Letter to the Editor: So you want to quote Oliver Sacks? A Letter to Reed Faculty Concerning Ableism

Submitted on 10 December 2019

Letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Quest or the Editorial Board.

I am a student in Hum 110. On Monday, December 9, I attended the lecture “The Virtues of Character and the Virtues of Thought ” by Nathalia King on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The lecture was informative and well presented. Much of it will not be discussed in this letter.

Nathalia opened her lecture with a story about two men, John and Michael, the subjects of a portion of Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I have not read, outside the portion that Nathalia quoted from, the source material, nor do I intend to. This will also not be, at least wholly, the concern of my letter. The book, for context, chronicles the behaviors and conditions of various disabled and mentally ill people. A New York Times article, reporting on Sacks’ death, describes his pursuits as “using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition” (Cowles). Let that description color our investigation of the portion of the book concerning John and Michael.

John and Michael, and I must refer to them this way because no amount of research could yield to me their last names, were twin brothers who met Sacks when they were twenty-eight and institutionalized. They had a variety of diagnoses over the course of their lives, the most accurate of which was likely autism. They had low cognitive abilities, little verbal communication, and difficulty caring for themselves. What Sacks noted, though, was how they communicated with each other, by producing and relating very large prime numbers. Sacks realized this and had a conversation with them by reading his own prime numbers out of a book. In her lecture, Nathalia King quoted Sacks’ account of this conversation and went on to describe how this particular passage inspired her to consider how different types of intelligence can manifest in different people. All very fascinating, thought provoking stuff. Not for me.

I am disabled. Like John and Michael, I am autistic. When I hear the tale of twin brothers observed and studied by a neurologist for the purpose of inquiry and the reproduction of their lives meant for consumption, I do not hear an interesting anecdote about the nature of intelligence. I hear one chronicle of many of the exploitation, voyeurism, and institutionalization of people like me, like my friends.

Disabled history in the colonized and colonizing world is full of grief. Abled people are quick to forget the eugenics born out of European and Euro-American thought that created institutions, sterilization programs, experiments, and ultimately, genocides against people whose cognitive, social, or physical abilities did not make them acceptable and “productive” members of the capitalist society. This history, one of violence and pain, one so frequently echoed in our everyday lives, is what looms over the work of Oliver Sacks, Nathalia King’s lecture, and every act of dismissal of disabled agency. It is this history that allows a man like Sacks to document the conditions of living, breathing people, and sell them as entertainment, to profit off of their suffering in institutions, their abuse at the hands of family and caregivers, and their fundamental refusal to fit in to society. I do not find it intriguing that two brothers made a language out of the numbers that appeared to them, I do not need to study it and pick it apart, I see it in how I found, when I spent months with limited verbal capacity, to communicate. These experiences are not novel to everybody, and presenting them as a thought experiment, something to be studied yet again by people who do not even know the full name of the people that so intrigue them, is a travesty. We are either hidden away, in the backs of kitchens, in segregated school environments, in halfway houses, or forced into the spotlight, the surgical theater, the examination room. Our needs are too complicated, our conditions too confusing, our agency and autonomy always under scrutiny. That disabled people are only visible in a course like Hum 110 as objects to be spoken of, never to speak, to be investigated, never to investigate, to provoke thought, never have their thoughts be heard, is a fundamental denial of the right of every disabled person in the course to participate in the institution of Reed. We are not silent, merely silenced, by the indifference of institutions founded without the intention of one of us every taking part in them. Next time, when you want to quote Oliver Sacks, ask yourself if you would quote one of his subjects. Then find one. I promise, we’re everywhere.

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Mimi Walsh
Mimi Walsh
2 years ago

I am a differently abled parent of an autistic child, and a lifelong admirer of Oliver Sacks’ work – to include his mass-marketed published works, his steady flow of relevant and broadly influential published research, and his commitment to understanding “otherness”
I have at times been like you: quickly and personally offended, stubbornly blind to do any further work to get past my initial feeling of “this is toxic and people don’t understand.” My gentle to suggestion to you is this: Read the source material you so clearly said you would not read. Then read some more. Oliver Sacks brought daylight to the human condition of otherness in the most compassionate and normalizing ways. His studies came at a time before autism was widely recognized, many years before most people had any exposure to people like his subjects, many of which were institutionalized because institutionalization was the standard of care for different children until the 70s. Family doctors basically told parents this was their only option.
Oliver Sacks devotes his life to studying neuro-atypical brains in real life settings, hoping to find ways to bridge the gaps and present meaning to society where it previously did not exist in many of his subjects.

I hope as you continue your studies that your curiosiry, your emotions, your critical analysis and your world-view all mature so that you will not be so quickly offended, dismissive, placing every word in verbatim context (“he used subjects”), placing every context within just the time you’ve been on this earth, and failing to recognize people who contributed to whatever degree of inclusiveness, care, love and humane regard you’ve enjoyed on your lifetime, like Oliver Sacks.
I also hope you will take this if nothing else: there are no safe spaces even for the neurotypical. The sooner you realize that broadening your mind and working toward anything comes with risk the sooner you will learn to let things roll off. Getting worked up was clearly not in your best interest here