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WEB EXPANDED: As Sex Positive as It Gets
Nina Martin | Photo: Bob Greene | January 23, 2013
Just in time for Oscar season, Cheryl Cohen Greene—the Berkeley-based certified sex surrogate whose relationship with the polio-stricken writer Mark O’Brien forms the basis of the indie crowd-pleaser The Sessions—has a new memoir, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner (Soft Skull Press). Here she talks with San Francisco’s Nina Martin.
How did you decide that you wanted to do your own version of the story?
The timing with the movie was somewhat coincidental. I had been writing a book for many years [but it got derailed for various reasons, including the death of her collaborator at the time]. Eventually I found [Oakland-based coauthor] Lorna Garano, who is fabulous. Meanwhile, [the movie’s director/screenwriter] Ben Lewin, who had polio as a child, had read Mark’s essay [“On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” 1990]. It touched him so deeply and he decided to make a movie.
Ben and I met [in the mid 2000s,] and then for three years I didn’t see him. We talked occasionally on the phone. His wife Judi, whom I adore, said to me, “Get on his case. We have to make some money, but I want him to write this.” They actually re-mortgaged their home to finance the movie. They sold jewelry. For them, making this movie was an act of love.
What did you think of the final result?
I’ve seen the movie 10 times now with friends and my cancer support group at Kaiser. I always cry when Helen Hunt says goodbye to [the O’Brien character, portrayed by John Hawkes]. And then later, when [SPOILER ALERT!] he dies. You’re always worried about how someone is going to portray your work. I think she did a fabulous job.
Well, her performance has been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress, so obviously a lot of people agree. What kind of advice did you give her?
We had lunch in Santa Monica, and I’ve never been so scrutinized when talking to someone. Afterward she said, “Would you mind coming up to my house?” She and her partner [screenwriter Matthew Carnahan] and I went into her room. Everybody was clothed, but I showed her sensual touch—how I use my whole hand to explore gently, the things I did and said to Mark. When I saw the movie, I thought, “Whoa, she was really paying attention.”
In the film, she’s so matter-of-fact.
You mean taking her clothes off so quickly?
Everything—the very instructional way she talks about sex to her clients, the notes she makes after every session.
Yes, often people say to me, “I’ve never talked to someone who has made me this comfortable about this topic before.” When I told Helen that my job is to help people become more sex positive, she said she hadn’t even thought of those words together—sex, positive. [As for my notes,] that was one of the things that Ben and [producer] Julius [Colman] liked. Before we met, they were worried because they didn’t know who I was going to be: Was I just somebody who had a fetish for disabled people? Then, when they asked me a question that I didn’t have an answer for, I said, “Um, let me get my notes.” And they looked at each other and said, “She’s got notes! She’s for real!” After that, what they had in mind for the movie changed completely.
OK, let’s start at the beginning. You’re from Salem, Massachusetts, originally. You came to the Bay Area in the 1960s, as a very young woman, already married. How did you ever think about becoming a certified sexual surrogate?
In 1973 a girlfriend gave me the book Surrogate Wife: The Story of a Masters & Johnson Sexual Therapist and the Nine Cases She Treated. Then it evolved into me going to a small church in Berkeley to see Maggi Rubenstein, [a sex-education pioneer] who was a psychiatric nurse at UCSF. She and Toni Ayres, another psychiatric nurse, and Carolyn Smith had decided that we needed a switchboard in San Francisco to give accurate sexual information, which became the San Francisco Sex Information hotline. Maggi was a major role model for me. I had never met anyone so smart and interesting and so easy in the way they discussed sexuality.
From there you eventually did training and started working as a surrogate partner, with 900 or so clients over the years. This will be obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie, but what is the difference between what you do and prostitution?
I credit a friend with this analogy. Going to a prostitute is like going to a restaurant. You sit down and choose something to eat, which the restaurant hopes that you like so much that you come back and you refer friends. My work is more like cooking school. You find a recipe and ingredients, you make it together, and then the client goes out into the world and shares the recipe with others. This whole time you’ve been married, with kids.
In the book, your relationship with your first husband, Michael, is very complicated. It’s complicated in the movie, too, but in a different way.
One difference is that the real Michael [who died about a decade ago] would never have been jealous the way he is in the movie. There was also more passion in the relationship. We had an open marriage, which Michael had initiated. By the time of the movie [the 1980s], he already had a second family. You don’t see that in the movie at all.
But my discontent with the marriage—that’s definitely there. And I was already involved with [my current husband] Bob. We met through my surrogate work—he was my client. Bob has said publicly that he saw how the work was so beneficial. We have a commitment to each other not to have outside relationships. People say, “Oh, you’re monogamous with your husband, but you still do surrogate work?” Yeah, you can do that. There was no way that he thought of asking me to stop doing surrogate work. Isn’t that right, honey?
[Husband Bob Greene, who’s working on the laptop in the dining room: Of course not.]
And your children—what do they think?
I have a daughter as well as a son [both now in their 40s]. They both still live in Berkeley. They were little when I started this work. They’d ask, where do you work? I’d tell them, “I have a job helping people who feel bad about their sexuality feel better about it.” “Oh, OK.” And that was it. It’s always been that way.
As I was reading the book, I was thinking how impossible it is to imagine places like UCSF ever being affiliated with something like that kind of sexuality education today.
It was an exciting time. It was juicy. It was delicious. And then you could just see it tightening up.
Yes. It happened so quickly. It was a very scary time. None of us were using condoms. A lot of people left the profession then. Those of us who stayed began to use and teach safer sex for our clients. The Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality [in San Francisco] had this class in eroticizing latex. It was so much fun.
Have you seen much of a change in people’s sexual problems over the past 40 years?
I don’t like to use that word, “problems.” We have our concerns, and we make them into problems. But no, people come in with the same issues. I don’t care about Viagra, Levitra, Cialis. A pill is not going to help a relationship that is dysfunctional. Body issues haven’t changed. Penis size issues haven’t changed. There’s still a lot of lousy communication between partners.
You’re 68 now. You’ve had breast cancer and lymphoma, both pretty serious. Your body is different, your energy level. Has that changed your work?
Yeah, in a positive way. When I was younger, I knew you weren’t supposed to be a Playboy Bunny to do surrogate work. You weren’t there to be their ideal. What you are is their guide. You have to be somebody the client can relate to and trust, just like I relate to them.
[Still, after cancer] I lost this fear of, “Am I good enough?” Hitting 60 had an effect as well. I have a friend who’s overweight and likes food. She said to me, “You know what I figured out? Anybody who doesn’t like me is a fucking asshole.” I said, “Jane you’re absolutely right. That’s the truth. This is what you get, and if it isn’t OK, let’s not waste time.”
In the movie, Helen Hunt is very protective of her privacy when talking to the Mark O’Brien character. But you’re so open.
The real me shares all sorts of information with my clients. I want them to know where I’ve had my limitations, my fears. For example, the opening up of my first marriage scared the living hell out of me. I had to learn a huge thing, which was to say “no.” Sharing this kind of stuff enriches the soup of what we are doing with each other.
And what about the number of sessions with clients? In the movie she says that there can only be six. Is that always your policy?
No, that was from Mark. He didn’t want to become attached. We had six and we did stay friends. He sent me poetry in the mail. I went to his apartment a few times. And then he met his girlfriend Susan. He called to tell me that he’d met someone and that he was so happy to tell her he wasn’t a virgin. And then he suggested that if I felt like coming, I should call first!
Mark O’Brien isn’t the only one of your disabled clients to have written about you. There’s also The Heart’s Alphabet: Daring to Live With Cerebral Palsy, by James Grimm.
He was my client in 1990, a few years after I worked with Mark. He had told his family that he wanted to have an experience of sexuality. His mother and father and sister brought him from Michigan. His mother stayed in the living room just in case he needed help. His book [published in 2007] is great. I don’t know how he wrote it. The cover says he never uttered a word in his life. He was 43 when he died [in 2009].
And you have another movie about your work coming out as well?
I just did a documentary for Channel Four in England. They flew with the client to California for 11 days. I’ve never been filmed doing my work naked before. This man was a 45-year-old virgin. Very shy. Oh, I love him. Darling person. He came from an evangelical background. I didn’t even know that they had that in England.
Family dynamics came up. We didn’t get naked for six sessions. I did hand caress, face caress, plus he worked with his therapist every day. He accomplished so much during our time together. By the last session—never mind, I don’t want to spoil it for you by saying what happens. We both hugged each other. I said to him, you know you have a friend for life.
Cheryl Cohen Greene reads her new book, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and my Journey as a Surrogate Partner, on Tuesday, January 29, at 7 pm at Books Inc., 1760 4th St., in Berkeley.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.