I’m of the generation that remembers polio. My best friend’s mother died of polio when she was only 33 years old. Pam (my best friend) was just old enough—not even yet of school age— to remember seeing her mother for the last time, inside an iron lung.Pam and her older sister Sally peeked through the basement window of the hospital isolation area to see their mother imprisoned in the grim cylinder. It was the last time they would ever see their mother alive. We both remember that people were so afraid of the disease that, when funerals were held, food for the grieving family was often left on the porch step. Friends and neighbors were afraid to hand it to the survivors in person. Swimming pools closed, for fear of “catching” the disease.
I remember visiting Anne Marie, my twenty-something music teacher, who spent the rest of her life in an iron lung with a mirror-like attachment above it. The visits to her were awkward as the noisy metal cylinder filled the entire living room. As far as I knew, she rarely was removed from the metallic cylinder that pumped air into her lungs at 15 pounds per square inch. If a patient were committed to a nursing home for care, the average life expectancy was only 18 months. Patients like Mark O’Brien of this film, who were kept at home by their families, lived longer.
The above is by way of introduction to the film “The Sessions” about a real poet named Mark O’Brien who lived in an iron lung in Berkeley, California, until he died at age 49. The disease paralyzed him at the age of 34. The film is set in the year 1988. I remember thinking, “It has to be set at least 20 years ago, because the last time I saw an iron lung, it was in a museum.” (Right next to it in the 60’s display was my electric typewriter, which I was still using in my office to fill out forms.)
The plot of “The Sessions” focuses on Mark O’Brien’s (John Hawkes of “Winter’s Bone”) hiring a sex surrogate to have sex with him, and the sex surrogate is played by a very fit (and often nude) Helen Hunt, who appeared before the film to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. Said Hunt, “I hope this is an award for the halfway point in a person’s career, and I will be very happy to leave this movie behind.”
Despite the nudity and frank sexual discussions, it is not a lascivious film. Far from it. It is a film that testifies to the will and endurance of the human spirit. “Today,” says Mark, “I ask if I’ve found a place among the rest.” Mark was able to leave his metal tomb for 3 to 4 hours a day. It was during those 3 to 4 hours that the married sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Green (Helen Hunt) tried to turn Mark into “a made man” because, as he says, “I think I’m getting close to my ‘use by’ date.”
William Macy (looking much as he looks in his television series “Shameless”) plays a priest, Father Brendan, in whom Mark confides. When asked by the devout O’Brien, a church-attending Catholic, whether having sex out of marriage will be a sin, the priest says, “In my heart, I feel that He’ll give you a free pass on this one.”
Mark (Hawkes) explains to Cheryl (Hunt) that, “I’m not paralyzed, but my muscles don’t work so well.” In other words, he can feel and experience and maintain an erection, although, at first, with many instances of premature ejaculation, Mark says, “God wasn’t actually denying my sexuality. It was just as though He were pointing out how useless it is.” Deep down, Cheryl feels, Mark doesn’t feel he deserves sex. His sister Karen died young, at age 7. Mark feels that maybe it is his fault. His parents spent too much time taking care of him and his sister died. (Ah, good old Catholic guilt: the gift that keeps on giving!) He also says, “Maybe intercourse would prove I’m an adult.”
Mark is essentially “a dynamo voice in a paralyzed body,” as the script by Writer/Director Ben Lewin puts it. Despite what O’Brien referenced as “years of unendurable crap,” his poetry and writing (the movie was based on O’Brien’s article “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate”), including “Love Poem for No One in Particular” which is read at his funeral (“Let me touch you with my words, because my hands are empty gloves.”) are part of what made Mark O’Brien’s life journey so remarkable.
While the topic sounds grim, there are humorous moments. One comes when the paralyzed man and his therapist are in a rented motel room and Mark’s caregiver (played by Moon Bloodgood as Vera) is waiting in the lobby, chatting with the hotel clerk. He has asked her what the “guy on the gurney” was doing. Vera told him, honestly, that the guy on the gurney was seeing a sex therapist and they were now having sex. She adds, “Today, they’re working on simultaneous orgasm.” The male clerk (who has just asked Vera out on a date) says, “What’s that?”The acting by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) has been praised as Oscar-worthy. Helen Hunt’s performance is equally gutsy, especially since she appears in much of the film in the buff.
As a sex therapist with a husband (played by Adam Arkin) and a teenaged son, Cheryl does not continue to see patients beyond 6 visits. It is obvious that she is emotionally affected by Mark’s plight when they conclude their sessions, however, and she has dictated into her tape recorder that, “Mark has deeper emotional needs that are beyond the scope of my capability to help him.”
The film has a happy ending of sorts, involving Susan Fernbach, the volunteer Mark meets in the hospital 5 years before his death with whom he forges a relationship. Both women are thanked in the credits.
I stayed to find out where, in heaven’s name, did they FIND an iron lung in this day and age? The answer? Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. I’m so glad that iron lungs are nearly impossible to find in 2012 because the scourge of polio has been vanquished. A film like this makes you grateful for the Salk vaccine and for the ability to enjoy life in good health.