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Learning to be a concise writer


Another accident
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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To come back to the Leg book, I felt that if I didn't write about the accident it would happen again. But I also felt that if I did write about the accident it might happen again with my... with my crooked unconscious.

Anyhow, early in '84, after a year of painful editing in which a 300,000-word manuscript was reduced by Colin to 58,000 words, the... the book was going into proofs, and just at that point I had another accident and did the same to my right leg, although this was in the Bronx in... in an icy gas station. I... I'd stopped... it was on City Island, where I lived then, I'd handed my credit card to the attendant, then because I'd been sitting a long while in the car, I thought I'd just open the door and stand up. The moment I stood up, I fell down on ice like that, and when he came back with the receipt he found me on the ground half under the car. He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Sunbathing'. And he said, 'No', he says, 'what happened?' And I said, well, I said, 'I've broken an arm and a leg'. He says, 'You're joking again'. I said 'No, this time I'm not joking, you better get an ambulance'.

And so the ambulance came. When I was taken to hospital the surgical resident said, 'What's that written on your hand?' I said, 'Oh, that's a patient, she's... she’s... with hallucination, she's got Charles Bonnet syndrome, I was on my way to see her'. And he said, 'Dr Sacks, you're the patient now'.  And it was only at that point that I... that it came to me that I was the patient, and this actually is a reason why I think the intended piece on Charles Bonnet was not in the Hat book along with my piece on musical hallucinations, but it will now come out 25 years later in my hallucination book.

[Q] Didn't Colin have a comment afterwards?

Oh yes, I'm sorry, yes. When Colin heard that I was in hospital – I was in hospital when the proofs arrived – he said, ‘You'd do anything for a footnote’.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: A Leg to Stand On, The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Charles Bonnet

Duration: 3 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012