‘Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me’ by Bill Hayes
Author: Steve Susoyev
February 14, 2017
If you’re the spouse of a popular public figure, you may confront a problem: when you write your memoir, the world expects you to reveal everything about your beloved and keep yourself in the footnotes. Bill Hayes has managed to tell his own moving story and to include Oliver Sacks, his partner of seven years, as a very active character but not the exclusive focus. A few of Sack’s devotees may be disappointed by this—at first. But it’s likely they will finish Insomniac City and find themselves wishing to know still more about Bill Hayes, the man who coaxed their hero out of his decades-long seclusion, nurtured and wrote beside him, brought him joy, then nursed him through terminal cancer to his final breath.
Oliver Sacks, the author of 15 best-selling books including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, received hundreds of thousands of fan letters during his long career—many from people who wanted to collaborate with him or learn from him. During his 35 years of celibacy, he also received letters from strangers who knew he had never married and thought he might benefit from sharing his life with them—a common corollary of fame being the ardor of strangers who think they know the artist because they love the work.
The irony is not lost on Sacks’s admirers: when he finally felt moved to share his life with someone, at age 77, the person who so moved him was a writer to whom he had sent a kind of fan letter. And so we have the pleasure of considering here the memoir of the lucky man with whom Sacks fell in love in 2008 and spent the last seven years of his life.
When Oliver Sacks began his sojourn sharing his life with another person, he brought to this project the same inquisitive scientific wonder that he brought to his studies of migraine, encephalitis-generated catatonia, autism, visual agnosia, and dozens of other poorly understood neurological phenomena. Bill Hayes, whom Oliver called Billy, describes kissing Oliver deeply and slowly on Oliver’s 76th birthday. With “a look of utter surprise on his face,” he tells us, Oliver asked, “Is that what kissing is, or is that something you’ve invented?” Billy does not elaborate, and we are left to reflect on the life of a man who at 76 had written over a dozen richly detailed books about the human experience and was just learning how to kiss.
Clearly, Hayes was not the only lucky man in this couple. As well as teaching Oliver how to kiss, he brought companionship into the life of the man who wrote in his own memoir that he had trouble with “bonding, belonging and believing.” In a 1995 interview with the London Daily Mail, Sacks said, “I’ve been alone and celibate for so long I can’t imagine it otherwise.” He wrote that in order for him to love and be loved by Bill Hayes, “Deep, almost geological changes had to occur; in my case, the habits of a lifetime’s solitude, and a sort of implicit selfishness and self-absorption, had to change.” We catch glimpses of the difficulty this must have caused for Bill Hayes, a man who had been openly gay his entire adult life. Early in their relationship, he recounts, someone asked, “Are you seeing anyone?” and Hayes demurred, “Only New York.” He wrote in his journal in June of 2009, “Oliver isn’t comfortable with anyone knowing about us and gets palpably nervous if we are out together and see someone he knows.” The typical out gay man might recoil from a potential lover who was anxious about being recognized with him. But before long, Hayes writes, “I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.” His patience paid off, and soon enough, Oliver was learning to be comfortable acknowledging their relationship.
Sacks gave the title “Home” to the closing chapter of his memoir On the Move. He wrote there, concerning his relationship with Billy, “We have a tranquil, many-dimensional sharing of lives—a great and unexpected gift in my old age, after a lifetime of keeping at a distance.” On the Move was released in 2015, three months before Sacks’s death at age 82.
The reaction to the revelations in On the Move was mixed among Oliver Sacks’s readers. Some seemed genuinely shocked to learn that he was gay. Many celebrated that he had found someone with whom to prepare what he called “proper meals” after years of dining on sardines straight from the can. Others felt protective and wondered if the considerably younger interloper in his life—younger by nearly 30 years—was worthy of so great a companion. Insomniac City should put any skeptics’ concerns to rest.
Oliver Sacks’s assistant and collaborator, Kate Edgar, has written that Oliver “adored writing and receiving letters, and I think one could regard his books as letters to his readers, in part.” This book of Billy’s often reads like a journal he intends to share with the world. The result is sometimes more detached than a letter, but at moments jarringly intimate.
Intensely personal passages concerning Billy’s relationship with Oliver are interposed with closely rendered scenes from everyday life in New York City, and his quietly vivid black-and-white photographs of Oliver and other New Yorkers. Amidst poignant and sometimes profound observations of people he loves and people he does not know, Hayes catches us off guard with statements like, “It was very cold outside, and with a punishing wind; some were saying it was the coldest day in the history of New York City (an endearing hyperbole).” He captures Oliver’s quirky (to us mortals) fascination with the elements—Billy’s 53rd birthday present is a vial of Iodine, element 53 in the periodic table. (Did he receive Xenon a year later? You’ll have to read the book and find out!)
Notes from his journal appear among essays bearing titles like “On Being Not Dead,” “A Monet of One’s Own,” and “The Weeping Man,” and a section titled “How New York Breaks Your Heart.” He takes us to Seattle on a visit with his father, who long ago rejected his gay son but now, in dementia, believes Billy is an infantry comrade in his Korean War division. Some writers would require dozens—or hundreds—of pages of spiraling trauma to report such facts and convey the essential human story. Hayes manages the job in three-and-a-half pages, and leaves us wanting more.
Sacks was that rare clinician who did not treat patients as “subjects” or “cases” but as complex and interesting human beings whose lives attracted sometimes intense scientific curiosity but who deserved love and respect. His books furthered the public’s understanding of unusual neurological phenomena but also of the people who experienced those phenomena. An Anthropologist on Mars, the title essay in a 1995 collection, profiled Temple Grandin, the world-renowned animal science professor and author whose severe childhood autism prompted doctors to advise her parents to have her institutionalized. (Her mother declined to follow this advice.) Sacks’s single essay, which appeared in the New Yorker as did individual chapters from several of his books, inspired the emergence of autism from the shadows of shame and ignorance.
Hayes casts his own beam of light toward a man he sees weeping on a subway platform, a 95-year-old woman who invites him to her apartment to sketch his portrait and draws only a magnificent portrait of his right eye, and the Muslim man who runs the neighborhood smoke shop and marvels that in New York he works with a Hindu and a Sikh and they all get along. Hayes describes Oliver’s last months of life without dwelling on the pain, and without avoiding it. Already suffering from invasive cancer treatments, Oliver received very bad medical news on the day before his 82nd birthday. He chose to go ahead with plans for his birthday party, citing W.H. Auden, who held that all birthdays should be celebrated. Together Oliver and Billy shared a sometimes whimsical birthday gathering with friends a day after receiving the worst news either could imagine.
Oliver Sacks himself experienced migraine, which he seems to have regarded somewhat like an involuntary LSD trip. His description of the migraine aura, Hayes writes, almost made him wish he could experience it. Sacks also had the unusual neurological disorder known as face blindness—the inability to recognize even very familiar people. Embarrassing and awkward for anyone, but particularly for a man who strove to establish meaningful connections with other people, this condition sensitized him to the subtle suffering of people whose odd behavior often attracts the prying and ridicule of onlookers. He taught his medical students at NYU, Oxford, and other institutions never to be onlookers, but to develop human connections with their patients.
Billy Hayes develops connections with the people he talks with and photographs on subway platforms, in surf shops, in bars. The chapter “His Name Is Raheem” tells of a common experience for many people—behaving toward a severely underprivileged person in a way not calculated to be cruel but lacking in sensitivity—then the less common experience of pursuing the opportunity to make amends.
Oliver Sacks was, in his youth, the target of that most savage curse for a gay child—“I wish you had never been born,” hurled by his mother. She even threw in the word “abomination.” Her words, he wrote 64 years later, “haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.” As he matured, Oliver Sacks avoided the path that many homosexual men of his generation pursued, and never tried to hide or deny his true nature by marrying a woman. As a young man, Oliver Sacks did fall in love with three men, including two straight friends. After several furtive, drunken and drug-fueled experiments with sex, and the shock of realizing he had broken the heart of a friend who had fallen in love with him, he entered his long period of celibacy. He simply poured himself into his impressive body of work.
Sacks the scientist, the writer, and the man influenced people all over the world. Including Oliver’s name in the title surely draws attention to this memoir in a way that “My Life, by Bill Hayes” would not manage to do. But unlike many memoirs of the spouses and lovers of famous people, Insomniac City does not need to engage in name-dropping. And unlike some spouses of celebrities, for his memoir Hayes did not require the services of a ghost writer. The introductory letter he received from Sacks was in response to galley proofs that Sacks had read of Hayes’s 2007 book The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy (the classic medical text, not the popular television series). Sacks reached out to meet the author of this noteworthy volume of medical and literary history, and their friendship began.
Hayes’s essays published elsewhere include the profoundly moving “AIDS at 30: A Time Capsule,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2011, and the vignette “Out Late With Oliver Sacks” in the New York Times, which a year after Oliver’s death gave the world a lovely foretaste of this memoir. Hayes writes with gentle humor, and doesn’t pretend that living with the painfully shy Oliver was always easy. He describes one of many awkward moments simply: “Oliver and decisions. Another difficulty for him.” That note concerns Oliver’s first visit to a gay bar in 40 years, on “Oliver Sacks night,” and the great man’s fretting inability to decide what to request when a drag queen offered to buy him a drink.
In a resonant mirroring of Sack’s On the Move, Hayes has given the title “Home” to a chapter of his own memoir. In Sack’s book, that chapter called “Home” recounted the careful, almost polite way in which Billy had told him, a year into their friendship, “I have conceived a deep love for you,” and Oliver’s tearful response. In Billy’s book, “Home” opens on the morning of Oliver’s death, and recounts the sensitive, almost loving way in which the men from the funeral home handled Oliver’s body when they prepared it for transport, and Billy’s first day without Oliver.
On our way to this inevitability, we encounter vignettes and stories, many having nothing to do with Oliver, which are punctuated by intensely personal moments:
Palace Hotel, San Francisco—Over Christmas:
In bed, lights out:
O: “Oh, oh, oh . . .!”
I: “What was that for?”
O: “I found your fifth rib.”
In the middle of the night: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” O whispers.
Hayes describes a visit that he and Oliver had with Bjork in her remote Icelandic home, during which she told Oliver and Billy that the title of Oliver’s book Musicophilia had inspired her to name her 2011 album Biophilia. Watching the two of them, Billy tells us, “I realized how much she and O were alike—fellow geniuses, incredibly, intuitively brilliant—while being at the same time such an unlikely pair of friends.”
Home a week and still adjusting, wishing in some ways we were still in Iceland. The gentleness of the life there suits me . . . suits us.
People even swim gently there, not kicking or splashing—never—as swimmers do in New York, where all seem to be training for triathlons in their minds.
Hayes’s partner of 16 years, Steve, died unexpectedly at age 43, and Hayes experienced a kind of compound grief, after having worked for AIDS service organizations and seen several friends die. He doesn’t call his experience PTSD, but many readers employ that name when considering the protracted mourning he describes. He writes that he has thought many times about a drug featured in a Sixty Minutes episode—a drug that purportedly erases traumatic memories. He shares these ponderings in a journal entry made around the time of one of Oliver’s hospitalizations, during which he slept on a recliner next to Oliver’s hospital bed. Concluding after much thought that he would not take the drug even if he knew it would work, Billy reveals, “Yet not wanting to forget something is not the same as wishing to remember it better.”
A few years after Steve’s death, Hayes met Oliver, the man who would become his lover—and the word “lover” was Oliver’s choice. “Partner,” Hayes’s word, sounded to Oliver like a business associate, and he disliked the sound of it. Billy Hayes does not claim credit for Oliver Sacks’s eventual public acknowledgement that he was gay, but readers can easily piece together a chronology: After decades of celibacy, the shy neurologist falls in love with a man whose generation’s rallying cry is Silence = Death. Seven years after they meet, the neurologist releases his memoir, in which he discusses openly his lifelong gay identity. He even includes a sexy photo of himself at 27, wearing leather and sitting astride a BMW motorcycle. He dedicates the memoir “for Billy.”
Advance notices from the publisher note that this memoir is a “Spring 2017 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.” Hayes may be surprised to learn that he is a “new writer,” having published three previous books and countless essays over the years. Still, the distinction from Barnes & Noble is an honor.
Some writers—Gore Vidal, Sarah Schulman—thrill us with their cleverness and wit, and make us think, “I want to be smart in that way.” When reading Oliver Sacks, a reader may think: “I want to see the world with this blend of vast knowledge and childlike wonder.” Billy Hayes can inspire us to think: “I want to see people in this way that finds the best in them.”
Hayes’s observations of lovers on the subway, a taxi driver who thinks of himself as a psychiatrist, a horde of skateboarders commandeering 6th Avenue on a Sunday morning, of himself sliding into a hipster party to which he hasn’t been invited—and of his lover Oliver snipping the tips off green beans with his cuticle scissors—remind us that in the moments when we can suspend our judgments and our expectations and see the world with clear eyes, we can learn wonderful things during our most mundane activities.
Among many other endearments, Hayes gives us this exchange between him and Oliver:
O: “I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me: You create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout . . .”
I: “That’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me—I think.”
This is much like heart-to-hearts between any two people in love, but with the added element of Oliver’s innocence. After his 35 celibate years, and his resignation to solitude, in his naiveté Oliver was quite unique among octogenarian lovers. Such intimate talks, like kissing, are new to him, and he delights in them as he delights in lying in the grass wondering what it feels like to be a rose.
At a time when expediency and cost-containment seem to be the highest priorities in publishing, Bloomsbury USA is releasing the first edition of Insomniac City with deckle edges—a touch that recalls the time when books were published with their pages folded on the outer edges, and a volume’s first reader kept a sharp knife handy to cut along the folds and reveal the treasures inside. In those days, books were crafted and meant to be savored. This is a book to be savored.
I have loved and been loved . . . Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
— Oliver Sacks
writing about his approaching death
I may not know nearly as much as O knows, I am not as brilliant, but I feel a lot, so much, and some of this has rubbed off onto him and some of his knowledge has rubbed off onto me. We are like two dogs rubbing our scents onto one another.
— Bill Hayes
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me
By Bill Hayes
Hardcover, 9781620404935, 212 pp.