Celebrity Jews

Local connection to ‘The Sessions’

“The Sessions,” which opened in San Francisco last weekend to rave reviews and talk of Oscar nominations, is about the relationship between the late writer Mark O’Brien and Berkeley-based sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, now 68. O’Brien was stricken with polio when he was 6; in order to breathe he had to stay in an iron lung machine for most of the day. A smart and funny guy, O’Brien earned undergrad and graduate degrees from U.C. Berkeley in the 1980s and was a respected poet and journalist.

When he was 38, O’Brien decided he wanted to lose his virginity before his body gave out and asked his priest for advice. The priest suggested he see a therapist, who in turn arranged for him to see Greene.

Cheryl Cohen Greene

I recently spoke to Greene, a breast cancer survivor who still works as a surrogate. She told me she was surprised when filmmaker Ben Lewin, 65, contacted her about O’Brien in 2007. Lewin, the son of Holocaust survivors and a childhood victim of polio himself, had come across a 1990 essay O’Brien wrote about his sex surrogacy sessions. Lewin contacted O’Brien’s life partner for the last four years of his life, writer Susan Fernbach, and she referred Lewin to Greene. Lewin intended to do a docudrama on O’Brien, but when Greene told him she kept complete notes on their sessions, he realized he had a gold mine, and the indie film morphed into a drama mostly about those sessions.

“The Sessions” co-stars Oscar-winner Helen Hunt as Greene and John Hawkes as O’Brien. Robin Weigert plays Fernbach and Adam Arkin plays Michael Cohen, Greene’s husband until 1995. William H. Macy plays O’Brien’s humane priest (Greene tells me his character actually is a composite of several of O’Brien’s pastors).

Greene is upbeat and very open, just as depicted in the film. Equally candid is her new autobiography, “An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner.” Born and raised in Salem, Mass., she came from a stable, working-class Catholic family, and the church’s strict stand on sexuality morality was part of her upbringing. But, Greene says, by the time she was in high school she had fallen away from the church and its teachings.

Ben Lewin

In 1962, she met Michael Cohen in Boston. Greene describes this scion of an intellectual Jewish family as handsome, smart and sexually liberated — “a one-way ticket out of the conventional life.” In 1964, they wed before a cantor. In 1965, their daughter was born. In 1968, when Greene was pregnant with their son, Cohen’s parents asked if she had any objection to converting to Judaism. Greene did not, and she converted. She tells me she brought her daughter into the mikvah with her. (Both children were raised Jewish; Greene’s two grandkids are growing up Jewish as well.)

In the film, Greene’s conversion takes place while she is treating O’Brien. This shift allows Lewin to include a scene in which Hunt, as Greene, enters the mikvah. Very artfully, Greene’s dip in the mikvah and the comments of the female attendant, played by Rhea Perlman, 64, subtly reference O’Brien’s physical condition.

In 1968, Michael and Cheryl moved to Berkeley. In 1973, after some training, she became a sex surrogate. She’s since earned a doctorate in the field. Greene says she began her four sessions with O’Brien with great trepidation due to his fragile body. But she liked him from the first — there was his wit (“I believe in God because I have to have somebody to yell at”) — and his soul. O’Brien told her, “I feel like someone outside looking in at a banquet never able to taste that food.” Greene says, “I vowed that he would have a chance to taste the feast.”

Greene couldn’t be happier with “The Sessions.” “I had no vocabulary to draw on to express my emotions the first time I saw the film,” she says. “It was overwhelming, from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. I still get emotional and I cry.”

Columnist Nate Bloom, an Oaklander, can be reached at [email protected].

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes the "Celebrity Jews" column for J.