Mark O'Brien (July 31, 1949 – July 4, 1999) was a journalist, poet, and advocate for the disabled. He has been the subject of two films: Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, which won an Academy Award in 1997, and The Sessions in which he was portrayed by John Hawkes, a film that won the audience award in the U.S. Dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
The Sessions was based on his essay, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", which appeared in the Sun magazine in 1990. The sex surrogate was named Cheryl Cohen-Greene. They remained friends until his death.
O'Brien contracted polio in 1955 and spent the rest of his life paralyzed and requiring an iron lung. In the iron lung he attended UC Berkeley, produced his poetry and articles, and became an advocate for disabled people. He co-founded a small publishing house, Lemonade Factory, dedicated to poetry written by people with disabilities.
O'Brien was the author of several volumes of poetry, including Breathing, and an autobiography entitled, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence, written with Gillian Kendall.
The meeting of O'Brien and his life partner, Susan Fernbach, is depicted in The Sessions.
- ^Schwarzbaum, Lisa (2012-01-28). "Sundance 2012: 'The Surrogate': A story of sex and the single guy with polio makes for a hot crowd-pleaser of a movie". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- ^O'Brien, Mark (May 1990). "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate". The Sun Magazine, issue 174. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- ^Guthmann, Edward (January 10, 2012). "Surrogate sex partner inspires story, film". SFGate.com. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
- ^ abSmith, Wesley J (December 28, 2012). "Mark O'Brien's Triumph (It Wasn't About Sex)". First Things. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
- ^"Mark O'Brien, 49, Journalist And Poet in Iron Lung, Is Dead", The New York Times, July 11, 1999.
- ^Horn, John (2012-01-22). "Sundance 2012: A 65-year-old takes on disability and sex in 'The Surrogate'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- ^O’Brien, Mark; Kendall, Gillian (2012). How I Became a Human Being. A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence (paperback ed.). University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-18434-6. Retrieved May 2014.
- ^Cinema review .
Let me touch you with my words
For my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your backand tickle your belly
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind bearing torches
admit them willingly into your being
so they may caress you gently
This poem, “Love Poem for No-one in Particular”, was written by Mark O’Brien. Mark was born in 1949 in the USA, and six years later contracted polio. Through his determination, humour and honesty, he became an influential activist and a powerful writer, until his death in 1999. He is now most known as the inspiration behind the recent film starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”.
The film centres on Mark’s decision as a 30-something man to lose his virginity by engaging a sex surrogate and the emotions, awkwardness and intimacy that these “sessions” stir up. It’s not without its flaws, but “The Sessions” is funny, humane and a lot more “real” than I expected – there is a matter-of-factness that allows us to see both Mark and his surrogate Cheryl as fully human. Since I have a (perhaps unjustified) bias towards non-fiction and poetry, I wanted to find out more about Mark O’Brien, to understand how sexual desire, paralysis, faith and poetic expression all found their home in his life, and by extension ours.
Ironically, more information isn’t easy to find, swamped by this successful film. Mark now seems defined by his sexuality, which is perhaps unfair or a distortion of his life (see this brilliant article by Wesley J Smith). Still, I think this intense focus is understandable – sexuality returns us to our bodies, to the unsaid, to the reality of our separateness and our desire to commune.
Near the end of the film, the above poem – which is the catalyst for tension between Cheryl and her husband, but is at that point in the film kept from the audience – is finally read out in full. Many reviews of the film mention how the audience is moved to tears. And we were. Of course we were. I’d like to look at why.
The poem takes on the familiar tone and structure of a love poem – it expresses a tender and passionate yearning, a dream that desire be conjured into reality by mere wish. As with all great love poems, it also acknowledges and holds a sense that this dream is impossible – “hands… limp as empty gloves”, the “quietest desires” that “refuse to [be carried] out”. Yet at the same time, love is expressed and fulfilled by words – not purely within the poem itself per se, but in what the poem does, in the real relationship it refers to (and by implication the other relationships it could refer to).
This impossible/possible paradox is very strongly related to another of the poem’s strengths – it says the unsayable. This disabled man wants to be sensually and sexually intimate with this woman. He wants to be generous, enlightening, loving – an agency that our broader culture routinely denies to people with disabilities.
But the poem, as it should, gracefully holds back from saying everything. It also gestures towards silence and the unsaid. In its formal brevity and its anticipation of what may or may not happen next. But also importantly in its title – “… for No-one in Particular”. This is of course a kind of wry discretion on the poet’s part – not naming her out of respect. But this title also, in its self-deprecating irony, amplifies the intensity of feeling, elegantly suggesting the depths by speaking only of the surface.
And I would argue that it could even be taken as implying that the beloved in this case is not “particular”, exceptional, disabled, “special”.
I have always loved the word “particular”. Not only for the spikes and undulations of its sound, but for its meaning – the unique, contextual, the exact individual thing or person that transcends generalities. The poetry that I love is a miraculous yet naturalistic bridge between the particular and the general, between the other and the self, your life and mine. Such a poetry affirms our own experience but also allows us to recognise how broad it is, that our lives also contain resonances with other lives.
“Love Poem for No-one in Particular” has this quality. As does “The Sessions”. But I would even more enthusiastically recommend Mark’s essay “On seeing a sex surrogate…” He talks about repression, shame, desire, masculinity, fear, all in an unfalteringly honest tone – he is speaking of his own life always, but the light refracted off him is somehow on us.
In re-reading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I’ve been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life.
But my life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.
I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions. If I had received intensive psychotherapy from the time I got polio to the present, would I have needed to see a sex surrogate? Would I have resisted accepting the cultural standards of beauty and physical perfection?
Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.
I feel no enthusiasm for the seemingly doomed project of pursuing women. My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is twofold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For if this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted.
This was Mark O’Brien’s life. This is your life. And mine. And it isn’t.
PS I originally put a truncated version of the poem up. Thanks “Mechi” for putting the full version in a Comment. I’ve corrected it now.