An Unexpected Friendship with Oliver Sacks

Photo of Susan Barry

đź“· Photo by Rosalie Winard

Q&A with Susan R. Barry, author of Dear Oliver: An Unexpected Friendship with Oliver Sacks.

Susan R. Barry is professor emerita of biological sciences and of neuroscience and behavior at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions and Coming to Our Senses. Her latest book, Dear Oliver, tells the intimate and inspiring story of her unexpected friendship with Oliver Sacks.

How did your friendship with Oliver Sacks begin?

I experienced a revelatory change in my vision. Severely cross-eyed since birth, I developed stereovision later in life—and I wanted to tell others about it. However, the change in my vision was considered impossible, so I didn’t think most scientists and physicians would believe me. Taking a chance, I composed a long letter to Oliver Sacks. He was intrigued and responded with questions of his own. I wrote back, which triggered another letter from him, and soon we found ourselves writing about everything from cells to brains to music.

Were you nervous to initially reach out to Oliver, and did you expect to receive a response?

Sometimes in life, you have to create your own opportunities, and this can incur risks. I hardly knew Oliver Sacks when I sent him my first letter. The letter was long–nine, typed, single-spaced pages—so I questioned whether he would read it to the end. I described my vision recovery story which challenged long-held scientific dogma, so I worried—Would he think me delusional? Even if he believed my story, would he understand just how revelatory the changes in my vision were to me? Or would he think me overly dramatic? I thought perhaps it was better to enjoy my new vision quietly and privately as I had done over the previous two years, but I sent the letter anyway, and it changed my life.

Has your correspondence with Oliver inspired how you communicate with others?

Oliver responded to all my letters with great thought and care, which made me feel heard and respected. After my first book, Fixing My Gaze, was published, I received emails from people all over the world, and I tried to answer their letters with the same care and thoughtfulness that Oliver had answered mine.

Which qualities of your friendship with Oliver made your bond so strong?

Friendships grow through sharing, and sharing leads to trust. When Oliver published my story, first in a New Yorker article and later in a book chapter, both titled “Stereo Sue,” he put great trust in me. By allowing him to tell and publicize my personal story, I put great trust in him. This sharing and trust laid the foundation for a deep friendship.

The subtitle to your book is “An Unexpected Friendship with Oliver Sacks.” What inspired you to use “unexpected” to describe your connection to him?

It was Oliver Sacks himself who described our friendship as “unexpected” in the last letter to me three weeks before he died. He wrote, “A deep and stimulating friendship with you has been a wonderful and unexpected addition to my life in these last ten years…”

Interview with Susan R. Barry, author of Dear Oliver: An Unexpected Friendship with Oliver Sacks (The Experiment, January 2024).