Bill Hayes and Oliver Sacks: How to love and lose one of the world's smartest men
Oliver Sacks was a man renewed in the last years of his life, thanks to his relationship with Bill Hayes
Bill Hayes, photographer and author, at the Gallery of Photography, Temple Bar, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Bill Hayes’ new book, Insomniac City, is a lyrical love letter to both his partner of six years, Dr Oliver Sacks, and to New York City itself. Through a series of tender vignettes, we meet characters from the streets of Manhattan, and we are brought into the cocoon of Oliver Sacks’ apartment, where the romance between Hayes and Sacks is under the constant gentle scrutiny of Sacks’ curious mind:
“I’ve suddenly realised what you mean to me,” he tells Hayes. “You create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate.”
At the age of 75, much-loved neurologist and author Dr Sacks, who made literature from his case studies with his books, Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His wife for a Hat, was experiencing a romantic relationship for the first time, after 35 years of celibacy.
In 2009, at the age of 48, author Bill Hayes had moved to New York from San Francisco, after the devastating death of his long-term partner, Steve, from a heart attack.
“New York allowed me to start a new life. I had lived on the West Coast for 25 years. I had been with Steve 17 years. I just realised I had to start afresh.”
Hayes had at that point met Sacks in person only once, but they had been writing letters for a year. A close friendship blossomed.
In Sacks’ final radio interview in 2015, he talks smilingly about his unexpected relationship with Hayes. He recalls Hayes telling him, “I have conceived a deep love for you.”
He’d had his heart broken very badly as a young man and then he shifted his focus to his work, to his patients and his amazing writing.”
“It was a beautiful interview.” Hayes says now. “He had never spoken or written about his sexual identity or our relationship until his autobiography came out in May 2015.”
Sacks had decided a long time ago that romantic love was not going to be part of his life. “He’d had his heart broken very badly as a young man and then he shifted his focus to his work, to his patients and his amazing writing.” He wrote many books, hundreds of essays, reviews and articles. “But I think he always wondered and wished. And then chance or fate brought us together.”
There were challenges: a 30-year age gap and Hayes’ own broken heart. But it was delightful to be with Oliver as he was discovering this kind of life anew, at age 75.”
Before meeting Hayes, Sacks “would eat sardines over the sink” but he took great pleasure in their new domestic life. “We would make dinner together and set a table and talk into the night.” Even loading the dishwasher was a caper. “If it wasn’t completely full he’d take clean cups and mugs from the cupboard and put them in to keep the others company.
I felt that I was witnessing before my eyes a kind of evolution of Oliver Sacks”
I had been in love before, but I’d never felt that quality of adoring someone. I felt sort of protective of him.”
There is a scene in which Sacks tells Hayes about a white-winged butterfly so dirtied by the soot-filled air of industrial age England that it quickly evolved from white to soot-coloured. “There are rare instances in nature of accelerated evolution,” Sacks tells him.
“I felt that I was witnessing before my eyes a kind of evolution of Oliver Sacks,” Hayes says now.
Based on Hayes’ journals, “the book is about reinventing myself in middle age. It’s also about Oliver reinventing himself at age 75 and falling in love for the first time,” Hayes says.
He never sent an email or a text in his life, there was no computer, no wifi, so there was a sense of quiet. The apartment would be filled with Bach.”
Their time together was precious to both, every day vital. “I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life,” Sacks once told Hayes.
“It was very beautiful,” Hayes says. “Not only because he was elderly, but also because I had experienced a great loss before and he had had a bout of cancer. I think we both lived our life together very intensely and with a real sense of gratitude. We were both curious people by nature and life-loving, and we would make time to do things like go up on the roof and have a bottle of wine. . .” They would swig from the bottle while the sun set over Manhattan.
I like to get kind of verbal in bed sometimes, but I am finding this does not work well when you’re having sex with someone who’s practically deaf.”
Sacks’ apartment was a refuge of music and discussion. “He never sent an email or a text in his life, there was no computer, no wifi, so there was a sense of quiet. The apartment would be filled with Bach.”
There is also a real sense of the fun they had together. Hayes writes, “I like to get kind of verbal in bed sometimes, but I am finding this does not work well when you’re having sex with someone who’s practically deaf.” Sacks would ask Hayes what he had just said.
“Oliver!” he’d reply. “Don’t make me repeat it!”
They called it deaf sex.
“I tried in the book to portray the intimacy of our relationship without it being explicit. I also wanted to introduce the fact that between couples there can be humour in sex. It can be ridiculous and playful.”
We also see Sacks, known for his drug experimentation, continuing to dabble into his 80s. “We would get stoned in the apartment and sometimes go up to the roof. He was a believer in making time for play. Oliver had done his time experimenting with stronger drugs so a little bit of cannabis was not that big of a deal. He was also a neurologist and he almost was observing his own brain while he was stoned. . . ‘The genius of the primary cortex!’ he once exclaimed at his hallucinations.”
After his diagnosis with terminal cancer in 2015, Sacks wrote a list of eight and a half reasons to be hopeful:
Number 6. Enjoyment Allowed.
Number 6a. Marijuana now legit, he added playfully.
The book is also threaded through with character sketches from New York’s streets, demonstrating how Hayes’ worldview complements Sacks’. A lifelong insomniac, Hayes would set off into the city with a photographer’s eye and a storyteller’s ear and collect stories. Both Sacks and Hayes were chronicling the human condition, “He was observing people more from a neurological or medical perspective and that was his great gift to the world, identifying neuro-diversity. For me, it’s a different kind of recognition, of people’s humanity.”
The oncologist said [Sacks’] prognosis was six to 18 months and I thought, well surely we’ll fight this and have a few years. But Oliver really knew in his gut.
Hayes’ street photography also features in the book. “The photographs come and go within the pages as if you’re passing strangers in the streets of New York.” There’s a flirtatious skateboarder, a go-go boy, a supermodel. Hayes tends to lead with kindness, highlighting the ordinary decency of people.
“I have got asked many times since my book came out, did you and Oliver ever fight? Like any couple, we would have tensions, usually over minor things. But it’s not in my nature to go to my journal and write; oh I’m so pissed at Oliver. I’m more interested in preserving those moments of beauty and humanity and decency and also comedy.”
With Sacks’ diagnosis, Hayes felt sadness and denial, but that his life experience had prepared him in some way. “I came out as a gay man in 1984 right when the Aids epidemic exploded in the US. I moved to San Francisco in 1985 and lost many friends and took care of many. From an early age, I had an understanding of death and loss and grief as part of life.”
“The oncologist said [Sacks’] prognosis was six to 18 months and I thought, well surely we’ll fight this and have a few years. But Oliver really knew in his gut. One of the first calls he made in the car on the way home was to his agent to get his autobiography published as soon as humanly possible because, he said, I’m not going to be here in the fall.”
Hayes says that despite the age difference, he often felt older than Sacks. “Oliver had such a boyish spirit and a boyish openness to the world that there were times that I did feel like I was the adult in the relationship. Oliver was a very brilliant man, but he wasn’t patronising or pretentious or pompous. He liked engaging in conversation. So if he was puzzling over a question, he wanted to know what I thought and what others around him thought . . . I never met anyone before for whom thinking was a priority.”
Sacks once said that he felt he had been living at a certain distance from life until he met Hayes. “It wasn’t until I finished the book that I saw how often Oliver would bring up the subject of pleasure, sort of interrogating what is pleasure and what is pleasure compared to happiness. It’s not as if Oliver Sacks hadn’t experienced pleasure in his life, but he was with me experiencing a new kind of pleasure, romantic pleasure, sexual pleasure, affection, the pleasures of a very simple domestic life.”
Whereas the book opens with Hayes’ grief over Steve, the grief he has experienced losing Sacks is different, “After Steve, it was like being in a black forest, I had no idea when it was going to end. [Now] I kind of understand it. I know I will survive it because I survived Steve and went on to have a really amazing new life in New York, and a new life with Oliver and that’s what this book is really about, its about reinvention and moving forward.”
Sacks’ acceptance of his own death gave Hayes some of this strength. “Oliver faced the illness head on with that kind of clarity. And even though it was shorter that I would have wanted, we did have time. We had that year to say everything we wanted to say, for him to write everything he wanted to write up to the very end.
“I am a fortunate man.” Hayes says. “I’ve had an amazing life. There has been deep sadness and loss absolutely, but that as I understand it, is part of life. I’m the beneficiary of a lot of love because there’s a lot of love for Dr Sacks, for a lot of really good reasons. And people who miss him, some of that love comes my way, which is wonderful.”