Cover image for How I became a human being : a disabled man's quest for independence
How I became a human being : a disabled man's quest for independence
O'Brien, Mark, 1949-1999.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Madison, Wis. : University of Wisconsin Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xiv, 263 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
RM930.5.U6 O24 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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September 1955. Six-year-old Mark O Brien moved his arms and legs for the last time. He came out of a thirty-day coma to find himself enclosed from the neck down in an iron lung, the machine in which he would live for much of the rest of his life.
How I Became a Human Being is Mark O Brien s account of his struggles to lead an independent life despite a lifelong disability. In 1955, he contracted polio and became permanently paralyzed from the neck down. O Brien describes growing up without the use of his limbs, his adolescence struggling with physical rehabilitation and suffering the bureaucracy of hospitals and institutions, and his adult life as an independent student and writer. Despite his weak physical state, O Brien attended graduate school, explored his sexuality, fell in love, published poetry, and worked as a journalist. A determined writer, O Brien used a mouthstick to type each word.
O Brien s story does not beg for sympathy. It is rather a day-to-day account of his reality the life he crafted and maintained with a good mind, hired attendants, decent legislation for disabled people in California, and support from the University of California at Berkeley. He describes the ways in which a paralyzed person takes care of the body, mind, and heart. What mattered most was his writing, the people he loved, his belief in God, and his belief in himself.

Author Notes

Mark O'Brien was the subject of the 1997 Academy Award-winning documentary Breathing Lessons . He was a published poet and cofounder of the Lemonade Factory, a California press that published poetry by people with disabilities. O'Brien died in 1999 at the age of forty-nine after completing a draft of How I Became a Human Being . Gillian Kendall is a writer. She has contributed to both Outright Radio and Sun Magazine; one of her short stories appeared in The Student Body , also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

The US continues to struggle with the dual question of the rights of the severely disabled and how much society is willing to pay to sustain them in "independent life." O'Brien tells readers why we, the able bodied, should care. O'Brien, the subject of Breathing Lessons, an Academy Award-winning documentary in 1997, was stricken with polio at age six and spent the rest of his life in and out of an iron lung. Born in Massachusetts, his family moved to California where the public welfare system for the disabled made it possible for him, with the help of hired attendants and his good mind, to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Paralyzed from the neck down, he wrote using a mouth stick to operate first a typewriter, then a computer. His story gives a daily account of his struggles to maintain his independence. It tells of his intellectual triumphs and his need for people willing to clean bedpans. As a devout Catholic, how was he to deal with his sexuality? With much guilt, he decided that a sexual surrogate therapist could help. Before dying at age 49, in 1999, he completed a draft of his story, polished by writer Kendall. An engrossing book. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels. I. Richman emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg Campus