Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

May 6, 2014

We have a couple of great websites to recommend. Lucy Winer’s award-winning documentary Kings Park: Stories from an American Mental Institution is, Dr. Sacks says, “a brave, compelling look at the life of a state mental hospital and those whose lives it has touched. . . . A brilliant exploration of a difficult and complex issue.”

We also invite you to explore a new website called The Hot Stove Project, created by Dr. Lois Oppenheim and Dr. Alice Maher. Dedicated to encouraging discussion about different mental conditions from varied perspectives, the project incorporates a wide range of resources, including a short documentary, “How to Touch a Hot Stove: Thought and Behavioral Differences in a Society of Norms.”

Louis Wain cats
The film, narrated by John Turturro, features interviews with Temple GrandinElyn SaksJoanne GreenbergEric KandelCharles MarmarOliver Sacks, and Alice Flaherty, among others. (You can also see an extended version of Dr. Sacks’s interview here.)

If you like either of these, please share!  If you know of a school, hospital or organization that would be interested in hosting a screening and discussion  please email Hot Stove at or Kings Park at Together, we can make a difference.

Happy spring!

PS: If you missed Dr. Sacks’s recent essay “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” subscribers can find it in the New York Review of Books, April 24 issue or online.

Filed Under: Footnotes

Women and Education

March 11, 2014

If you’ve read Uncle Tungsten, Dr. Sacks’s memoir of his boyhood, you may remember that his grandparents Marcus and Chaya Landau, who raised eighteen children at the turn of the twentieth century, were firm advocates for the equality of men and women, especially when it came to education. While many of their nine sons went into chemistry, physics, or metallurgy, the sisters were drawn to teaching and medicine. Muriel Elsie Landau, Dr. Sacks’s mother, was one of the first women surgeons in England, and four of her sisters founded or ran schools.

The Landau family: Annie is standing second from the right; Elsie second from the left.

One of these remarkable women, Annie Landau, left the comforts of London for Palestine in 1899. She knew no one in this new country, but was determined to help provide a wide-ranging education for the Anglo-Jewish girls in Jerusalem, at a time when most of them were impoverished and illiterate, denied education and pushed into teenage marriage or prostitution. They could not have found a better champion than Annie Landau, whose passion for women’s education overcame all sorts of cultural and political obstacles. Her parties for the city’s elite were legendary, and the school which she directed for forty-five years left a lasting legacy on the development of Jerusalem as a thriving modern culture.

Historian Laura S. Schor has just published The Best School in Jerusalem: Annie Landau’s School for Girls, 1900-1960. It paints a vivid picture of life in Jerusalem in these formative years, and brings to life a forgotten chapter of the history of education and of women.

Dr. Sacks has so enjoyed the book that he has sent out dozens of copies to his cousins (eighteen children lead to a lot of cousins!). We hope you enjoy it, too.

In quite a different vein, Dr. Sacks has just completed an article about the origins of mind in invertebrates (like earthworms, jellyfish, and his favorite cephalopods). Bones, it seems, are not a prerequisite for mental life. Look for his essay in an upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books. (For updates, check our Twitter or Facebook pages.)

Filed Under: News

Wonders Large and Small

January 2, 2014

Small wonder: Moss microscopy by Magdalena Turzanska

January 1, 2014

Dear Friends,

Only a week or two ago, it was warm enough in New York City for Dr. Sacks to wear his new American Fern Society t-shirt outside; by tomorrow, we are expecting single digit temps. Whatever your weather, we wish you all good things for this New Year: health, happiness, friends, and an appreciation of wonders large and small. Cheers!

The Sacks Office

Big wonder: Alaska Aurora sequence by LeRoy Zimmerman

Filed Under: News

Thank you, readers!

November 19, 2013
This Thanksgiving, we thank you, dear readers, for your support. And since Thanksgiving is time for pie, here’s one of our favorites: Octo-pie!

   Octopus pie baked and photographed by Eve Archer (via Steve Silberman).

For his 80th birthday this past summer, Dr. Sacks promised himself more time to write, and he is working now on several new books. They are still in early stages, but they will include stories of Dr. Sacks’s early doctoring days, as well as new neurological mysteries and a few essays on Big Topics like consciousness, evolution, and memory. Oh, and the minds of octopuses and other invertebrates. Stay tuned for updates.

We are sad to note the passing of Doris Lessing, whose groundbreaking works, including The Golden Notebook, earned her a Nobel Prize only a few years ago. In 1973, she reviewed Dr. Sacks’s book Awakenings, saying, “it makes you aware of the knife-edge we live on.” Dr. Sacks will be returning to that theme at some point, when he finishes an essay on the frailty of health and knife-edges of various sorts, from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s to simple old age.

Filed Under: News

Freedom to Read

September 25, 2013
What do Rachel Carson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Toni Morrison, Galileo, Mark Twain, Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle have in common?They all wrote great books—books which were banned from libraries, banned from schools, banned from publication. Of course, they are just a few authors to have achieved this dubious distinction. 

This week is Banned Books Week, and you can find out more at your local library, or at many websites including that of the American Library Association.But we’d like to salute all those other librarians—the ones who fight hard to keep all books available to all readers, and work hard every day to bring us everything from bestsellers to rare and wondrous collections on every subject imaginable.Take a moment to thank your local librarian!  Volunteer some time at a library, or maybe even start your own, like the folks at Little Free Library or Biblioburros.

Filed Under: News

On Turning 80

July 18, 2013

The last few weeks have been exciting!  Hallucinations just came out in paperback in the US and UK, and is already on the New York Times bestseller list.

Dr. Sacks turned 80 on July 9, and celebrated with family and friends. Element 80, quicksilver, was much in evidence. His friend Joanne gave him a brilliant mercury t-shirt, his publisher sent a statue of winged Mercury for his desk, and his friend Theodore Gray delivered a flask of liquid mercury—satisfyingly heavy, and it makes a great sound when swirled, rather like a superthick milkshake. For photos of these and more mercury madness, check our Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Oliver Sacks at 80
How does Dr. Sacks feel about entering his ninth decade? He had this to say in an essay for the New York Times.

Looking for summer reading? Try The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a beautiful meditation on the meaning of life (both human and snail) by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Dr. Sacks loved this book so much, he bought a dozen copies to send to friends.

Finally, thanks to Robert Krulwich and our friends at Radiolab for this podcast, in which Dr. Sacks explains how thousands of worms and a motorbike accident led to where he is today.


PS: Recognize any of these people? Dr. Sacks visited them last week during a rehearsal of their new play:

Billy Crudup, Shuler Hensley, Oliver Sacks, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Sean Mathias

Filed Under: News

Write On!

June 27, 2013

Forty years ago today, the first edition of Awakenings was published in England. It was the second book by a little-known doctor, Oliver Sacks (the first was Migraine), and it told the extraordinary Rip-van-Winkle story that would inspire so many readers and quite a few dramatic adaptations, including a Hollywood film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, a one-act play by Harold Pinter, a ballet composed by Tobias Picker, and a short film by Bill Morrison and Philip Glass. Awakenings continues to inspire people around the world with the courage of these long-forgotten people immersed in the most profound illness and then reemerging into life.

Awakenings, first edition and current edition

Dr. Sacks says, “It took me several years to write Awakenings; it was not easy, so I was very relieved and happy when I finally had the proofs in my hands. My publisher wanted to defer the book’s publication so that excerpts of it could appear in the Sunday Times [of London], but I was adamant–I wanted it out before my fortieth birthday, so that I could say, ‘I may be forty, and it may be downhill from here, but at least I have done something: I have written Awakenings.’”

Now, forty years later, Dr. Sacks is about to turn 80. On July 9, 2013, he will celebrate–besides a birthday party and a swim, he will almost certainly spend a good part of the day working on his next book. To which we say, “Write On!”

PS: Check out encore presentations of this year’s New York Live Ideas festival devoted to “The Worlds of Oliver Sacks.” (Click on Videos and scroll sideways to see different events.) The festival included a number of new works of art inspired by Awakenings, as well as the world premiere of “A Kind of Alaska” in American Sign Language.

Filed Under: News

Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness

May 21, 2013

Lisbeth Riis and Don Cooper of CooperRiis 


President Obama, marking National Mental Health Awareness Month, has called for an end to the shame and stigma attached to mental illness. As activist Elyn Saks puts it, “there is a tremendous need to implode the myths of mental illness, to put a face on it, to show people that a diagnosis does not have to lead to a painful and oblique life.”

The twenty-first century has brought major progress in developing new medications, pinpointing genetic factors, and especially in early identification of young people at risk. The outlook for someone with mental illness is better than it has ever been.

And, just as important, there is a renaissance in the area of community care, thanks to many highly dedicated doctors, social workers, and therapists. This is not a new idea: Gould Farm in Massachusetts celebrates its centennial this summer (that is their kitchen pictured below), and in the village of Geel, in Belgium, townspeople have fostered the mentally ill, taking them into their families for over seven centuries.

The kitchen at Gould Farm

Community care models like those pioneered by Fountain House in New York City or CooperRiis in Asheville, North Carolina (pictured at the top are Lisbeth Riis and Don Cooper, founders), are being replicated in many places. All aspire to treat every patient with human respect and dignity, giving them a role and a web of relationships, providing hope and healing as well as the latest medications and therapies.

Every one of us knows someone touched by mental illness–please consider volunteering your time or money to help. For more information on community care, please visit the American Residential Treatment Association website.

Upcoming Events:

Monday, July 22, 2013, Philadelphia:
Dr. Sacks in conversation with Anna Dhody, curator of the Mutter Museum, at the Free Library

Wednesday, July 17, 2013, Washington DC:
Dr. Sacks in conversation with Kay Redfield Jamison, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue

Filed Under: News

Now Hear This!

April 2, 2013

April 3 is our good friend Jane Goodall’s birthday—happy gold (79) birthday to you, Jane! If you are interested in hearing Jane Goodall speak, please visit her website. Also this month there are lots of opportunities coming up to hear Dr. Sacks speak:–Wednesday, April 3, at 6 pm EDT, you can tune into a live-streamed interview with Dr. Sacks about hallucinations and his life as a physician-writer. Dr. Danielle Ofri will interview Dr. Sacks for the NYU Humanistic Medicine colloquium at NYU School of Medicine, and you can watch it here.

–Attention, New Yorkers: our friends at the National Aphasia Association have made a limited number of free tickets available for our newsletter subscribers to their screening of a new film, “After / Words”. Dr. Sacks will be on hand to sign books and introduce this moving film on Wednesday, April 10, at 6 pm. Call (800) 922-4622 or email to reserve your ticket with the code Sacks10. The event will be held at the NYIT Auditorium, 1871 Broadway in New York City.

–New York Live Arts announces that they will live-stream a number of events in the upcoming Worlds of Oliver Sacks festival, starting with his conversation with Bill T. Jones on April 17. Other events in the festival will be live-streamed and/or available as audio podcasts—check the Live Ideas web page for updates.

–For those of you who like downloadable audiobooks, we are pleased to announce that is offering unabridged recordings of A Leg to Stand OnAn Anthropologist on MarsAwakeningsHallucinationsThe Man Who Mistook his Wife for a HatThe Mind’s Eye,MusicophiliaOaxaca JournalSeeing Voices, and Uncle Tungsten.

Happy listening!

Filed Under: News

“Words, words, words.”

March 20, 2013

Dr. Sacks has just returned from a three-day visit to the University of Warwick, where he gave a lecture on the importance of the case history in medicine—and saw the Royal Shakespeare Company performing in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.

Being surrounded by such eloquent actors and students, eager to communicate their thoughts and feelings, his own thoughts have returned to aphasia. You may have read “Recalled to Life,” his moving portrait of Pat H., in The Mind’s Eye. Or his chapter about music therapy for aphasia in Musicophilia.

What is aphasia?

Imagine knowing what you want to say, but your brain refuses to let you utter even the simplest word. Or imagine listening to your friends and family and having no idea what their words mean. Sometimes the ability to read or write is affected, too.

Most commonly, aphasia results from a stroke or a head injury, and it may last a few days or a lifetime. People with aphasia have difficulty with language, but they are not intellectually impaired. Yet they are too often neglected and isolated. Music can help people with aphasia to retrieve words, and so can other therapies.

On April 10, 2013, join Dr. Sacks in New York City as he introduces a new film about aphasia, “After / Words.” The film will be shown as part of the National Aphasia Association’s spring benefit. Here is a preview.

Filed Under: News