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The Sex Surrogate and the Poet

| January 11, 2012
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You may have read the profile in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday of Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley “surrogate partner” who works with mostly men suffering from sexual dysfunction, frequently having intercourse with them.

One of her clients was the late, disabled Berkeley journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, who was the subject of the 1997 Academy Award winner for best documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. The Chronicle piece addresses O’Brien’s relationship with Cohen Greene:

Mark O’Brien, was stricken with polio at 6 and spent most of his life in an iron lung. In 1986, when O’Brien was 36 and a virgin, he hired Cohen Greene as his surrogate partner. They met six times and remained friends until O’Brien’s death in 1999…

When Cohen Greene met Mark O’Brien, she had already seen several disabled clients – men with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and quadriplegia. From the beginning, she was drawn to his caustic wit and nimble mind, his longing for connection.

“He told me nobody had ever touched him other than to bathe him, dress him or do a medical procedure. He said that he felt like he was on the outside of a fine restaurant, looking in the window. Everybody in there is having a feast, but he’ll never be able to taste that food.”

Living alone in a Berkeley apartment, O’Brien wrote his poems and stories holding a mouth stick between his teeth and tapping on a computer keyboard. He was 4 feet 7 and 60 pounds, paralyzed except for one muscle in his right foot, one in his neck and one in his jaw. With the help of an attendant, he could get out of his iron lung and into an electric gurney – enclosed in a plastic bubble – that allowed him to navigate the streets of Berkeley.

Once, Cohen Greene says, “I was exploring and touching Mark. And when I got to his chest I kissed him on the top of his chest. He started to cry. He said nobody had ever kissed him like that before.

“There’s a huge population of people with genetic or acquired disabilities who never have a chance to be intimate with someone. Everything is addressed but their sexuality even though their sex drive and sexual curiosity are just as intense as everybody else’s.”

O’Brien eventually met a woman whom he had a relationship with:

“He had a Web page for his poetry and journalism, and a wonderful woman named Susan found him that way and connected with him. I met her and I was really thrilled. Mark told me, ‘I was able to say to her when I met her, ‘You know, I’m not a virgin.’”

This year’s Sundance Film Festival, which opens next week, will include a film based on the relationship between O’Brien and Cohen Green. The Surrogate stars Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in the lead roles. You can watch the film’s writer/director Ben Lewin talking about the film below:

This tribute to O’Brien upon his death, written by Lorenzo W. Milam in Salon, includes one of his poems, called “Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed”:

The pay is lousy,
no vacations or sick leave,
and the compliments …
You’d rather do without them.

On the plus side,
you’re exempt from military service,
get to watch lots of TV
and pay half price at the movies.

They’re out there, my public,
dying to ask me what happened to you,
wondering how I pee
and using me as proof

that God is just
and punishes only the wicked.

And here are two more poems, “Walkers” and “Mrs. Garcia“.

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