Skip to main content

Oliver Sacks: A Neurologist Examines 'The Mind's Eye.'

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is famous for his case studies of people with neurological disorders that cause unusual problems with perception. In The Mind's Eye, Sacks turns to himself, explaining how an eye tumor affected his vision and perception of the world.


Other segments from the episode on October 26, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 26, 2010: Interview with Oliver Sacks; Review of television movie musical "Evening Primose."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Oliver Sacks: A Neurologist Examines 'The Mind's Eye'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In his books like "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and "Awakenings,"
neurologist Oliver Sacks has written case studies of his patients who have
unusual disorders that cause alarming and disorienting perceptual changes.

His new book, "The Mind's Eye," is devoted to visual disturbances. A couple of
the chapters are autobiographical, and they came as quite a surprise to me,
even though I've read several of his books and interviewed him several times.
One chapter describes his inability to recognize people by their faces. This is
a condition called prosopagnosia, which is being investigated by neurologists.

Another chapter is about the visual hallucinations and distortions that
resulted from a melanoma, a cancerous tumor, behind his right eye. The tumor
was removed, and the cancer had not spread.

Sacks is now 77. He's a practicing physician and a professor of neurology and
psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

Oliver Sacks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I often say that I never really know
what's going on in the lives of the people I interview. We last spoke in 2007
about your book "Musicophilia," about the neurological disorders that affect
people's perceptions of music.

It was a fascinating interview, but I had no idea that, as we talked, you were
in the process of losing sight in your right eye and that you had had surgery
for a cancerous tumor in your eye. Why were you ready now to commit that to
writing and to talk about it?

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University
Medical Center; Author, "The Mind's Eye"): Well, first, the current book is a
visual book, rather than a musical one. Secondly, I think I've come to a sort
of neutral place where the tumor is quiet, and nothing too much is happening.

But thirdly and perhaps most importantly - although I'm sorry this happened to
me and is happening to me - I feel I might as well use it and investigate it
and write about it and just speak of myself as I would speak of one of my
patients or subjects.

GROSS: How much vision do you have now in your right eye?

Dr. SACKS: I have no vision in my right eye now, and the vision in my left eye
is okay-ish, but sooner or later, I'm going to need cataract surgery.

GROSS: Now, you've kept a journal of your symptoms. You call it the melanoma
journal. And included in that, you reprint some of this: your drawings of the
visual distortions you were perceiving when you were in the process of losing
vision in your right eye. How helpful has it been to keep that journal, and do
you still have one?

Dr. SACKS: I still have it, although I don't make too many entries now. I've
always kept journals, since I was 14 or so, for special experiences, whether
it's traveling, going on a botanical excursion in Oaxaca, or lose - or having
leg surgery or having an eye problem.

I think it allows me a certain detachment and power of reflection, and perhaps
at a deeper level, writing helps me clarify what's going on for myself. And
I'm, whatever that means, a born writer. I have to write about things,
especially things which I feel intensely.

GROSS: Would you describe when you knew something was going wrong with your
eye? And this was in December of 2005.

Dr. SACKS: Yes, it was a Saturday morning. I had gone for a swim, as I usually
do, and then I went to the movies. And while the previews were on, I suddenly
became conscious of a strange – some sort of visual instability and fluttering
to my left.

And then when the previews stopped, I became conscious of a blazing,
incandescent light on the left. I – for a moment, I thought it was a visual
migraine, which I'm prone to, but it was soon clear that this was only in the
right eye - not in the brain like a migraine - and that something unprecedented
was happening.

I got very scared, or panicked. I wondered if I was bleeding into the eye or
had detached a retina. I also noticed that some of the lights in the cinema
were missing. There was a gap in my visual field to the left.

And I finally burst out of the cinema, hoping everything would be okay outside,
but it wasn't okay. I saw an ophthalmologist that afternoon and told him my
story, told him that a bit of the visual field seemed to be missing. And he
looked into my eyes, and it then seemed to me that he drew back and gazed at me
in a different way.

And he said: You've got something behind the retina. He said it could be a blot
clot. It could be a tumor. He said if it's a tumor, I want to go over the worst
possible scenario with you.

I really didn't catch too much else of what he said, because at that point, a
voice in my head started shouting cancer, cancer.

Anyhow, I had a frightened weekend, and on – a couple of days later, I saw the
man to whom I dedicate my book, an ocular oncologist called David Abramson. And
he looked at things, did an ultrasound, then brought out a model of the eye and
put a thing like a little black cauliflower, a cabbage, there. And for me, that
was his way of indicating that I had a tumor and a black tumor, a melanoma.

GROSS: Which means it was a cancerous tumor.

Dr. SACKS: A cancerous tumor. And a melanoma has a particularly vicious
reputation. When I was a medical student, they were all thought to be fatal
within a few months. And - but then he immediately reassured me that the tumors
in the eye are much less malignant and usually don't metastasize, don't
disseminate. But one has to do something. You can't let it grow in the eye.

And he said in the old days, or 20 years ago, one would have removed the eye.
But now one could use radiation and maybe lasering, and hopefully that would
take care of it.

GROSS: So you had a procedure where they actually put radiation into the eye to
try to kill the tumor. And so you were radioactive for that period of time.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. I was very radioactive. And when I was in hospital, there was
the trefoil on the door, and people couldn't come too near me. They couldn't
embrace me. And I rather wanted to be embraced then, because I was sort of
frightened - though I did hope with my intensely radioactive eye that I might
use it to light up some fluorescent minerals.

I'm rather fond of fluorescence. You usually use an ultraviolet light, but X-
rays and gamma rays will do. And I was hot. And I wanted to try it.

GROSS: So how effective was the procedure?

Dr. SACKS: There was quite a lot of swelling under the - with the tumor, and
that had to die down. And then three months later, I had some lasering, which
is supposed to pick up any cancer cells which had survived the radiation.

And at that point, which is now in April, May of 2006, I thought I might have
heard the end of matters. But then I started to get symptoms again later in
that year. The tumor was very near my fovea. That's the part of the eye which
has the finest vision and central vision. And because it was so close to the
fovea, a little area had been - had not been lasered. But now that area started
to grow again, and I needed more lasering. And finally in the following year,
in June, I lost central vision with the lasering.

But by that time, I didn't mind it too much, because my vision was becoming
tremendously distorted with that eye, and sometimes it slightly affected both
eyes so that people, for example, were immensely elongated, like insects, and
tilted to the left. And faces had strange, puffy swellings, rather like Francis
Bacon paintings. And I was really quite glad when that sort of distortion could
be replaced by nothingness.

GROSS: Can you describe some of the other, more unusual visual distortions you
experienced in the process of losing the vision in your right eye?

Dr. SACKS: Well, something which struck me very early was a peculiar
persistence of vision. I first noticed this, actually, when I was in the
hospital, and the right was being radiated and covered with heavy bandage.

But I went in to wash my hands, and then, for some reason, closed my left eye,
but saw the wash basin and the taps and the commode and everything perfectly
clearly. And I thought: That's odd. The dressing over my right eye must be
transparent. But, in fact, it was completely opaque.

And the - objectively, I had not been seeing anything, but yet for about 15
seconds, I saw a detailed picture of that washroom. And this was my persistence
of vision, and it became very especially striking after I'd been lasered in

GROSS: Any explanation for that phenomenon?

Dr. SACKS: This sort of phenomenon has been described by others in various
conditions, but I think this - along with various other things I was getting at
the time - was because of a sort of paradoxical hyperactivity in the visual
parts of the brain. These were not receiving their usual input from the eye,
and therefore, they heightened what one was getting from the other eye, as well
as inventing various things for themselves.

GROSS: One really unusual phenomenon you described was that there was a period
when you only saw the lower halves of people walking.

Dr. SACKS: Oh, yes. That was – I was very struck by that. This was actually the
day after I'd had the lasering. And I went out. I was having breakfast with a
friend. This was an outdoor cafe in the village.

And I – all central vision had been obliterated, except for a little bit at the
bottom. And so I just saw people's shoes and lower legs and trousers and

And it was - I mean, obviously, if I tilted my head back, I could see more of
them, although I could only see a little bit at any time. And this sort of
reminded me of a character in "Ulysses," a Senor Artifoni, who was never
characterized as beyond a pair of stout trouser legs. And so my world became
one of stout trouser legs and shoes for a little while.

GROSS: My guest is neurologist Oliver Sacks. His new book, "The Mind's Eye," is
about disorders that cause visual distortions and hallucinations.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Oliver Sacks. He's a famous neurologist, who has written
many case studies about his patients. But in his new book, "The Mind's Eye,"
which is all about disorders of the eye that create strange visual phenomenon,
he has a chapter about his own blindness in his right eye.

There's another chapter, too, about himself, about face-blindness, which he
has, which we'll talk about later. The book is called "The Mind's Eye."

Since you've lost the sight in your right eye, you've lost stereoscopic vision.

Dr. SACKS: Yes.

GROSS: How does the world look different? Well, you've probably adjusted now.
So let's go back to when you first lost the sight. Yeah.

Dr. SACKS: Well, I'm not sure that I have adjusted, or I may need to say what
adjustment consists of. But before there was any adjustment, I found myself in
an intensely flat world.

Steps and curbs just looked like horizontal lines on the ground. There was no
sense of near and far, no sense of depth. And sometimes what was near and what
was far would be conflated to make a single sort of absurd hybrid or chimera.

Going down stairs was particularly dangerous. I had to sort of feel out each
stair with my foot because it looked flat. And sight is so dominant, that
sometimes I would – as it were, the eye would argue with the foot and say look,
it's flat, and that's that. You don't have another step.

I had many accidents at close quarters. I would go up to shake hands with
someone, and I'd miss their hand. I'd pour them a glass of wine, but I'd pour
the wine into their lap. And there were a lot of things like this, possibly
more severe in my case, because I had been a lover of stereo vision and an
ardent stereo photographer and very, very conscious of stereo vision, and I
think probably unusually strong in stereo vision, and precisely that, which I
so depended on, vanished.

GROSS: Did any of your other senses compensate for what you lost?

Dr. SACKS: I became more adept in using other cues: shadow, shading,
perspective, occlusion. And to this extent, I've adapted. But the absence of
real depth, the absence of stereo, is still absolute, and I think one – this is
bound to occur if one only has one operative eye.

I occasionally seem to have dreams in stereo, but I don't know that one can
trust descriptions of that. You know, as a stereo addict, I would often dream
of looking through a stereoscope. And now I still sometimes dream of that, and
I awakened into my flat world, where sometimes the fan in my room is about to
hit the bedside lamp.

I know that they're six feet away from each other, but they still look on the
same plane to me.

GROSS: Is it upsetting? You know what's going on. You're a neurologist. You
have a very deep understanding of what the problem is. But is it still
upsetting to perceive inaccurately?

Dr. SACKS: Yes, it is. It's both fascinating and upsetting. I've become rather
fond of Medieval art, where, of course, there's no perspective and no sense of
depth. This reminds me – to some extent, I feel I'm in a sort of 13th-century
painting myself.

Some colleagues of mine at Harvard wrote an interesting paper, which I read
several years ago. They noted that Rembrandt's eyes were so far apart and
slightly divergent, that it seems very unlikely that he could have used both
eyes and could have had stereo vision.

And they observed this with a number of other artists and then started to
wonder whether having one eye - or, in effect, only using one eye, might be an
advantage for an artist.

I thought that was improbable, but I have to say that one of the minor
compensations now of losing stereo is that I have a stronger sense of visual
composition. The world looks to me very much like a canvas or a screen, with
the appearances in perspective of objects on it.

Unfortunately, I can't paint or draw, as will be painfully evident to anyone
who looks at my book. But it's – I can see that I never had quite the sense of
visual compensation before. Before, there were real objects in real space at
different distances. Now, to some extent, there are just surfaces and colors
which are juxtaposed to one another and moving. It's much more like a 2-D film.

GROSS: Have you rearranged the furniture and other objects in your home so that
they look less like they're colliding with each other and that there's more
space and perspective?

Dr. SACKS: Yes. I have tried to do that, although it doesn't always work. But
this feeling of crowdedness and spacelessness is very strong. But I have been
rearranging objects for another reason, which was that a year ago, I lost what
little vision I had in the right eye completely. I had a hemorrhage there. And
now I can't see anything to the right of my nose.

And more importantly, I not only lose sight, but I can't keep in mind that
there are things to my right. So I tend to collide with people and things to my

And I was very amazed that simply losing an eye, rather than a part of the
brain, could produce something like this. I've often seen patients who have had
strokes or brain tumors, which maybe have blotted out half of their vision, and
as well as the idea that there is anything to one side. But I didn't expect to
get this myself.

But I do have it. So I need to, on the whole, to keep things to the left. At
first, I was afraid to walk in the streets because I kept bumping into things,
and people suddenly appeared without any warning because I had no right-side,
no peripheral vision.

Again, I've adapted to this somewhat, but only by being very, very conscious of
it. And since there's a big slice of my vision missing, I can't just glance to
the right. I have to turn my head and my upper body to the right. I have to
crane and peer, and that can sometimes disturb people who are behind me because
they feel I am staring at them.

But I certainly - I have to do this. And crossing roads is – becomes an
occasion for extreme caution.

So both of these, the loss of stereo and the loss of right side, although one
accommodates quite a lot, you accommodate by having to be careful.

GROSS: My guest, Oliver Sacks, will be back in the second half of the show. His
new book is called "The Mind's Eye." He's a practicing physician and a
professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with neurologist Oliver Sacks,
the author of several books of case studies about his patients and the unusual
and alarming perceptual changes caused by their neurological disorders. His new
book, "The Mind's Eye," is about visual disturbances. Two chapters are
autobiographical. In the first part of our interview, he described how a tumor
behind his right eye created visual distortions and hallucinations. Last year
he lost all vision in that eye.

Let me get to another story about yourself that you telling your new book, "The
Mind's Eye." Another thing you've dealt with through your life is space
blindness. You have great difficulty recognizing people's faces. I didn't even
know there was such a disorder, that there was a name for that, that it's an
official disorder. When did it start being defined as a disorder?

Dr. SACKS: Well, no doubt face blindness has always existed, and now one can
read earlier accounts which didn't use the phrase but say this is what it must
have been. The defining paper was by a German neurologist in the 1940s and he
coined the term prosopagnosia (unintelligible) the Greek for a face or a mask,
for this apparently specific difficulty recognizing faces. He gave some case
histories, and in one case a young soldier who had had a brain injury lost his
ability to see faces, couldn't recognize his own wife if she was in nurse's
uniform but did recognize a particular nurse. But it turned out that this was
that this was - she had such shining white teeth and that he recognized the
shining teeth, although not the face.

But in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat," my patient, Dr. P., couldn’t
recognize people but he could hardly recognize anything. For him, the agnosia -
the term agnosia is used for a situation in which one sees something clearly
but one can't ascribe any meaning to it, you can't recognize it. And "The Man
Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" had face blindness and every other sort of
agnosia. But after the book was published, I started getting letters from
people who said that they had had something like that, although it was strictly
to faces, all their lives, and other people in their family had had it. And I
found this very curious because as a - I didn't know that there could be a sort
of congenital face blindness. Although by that point I had already started to
suspect myself because I had many, many embarrassments at school and I not only
had difficulty with faces, I had difficulty with places as well.

And I found my brother in Australia, whom I hadn't met for 30 years, had
exactly the same problems and I wondered if we both had some sort of syndrome.
But it's really only in the last 10 years with the development of Internet and
of some centers for research, one of them is by Professor Nukiyama at Harvard,
that it's become apparent that something like two, two and one half percent of
the population have fairly severe face blindness - severe enough to not
recognize their colleagues or sometimes their children or sometimes themselves.
I sometimes have difficulty recognizing myself, and...

GROSS: In a mirror.

Dr. SACKS: a mirror, and there have been many ludicrous incidents in
which I have apologized to my reflection, and another even more ludicrous
incident in which I was sitting outside a restaurant and turned to the window
and was using my reflection to comb my beard, which I have a habit of doing,
and I saw my reflection was not combing its beard, but that on the other side
of the window pane there was a bearded man who was puzzled as to why I was
preening myself in front of him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: So I'm not too sure of what I'd look like. But in two, two and a
half percent this means there are, what, six or eight million Americans with
this often quite disabling and embarrassing problem which has really hardly yet
introduced either to the public or the medical literature.

GROSS: So if there is a disorder, whereas some people can't recognize faces,
does that mean that there's a part of the brain that's reserved for facial
recognition? And has MRIs and, you know, brain imaging in general had anything
to say about that?

Dr. SACKS: Well, this is what was inferred in the 1940s, that such a special
loss must have an equally specific basis. And one does in fact find that
certain areas of the brain - of the visual brain on the left side are
invariably involved if people suddenly become face blind from a stroke or a
tumor. But we can now show using imaging that a particular part of the brain is
involved in recognizing faces. Perhaps I should say several parts of the brain;
they’re all connected to one another. There's a sort of network going up from
the most primitive part of the brain to the frontal lobes, which has become
specialized for recognizing faces.

I say has become specialized because although there's certainly some innate
tendency, things may depend very much on early life and training and either
specifies things so that, say, for a Chinese child brought up in a Chinese
environment one may have difficulty with European faces; they all look the
same. This is what a Chinese friend of mine who is slightly prosopagnosic tells
me. But there’s a particular part of the brain and if that gets knocked out or
if it fails to develop fully, as is probably the case with me and my two
million brethren, then there are going to be difficulties.

GROSS: So since you have trouble recognizing faces, does facial beauty register
on you? Do you care about facial beauty?

Dr. SACKS: Oh, I care very much. I can recognize facial expressions of all
sorts. I think I'm as sensitive as the next man to facial beauty. So I can say
that is a beautiful face and also somewhat sullen(ph), but I have no idea whose
it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I got it. Okay. Let me quote something you say in the book. You say: I
think that a significant part of what is variously called my shyness, my
reclusiveness, my social ineptitude, my eccentricity, even my Asperger's
syndrome, is a consequence and a mild misinterpretation of my difficulty
recognizing faces.

So it sounds like it's had a pretty profound effect on your life.

Dr. SACKS: Well, I suspect so, although I wouldn’t rule out any of the
proceeding facts...

GROSS: That you’re also shy and reclusive...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and socially inept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. However, some people react differently. Chuck Close has, the
artist, has face blindness very severely.

GROSS: I was amazed to read that in your book.

Dr. SACKS: And he says he never knows whom he is with. But he is very
extroverted and exuberant and he immediately opens conversations with these
unrecognizable strangers and finds out, you know, what they do and what their
interests are and who they are. So for him this almost incites a sort of social
quality. Very interestingly it also incites his extraordinary art or plays a
part here, because for him a face is only recognizable when it is flat and
fixed as a photograph in two dimensions, and when it can then be isolated into
little portions or pixels, if you want. And, of course, his extraordinary art
is based on this.

GROSS: My guest is neurologist Oliver Sacks. His new book, "The Mind's Eye," is
about disorders that cause visual distortions and hallucinations.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who has written
several books of case studies about patients with unusual disorders that affect
their senses. His most famous book is "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat."
His new book is called "The Mind's Eye" and it includes a chapter about losing
vision in his right eye and how, in the process, he had a lot of visual
distortions and hallucinations. There's also a chapter in the book about his
face blindness, his inability to recognize faces.

Is your expertise in neurological sensory disorders at all helpful to you in
the sense that you can understand in the way that most people can't what's
going on when you have a hallucination or a visual distortion? You’ve seen so
many people live through this or lived through similar things. Your books
always present these disorders as just really fascinating things about the
human body - disturbing but fascinating. Can you ever see the, like, wow, isn't
this fascinating aspect of your own problem?

Dr. SACKS: I can, and I sort of need to. And I think this probably goes back,
you know, to my earliest years. I started getting visual migraines when I was
four or five. In a visual migraine, part of the world may disappear, outlines
may become distorted. You may see a giant scintillating zigzag. And when this
first happened with me, I was terrified. But my mother, who was a doctor, and
herself had visual migraines, explained to me, you know, in terms which a five-
year-old could understand, that this was a little brain attack, it would only
last a few minutes, and it wouldn't do one any harm. And that sort of defused
the fear, but it left interest and fascination, and I think that was connected
with the fact that my first book was on migraine, and especially visual

Now, I know that there are hallucinations which can occur, sometimes simple
geometrical patterns, sometimes faces and landscapes when vision is impaired.
These hallucinations do not indicate anything else wrong with a brain, so I'm
glad to know that they are okay.

GROSS: So allow me to change the subject for a moment. There’s a fascinating

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: your book that says: In the '60s, during a period of experimenting
with large doses of amphetamines, I experienced a different sort of vivid
mental imagery. And this is in the chapter about the loss of vision in your
right eye.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

GROSS: And so you just kind of toss this off in a footnote, that you were
experimenting with amphetamines in the '60s and had visual distortions.

Dr. SACKS: Well, I sort of feel we all were, or at least those of my
generation. And again, I'm glad to have survived that and so this is all...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Dr. SACKS: all more than 40 years ago. But I did have a period in which
for about two weeks, when I actually wasn't taking anything, when something
seemed to happen to my sensorium. That is to say, I became acutely sensitive to
smells. I have a reasonable sense of smell but for two weeks I could recognize
everyone I knew by smell. I could almost find my way around New York by smell.
But I also found my visually imagery - which is very poor - greatly enhanced.

At that time I was doing neuropathology, which involved cutting brains and
dissecting brains. And I found that structures in the brain or drawings(ph) of
the brain I could image with great vividness and then draw almost as if they
had been projected by a camera lucida or something like that. This amazed me
because I was always particularly bad at drawing, and I'm now particularly bad

But for two weeks I had this sort of photographic memory, or eidetic memory,
whatever it was, not simply visually - you know, but also musically. At the
same time, I found it difficult to think abstractly and somewhat difficult to
speak. And I seemed to be in a much more concrete sensory world than usual.
Putting things in anatomical term, it was almost as if I was using my right
hemisphere more than my left.

GROSS: Did you find in the '60s, when you were trying amphetamines and smoking
marijuana, that you learned things about perception and about unusual
perception, about the mind's capabilities that you otherwise would not have

Dr. SACKS: Absolutely. Although I will say that, you know, that visual migraine
was also a teacher, and this meant, for example, that, well, when I studied
patients with visual migraine, and that's even more when I was with the
awakenings patients, who had many extraordinary states of minds and
consciousness and perception, and I think I often have more idea. I could more
easily imagine what they were experiencing or talking about than I could if I
had never had a migraine or taken anything.

GROSS: And - just curious - like when you are taking drugs, was it a
pleasurable experience or just an unusual one that offered perceptions that you
otherwise would not have had for better or for worse?

Dr. SACKS: I think I need to say that I'm not prescribing or recommending...

GROSS: No, I think you do need to say that. Yeah. Yeah. Good. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: I'm prescribing or recommending either migraine or drugs. But if one
happens to have experienced one or the other, perhaps one should learn from it,
as now I - hopefully I'm learning from my right eye. Yes, I mean I think one's
- my motives were divided between curiosity and seeking pleasure.

GROSS: Your book, "The Mind's Eye," ends with a chapter about you losing vision
in your right eye due to a cancerous tumor. And I want to read the last line of
the book. You’re writing - well, I'll just quote it. You say: Language, that
most human invention, can enable what in principle should not be possible. It
can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person's

So, that's a really beautiful thought about writing and literature. Is it hard
for you to read now?

Dr. SACKS: Somewhat harder. I have to use a magnifying glass and I've slowed
down a bit. I've tried talking books, but I'm a visual person. I need the
printed word and I prefer it on paper rather than a screen. Although I have
rather poor visual imagery, I'm setting aside that little period in 1965...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: ...people often say that my writing makes them see things - that it
brings images to their mind. And so I think visual description for me can do
exactly this, that it can perform a function of providing an image and of
seeing. And certainly, I think, if you – oh, if you read, say, the works of a
blind writer like (unintelligible) there's a wonderful sensibility there and
one hardly feels that anything is missing, or if something is missing that it
is made transcendently compensated for by the power of language.

GROSS: One more question, and this has to do with your face blindness, your
difficulty recognizing faces. We're speaking long-distance. You’re at the NPR
bureau in New York. I'm at WHYY in Philadelphia, so we're not seeing each other
as we talk. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for you? Does it make a

Dr. SACKS: I would prefer to see you, even though I might not recognize you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Dr. SACKS: But don't be offended because I might not recognize myself.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. SACKS: But I think, actually, I have such a sense of your auditory presence
that this is almost the same. This isn't always the case. Sometimes I'm, when
there’s just a microphone in front of me, I'm rendered dumb. I can't establish
a conversation. But here it's different.

GROSS: Well, good. It's been such a pleasure to talk with you again. So I wish
you well. Be well. Thank you for continuing to write about yourself and others.
And thank you for coming back to FRESH AIR.

Dr. SACKS: Thank you very much. It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Oliver Sacks' new book is called "The Mind's Eye." You can read an
excerpt on our website,

I have good news for Stephen Sondheim fans. He's written a new book about his
lyrics. I'm recording an interview with him that we expect to play Thursday.
And you know that musical that he wrote for TV 44 years ago, "Evening
Primrose," starring Anthony Perkins? Well, it's finally out on DVD.

David Bianculli will have a review after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Primrose': 44 Years Later, Still Sharp As Thumbtacks


Two years ago, E1 Entertainment and the Archive of American Television released
on DVD a long-lost treasure from TV's Golden Age, the original 1954 live drama,
"12 Angry Men." This week it released another TV treasure never before
available on home video and not televised since its 1966 premiere. It's
"Evening Primrose," a made-for-TV musical with songs by Stephen Sondheim.

Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Lots of excellent TV is being presented this week - the third
season premiere of "In Treatment" on HBO, the premiere of "The Walking Dead" on

But no new television event to me is quite so exciting as this week's DVD
release of "Evening Primrose," which hasn't been available since ABC presented
it in the fall of 1966 - 44 years ago.

"Evening Primrose" is kind of a "Twilight Zone" episode set to music. And that
makes sense, since it's based on a short story by John Collier, whose creepy,
fanciful stories inspired episodes not only episodes of "Twilight Zone" but a
handful of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" installments as well.

"Evening Primrose" is about a young poet in New York City who decides to avoid
both pressure and rent by moving into a department store, hiding during the day
and living there rent-free at night. It turns out he's not the first to have
that idea - and the other residents have some very firm opinions about who gets
to stay and how to dispose of those who don't.

Composer Stephen Sondheim was attracted to this story by motivations other than
pure inspiration. At the age of 36, Sondheim already had written the lyrics for
"West Side Story," "Gypsy," and "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and music and lyrics for
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" - which was a hit - and
"Anyone Can Whistle," which wasn't. His envelope-pushing triumph "Company" was
four years in the future.

He was working with writer James Goldman on a show that eventually would become
another classic, "Follies," but Goldman's wife was about to have a second child
and he needed rent money for a larger apartment. So Sondheim approached the
producers of ABC's "Stage 67," which had announced its intention to present a
prime-time weekly arts series, and asked if they wanted an original musical
from Goldman and him.

Presto. "Evening Primrose" was born, with Sondheim's friend Anthony Perkins —
six years after "Psycho" - playing Charles, the poet who takes residence after
hours in Stern's department store. You know from the start - the very start -
that this is pure, clever Sondheim. The opening song gets its tempo from
Charles - from his frightened heartbeat - as he hides away, listening as the
night watchman turns off all the lights and leaves. And then it begins...

(Soundbite of song, "If You Can Find Me I'm Here")

Mr. ANTHONY PERKINS (Actor): (Charles Snell) Is it done? Are they gone? Am I
alone? I’m alone. It's done. They're gone. I’m a genius. Charles, you are an
unadulterated genius. You are an indisputable extraordinary - what was that?
Not a thing. You're a fool. You are alone. And it begins.

Careful. Careful. Mustn't get excited. Mustn't overdo it. Softly, tip toe.
You'll get used to it in no time. Look at it. Beautiful. What a place to live,
what a Place to write. I shall be inspired, I shall turn out elegies and
sonnets, verses by the ton. At last I have a home, and nobody will know. No one
in the world. Nobody will know I'm here.

(Singing) I am free. I am free. Goodbye by friends and good riddance. Pardon
while I disappear. Come see me soon in my hideaway. If you can find me I'm

BIANCULLI: "Evening Primrose" was televised in color, but no master tape
survived. Even so, this new release is copied from a recently discovered and
restored black-and-white print that is infinitely clearer, and better, than
that bootleg copy that has been rumored to be circulating among Sondheim fans
for years. In fact, the packaging on this DVD release deserves special mention.
Not only are there extras on the DVD, but it comes with a fascinating 28-page
booklet with the show's entire history, written by Jane Klain of the Paley
Center for Media. With this release, “Evening Primrose” finally gets the
respect it deserves.

And boy, does it make a case for the early brilliance of Sondheim. When co-star
Charmian Carr, as a young woman who has lived in the store since she was six,
sings longingly of the outside world, every comparison she makes is to a piece
of store merchandise. And in the finale, when she's begging in song to be taken
away by Charles, he speaks up, then sings up, to disagree.

Their duet is intense and amazing — and after almost half a century, it's
available again.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Get Lost - Take Me The World")

Ms. CHARMIAN CARR (Actor): (as Ella Harkins)(Singing) Take me to a world where
I can be alive.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) The world is better here. I know. I've seen them

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Let me see the world.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) Oh, it doesn't count for much out there.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Let me see the world that smiles. Take me
to the world.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) You'd be cold and hungry in the winter.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Somewhere I can walk for miles.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) A shabby room with cracked plaster.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Take me to the world.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) You couldn’t get a job.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) With all around things growing in the

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) We’d end up hating each other. We’d have fights.
You’d cry.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Where birds that make a sound are birds.
Let me see the world that’s real.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) I have seen the world.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Show me how it’s done.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) And it’s mean and ugly.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Teach me how to laugh, to feel.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) We could laugh together.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Move me to the sun.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay here with me.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Just hold my hand...

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay here. I love you.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) ...whenever we arrive.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) But we’re happy here.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Let it be a world with you.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay with me.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Any other world with you.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay with me.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Take me to a world where I can be

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of and teaches
TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. His book "Dangerously
Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" has just been
published in paperback.

We're not done with Stephen Sondheim. I'm recording an interview with him about
his new book "Finishing the Hat," which we expect to broadcast Thursday. We're
closing with music from his show that’s in revival on Broadway, "A Little Night

You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue