I recently saw the movie THE SESSIONS and was eager to learn more about Mark O'Brien and his quest to experience life to its fullest. We've all had our trials and setbacks in life and we often hear the phrase, "It could be worse," but what if you are that person so severely disabled that it could not get much worse? Blessed with a brilliant mind but trapped in a broken body, O'Brien's dilemma is how to overcome the daunting obstacles placed in his path.
It wasn't always this way. For a few short years, Mark O'Brien was healthy and "normal" in every way. He had an equally bright future as any 6-year-old could have...loving parents and siblings in a middle-class family. In a blink of time, O'Brien became one of the countless victims of a scourge that had been terrifying the nation for decades. Amazingly, the vast majority of people exposed to the polio virus do not become sick. For some, the virus enters the bloodstream with varying devastating effects. O'Brien was among the unluckiest of the unlucky with a severe form of polio that required him to spend most of his days in an iron lung. He is quick to point out in the book that his muscles were destroyed but he was not actually paralyzed in the usual sense. He did have feeling in his body but was unable to move his limbs. Hence, a simple itch could not be scratched and small things became a neverending nightmare.
O'Brien was working on HOW I BECAME A HUMAN BEING when he died in July, 1999 just a few days short of his 50th birthday. What an amazing 50 years it was. Gillian Kendall finished the book and tried to keep O'Brien's wit and tone in the final book. HOW I BECAME A HUMAN BEING is remarkable in that the reader feels he/she is actually talking to O'Brien as he freely shares his feelings and emotions. It is heartbreaking look deep inside the heart and soul of a deeply disabled person.
It's clear that O'Brien is angry for much of his early life. No one seems to fully understand his needs and limitations. His parents learn that most children in O'Brien's situation have a short life span in an institution so they give him a life at home. It's not clear that he fully appreciates their sacrifices and emotional pain since they can never cure him of his affliction. The huge iron lung is always a source of problem as in one case the family moves to a new home and O'Brien's room is too small for the iron lung, so he is set up in the living room. There is that lifelong lingering guilt that somehow he is responsible for his situation.
Eventually, O'Brien does go to an institution for supposed better care and he is trapped with people of various mental and physical disabilities. His brilliant mind will soon whither with his broken body. It is interesting to read his views on the medical treatment, the staff and patients. Some staff members seem to terrorize him with their borderline cruelness and insentitivity while others show him genuine concern and tenderness. How many attendants might simply be overworked or poorly trained in the care of the disabled and how many should be sent away?
There seems no hope for O'Brien as he is trapped in his body and in need of regular attention by attendants. He knows his days will end in hopelessness and dispair. It's with an an amazing determination that he fights for independence and a chance to live on his own and to attend college. Despite the obstacles, it is college that brings him that dreamed of independence and a chance to experience life. Although he must relay on hired attendants, he does attend classes and begins to thrive. His writing gains some attention and O'Brien's life is changing. He encounters other disabled students and professors but also points out the varying degrees of disabilities. Some people had it "easier" because they could maneuver in wheelchairs and had more mobility in their bodies.
The lack of physical intimacy is a painful theme throughout the book. O'Brien is sure that he will never experience the basic human need of love--a love that is returned to him. He experiences many crushes on his female attendants and some respond with a degree of affection and affection, but O'Brien feels it will never go further and finally, he turns to a sexual surrogate who helps him achieve the ultimate in human intimacy. The chapter about the sex surrogate is rather short and mechanical. It was just an experience that didn't seem to affect him as strongly as expected.
As his life moves forward, O'Brien becomes an inspiration to everyone--not just the disabled. He lived much longer than anyone would have a expected and in a much fuller life than anyone would have dreamed possible. This amazing book inspires the reader but leaves a burning desire to know more. O'Brien barely mentions his parents throughout the book--almost to the point that his family does not seem to exist but then suddenly they are there as if they had always been there. In the last few years of his life, O'Brien did have a girlfriend. His relationship with Susan Fernbach is only mentioned briefly but he seems to genuinely care for her. He is so open about so much of his life that maybe his time with Fernbach is meant to be kept to himself.
HOW I BECAME A HUMAN BEING is so brilliantly sad and inspiring that the reader is left feeling they knew Mark O'Brien. O'Brien proves that anyone can live a full and satisfying life. The world is a better place because of Mark O'Brien's determination to live and find independence.