Over the weekend, we watched “Philomena”, the highly touted film starring Judy Dench as an Irish woman who had given birth to a child out of wedlock 50 years earlier, and wanted to find him. It’s an excellent film.
The setting is Ireland in the early 1950s. Young Philomena Lee makes a man, has sex, and has a child. She is banished by her father to a Catholic convent, which takes in young unmarried mothers-to-be, cares for them until they give birth, require them to live in and work at the convent for four or five years to pay for the birthing and child care, takes care of the children in an orphanage set up (allowing each mother one hour with her child each day), and then, sometimes without telling the parent, sends the children off for adoption. The parent and child never see each other again, and neither knows the whereabouts of the other.
Philomena later has a daughter (I assume she was married, but I am not sure the film makes that clear) and on her first child’s 50th birthday, her daughter learns for the first time that she has a half-brother……somewhere. She comes into contact with a recently fired BBC TV journalist, Martin Sixsmith, and asks him to help her mother find her son. Sixsmith, a not very pleasant guy, first demurs, saying that a “human interest” story is beneath his talents, but finally agrees to meet Philomena. A relationship is born, and the search commences.
The film is based on a true story. There is a Philomena Lee, now 80 years old. There is a Martin Sixsmith, The search was, in its way, successful, and he wrote a book that became the movie.
It turns out that the film, though adds even more than a normal amount of fiction to the story. The biggest add-on, perhaps, is that once they learned that the majority of adoptions at the convent were to Americans, Sixsmith and Lee travel to the United States and search for and discover the truth of what happened to young Anthony Lee. This trip never happened. But it makes for drama, and perhaps in this case that is all right. I am not sure.
What they did learn was startling. Yes, Anthony and an even younger girl were taken from the convent and brought to America. They were adopted by a St. Louis physician and his wife. Anthony’s name was changed to Michael Hess. He grew up first in St. Louis and then in Rockford, IL, where he graduated from high school. His new family was (not surprisingly) Catholic, and he went on to Note Dame and to The George Washington University Law School. And then he went to work for the Republican National Committee and became its chief legal counsel, hobnobbing with presidents. Even more remarkable, it turns out that he was a closet homosexual with a long time partner, something he kept secret from most of those he worked with. In 1995, at the age of 43, he died of AIDS.
Discovering who is son was (according to the film, Lee was neither surprised nor upset that he was gay), and that he had been dead for the past seven years was not easy, of course. But it was important to Lee. Even more important, perhaps, she learned that he knew about his Irish convent background, and had made two trips to Ireland in search of his birth mother. The nuns at the convent told him that there were no remaining records (there had been a fire where most records were ruined), and his mother could not be located.
This came as a shock to Lee, because she too several times was told at the convent that they had no idea where her son with, due to a lack of records. He assumed that Anthony (now Michael) did not know about her or, worse, did not care.
She also learned (in the film) from his former partner, that Michael’s ashes had, at his request, been buried in the graveyard at the convent in Ireland, over the objection of his adoptive family, who wanted him buried with the family in St. Louis.
It’s quite a story, to be sure. Made even more of a story by the movie’s (and the book’s _ embellishments. But it brings to the fore an even more important point. Anthony/Michael was one of many young Irish children treated in this manner (and I would assume that the same thing was happening elsewhere). And the church’s position was simple – the mother had sinned, the loss of her child and any other hardship she suffered was consideration for her sin, and she had waived any right for further contact with her child. Period. So, the lies to both mother and child about knowledge of their identities were purposeful and part of the plan. And, in a place like Ireland where, apparently even today, the laws do not encourage adopted children to be able to locate birth parents, and where conservative religious rules are pervasive, the situation remains to a large extent uncorrected.
Watching the film at home, as we did, gave me the opportunity to sit with my computer on my lap researching what really happened and where the film diverted from historical truth. Would the film had been weaker if they had stuck closer to the story? That I don’t really know, but I would guess that it would have been just as powerful.