Film Portrays Birth Mothers Life
by Barbara Free, M.A.
A new movie,
Philomena, starring Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman, seems
to be the first feature film to explore in detail the life of a birth mother who has
decided to search for her son. It has been a big box-office hit, and rightfully so.
As a young girl, Philomena was consigned to an Irish laundry
by her father, one of the infamous Irish laundries run by various Roman Catholic orders of nuns,
where young women, most of them pregnant, were held as virtual slaves and prisoners at hard
labor, giving birth with little or no support, then continuing to work there to pay for
the nuns taking care of them until the children were two or three years old, when the
children would be taken from them to be adopted by wealthy, frequently American, couples who
could pay large amounts, enabling these places to continue operating. Onsite cemeteries received
the mothers who died in childbirth or after, and children who died there.
These Irish laundries and their abuses have previously been
exposed, but mostly through documentaries and PBS programs. Several years ago, the Irish and
British laws changed, not only to shut these places down, but to allow birth parents and
offspring to search for each other. According to this movie, large fires occurred about this time,
to destroy records and make it more difficult for persons to find each other.
This film is difficult for birth mothers to watch, and yet very
important for them to do so. Others, with or without adoption connections, ought also to see
this movie, for their own enlightenment and education, but also to better understand what
its like for a birth mother to lose her child, whether by being snatched or by her making a
decision to relinquish, and the consequences of keeping the secrets the rest of her life.
Philomena is a true story, using the real names, which may
not be obvious to the viewer until near the end of the film. It took an enormous amount of
courage for an older Irish woman, previously quiet and unassertive, to reveal her secret, first
to her daughter and then to a writer who accompanied her in her search for her lost son, and
finally to publication of her story.
In the reviews of this film, it was frequently stated that the
important part of the story was not whether she found her son, but the relationship she developed
with the writer, previously not very interested in human interest stories. That seems
not quite true to this writer, a reunited birth mother. It is about her search and it
is about whether or not she finds her son. Perhaps only birth parents can understand
the profound importance of finding a relinquished offspring, but plenty of adoptees and adoptive
parents, and other parents, can certainly understand how devastating it must be to carry a child,
give birth, and then subsequently, whether at birth or several years later, totally lose that
child and be told never to look, never to tell anyone, and not to even think about that child.
One can hope that this film might give some new insights to viewers
who are not birth mothers, although many will be able to rationalize that those
things happened a long time ago (in 1955) and no one goes through that these days, or
that it didnt happen in the U.S., or even that, indeed, birth mothers deserve a life of
sorrow as penance for getting pregnant, as the nuns in this film stated.
This birth mothers experience of the film was that, although
my son was not physically taken from me against my will, the pain was the same, and the burden of
secrecy was just as painful, even though the secret was shared with trusted friends and eventually,
It is amazing that this story has been made into a feature film, as
it might seem an obscure situation, and does not have the glorious, happy ending many would expect.
Reviewers have been very careful not to disclose the ending, in fact, nor will we. Suffice it to
say that, although the film ends in a surprising way, Philomenas story could be the same
as countless others and it deserves to be told, and to be treated in the respectful way
that it is in this film.
One example of the truthfulness of this movie is the portrayal
of Philomenas sadness on her sons birthday, when she finally told her daughter of
his existence. Ones childs birthday, which ought to be a day of celebration, is
for many birth mothers a day of quiet and deep sorrow, even if there has been a reunion,
because it is such a reminder of what they lost, and when there has not been a reunion, a
reminder that they do not get to share that day, even though it would not be possible had
they not given birth. Many were told not to remember the date, and some were so drugged that
they really cant recall the exact date, but no one forgets they had a child, anymore
than any other parents would be expected to forget they had a child who died.
This film is also important for todays young adults and
teenagers to see, not as a cautionary tale about the conse quences of unwanted pregnancy,
but to help them understand what it was like, or could have been like, for their grandmothers,
aunts, and others. My own twelve-year-old granddaughter cannot fathom why a family would be
upset about a daughter having a child outside of marriage, let alone why they would expect
her to relinquish a child, or keep it a secret forever. Todays young people have also
bought the story that adoption is just a lovely way of obtaining a child, or that it is a
wonderful solution for kids who have not been growing up in a great family. They have been
told, through films and books, that orphanages are still common and that families sort of go
shopping at such places for the ideal child, who is then forever grateful and happy. Religious
leaders talk of emptying the orphanages in various African and Eastern European
countries, and continue to promote romantic and untrue images of orphans, relinquishment, and
adoption. This film is a healthy dose of reality. It may concern a woman who gave birth in 1955,
but plenty of such women, and their sons and daughters, are still around.
We just read a thoughtful review of the film, posted on The
Huffington Post, which discussed Judi Benchs portrayal of Philomena and what the role was
like for her, as well as the other main character, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan,
who becomes so angry in the film at the lies told by the nuns, and, indeed, by the Roman Catholic
Church, that apparently some viewers have seen it as mainly a diatribe against the R.C. Church.
Apart from Philomenas continuing to be an active Catholic, that is not the major message
of the film. However, it will not endear the whole web of the R.C. Church, nuns, priests, and
Irish laundries to the viewer, especially the continued conspiracy of silence and lies when
Philomena is searching for her son. There was another film several years ago about relinquishment
and adoption in Great Britain, called Secrets and Lies (1996), and this one could have
used the same title, except that the real focus is on Philomena and not all the people who lied
to her and kept all the secrets. As she states in the film, keeping it all a secret, and having
to lie herself and to herself, was a tremendous burden. How many birth mothers have experienced
the same thing, and the great relief of telling the truth at last?
Philomenas story was a book before it became a film. The title
is The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and it was written by Martin Sixsmith. We have just
ordered it, in order to compare it to the film, and to have available to read. When the film
goes to DVD, every adoption support group in the country (maybe in the world) should obtain a
copy, to see, to discuss, to show to others. It is our real hope that others will see it not as
just a movie, but as someones real life, someones real journey, with all the pain,
the hope, and the ultimate self-affirmation, that Philomena Lee experienced, and that millions
of others have also experienced.
Excerpted from the January 2014
edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2014 Operation Identity