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Guide to the Mark O'Brien Papers, 1968-1999, n.d.
BANC MSS 99/247 c  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Collection Summary
  • Information for Researchers
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Chronology
  • Scope and Content
  • Alphabetical Index to Poetry

  • Collection Summary

    Collection Title: Mark O'Brien Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1968-1999, n.d.
    Collection Number: BANC MSS 99/247 c
    Creator: O'Brien, Mark, 1949-1999
    Extent: Number of containers: 6 boxes, 1 oversize folder

    Linear feet: 2.5 2 digital objects
    Repository: The Bancroft Library.
    Berkeley, California 94720-6000
    Abstract: Consists of the body of O'Brien's professional work as a poet and journalist. The papers include unpublished and published poems, books, articles, short stories, and speeches, as well as O'Brien's undergraduate and graduate school assignments.
    Physical Location: For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.
    Languages Represented: English

    Information for Researchers


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to The Bancroft Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of Public Services. Permission for publication is given on behalf of The Bancroft Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Mark O'Brien Papers, BANC MSS 99/247 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

    Related Collections

    "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," VIDEO/C 4841 in Moffitt Library Media Center, U.C. Berkeley.
    Additional related collections may be found under the corporate author heading, "Disabled Persons' Independence Movement," in U.C. Berkeley's online catalog.

    Material Cataloged Separately

    Photographs have been transferred to the Pictorial Collections of The Bancroft Library.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    Iron lung.
    People with disabilities.
    Authors, American--California--Berkeley.
    Poets, American--California--Berkeley.
    People with disabilities--Sexual behavior.
    College students with disabilities--California--Berkeley.
    People with disabilities in literature.
    People with disabilities and the arts.

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Manuscripts for publication.

    Index Terms Related to this Collection

    Online Archive of California.
    Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement collection.

    Administrative Information


    The Mark O'Brien Papers were given to The Bancroft Library by Mark O'Brien in increments over the period of April 1998 through March 1999. Additional materials were received in March 2000.

    Biographical Chronology

    1949 Born to Helen Agnes Kelly and Walter O'Brien, Boston, Mass.
    1951 Brother Kenneth born.
    1953 Sister Karen born.
    1955 Contracts poliomyelitis and is comatose for thirty days. Spends the next two years in Children's Hospital and Wellesley Convalescent Hospital.
    1961 Karen dies of pneumonia.
    1963 Has spinal fusion surgery. Sister Rachel born.
    1966 O'Brien family moves to Sacramento, Calif.
    1968 Receives high school diploma.
    1976 Moves to Kaiser Hospital, Vallejo, Calif., for physical therapy in preparation for attending the University of California at Berkeley as part of the Disabled Students Program. Transfers to Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, Calif.
    1977 Begins course work at California State University, Hayward in January.
    1978 Accepted to U.C. Berkeley in June. Moves into Davidson Hall, a campus dormitory.
    1979 Moves to an apartment off-campus.
    1980 Acquires first electric wheelchair.
    1982 Graduates from U.C. Berkeley with a B.A. in English literature in June. Begins graduate studies at U.C. Berkeley's School of Journalism. Publishes first article, "How I Became A Human Being," in CoEvolution Quarterly.
    1983 Leaves graduate school. Begins professional career as a journalist and poet. O'Brien writes for the Pacific News Service and contributes to CoEvolution Quarterly (which later becomes Whole Earth Review), The Disability Rag, The Fessenden Review, Frisko, Margin, Mouth: the voice of disability, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and The Sun, among others.
    1988-1993 Receives grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation; concentrates on writing poetry.
    1990 Publishes first edition of Breathing: Poems by Mark O'Brien.
    1994 Cover story of the July 31 Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine is devoted to O'Brien. Helen O'Brien dies in September.
    1995 Works with documentary film maker Jessica Yu. The film, "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," premieres in December.
    1996 Berkeley City Council declares Mark O'Brien Day on August 3.
    1997 "Breathing Lessons" wins an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Documentary Short Subject in March. O'Brien delivers commencement speech for U.C. Berkeley's Department of English in May.
    1999 Dies in his home in Berkeley on July 4, from complications of bronchitis.

    Scope and Content

    The Mark O'Brien Papers, 1968-1999, consist of the body of O'Brien's professional work as a poet and journalist. The papers include unpublished and published poems, books, articles, short stories, and speeches, as well as O'Brien's undergraduate and graduate school assignments.
    O'Brien contracted poliomyelitis when he was six years old and relied on an iron lung to help him breathe for much of the rest of his life. He strove to live life on his own terms, attending the University of California, Berkeley and earning a bachelor's degree in English. O'Brien attended U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism for a year but did not complete a degree. After leaving the School of Journalism, O'Brien worked as a journalist and poet. Because O'Brien could not use his hands, his drafts are typescripts (he could type using a mouth stick). Some of his work was dictated; some of his school assignments were transcribed by note takers and attendants.
    O'Brien's poetry demonstrates a wide range of subject matter, tone, and form. His poems range from explorations of the most personal issues of his own life, to musings about baseball and spoofs of his favorite television shows. He also experimented with a variety of poetic forms: sonnets, haiku, free verse, and limericks are represented in his work.
    O'Brien's prose also covers a broad range of subject matter, tone, and form. Early in his career he experimented with writing a political novel, The Contender; in 1997, he finished his autobiography, How I Became a Human Being. O'Brien's articles include some of his journalistic work, including his interview with Stephen Hawking and his ground breaking account drawn from his own experience, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." His short stories range from fictionalized autobiography to science fiction. O'Brien's speeches include the eulogy he wrote for his mother, the speech he gave for the English Department commencement at U.C. Berkeley in 1997, and a speech he gave to the employees at the law firm of Littler, Mendelson (where his brother Kenneth is an attorney) after "Breathing Lessons," the short documentary film about his life, won the Academy Award in 1997. O'Brien also wrote reviews of books, journals, and products.
    O'Brien's early beginnings as a writer can be traced through his work at California State University, Hayward and U.C. Berkeley. Some of the themes he explored in his school assignments he continued to develop as a professional writer. O'Brien's life and the meaning he held for others is amply demonstrated by the eulogies written by his brother, Kenneth, and film maker Jessica Yu, director of "Breathing Lessons."
    O'Brien's papers do not include records from his personal life, such as correspondence or records from his childhood and family, although the autobiographical nature of some of his writings does give much information about his personal life. O'Brien is remembered not only as a writer of great talent but also as an inspiration to disabled people seeking to lead independent lives.

    Alphabetical Index to Poetry


    • Title Date
      The Accidental Death of Joan Burroughs 1984
      Accidental Meter 1981
      Accounting 101 1990
      Afghandistan [sic] April 1982
      After Karen's Party n.d.
      Almost a Boy n.d.
      America is Back, Standing Tall April 1988
      American Ruins January 1992
      Amnesia March 1988
      An Amputated Childhood April 1982
      and the radio goes February 1980
      Another Poem for Jan August 1980
      A.M. October 1981
      The Archer on the Avenue June 1984
      Asian Wisdom May 1998
      At Midnight [and] Campus Musicians November 1983
      The Attraction November 1984, August 1985
      Auf Lederhosen May 1984
      August October 1994


    • Title Date
      Beautiful Women December 1991
      Becoming Her December 1992
      Being Lifted November 1985
      Bete-noires [sic] April 1988
      Betrayed July 1988
      Beyond Words n.d.
      Bionic Man n.d.
      A Birthday Poem for a Midsummer Night's Dream Queen 1995
      The Blue Ink Hassle March 1982
      Boston and Vicinities April 1987
      Boucher n.d.
      Breathing September 1988
      Buffaloes September 1997
      Bulletins February 1988
      The Bunny on the Warner Brothers Shield April 1989


    • Title Date
      Campus at Night n.d.
      Can Poetry Matter? March 1994
      Carla March 1984
      Cats February 1998
      The Child of Debby and Brian April 1986
      Child's Song February, April, June 1985
      Christina February 1982
      The Closing of the West February 1982
      Cockroaches December 1987, February 1988
      Colors of the Day April 1988
      The Commercials are Frightening December 1993
      Communism in the Rain October 1991
      Computer Poem January 1989
      "Concerned Catholics" n.d.
      Country of Origin May 1986
      Creations July 1995
      Cronkite September 1988
      Crossing the Wall May 1995


    • Title Date
      Danielle October 1981, January 1982
      The Day After I Go Out June 1992
      The Days December 1985
      Death of Kong December 1987
      A Dialogue with Judy September 1980
      Didja Hear About . . .? April 1992
      The Dirty Little Secret of Western Civ November 1996
      The Disappearance July 1987
      Disappointment 1983
      Division 1991
      Dos Equis April 1988
      A Dream of Lesbians December 1992
      Dreamother March 1997
      The Drifter n.d.


    • Title Date
      Earth October 1997
      The Ecstasy of Seeing Crowds 1984
      Election Night, 1984 . . . November 1994
      The Emergency December 1988
      The End of Summer October 1986
      The Enemy March 1986
      Eschatology Rap March 1991
      The Explorers February 1982


    • Title Date
      February Blues February 1993
      Femininity December 1992
      For Clifford Bernel September 1980, January 1982
      For John Berryman, 1913-1971 June 1998
      fragment #1 April 1990
      fragment #2 April 1990
      fragment #3 April 1990
      fragment #4 April 1990
      A Free Hand February-April 1986
      Free Man Liberates Paris July 1996
      The French Attendant's Question November 1984


    • Title Date
      good morning america July 1986
      The Good Years March 1992
      The Gospel According to a Confused Passerby June 1988
      Graduation Day n.d.
      Gratitude July 1988
      The Great War June 1988
      Greg November 1981
      Grey September 1990
      The Guys in My Hospital Room November 1984


    • Title Date
      Haiku, Group One November 1985
      Haiku, Group Two April 1986
      Hanging On By n.d.
      Hank Makes the Call n.d.
      Healing July 1986
      Heisenberg's Dream January 1987
      Hero n.d.
      The Hero's Journey September 1997
      Hood July 1992
      How I Survived Childhood October 1995
      How to Operate Your Futon Frame [1996]
      Humble Ambitions December 1996


    • Title Date
      I Love Ricky: A Television Revision November 1993
      I Met a Man Who Tried to Sell Me; Ives's Second Symphony; I Think That I Shall Never Write; Prufrock Visits Yankee Stadium; Intelligence; Funeral Wishes May 1982
      If June 1997
      If Berkeley is a City by the Bay n.d.
      Imported Nobility November 1981
      In Bishop Berkeley's Town July 1986
      In December, the Fan Looks Forward to Spring December 1982
      Information November 1993
      In Saint Catherine's Home for the Hopelessly Crippled 1987
      Iron Lung Blues May 1995


    • Title Date
      Jingle June 1994
      Joaquin March 1982
      Journal October 1993
      Journal Entry November 1996
      Journey February 1993
      Judy, 1977 November 1994


    • Title Date
      Karen January 1984
      KCBS August 1981
      Kennedy October 1994
      Kilgore Trout's Long Planned Revenge [and excerpts] 1990
      Kira's Song October 1997


    • Title Date
      Laboratory June 1986
      laid back June 1981
      The Last Request of Robert Kennedy September 1980
      The Laughter of Death May 1995
      Learning How to Drive Again October 1981
      Leavetaking July 1993
      Lennon 1982
      Lessons March 1998
      letter to a social worker 1991
      Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed April 1991
      Limerick #1 June 1984
      Limerick #2-6 November 1985
      Limon November 1981
      Linda, 1983 February 1993
      Listening to KPFA on a Sunday Morning January 1992
      Love Poem for No One in Particular July 1987
      The Lovers July 1997, July 1994


    • Title Date
      Magic Number December 1987
      The Mail November 1986
      The Man in the Iron Lung March 1988
      Map November 1994
      Marlene July 1993
      Martha's Promise n.d.
      Mary Lea and the Sixteenth of July November 1981
      Mary Lea, 1979 March 1994
      Metromania November 1981
      Mickey January 1994
      Miguel March 1982
      Mister Death December 1991
      Mrs. Garcia January 1982
      Mrs. Stephens 1983
      Moon December 1997
      The Morning Routine January 1990
      Murder Will In September 1989
      My Kitchen August 1980
      My Last Jan Poem January 1987
      My Mobile July 1980
      My Mouthstick April 1992
      My Other Life January 1995


    • Title Date
      The News June 1997
      Night Strike November 1985
      Nina March 1984
      Nixon: A Zombie Romance June 1989
      No, We Weren't Lovers August 1995
      November Twenty-third November 1986


    • Title Date
      Object of Desire July 1995
      The Oliver North Story, Starring Charlie Sheen February 1989
      On My Pillow February 1994
      on telegraph n.d.
      One Nation August 1995
      The Orange County Tales January 1987
      Out of Place October 1981


    • Title Date
      The Package May 1992
      A Panda's Universe November 1984
      Passive Voice n.d.
      Patmos October 1990
      Pearl December 1980
      The Peasant's Poetry October 1981
      Pegasus n.d.
      Peter Sellers was the Wrong Actor November 1983
      Phonetic Frenetic Poetic April 1998
      Photo Album April 1984
      Picnic July 1988
      A Poem for a Wedding December 1980
      A Poem for Alicia February 1995
      A Poem for Avril June 1982
      A Poem for Debby June 1980
      A Poem for Jan August 1980
      A Poem for the Dream Queen Written Upon the Occasion of April Fool's Day n.d.
      A Poem for the Dream Queen Written Upon the Occasion of March n.d.
      A Poem for the Dream Queen Written Upon the Occasion of May ( see Rough Wind Do Shake the Darling Buds of May) 1995
      A Poem for the Dream Queen Written Upon the Occasion of the Feast Day of Saint Valentine 1995
      A Poem for the Dream Queen Written Upon the Occasion of the First Anniversary of Her Manifestation to Picasso Man n.d.
      Poetry's Progress November 1981
      Por Enio y Becky January 1987
      A Portrait of the Lady July 1995
      The Punishment Lady May 1995


    • Title Date
      Questions I Feared the Journalist Would Ask October 1994
      Questions of a Descendant n.d.


    • Title Date
      Rachel's Patient n.d.
      Rainy Day November 1981
      Randomness December 1984
      rant 1/14/90 January 1990
      rant 3/16/90 March 1990
      rant 1.9.91 January 1991
      Reactions February 1986
      Red Sox June 1997
      Remembering Her June 1998
      Reruns April 1998
      Reverie March 1982
      Rob's Song November 1997
      The Rockefeller Loop n.d.
      Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds of May: A Poem for the Dream Queen Written Upon the Occasion of May 1995
      The Rower March 1987
      Rules December 1988
      Running May 1995


    • Title Date
      Saint Patrick's Day 1984
      Ste. Anne de Beaupré; The Boston and Nevada Sandwich Trading Company, Inc. January 1982
      SF to Crack Down on People September 1988
      Scene of the Accident n.d.
      Serial Killer July 1986
      Shattuck Avenue in Time of War January 1991
      Shreds and Threads June 1985
      Sidewalk Cafe at Night August 1985
      Single Helix and WimWam Go to the Movies May 1997
      Sir: n.d.
      Snake October 1991
      Social Security Becomes User Friendly April 1998
      A Song for the Child of Brenduchka and Avico 1983
      A Song of Joy December 1980
      Sonnet #1 March 1993
      Sonnet #2 March 1993
      Sonnet #3 n.d.
      Sonnet #4 n.d.
      Stalker April 1986
      Star-Gazer April 1982
      Steve and Harry Do the Game December 1996
      Stir February 1992
      Streetperson December 1989
      Strike Out May 1997
      Success December 1996
      Suggestions for My Obituary April 1998
      Sunlight February 1987
      The Supreme Soviet Views "Coming Home" September 1988
      Surfaces April 1984


    • Title Date
      Talents February 1992
      A Test of Nerve n.d.
      They Take Paradise November 1989
      This is the Poem You Are Now Reading March 1992
      This must be '47, there she is! April 1984
      Three Reasons to Live May 1995
      The Three Stooges Meet Ronald Reagan and Learn Arabic July 1987
      A Time for Cursing July 1988
      Tongue June 1991
      Travels with Jo June 1991
      The Trees June 1981
      The Trees; The Infinite Improbability Device June 1981
      Trio n.d.
      Trixie January 1981
      Two Cats February 1988
      Two Sisters June 1997


    • Title Date
      Unexpected Visitors July 1986
      Unreconstructed November 1994


    • Title Date
      A Valentine for Susan n.d.
      Variations on I Wish I Could Kill Myself February 1992
      Victim April 1992
      Victory Chant September [1991?]
      Visions of the Nation-State in Decline February 1994


    • Title Date
      Walkers March 1992
      Wall Street Week October 1987
      Walled In December 1983
      Wally Shows the Beaver How To Jerk Off January 1989
      Waltz September 1993
      Watching Television November 1986
      WELL Renga #1 December 1986
      WELL Renga #2 n.d
      Wesley November 1996
      What can you do with a pain in the gut

      [and other poems]
      September 1982
      What's This Noise Inside My Head? May 1985
      What Plato Thought February 1984
      Wheelchair May 1998
      When He's Out of the Tank, He's Out of His Mind April 1998
      When I Saw You on the Today Show December 1997
      When You Enter September 1996
      Whistling April 1993
      Who Rules America? March 1995
      Why I Love Classical Music July 1995
      Why is It? June 1997
      WimWam and Single Helix Discuss the Old Days March 1998
      WimWam and Single Helix Talk Dirty November 1997
      A Word Collage for Mary Lea n.d.
      Words Frequently Seen in Poems April 1987
      Writing Poetry 1982


    • Title Date
      Your Absence November 1981


    • Title Date
      Zeno's Paradox Denied February 1984