Berkeley sex surrogate: ‘My work is like cooking school’

Cheryl Cohen Greene

Cheryl Cohen Greene: “You’re always worried about how someone is going to portray your work. I think [Helen Hunt in The Sessions] did a fabulous job”

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 magazine’s Nina Martin. Cohen Greene will be reading Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7 pm at Books Inc. on Fourth St. in Berkeley.

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.

The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

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]. 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. Afterwards 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.

Read the rest of the interview with Cheryl Cohen Greene at San Francisco Magazine’s website.

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