Peripheral Philomena

Spoiler alert: If you have not read Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search by Martin Sixsmith, read no further here. But come back after you’ve read the book and share your thoughts.

I’m the person who always sees the movies and reads the book late. I was therefore true to myself in reading Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search just this past weekend. The internet buzz about Philomena Lee, by all accounts a remarkable woman with a remarkable story, prepped me for a story about Philomena’s search for her son. But the book delivered something entirely different.

It began with the story of Philomena’s time at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. That was a dark time for Philomena, one that any woman would shudder to imagine. It took on an even more ominous tone in light of the Irish government and Catholic Church politics that essentially promoted the mass export of Irish children and the oppression of their mothers. It was fascinating to learn about the role the governments of Eamon de Valera and John Costello played in perpetuating the horrors of the Magdalene laundries, likewise to learn that there were individuals who saw what was going on and tried to stop it. But stopping the edicts of the Catholic Church in Ireland at that time was an impossible quest.

I couldn’t help but read the first section of the book thinking about the American Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ongoing refusal to support adoptee access to birth records. It made me angry, but in a way it gave me hope. For as sure as Irish mothers have put the Catholic Church’s actions in the light of day, adoptees and American mothers will do the same to Catholic leaders here. Some day the hypocrisy of proclaiming Catholicism as a church of truth but promoting secrecy, lies and guilt will explode into the light here. The Catholic Church is not going to win this one.

But I digress.

From the second section of the book to the end, Philomena is really not about Philomena at all. It is Anthony Lee’s – or Michael Hess’s, if you will – story. And to be perfectly candid with you, the way Martin Sixsmith handled it gives me a lot of heartburn.

Anthony/Michael was a complex man, his journey equally so. He was adopted as a toddler into a family with a domineering father, three older brothers and a mother who, though by all accounts loving, had really bitten off more than she could chew. She (just like me, I might add) was a devout Catholic who fully accepted that unmarried mothers had no right to their children, and that those children would be better off with other families. Her greatest error was in misjudging her husband Doc’s ability to truly accept and love his two new children. How much pain and fear those children must have experienced in that family, which though functional seemed to miss entirely that Mary and Michael had special needs.

The fact that Michael Hess was gay took up much of the latter half of the book. I had several reactions to this: first, that it was an incredible invasion of Michael’s privacy to focus so much attention on his struggle to understand and accept his sexuality; second, that the details the book provided about Michael’s personal choices around his sexuality were simply none of my damn business; and finally, that it was such a focus of the book that readers will undoubtedly start drawing conclusions about why Michael was gay. I cannot imagine that any conclusions drawn by the general public here will do our understanding of sexual orientation or adoption any good.

When I reached the end of the book, I couldn’t decide if Martin Sixsmith wanted to paint Michael Hess as a struggler or a survivor. If his complex personality really did include generous doses of both of these, then this is where the book succeeds. It also succeeds in showing how cruel the world can be to mothers who don't fit its mold, and to their children.

I am anxious to know Philomena now, for she was only on the periphery of this book. Perhaps the film will help me know her better.


Amma said…
I have not read the book but just saw the film last night. Judi Dench played the character of Philomena with a great deal of dignity and passion. I thought that the strength of the film was the reminder that birth mothers always think about their children and the backstory of our adoptive children's "availability" involves a level of violence and deprivation that needs to be acknowledged. As Philomena said, not a day went by that she did not think about him. And he was thinking about her too. The situation of my family echoes this one, sadly, from the fifties. My son was adopted from a country from which there is no possibility of ever knowing anything. The system guarantees it: only children of no known parentage are adopted; the rest spend their childhood in institutions and upon adulthood are cast into a society that is largely unwelcoming to these family-less individuals. Suicide rate for these individuals is high. I will never know why my son was "given up"--what elements of coercion and/or violence and/or social deprivation were involved to separate him from his mother. I know that I need to confront and imagine the worst -- something like Philomena's situation--because that is possible. I need to think it through for myself. Not for my son. I tell him the only honest thing: we do not know anything but that his mother loved him because mothers love their babies and do not want to give them up. I do not conjecture, guess, explain about the stigma of unmarried mothers, etc. because I have no evidence for anything. When he gets older we will have more discussions about "possibilities" but I feel that I don't want to lay a foundation for any one conjecture more than another when he is young.

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