Friends with benefits

When you can't dress, eat, or go to the bathroom on your own, privacy takes a back seat to trust
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 24, 2010

PERSONAL SPACE: Born with cerebral palsy, Alex Freeman’s sense of privacy isn’t like everyone else’s.

The End of Privacy
The world is watching: If you don't want the government, big industry, and some 15-year-old to know your secret, you're shit out of luck. And so far, no one knows what to do about it. By Mike Miliard.

Google: The ultimate Cockblocker. By Scott Fayner.

The Phoenix Editorial: Privacy.

Dorm life is super weird. Sleeping only feet away from someone else, showering in a stall while others shower alongside you, eating with dozens in the dining hall — the lack of privacy that marks dorm life resembles nothing short of an army barracks, a royal court, or prison.

Alex Freeman doesn't mind. Freeman is a 23-year-old communications major at UMass Amherst. When I paid him a visit on campus last week, I found a chirpy young dude in a motorized wheelchair with a glorious head of dark brown hair and an earring. Freeman is a hustler — in addition to his studies, he makes films, and is eager to get the word out about them. To wit, his latest short, Meet Annabelle, is a black comedy about a writer with cerebral palsy who spills his guts to a sex doll. (You can see the trailer and his other short films at

Like his subject, Freeman was born with cerebral palsy. He lives a life completely devoid of what most people would consider private moments: he can't get out of bed, eat, dress, shower, or go to the bathroom without someone there to help him. He uses a wheelchair to get around and orchestrates a battery of personal-care assistants in order to survive.

He's by himself only twice a week: Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, for two hours. It's the most time alone he's ever had.

When he was growing up in Brookline, Freeman's parents gave college students free rent in exchange for helping with his care. They were with him all the time. As a result, his sense of privacy isn't like anyone else's.

"Let me put it like this," he told me. "Most people would have a problem if someone helped them out in the bathroom. But I don't have a problem with that, because it's part of the human condition. . . . What needs to get done, needs to get done."

But in spite of this conditioning, he was miserable his freshman year at Fitchburg State University.

"I couldn't be in the dorm with the other freshmen, so they put me in a townhouse with a bunch of seniors who were really mean to me," he said. "They threatened to pop my tires." But empty threats were the least of his problems. His state-assigned personal-care assistants (PCAs) were very bad, to put it mildly. Some of them showed up late. Some of them showed up drunk. One didn't show up at all, leaving Freeman, half-starved, to sleep in his clothes in his chair.

"Because you're dependent on these people, you really feel like you can't do anything when you don't have their help," he said. "You feel helpless, like you're this parasite — you start to question if you're supposed to be alive."

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