Film Portrays Birth Mother’s 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 it’s 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 didn’t 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 mother’s 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, family members.
     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, Philomena’s 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 Philomena’s sadness on her son’s birthday, when she finally told her daughter of his existence. One’s child’s 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 can’t 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 today’s 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. Today’s 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 Bench’s 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 Philomena’s 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?
     Philomena’s 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 someone’s real life, someone’s 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
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