Sunday | December 17, 2017
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Catholics, sex and empathy

In my family there’s this tradition wherein, on the evening of Thanksgiving Day, after you’re stuffed fat and happy with turkey and had your fill of watching the Detroit Lions find yet another creative way to lose … well, you go to the movies. A lot of new films open over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. So, that’s what we do. I go to see “The Sessions.”

Been a long time since a movie made me lay my head in my hands and cry.

This was an “indie” film. And had to be. I’m not sure that mainstream American filmmakers still know how to make a movie like “The Sessions.” Ben Lewin is the director. And I want to shake his hand. There had to be a thousand temptations to spin the true story of Mark O’Brien (1950-1999). So many ways Lewin could have exaggerated, sensationalized or dramatized.

But this is a film entirely without irony. Lewin lifts much of the actors’ dialogue verbatim from interviews and from O’Brien’s own writings. There’s a real time simplicity, and therefore an almost “Candid Camera”-esque naivete, innocence, humanness in the writing, blocking and screen interactions.

Lewin shoots the film in natural lighting. Nobody does that anymore. From “The Godfather” forward to today, modern filmmakers shoot movies in variations of this grainy, sepia tone. Depictions of sexuality are notoriously staged in affected lighting, perfect angles, even the bed sheets and pillows resembling less of an actual rumpled bed and more of an artist’s perfect lines, angles and brush-stroked movement.

In short, the sex we see in modern movies is much like a painting or sculpture, and virtually nothing like actual sex — vulnerable, awkward, physical, raw, often clumsy — between two actual mortals.

There is tons of nudity in “The Sessions.” But, because Lewin insists on a stark, human realism in telling this story, the nudity is more like standing in a doctor’s office than an invitation to prurience.

Later that evening, I spent almost two hours online reading everything I could find about the true story of Mark O’Brien. A beautiful little boy, he contracted polio at age 6. He spent his life in an iron lung, only able to move three muscles in his body. He was a passionately religious man, Roman Catholic, often repeating the tongue-in-cheek observation that the only way he could bear his lot in life was “having somebody to blame.”

At the age of 36, he presented to his priest a pre-emptive confession: He intended not to die a virgin. He had decided to hire a sex surrogate. He met Cheryl Cohen Greene. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle says:

“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 … 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 published the essay “On Seeing a Sexual Surrogate” about his experience. You can read it here:

William H. Macy plays the priest. I admired the character to no end. I’m a former Anglo-Catholic priest, and I found myself hoping pilgrims remembered my priesthood as one of a similar compassion and mercy for the sheer complexity of the human condition. In western civilization, the Judeo-Christian tradition has, in my opinion, too often been antagonistic, hostile, ignorant and even cruel regarding human sexuality. There is a deep thread of human misery in the history of trying to negotiate the relationship between passionate, healthy spirituality and passionate, healthy sexuality.

The movie is thoughtful, tender, compassionate, in some ways disturbing … but it moved me to my core. But even more overwhelming was reading the firsthand accounts of the real people.

Mark O’Brien’s story will humble you. Gentle you. Make you grateful to be here in the midst of this mysterious thing called life.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry. Contact him at


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