Behind “The Sessions”: The real Mark O’Brien story


Mark O'Brien

Before John Hawkes portrayed Mark O’Brien in The Sessions, Mark O’Brien himself had already made a big screen appearance. The 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien won an Academy Award (Best Documentary Short Subject) and painted an intimate portrait of O’Brien.

After the jump, we have links to the entire short film and O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” around which the plot of The Sessions revolves.

O’Brien was a frequently published journalist and poet, and a contributor to National Public Radio. He contracted polio in childhood and, due to post-polio syndrome, spent much of his life in an iron lung. Yet for more than forty years, he fought against illness, bureaucracy and society’s conflicting perceptions of disability for his right to lead an independent life.

Breathing Lessons breaks down barriers to understanding by presenting an honest and intimate portrait of a complex, intelligent, beautiful and interesting person, who happens to be disabled. Incorporating the vivid imagery of O’Brien’s poetry, and his candid, wry and often profound reflections on work, sex, death and God, this provocative film asks: what makes a life worth living?

O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” was originally published in The Sun in 1990. The full article is available online through Readability. Below is an excerpt:

In 1983, I wrote an article about sex and disabled people. In interviewing sexually active men and women, I felt removed, as though I were an anthropologist interviewing headhunters while endeavoring to maintain the value-neutral stance of a social scientist. Being disabled myself, but also being a virgin, I envied these people ferociously.


The Sessions is now playing at the County Theater and Ambler Theater starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy. 

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