An Open Letter to Oliver Sacks

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Dear Dr. Sacks,

As a dancer, I once relied on my daily toil being constantly reflected back to me: by the mirrors in the studio, by the comments and review of my audiences, and by the reactions of my fellow artists. It took me many years of training to realize that dance is useless and empty if it it is nothing more than a search for approval. Unless I learned to look inside myself, my life’s work— ballet— would be more of a symptom than a calling. I realize that the work of science is more culturally sanctioned, better defined, and far less transient, and needs no such reflection to assure its legitimacy. Still, feeling the depths of the insecurity that plague so many of us in the search for meaning, so I publish this letter. I know now that it will never reach your hands, but perhaps, in releasing this letter to the world, my words can speak to others. If I’ve learned anything so far in life it’s that, while meaningful interaction comes to us in unexpected ways, we can encourage it through the choices we make.

You are, to me as to many, a great hero, of our time if not all time— but I can’t reasonably speak to any claim so grand as that. What I can say, as briefly as possible, is how deeply grateful I am to you, and how devoutly I hope that your final weeks of life were as dimensional and fulfilling, with as few moments of frustration and senseless suffering, as they could be.

You died precisely three years to the day after my late father, a psychiatrist, a medical historian, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, an ardent lifelong learner and, like you, a passionate disseminator of knowledge. He was forever handing me neatly clipped articles from newspapers and magazines, sometimes even whole books, carefully addressed to anyone he could get me to deliver them to. As a young adolescent, I found this behavior profoundly embarrassing— today at age 21, three years after his death from untreatable metastatic cancer, his thoughtful generosity and enduring curiosity as evidenced by those neatly-excised bits of paper are dearly missed and treasured. It was from him that I received my first of your books, although I didn’t actually read the whole thing until a year ago, when a third bout of debilitating panic disorder sent me from my post-high-school life as a ballet dancer in Manhattan back to my childhood home in New Hampshire. Depressed, anxious, and uncertain of my next direction in life, I voraciously consumed every book I could get my hands on.

In the human search for meaning and direction, it seems one must turn toward either science or faith; I turned to science, from biology to astrophysics to neuroscience, Dawkins to Hawking to you. I, like so many others, was impressed by your intensely human methods of practice and presentation, especially touched by how greatly your deeply empathetic (yet always dispassionate enough to bear scientific credibility) approach reminded me of my father’s.

Dad was forever warning me against pursuing a career in mental health. He hated the direction modern medicine was going. Nobody cared about treating the whole person anymore, he thought. So many complex webs of influence and effect, the ever-shifting spectra of health and disease, falsely and messily classified for the convenience of drug and insurance companies. Where was the regard for the actual living patient?

It always seemed to me, from the tidbits I picked up as a child, that at least half of my father’s work involved getting people off of their ten or twelve daily prescriptions and convincing them that it would be useful for him to actually get to know them. Patients were highly doubtful that he could help them take control of their mental health through actions as simple as changing their sleep patterns, starting to exercise, meditating, even just lifting their gaze from the floor, but he persevered, and the results were dramatic. This from a man born in 1929— he was using so-called “alternative” medicine decades before it hit the public consciousness via social media and the internet.

I wonder about you, as I wonder about my father. What perfect storm of influences, natural and academic, conspired to create you? We are so layered; even the scientific determinism of our genes is elaborated on by epigenetics. By the choices we make and the experiences that choose us, we are continually recalibrated, developing and renewing down to our very atoms. If that isn’t a unification of art and science, I don’t know what is.

I have been taught that the purpose of Art is to reflect our lives back to us as if through a magnifying glass, isolating and distorting the various elements of our humanity so we are startled to insight from the blind insulation of the everyday. If this is true, you were a very great artist. Your books are a fantastically effective reminder of the breadth of human experience, of the unnecessary nature of the suffering we cause ourselves in trying to fit into the narrow lines we’ve connoted ‘normalcy’. As humans, we are breathtaking in our great diversity; the unimaginable uniqueness and malleability of the individual mind is at the center of modern neuroscience. Your passionate, galvanizing curiosity about the inner workings and outer manifestations of the human mind, not only in a sterile laboratory environment— the abstract pursuit of knowledge— but through human consciousness, function and dysfunction as it relates to our daily lives, the awareness that all of science, perhaps despite many people’s best efforts, is a human endeavor, carried out by imperfect beings in a world where fact and logic do not hold absolute power or even absolute significance— should inspire our generation beyond any other contribution, for we are just now at the point where the twin pillars of Science and the Humanities— our two great explainers— must either unite, bring forth some new, enlightened discipline, or fall hopelessly short. The balancing act which you so beautifully maintained between the science of discovery and the art of human interaction has sustained me, gives me hope for myself and for the future of society as I step tentatively into the world.

I hope that, like my father, you never lost your sense of wonder and amazement at the capacity of the human mind and the natural world. Although I learned from your recent RadioLab interview that over the course of your personal life you have not been loved nearly as much as I believe you deserve, I would like to provide one more small testament that you are loved and admired and emulated from afar both for who you are and what you have done (and continue to do), and that, as self-involved as we Millenials may seem, your legacy is already cherished by my generation. I hope to someday be able to communicate to others what you have taught me: that we are not “normal” or “abnormal”, “right” or “wrong”. Each of us is an intriguing, unique, worthy point on a diverse spectrum, and above all, one’s own mind is a place, not to be feared, but to be approached and observed and explored with an attitude of wonder, play, experimentation, and curiosity. As you said, “I suspect we all have a little bit of everything”.

Again, thank you.


Sophia E Marx

Dedicated to

Dr. Oliver Sacks


July 9, 1933 — August 30, 2015


Dr. Otto M Marx


July 14, 1933 — August 30, 2012


4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Oliver Sacks

    • Thank you so much, Orly! I wish I had been able to speak with Dr. Sacks myself– he taught at Columbia until right before I got here– but it just wasn’t meant to be. As to Dad… Of course I wish he was still around so I could talk to him on terms of adulthood, but it will have to suffice to carry on his life’s work (what I know of it) in the small ways that I can 🙂


  1. Reblogged this on the sophist and commented:

    A piece I wrote a few months ago that isn’t only about mental health, so I think it has a place here. Thinking of Dr. Sacks, and my dad, more than usual today in anticipation of the Columbia semester commencing next week:


  2. Pingback: Medication. | The Panic Button

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