Robin Williams

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

The genius of Robin Williams first sunk in for me when we saw him in the motion picture Awakenings in which he played a character based on the neurologist Oliver Sacks.

We didn’t see that film principally because Robin Williams starred in it but because we were interested in the topic. Sacks pioneered the use of the drug L-Dopa by treating a group of patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades as a result of an epidemic of encephalitis that lasted from 1917 to 1928. But we were impressed by Williams’ portrayal which was very understated. And it was only later, when we saw an earlier documentary with the same title, that we realized how well the often manic Williams had captured the shyness of Dr. Sacks.

The breadth of his range was one of the wonderful things about Robin Williams. Recently, we happened to watch again the hilarious but poignant movie Bird Cage in which he co-starred with Nathan Lane. In spite of the over-the-top humor laced through that movie, Williams’ character was restrained, and the contrast with Lane’s flamboyant character is an important reason why the film works so well.

Pat and I had a chance to chat with Robin Williams in 1998 at a party following the New York premiere of the movie Patch Adams, in which Williams played the unorthodox doctor who wanted to use humor in the treatment of patients. At the invitation of our friend Marvin Minoff, who co-produced that film, we attended the premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater and then the party at Four Seasons. We noticed Williams standing alone, so we approached him, intending only to compliment him on his performance, but he seemed willing to talk, so we willingly obliged. The conversation was so casual that I can’t recall details, except that he spoke of his mother, describing her as his first audience. He was subdued, but Pat and I agreed afterward that he was remarkably accessible for a person of his stature and that he seemed to be pleasant to the core, which, in its way, is as precious a quality as any other.

In one of those coincidences that one wouldn’t dare hope for, we finished our conversation with Robin Williams and spied Dr. Oliver Sacks, apparently trying to hide among the leaves of a rubber tree plant. I had read all of the books he had published up to that point, so we moved on to what turned out to be another conversation for another post.

One of Robin Williams’ foils in Patch Adams was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who also struggled with internal demons and died tragically. You can view both actors in a scene from that film by clicking HERE.


Books: “Hallucinations”

December 30, 2012



I have often had the experience, as I am about to fall asleep, of seeing for a fleeting moment the image of a familiar person and hearing that person speak directly to me. Although I am always aware that the image and the voice are not real, they always seem to be real.

Phenomena of that kind are the subject of a chapter — “On the Threshold of Sleep” — in Hallucinations by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author. In this latest of his many books, Dr. Sacks discusses the wide range of circumstances under which some folks (many folks, as it turns out) see things, hear things, even smell things that do not exist in objective reality. These are not sights, sounds, or aromas that the hallucinator voluntarily conjures up in his or her own mind, but rather the products of extraordinary activity in various parts of the brain.

The hallucinations Dr. Sacks writes about may be associated with medical conditions that include epilepsy, narcolepsy, and partial or total blindness, and they may be associated with the use of certain drugs. What they usually are not associated with, Dr. Sacks writes, is mental illness. In fact, many people who experience hallucinations are aware that what appears real to them is, in fact, not real.



The condition Sacks explores first, setting a context for the rest of the book, is Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or CBS, which was first identified by an 18th century Swiss naturalist. Persons with CBS have deteriorating or deteriorated eyesight, and they have hallucinations that in a sense fill in the gap of visual sensory input. These hallucinations may be superimposed on the impaired visual field or they may fill in the blind spot of people who have lost sight in half the visual field. Sacks provides this contrast between hallucinations of this kind and dreams:

“Dreamers are wholly enveloped in their dreams, and usually active participants in them, whereas people with CBS retain their normal, critical waking consciousness. CBS hallucinations, even though they are projected into external space, are marked by a lack of interaction; they are always silent and neutral—they rarely convey or evoke any emotion. They are confined to the visual, without sound, smell, or tactile sensation. They are remote, like images on a cinema screen in a theater one has chanced to walk into. The theater is in one’s own mind, and yet the hallucinations seem to have little to do with one in any deeply personal sense.”

Dr.Sacks has spent his professional lifetime collecting case histories from his own interactions with patients, from his reading, and from correspondents who have shared their experiences with them. In this book as in most of his previous ones, he uses that knowledge to illuminate the growing understanding of the human brain.

Meanwhile, the subject matter of this book reminded me of the poem by Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

That poem is called Antigonish because it was inspired by a ghost story in the Nova Scotia city of that name. Mearns, an educator who believed deeply in cultivating the creativity of children, wrote the lines for a play called Psyco-ed while he was a student at Harvard. It was published as a poem in 1922.


At a party we attended in Manhattan about a dozen years ago, I spied a man who had backed himself into a large potted plant — something like a rubber tree — as though he didn’t want to be seen. After staring at him for a minute or so because he seemed familiar, I said to Pat, “My God, that’s Oliver Sacks.” Ignoring what seemed to be a clear signal that he was going for invisibility, we approached him, and had a pleasant little conversation.

It struck me at the time that he seemed as shy as Robin Williams had made him appear in the movie “Awakenings.” We noticed that the first time we saw the movie, because the character was, in that respect, so different from the outlandish figures Williams most often plays. I didn’t know at the time that the movie had been preceded by a documentary — also  “Awakenings” — that Dr. Sacks himself narrated.


Some time after we saw the Robin Williams movie, I stumbled on the documentary on television, and I was struck by how much Williams had approximated Sacks’ personality, including the apparent shyness.

Now, in Dr. Sacks’ most recent book, “The Mind’s Eye,” I read at least one explanation for his reticence. Sacks writes in that book that he suffers — if that’s the right word — from prosopagnosia, which means he cannot distinguish one human face from another. In fact, he can’t recognize his own face in a mirror. One of his brothers has the same condition, which can be genetic, but can also be acquired through a trauma such as  stroke. In an expansive discussion of the condition, Dr. Sacks writes, for example, that he visited his psychiatrist, left the office, and bumped into the psychiatrist again in the lobby, minutes later, and didn’t recognize him. Sacks wrote that this condition can contribute to shyness. Voila.


Like many of Dr. Sacks’ previous books, this one contains a series of case studies with a lot of historical context. And although the subject matter is human disabilities, the book is in many instances uplifting, because Dr. Sacks also writes about how men and women, because of their own persistence and because of the brain’s ability to compensate for traumatic events, have managed to live fruitful lives despite the loss of some basic function — such as the ability to read or to identify common objects or to navigate even familiar spaces.

One of the cases concerns Susan Barry, who was born with crossed eyes that were surgically corrected when she was a young girl. The surgery straightened the eyes from a cosmetic point of view, but Barry was still left with monocular vision, because the brain uses crossed eyes individually, switching back and forth between them.


Barry, who teaches neurobiology, was in college before she realized she didn’t see things in stereo, as it were. And she was in her forties before other vision problems put her in contact with an optometrist who helped her, through therapy and continuing eye exercises, to do what had previously been thought impossible, achieving stereoscopic vision without further surgical intervention, after living nearly fifty years without it. She has described her experience in her own book, “Fixing My Gaze.” Dr. Sacks himself, who has been fascinated with stereoscopy since he was a child, reports  in “The Mind’s Eye” that he himself is coping with monocular vision after recently losing the sight of his right eye due to cancer.

There are several equally remarkable stories in Dr. Sacks’ book, including a pianist who lost her ability to read music or text, a novelist (Howard Engel) who lost his ability to read, and an artists’ agent who lost her ability to speak. In each case, the “patient” – with the help of a flexible brain – learned to live with or in spite of these conditions.

The study of the brain is, in a way, only beginning, thanks to imaging technology that for the first time allows researchers to unobtrusively observe brain activity in living human beings. Sacks’ book hints at where that study may take us, and the prospects are exciting.

An NPR report on Susan Barry’s experience is at THIS LINK.