Ben Lewin was scouring the internet for material to create a sitcom
around sex and disability, when the polio survivor stumbled upon an
article that deeply moved him. I felt that if I could achieve
on film what the author had done to me with his writing, then I could
potentially deliver something powerful, he said. The man was
the late Mark OBrien, a writer who used an iron lung, and who
was determined to lose his virginity at the tender age of 38.
Lewin shot that film, and Fox Searchlight affirmed that he did indeed
deliver something powerful by purchasing the movie, made for $650,000,
for a cool $6 million. OBrien, played masterfully by John Hawkes,
enlists the guidance of a Catholic priest (William H. Macy) and later
the help of sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him experience the
kind of human contact he can, up to that time, only imagine.
Recently the Media Access Awards, an annual event honoring people
in film and TV who advance the portrayals and employment of people
with disabilities, recognized not only Lewin, but also the films
casting director Ronnie Yeskel and the films star, Hawkes.
While Hawkes does not have a disability, Lewin and Yeskel made every
effort to cast the starring role with an actor who has a disability,
but none of the ones who read for the part felt quite right.
Hawkes ultimately won the part after a two-hour lunch meeting with
the director. He says he was drawn to the role for several reasons,
including Lewins experience as a polio survivor. Hawkes read
every article and poem written by OBrien, and credits the 1996
Oscar-winning documentary by Jessica Yu, Breathing Lessons,
as incredible reference material:
Its 25 minutes of Mark OBrien speaking frankly and
often emotionally about his life... It was just invaluable.
To simulate OBriens horizontal posture, Hawkes used a
soccer-ball-sized piece of foam, which he laid onto the left side
of his back to curve his spine. He spent hour upon hour in this position,
to the point that some of his organs began to migrate. He was even
told by his chiropractor that his spine had become stiff from lack
of movement. But Hawkes brushed it off, saying it was a minute
amount of pain compared to what many people face minute-to-minute.
Very early on in the process, before Hawkes was cast, Lewin got the
rights to OBriens article, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,
from the late writers partner Susan Fernbach, who is now keeper
of his estate. The 1990 article was written after his four encounters
with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, PhD.
Lewins next call was to Greene. She recalls their conversation:
Ben told me he had gotten the rights to the article, which I
had read years ago. I knew my feeling about Mark was, would he be
able to transfer what we did to a relationship with another person?
And it didnt happen for quite a while (his relationship with
Fernbach didnt develop until eight years after his sessions
with Greene). So I think it came from a frustrating place, describing
his emotional state at the time. The tone of the article was Did
I make a mistake? Did I do the wrong thing? I hired Cheryl, I had
my experiences, but what have I done with it?
Lewin told Greene he intended to make a movie, and wanted to know
her side of the story. She was used to curious strangers calling to
try to get a look at a surrogate partner. She had no idea who Lewin
was so she started googling him while they were on the phone, quickly
realizing that he was a legitimate director developing a feature film
project. Thats when she agreed to meet with him. Lewin arrived
at her house with his long-time friend and chief financial backer,
Jules Coleman. The filmmaker, who has known Coleman since they were
teens, trusted his judgment and sought him out as a sounding board.
In addition to Colemans support, a number of friends and families
invested in the project and a budget was cobbled together with small
individual investments and loans.
During the visit with Greene, Lewin explored the difference between
a typical sex worker and a sex surrogate. Who does this kind of work,
he and Coleman wondered. And what is the work exactly? There were
a lot of questions. Their conversation took place at Greenes
At one point I said, Would you mind if I go over and get
my notes? Because I dont remember, Greene asked.
The meeting with Lewin and Coleman took place in 2007, and Greenes
sessions with OBrien dated back to 1986. Ben and Jules
both looked at each other with surprise and went, Notes?! I
cant believe it! This is amazing! This person is serious about
her profession. The notes formed the basis for all of the scenes
between Greene and OBrien in The Sessions.
OBrien had already written about Greene publicly, so she felt
no need to keep their work together confidential. Based on Greenes
notes, OBriens article and Fernbacks insights, they
formed the basis for the film.
When they left, they walked down my stairs, Greene recalls,
talking immediately about making it a different kind of movie.
Indeed, the dramatic thrust of the story is about an awakening beyond
sex, and the consciousness of love as a journey.
OBriens story evolved from there. The shooting script
became an amalgamation of the frustration expressed in his original
article, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, They included his
sexual desires, his reaching out, his being rejected, his persevering,
his attachment to Greene, the pain of detaching from her and then,
jumping ahead many years, to his time with Fernbach. It showed how,
despite the challenges, OBrien ultimately experienced love in
a full and robust way.
OBrien and Greene both came from a similar religious background.
I was raised Catholic and always had questions about sexuality,
says Greene. I wondered why people have sexual urges if it is
supposed to be sinful. I never got direct answers and I never got
good answers. Like OBrien, she grew-up feeling guilty
about her sexuality.
After she discovered masturbation, she was embarrassed by the urge
to do it, but masturbated anyway. I had a lot of problems with
sleep because of anxiety around school. She had dyslexia, which
caused a host of problems, yet went undiagnosed. Pleasuring
myself really helped me fall asleep at night. Her first husband
didnt feel a lot of guilt and shame about his sexuality. He
told me that I was a wonderful person and that what the church had
been telling me was total bull; and anyway, how could I believe in
a God that was less compassionate than I was? So that made sense to
She sought therapy. Shed also heard about the work Masters and
Johnson were doing with people around sexuality, and thought, Wow,
thats fascinating! In Boston at the time, she and her
husband moved to California in 1968, where their marriage opened up
to include other partners. People were exploring with other
people. Its kind of a scary idea but also a fascinating, intriguing
A friend of Greenes gave her a book called Surrogate Wife, in
which a woman tells the story of how she worked at Masters and Johnson.
Later Greene talked to Dr. Bill Masters about how one becomes a surrogate.
Shortly after that, she attended sex-information workshops in San
The environment offered a positive approach to exploring and fulfilling
ones sexuality. The topics were discussed in a frank open forum.
They showed me two different movies: Each of them had women
masturbating... I found the films mind-blowing, because Id never
seen erotica or porn or anything like that. Greene began to
realize that she could shape her own ideas about her sexual self.
Good, bad, positive, negative, or indifferent, it was all up to her.
She made a promise to herself to get over being ashamed about masturbation.
She recalls thinking, I want to be able to talk like these people
do about sexuality.
The workshop was made up of small groups with each person sharing
their attitudes about themselves and their sexuality. Some people
cried and there was a feeling of a weight being lifted. Greene learned
that one of the women featured in the films was a sex surrogate. Greene
got her phone number and called her. She connected me with a
couple of the therapists she worked with, and they confirmed for me
that I was on the right path. They said that if you were going to
be a surrogate, you had to have compassion, empathy and life experience.
By then I was 29, had two children, and was a great believer in therapy
as a tool to get out of stuck places and move yourself forward.
Greene become a professional sex surrogate and wrote the book An
Intimate Life: Love, Sex, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner.
In 1986, OBrien came into her life. He was the first quadriplegic
male, the first person who was that profoundly disabled. He couldnt
sit upright because it would stop his breathing. He could be tilted
up slightly to one side, but he couldnt move a whole lot. He
could move a finger and that was basically it.
Lewin and his team captured the truth and essence of what happened
to the lives of these people meeting at that juncture, people who
helped OBrien realize his desire to explore something that,
up until that time, he felt was forbidden to him.
As depicted in The Sessions, OBrien asked his therapist
to find him a sex surrogate. The therapist did some research and connected
with Greene. Later, during their first phone conversation, the writer
described his feelings as if he were on the outside of a wonderful
restaurant peering through big windows seeing everyone on the other
side having a delicious feastone in which he would never partake.
Greene encouraged him, You deserve a seat at that table,
she told him, determined to help him.
Unlike many people in similar situations, OBrien was especially
adept at expressing himself both through his writing and verbally.
Greene remembers, He was very good at communicating. In the
film, OBriens character has a line saying that he wants
to experience a woman before his use by date expires.
Thats an example of his wit. He was one of the most articulate
men Ive met, disabled or not.
Theres a point in the middle of the movie when OBrien
mails a poem he wrote to Greenes home, which is not exactly
how it happened in real life. She recalls, I didnt see
the poem like they have it in the movie. I saw it a year later, when
he gave me a pamphlet of poems that he had written. The Love
Poem to No One in Particular was the first poem. And when I
read it, for a moment, I wondered if he had written this beautiful
thing to me? It was gorgeous, and when you hear it finally in the
movie, the effect is amazing. And then I caught myself, No,
he has written this for the woman in the future. He has written it
for a relationship I helped him prepare for. And thats
what I still believe. He called me the day he met her and told me
over the phone, I was able to tell her Im not a virgin.
And he was happy about that.
Says Greene, Ive worked with a lot of disabled people
since Mark. Some were seriously disabled like he was. There were some
who were quadriplegics, paraplegics, a few who had cerebral palsy,
and one with spina bifida, all these different kinds of conditions
that prevented them from voicing what they really wanted or truly
felt. Mark had his intellect and his poetry. Thank God his partner,
Susan Fernbach has formed the Lemonade Factory Press so that all of
his work will be available for ......
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