Polio, Sex, and a Priest

At first glance, seeing the words “polio,” “sex,” and “priest” together in a sentence suggests the beginning of what promises to be a dreadfully distasteful joke.  But I am here to tell you that the most-recent film I had the truest pleasure of viewing, The Sessions, while it is brimming with playful humor and wit, is no joke.

This daring movie, which takes place in 1988, is based on the true life story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a man who spends his nights entombed in an iron lung and moves through his days being wheeled around on a gurney by one of his caretakers, all as a result of contracting polio at the tender age of seven years old, a debilitating disease which eventually left him unable to use all but three muscles in his body:  one muscle in his right foot, one muscle in his neck, and one muscle in his jaw.  Thanks to the efforts of a loving and devoted family, who chose to care for Mark at home instead of institutionalizing their beloved polio-stricken son, Mark soared past the grim 18-month life-expectancy statistics at the time and lived to be 49 years old.

Mark’s spirit far surpassed the limitations of his frail body, earning him a graduate degree from UC Berkeley and a successful career as a celebrated poet and respected journalist, yet his Soul and his Body and his Mind yearned for the one thing that life had not given him:  an intimate sexual experience with a woman.  Even though Mark’s disease had weakened his muscles to the point where he had very little, if any, mobility or muscle coordination, he was still able to experience sensation in his twisted and fragile body, and he longed for the sensual touch of a woman, the passion of a physical connection, and the sensation of an orgasm that wasn’t simply a random, unprovoked, meaningless occurrence.

Through his research into sexuality and the disabled, Mark was introduced to the idea of hiring a sexual surrogate to assist him with his first sexual experience.  Contemplating and internally struggling with the decision of whether or not to pursue this unusual path, a choice that would run counter to his Catholic upbringing, Mark sought the counsel of Fr. Brendan (William H. Macy), a priest in his church, who suddenly and unexpectedly found himself invited to take a closer look at his own truth, to question his own beliefs, and to consider the possibility of changing his own perspective.  While this emotionally tortured and physically paralyzed man lay vulnerably before him, asking if God would be upset if he had sex outside of marriage, Fr. Brendan offers to him, “In my heart, I feel like he will give you a free pass on this one.  Go for it.”

Mark goes on to hire Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) as a sex therapist with whom he would share his first experience of sexual intercourse over a span of six sessions.   Their unconventional relationship transitions from a matter-of-fact sexual experience into one of mutual tenderness and self-realization.  This is not a movie about sex.  This is a movie about Love.  This is a movie about the journey of the Soul.  This is a movie about, as Conversations with God teaches us, understanding that your Truth comes from within, and that when you change the source of your Truth, you allow yourself to experience life in an entirely different way…in the way that it was meant to be.

This film is raw and explicit, humorous and heart-breaking, inspiring and emotionally shocking, gutsy and tender.  If ever there was a movie that demonstrates that our lives are not about us, The Sessions would be it.  If ever there was a movie that reflected the infinite possibilities held within each and every one of us, it would be this one.

This movie is currently showing in theaters around the world.  Save an evening to see a wonderful film that you will be grateful you brought into your life.

(Lisa McCormack is the Managing Editor & Administrator of The Global Conversation.  She is also a member of the Spiritual Helper team at www.ChangingChange.net, a website offering emotional and spiritual support. To connect with Lisa, please e-mail her at Lisa@TheGlobalConversation.com.)

(If there is a book, movie, music CD, etc. that you would like to recommend to our worldwide audience, please submit it to our Managing Editor, Lisa McCormack, for possible publication in this space. Not all submissions can be published, due to the number of submissions and sometimes because of other content considerations, but all are encouraged. Send submissions to Lisa@TheGlobalConversation.com. Please label the topic: “Review”)

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