The University of Wisconsin Press

Autobiography / Disability / Medicine / Journalism


How I Became a Human Being
A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence
Mark O’Brien, with Gillian Kendall

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

“O’Brien conveys his pain, his suffering, his depression, his anomie—without resorting to tugging at our heartstrings.”
—Felice Picano, author of Like People in History

In September 1955 six-year-old Mark O’Brien moved his arms and legs for the last time. He came out of a 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.
Available for the first time in paperback, How I Became a Human Being is 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 physical limitations, O’Brien crafts a narrative that is as rich and vivid as the life he led.

Mark O’Brien 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 author of Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet: On a Slow Boat from Shanghai to Texas and editor of Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

cover of O'Brien book show photo of the author

October 2012
LC: 2002010451 RM
280 pp.  6 x 9   13 b/w photos

Book icon
Paper $24.95 t
978-0-299-18434-6 Audiobook Audiobook
Shopping cart ADD TO CART

The Sessions
, a film starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, with William H. Macy, is based on the life story of Mark O’Brien.

Mark O’Brien was the subject of the 1997 Academy Award–winning documentary Breathing Lessons.

Home | Books | Journals | Events | Textbooks | Authors | Related | Search | Order | Contact

If you have trouble accessing any page in this web site, contact our Web manager.

Updated March 8, 2013

© 2013 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System