The Sessions — The 38-Year-Old Virgin

Writer/director 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 O’Brien, 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. O’Brien, 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 film’s casting director Ronnie Yeskel and the film’s 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 Lewin’s experience as a polio survivor. Hawkes read every article and poem written by O’Brien, and credits the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary by Jessica Yu, Breathing Lessons, as incredible reference material:

“It’s 25 minutes of Mark O’Brien speaking frankly and often emotionally about his life… It was just invaluable.”

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To simulate O’Brien’s 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 O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” from the late writer’s 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.

Lewin’s 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 didn’t happen for quite a while (his relationship with Fernbach didn’t 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. That’s 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 Coleman’s 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 Greene’s kitchen table.

“At one point I said, ‘Would you mind if I go over and get my notes? Because I don’t remember,’” Greene asked. The meeting with Lewin and Coleman took place in 2007, and Greene’s sessions with O’Brien dated back to 1986. “Ben and Jules both looked at each other with surprise and went, “Notes?! I can’t 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 O’Brien in The Sessions.

O’Brien had already written about Greene publicly, so she felt no need to keep their work together confidential. Based on Greene’s notes, O’Brien’s article and Fernback’s 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.

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O’Brien’s 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, O’Brien ultimately experienced love in a full and robust way.

O’Brien 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 O’Brien, 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 didn’t 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 me.”

She sought therapy. She’d also heard about the work Masters and Johnson were doing with people around sexuality, and thought, “Wow, that’s 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. It’s kind of a scary idea but also a fascinating, intriguing one.”

A friend of Greene’s 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 Francisco.

The environment offered a positive approach to exploring and fulfilling one’s 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 I’d 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, O’Brien came into her life. “He was the first quadriplegic male, the first person who was that profoundly disabled. He couldn’t sit upright because it would stop his breathing. He could be tilted up slightly to one side, but he couldn’t 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 O’Brien realize his desire to explore something that, up until that time, he felt was forbidden to him.

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As depicted in The Sessions, O’Brien 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 feast—one 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, O’Brien was especially adept at expressing himself both through his writing and verbally. Greene remembers, “He was very good at communicating. In the film, O’Brien’s character has a line saying that he wants to experience a woman before his ‘use by’ date expires. That’s an example of his wit. He was one of the most articulate men I’ve met, disabled or not.”

There’s a point in the middle of the movie when O’Brien mails a poem he wrote to Greene’s home, which is not exactly how it happened in real life. She recalls, “I didn’t 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 that’s what I still believe. He called me the day he met her and told me over the phone, ‘I was able to tell her I’m not a virgin.’ And he was happy about that.”

Says Greene, “I’ve 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 ……

Articles in the Kurt Yaeger Issue; Ashley Fiolek — Off Season, But Still Racing Around; Geri Jewell — Let’s Vote for Each Other; Humor — A Day in a Life; Philippe Croizon — Quadruple Amputee Swims Four Straits; Paul Pelland 2 — MS, Eat My Dust!; Rick Howland — His Lost Girl Fantasy; Solo-Dx — Silence Never Sounded So Good; The Sessions — The 38-Year-Old Virgin; Kurt Yaeger — ‘Son of Anarchy’; China Press — Art of the Exchange; Chinese Lessions — She’s 86, Teaching From the Heart; DRLC — Enforcing the ADAs; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences… subscribe


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