. This interview was no exception.
To get into why I started tearing up today we have to go back to this time last night. I was sitting in the same spot I am now frantically googling ways I could get into Austin Kleon’s SXSW speech that was today at 2:00. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get in. My irrational optimism led me to believe his speaking presentation would be open to the public, and especially the bright young minds at UT Austin. Turns out badges are $1000+ and I did not plan enough to volunteer. At about 8:00 AM this morning I emailed Austin Kleon asking him if I could come to his speaking presentation (again with the irrational optimism).
The reason I wanted to go to Austin Kleon’s event so very badly is because he has a lot of interesting ideas. He has a new book out called Show Your Work. I recommend it. But the idea most central to my Oliver Sacks story is under a subtitle in his first book: “Climb your own family tree”. I consider Oliver Sacks to be my creative father. That statement sounds egotistical and ridiculous on many levels, but I don’t care. When I first started reading Oliver Sacks’ books at age thirteen my mind was opened. He is the reason for both my college majors, Neurobiology and Rhetoric and Writing, and is the first person I was aware of who successfully combined the two.
Austin Kleon encourages each reader to “Climb your own family tree” because “Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff.” Dr. Sacks has the amazing ability of making his work relatable. This is his great power. His patients have otherworldly neurological disabilities that make it hard for us to imagine what reality seems like to them. Oliver Sacks takes us into his patient’s brain, allowing us to empathize with them. However, Dr. Sacks was not always in a position where he could use this super-power. In the interview I just listened to he talked about how he was a researcher in the beginning of his career. He was a terrible researcher. He lost his notebook and then the myelin he had been collecting from earthworms for nearly a year. The faculty of his research office decided he should be moved to a nursing home with many patients that were victims of the 1920’s encephalitis lethargica disease. These patients were doomed to remain speechless and motionless for eternity; that is, until they were administered L-dopa under the watchful eye of Dr. Sacks. The rest is history, beautifully documented by Sacks himself.
This story made me tear up because I, too, tried research and I, too, lost my specimens. I felt very much less alone. I felt even less alone when Sacks went on to describe one of his heroes: Dr. A. R. Luria. Dr. Luria was the only modern physician Dr. Sacks was aware of that wrote his case histories with the style that Dr. Sacks wanted to write with. Not just the facts, but all the expressive details that portrayed how the patient was feeling: “..a case history that did not shy away from the human aspects and the pathos and drama”, as Sacks described one of Luria’s works.
You know what this means, P. If Oliver Sacks is my creative father, A. R. Luria is my creative grandfather. Sacks felt the same way about Luria as I feel about Sacks: a mixture of overpowering envy and awe.
My plan now is to research Luria and read his best work. Then I will find out who he looked up to, and go further and further up my family tree. After all, we are all related somehow*.
*This means no disrespect to my biological family that I was very lucky to be born into.