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Naming the book An Anthropologist on Mars


Amnesic Gary
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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Then there was a seventh piece I wrote about a patient under my own care at Beth Abraham. A... a highly musical young man who had been a passionate Deadhead in the 1960s and who had then, like a lot of disturbed and passionate and drug-taking young people of the time, had been converted to religion. You know, William James says somewhere that the cure for dipsomania is religiomania; this might have been the case with George W Bush. But... with Gary, as a disturbed young man, the salvation lay in the Hare Krishna movement and in a Swami who had a place on Second Avenue and attracted people. And Gary got into the movement, he became an acolyte in... in the Hare Krishna temple in Brooklyn and there... there he was allowed to develop a huge cerebral tumour. And the changes it made in him were all interpreted as signs of spirituality. His... his steady loss of eyesight was seen as turning to the inner light. His steady loss of emotional reaction and his indifference were seen as serenity. His parents were kept at a distance and really, people were... were almost kidnapped by the Hare Krishna, as they’re kidnapped by all of the cults. And the friends and relatives are kept at a distance. Finally, his parents visited Gary – by then I think he was in another temple – and they found their blonde, blind, bland son almost unrecognisable.


And it was also... he was taken to a neurosurgeon, well, the tumour was discovered, he went for neurosurgery, this huge tumour was removed but it had been the size of an orange and it had done a good deal of brain damage. And in particular it had pressed on structures, what are called the medial temporal lobes in the hippocampus, and had rendered him amnesic. So that when he had his surgery in 1974, as he recovered from it he still thought it was 1968. The intervening years had been lost for him and also he was unable now to remember events which were happening to him. You could have a conversation with Gary, five minutes later he wouldn’t recognise you, although he retained his intelligence and his great musicality and a sense of humour. Gary became a patient of mine, came to Beth Abraham in 1975. And... but here, again, he came in with his guitar and he became attached to Connie, our music therapist, although, I think he often didn’t recognise her and sometimes he thought there might be multiple Connies. He once said to Connie, you know, 'I met someone with the same name who plays the trumpet' and Connie said, 'That’s me'.


I determined on a... on an abduction. Many years earlier when I was at UCLA and I had had a blind, paralysed patient who wanted to ride with me on my motorcycle up to Topanga and I went in with a few weightlifting buddies and we kidnapped her. There was a somewhat similar kidnapping, though not quite as drastic when, with Kate and Allen [Furbeck], her husband, we took Gary to a Grateful Dead concert. As we approached the place, he sniffed the air, which was full of cannabis, which was full of pot and he loved that. This also struck me as very interesting, that he didn’t have amnesia for the smell of pot. And indeed I think that smell may avoid some of the amnesic mechanisms. He loved the first half of the concert when the Grateful Dead played early music from the ‘60s. He knew it all, he knew it by heart, he sang along, he was animated, he was full of enthusiasm and at that moment it didn’t... didn’t seem to me and wouldn’t have seemed to anyone around him that there was anything the matter with him.


In the interval he met Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead. But in the second half of the concert, where the Grateful Dead played newer stuff, and we are now speaking of – what was it, Kate – about 1990 or something like this? Gary was very perplexed. He didn’t know any of the music; he couldn’t sing along and he said very interestingly, he said, 'This is like music of the future'. He said, 'This is like music which the Grateful Dead might compose and perform someday'.  His great musicality enabled him to see the possibility of continuity, and that was very, very astounding. Gary… I played Grateful Dead CDs on the way back, I wanted to keep things going for him. But the next morning, he had no memory of having gone to the Garden, Madison Square Garden. Although, curiously, I think there was some memory of the music he had heard. Anyhow, I wrote about Gary and Gary, like Temple, has also become the subject of a feature film quite recently, called The Music Never Stops [sic].

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: Beth Abraham Hospital, Hare Krishna, Brooklyn, UCLA, Topanga, Grateful Dead, Madison Square Garden, The Music Never Stopped, George W Bush, Mickey Hart, Allen Furbeck, Kate Edgar

Duration: 7 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012