Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“The Sessions”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 22, 2012

“The Sessions” is a movie worth seeing, perhaps at home, with friends on a cool winter night. It is a “feel-good, feel-bad” movie, with good actors, but not good acting. As a Psychiatrist, it brings me back to the days where sex therapy was an acceptable intervention in which therapists helped their patients with their intimacy issues, by being intimate with them. Today, of course, we would consider this a boundary violation, but at the time, the field accepted this practice as a helpful tool for some patients. As a person, the movie brought me to a place of compassion for those with disabilities, reminding me, yet again, how we able-bodied folks take so much for granted. The story is a true one; a story I have followed over the years, as the details grab me. Mark O’Brien, a healthy child until age six when he was stricken by polio. This meant that his brain was fully functioning, but his body was paralyzed and he depended, mostly, on an iron lung. He went to college at UC Berkeley, followed by Journalism school there as well. I get emotional thinking about his struggles, and yet, the movie did not tug there. The movie tugged at his sexual frustrations, no doubt a large part of his mental existence. The movie, missed, from my perspective, a more comprehensive understanding of his relationship with his body. Sure, we felt his frustrations, his utter dependency on a machine which required electricity, and his keen sense of understanding his situation. However, we did not, to my satisfaction, probe into how he discovered joy and satisfaction in the midst of overwhelming helplessness. Most striking, was the lack of interaction with any biological relatives. No relatives ever came to visit. He was not just portrayed as alone in his body, but alone in the outer universe as well. This part disturbed me. It is hard for me to imagine that no family member was checking in on him, but maybe that was the case. My hunch is that some family members served as a lifeline to his emotional being. Surely, the church did that, and so that part of the movie, with the wonderful Willam H Macy, was delightful. Is this a comedy? I wondered. No, I would say not. I was not amused, nor made sad. My emotions stayed flat, but I enjoyed the story. Home theatre seemed more appropriate, given the linear nature of the experience.


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6 Responses to ““The Sessions””

  1. Jon said

    My guess is that the problem you have with “The Sessions” is one of scope. Based upon your discussion, you walked into the movie knowing much about the life and problems of Mark O’Brien and perhaps wishing to see a film that might more correctly entitled “Mark O’Brien.” Had that indeed been the film that was intended, your criticisms would be spot on. However, my guess is that the film writer/director Ben Lewin made the film he wanted to, which indeed focused on the sessions of Mark O’Brien and Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate. This is a much more limited project. While it must go into the needs – both physical and emotional – for such sessions, it is not a full biopic of Mr. O’Brien. As such, not going into more detail than was done about his family seems appropriate. Curiously, I found the movie an interesting intellectual exercise about a most basic physical desire – sexual intercourse – and how to achieve it when the physical constraints prohibit the standard approaches. For me, innocent of the details of Mark O’Brien’s life and struggles, seeing the movie was time and money well spent.

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Jon. You are right, that like my curiosity in my work with people, I bring the same curiosity to my watching of films, which often leads me asking myself so many questions, sometimes feeling satisfied that they were not answered, but other times, such as with “The Sessions” feeling unsatisfied about that. Thanks again for sharing your point of view.

  2. Shelly said

    Having not seen the movie nor not having heard of Mark O’Brien before (but certainly have heard of iron lungs and feel compassion for those being forced to live their lives in them), I fail to understand how the use of a sex therapist would be helpful to the patient in this respect. From your blog you state, “sex therapy was an acceptable intervention in which therapists helped their patients with their intimacy issues, by being intimate with them.” A patient in an iron lung could certainly have romantic relationships, but I’m guessing would not necessarily have much use for sex therapists unless it was for sexual contact (i.e prostitution)? Would the sex therapist have stood in for the parents in teaching Mark the mechanics of sexual procreation and about his body, which he should have learned at an earlier age?

    • Shirah said

      Sex therapists, similar to psychotherapists, build confidence in people, only sex therapists did this through action, and psychotherapists do this through words and ideas. Mark’s parents could not have taught him about his body, as this would have been in the realm of sexual abuse. He did not have the ability, as most boys do, to explore this aspect of his life in the context of a loving relationship. He assumed this would never be possible. He, therefore, explored an avenue which was open to him at the time. Unlike prostitution, the movie tells us, sex therapists are not looking for repeat business. They want to help someone and then have them use their new-found skills in other relationships. Thanks, as always.

      • Shelly said

        Firstly, since when is it sex abuse for parents to have frank discussions with their children about the mechanics of their bodies and to answer their questions or provide books which better explain bodily functions to them? It has always been the parents’ responsibility to have the “birds and the bees” discussion with their children! Second, I have read that patients on iron lungs can sometimes spend time outside their iron lungs and if that is so, then they would be able to develop romantic if not sexual relationships.

        • Shirah said

          Explaining bodily functions is an important parent responsibility, but emerging adults need to have their own personal journey in understanding their bodies. In Mark O’Brien’s situation, he seemed to feel that he could not possibly expect to have a relationship with a woman, so he sought professional help. Again, this was in an era, when such help was a recognized practice, whereas now it is seen as a boundary violation. Yes, he had a “vest” that he could wear outside of his iron lung which allowed him a few hours to go out and do things that interested in him. His situation was so unique that I am not sure how any parent could hav dealt with his emerging emotional and physical needs. What was missing from the movie, which Jon commented on was not within the scope, was his relationship with his parents. It is hard to say how their parenting influenced Mark’s self-confidence. Thanks for continuing this discussion.

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