I recently listened to a podcast about Oliver Sacks. It was an interview with Lawrence Weschler, who is promoting his book And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks. Like everybody else, I knew of Oliver Sacks and his famous books, but I have not read those books and did not know much about the man himself.

Notably, I did not know that Oliver Sacks was gay. In our enlightened post-gay world, that would ordinarily be irrelevant to anything (“What does it matter that he was gay? He’s just a human. Why do you people obsess over sexual identity so much??”) but in Oliver Sacks’s case it seems to have been relevant. The story from the podcast went something like this:

  • Sacks had been a doctor, and had known he was gay. Other than a brief period in California, he had suppressed this, and was celibate for decades.
  • Sacks had his clinical practice, and had written Awakenings, but at the time the book was a flop. He was not taken seriously by his fellow doctors, partially because his research was qualitative, not quantitative.
  • He fell into a writer’s block characterized by logorrhea. He would write and write and write and be unhappy with all of it.
  • Weschler was a writer for The New Yorker and wanted to profile Sacks in the early 1980s — after Awakenings had been published, but before it became a bestseller. Over the course of four years, Weschler interviewed the man and spent time as he did his rounds. When Weschler was ready to write the profile, Sacks asked him not to do so if there was no way to conceal his homosexuality. Weschler thought that Sacks’s homosexuality was a part of the story, and so the profile got shelved.
  • Much later in life, Sacks accepted his sexuality enough to come out in his autobiography (published in 2015). Seven years before his death from cancer, he fell in love with a man and had a relationship.
  • As Sacks was dying of cancer, he finally gave Weschler permission to write the profile.

Why did Weschler feel that Sacks’s sexuality was relevant to his profile? He offered a couple of reasons. First: Sacks was tormented by his homosexual feelings. (He probably would have benefited from, but that has not yet been created.) He felt that he was an outcast. This gave him a lot of sympathy for his clinical subjects, who were people suffering from conditions too mysterious and too resistant to treatment for other doctors to care about. Weschler used the phrase “community of the refused.” Sacks felt that he himself was refused, and he tended to the medical needs of others who were refused, and identified with them when other well-adjusted doctors would not have bothered.

Secondly, Sacks knew drugs. Again according to Weschler, Sacks was sufficiently tormented (and insufficiently devoted to the blood of Jesus Christ) that for a few years he turned to drugs and became a speed freak. This helped him identify cases where drugs might have been helpful.

To these reasons I would add a third. You all came out early enough in life that I do not expect you to relate to this, but a common coping strategy for self-loathing, closeted, genetic dead-ends is throw ourselves into their careers. They hope that working hard enough and building up career accomplishments serves both as an excuse for not going on dates (“work is sooooo busy”) and as a justification for their existences. You don’t have to take my word for this; I plagiarized this concept from The Velvet Rage, a book by Alan Downs, a book well worth reading if you woke youngsters have trouble understanding how your gay elders got so messed up.

Let’s take Weschler at his word, and accept that there was some relationship between Sacks’s own despair surrounding his sexuality and his ability to relate to others. This raises some interesting hypotheticals relating to the justification of one’s existence. This is debatable (and if any of you read this far I am sure you will debate it), but for the sake of these hypotheticals let’s say that if Sacks had been able to direct more of his energy into sex and interpersonal relationships, he would have been less driven to administer to the “community of the refused”, and would not have accomplished as much in his career. What was Sacks’s personal torment worth?

Say that Sacks’s personal torment led to him being an innovative, influential doctor who then enlightened thousands of readers by writing bestselling books. Would that have been worth the torment?

Put aside the bestselling author bit. Say that Sacks’s torment had led to him being an innovative, influential doctor who helped humanize patients via “narrative therapy”. Would that have been worth the torment?

Put aside the innovative, influential doctor bit. Say that Sacks’s torment had pushed him to sympathizing with his patients and humanizing them on a personal level, helping to heal some people who were otherwise thought to be incurable? Would that have been worth the torment?

Put aside the curing bit. Say that Sacks’s torment had led him to be a more caring doctor who had real empathy for outcasts because he felt like an outcast himself, even if he was not able to cure significantly more people than indifferent doctors. Would that have been worth the torment?

Before you offer kneejerk reactions, consider the cost of self-acceptance. Even at the most modest level, patients who would have otherwise been ignored and treated like pieces of meat felt as if they were treated like human beings. Has a doctor’s demeanor ever had an effect on you? How much torment is a more sympathetic doctor worth to you or the ones you love?

You can argue that this is a false dichotomy all you like. I am sure you are completely correct, and that this idea that closeted self-loathing people overcompensate in their careers is just another delusion from my diseased little brain. There are no tradeoffs in this world. We can all have our cakes and eat them too.

21 thoughts on “Sacksrifice

  1. You fascinate me, Lurkie.
    Ok, on to the comment: no, I don’t think the torment was worth the output, many people are very prolific without hating themselves. No, I don’t think the torment was worth his empathy, doctors have that without being self-loathing homosexuals.
    I have never encountered a doctor who does not respect me. Not even when his finger is touching my prostate or when I’m telling them how flawed I am.
    But I understand why he came out late in life. Younger generations do not understand the incredibly high price gay men paid for being out thirty, forty, or fifty years ago. That’s why I so respect the ‘faggots’ who threw that first brick at Stonewall. It was not the Masc for Masc guys who could ‘pass’ the ones who suffered. It was the ones who could not hide it the ones who cracked the stigma.
    I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy either. Being a tortured soul may have helped him understand lost cases and fueled his desire to publish, but he may have done it without it, too.



    1. It is embarrassing to be fascinating but I am not surprised. I doubt your read many blogs by homocons.

      You are lucky that you have never been judged harshly by doctors. I wish I could say the same.

      But more to the point: Dr Sacks was ministering to patients that many, many other doctors had given up on (because those cases were too poor and/or too difficult). Why was that? Would Dr Sacks have done so under any circumstance?


  2. This is some deep sh….uh, doo doo, Lurkster! I’m not going to comment on something I know nothing about except for saying, isn’t a lot of gay bashing done by self- loathing homosexuals? No empathy or understanding there. Anyway, I did enjoy the movie, Awakenings, even though the ending was depressing.


    1. On further reflection, this is less of a gay blog than the old debate about tortured artists. You are (presumably) not a self-loathing closeted homosexual, but you have endured your fair share of hardship in life. Has that hardship made you a better person? Or would you be identical without those experiences?

      Yes, I agree that sometimes self-loathing gets projected into the hatred of others. But also note that these self-loathing gays are overcompensating in their careers too.


      1. The hardship that I’ve endured has actually left me a big damaged chicken! I, however, have survived (cue Gloria Gaynor). Without the physical, and emotional abuse I probably would’ve been more confident in myself, and maybe less shy. Actually, I probably would’ve become a major asshole considering my humor comes from coping with deep crap. Who knows, really?


        1. Yes, you are right. Too much stress breaks people.

          Did you get to spend time with your surrogate mom?


          1. I spent a couple of hours with her this morning. She’s still very lucid but hard to understand when she talks. Of course, with her accent I always had a hard time understanding her. It was a joke between us. She asked if Balder Half would do her memorial service. She wanted someone who would keep it short and provide humor. I’m going to miss playing with her. She did get a kick when I told her that my dna test turned up some Japanese blood waaaaaay down the road. It explains the eyes, she said. Thank you for asking, Lurkster.


  3. No, it is perfectly true that closeted gays bound by shame do sometimes “overcompensate” by throwing themselves into their careers or other achievements. It is a measure of how much they long to be seen as “worthwhile” members of society, which reflects their own inner conviction that they are not. It’s a continuation of the “best little boy/girl in the world” syndrome that sometimes characterizes gay kids growing up. But I doubt if any career/achievement is solely explicable because of this. Other factors come into play too. No one is purely black-and-white in their motivations and drive.

    And yes, “false dichotomy” is exactly what sprang to mind about the rest of your argument. Simply because others benefit from someone’s oppression does not justify that oppression.


    1. Well, in my case being unworthwhile is not a conviction, but objective truth.

      You should bring up your false dichotomy argument with Jesus. Now there’s a guy who suffered so that the rest of us could benefit.

      Do you believe that others can benefit from the oppression of self-loathing homosexuals? Given that, is it your opinion that such oppression is never justified given the outcome? Or do you believe as Sixpence appears to that such oppression is never necessary to achieve the same outcomes?


  4. See… another good post. I did post recently wondering if I would have an open mind towards other groups who are/were marginalized if I hadn’t lived the gay experience. One thing however is I would never want someone to sacrifice themselves and not become who they really are. I unfortunately did that to myself, I would never want someone to do that for me. It just feels so awful when I look back, it’s feels so wrong.


    1. We expect police and soldiers to sacrifice themselves in order to protect our private property from brown people.

      Probably your parents sacrificed themselves to raise you and your sister.


      1. Yes Lurker they all made sacrifices for others… but they made those sacrifices while still being true to themselves. Many cops and soldiers love their work, it’s who they are, it’s what they wanted to be. My parents were still the people they wanted to be, doing the things they liked. There is a difference I feel, in giving up who you are for something compared to giving up taking a vacation or buying a larger home etc. Of course people like cops and soldiers can potentially give their life up.


        1. A lot of moms put their careers and their personal hopes on hold to raise ungrateful runny-nosed brats and entitled husbands. That does not sound like staying true to oneesself.

          The whole point of the army is to break down your individuality and turn you into a cog that follows orders irrespective of your judgements or beliefs. That does not sound like staying true to onesself either.

          If the argument is that we are multifaceted and therefore being a mommy can be a satisfying substitute for having a life, then Dr Sacks would qualify too — being a doctor was one facet of his life, and being a homosexual was another.


  5. I once knew a guy who was doing a Post Doctorate at Duke. He then went to be the head of a research dept at University of NC Chapel Hill in Neurobiology. Then, the head of Georgetown. He was gay and wanted to be loved in the worse way. But, moving out of his comfort zone and in a social situation, he came off ‘different’. He could only discuss test tubes and petri dishes and blow fish serum.

    I wonder what Dr Sacks was like in person? The truly great people are often called freaks.


    1. Jimmy! It is nice to see you.

      According to the podcast Dr Sacks was good with his patients, but could be insufferable in other social situations. He had facial blindness and strong opinions. I got the definite sense that he would not have thrived in today’s world; people like him get cancelled sooner or later.


  6. It has been over a week when my laptop suddenly disallowed me from leaving comments at I’ve been a lurker now myself. Happily the office PC seems to function. So here I be.


    1. I ought to be more of a lurker. Everybody would be happier if I lurked more and yapped less. But if you wanted to be a Lurker you would have to sport a different moniker. Handsome Lurker, perhaps?

      Congratulations on foiling the computer gremlins. Fortunately my blog is on WordPress, so you could still have commented. However, you usually make the blog rounds on Sundays, so this is perfect timing for you.


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