Mark O'Brien (poet)

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Mark O'Brien
Born(1949-07-31)July 31, 1949
DiedJuly 4, 1999(1999-07-04) (aged 49)
OccupationPoet, Journalist, Activist

Mark O'Brien (July 31, 1949 – July 4, 1999) was an American 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.[1][2] They remained friends until his death.[3]

Personal life[edit]

O'Brien contracted polio in 1955 and spent the rest of his life paralyzed and requiring an iron lung.[4] In the iron lung he attended UC Berkeley, produced his poetry and articles, and became an advocate for disabled people.[4] He co-founded a small publishing house, Lemonade Factory, dedicated to poetry written by people with disabilities.[5]

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,[6] written with Gillian Kendall.[7]

O'Brien seeing a sex surrogate at the age of thirty-eight to lose his virginity, and the later meeting of him and his life partner, Susan Fernbach,[8] is depicted in the film The Sessions. The sex surrogate was named Cheryl Cohen-Greene.[1][2] They remained friends until his death.[3]


O'Brien received a bachelor's degree in English Literature and a master's degree in Journalism both from the University of California, Berkeley.[9]


  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ a b O'Brien, Mark (May 1990). "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate". The Sun Magazine, issue 174. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  3. ^ a b Guthmann, Edward (January 10, 2012). "Surrogate sex partner inspires story, film". Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Wesley J (December 28, 2012). "Mark O'Brien's Triumph (It Wasn't About Sex)". First Things. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
  5. ^ "Mark O'Brien, 49, Journalist And Poet in Iron Lung, Is Dead", The New York Times, July 11, 1999.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  8. ^ Cinema review.
  9. ^ Honan, William H. "Mark O'Brien, 49, Journalist And Poet in Iron Lung, Is Dead". Retrieved 2018-09-28.

External links[edit]