by Martin Sixsmith
Penguin, 2013 (Reprint)
Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.
This book was the
inspiration for the motion picture, Philomena, about which I wrote in the last issue
of this newsletter. It was written by Martin Sixsmith, the reporter who helped Philomena Lee
with the search for her relinquished son. The book, surprisingly, focuses more on the life
of her son, who was re-named Michael Hess after his adoption in the United States, but whom
Philomena named Anthony Lee. Because the focus of the book is so different from the movie,
reading the book is not like a repeat of the film, but more of an illumination; the
rest of the story. There are more details about the short time leading up to her
pregnancy and placement in the Irish convent laundry, and about her life there and the
events surrounding his being taken away from her.
She had, indeed, signed away her parental rights, but under
duress. She was a young and very unsophisticated girl when she became pregnant, without even
the knowledge of how one became pregnant. She met the birth father at a local fair and was
enraptured by him, and he by her. When her aunt, with whom she was living at the time, saw
that she had really enjoyed the outing, she immediately locked her in her room and would
not allow her out to meet the young man again, so there is no knowledge of how he felt at
not finding her where theyd agreed to meet, or of what happened to him later. At the
time the book was written, Philomena was trying to find out more about him. By the time her
father and the aunt figured out Philomena was pregnant, she was several months along, and the
father immediately took her to the convent and left her there.
As the movie portrays them, the nuns there were abusive and
shaming, with the exception of Sister Annunciata, a young nun who helped Philomena in labor and
probably saved her life. Before this young nun was sent somewhere else, she did manage to help
Philomena as much as she could, including taking photos of her son with a smuggled box Brownie
camera. The young women were essentially slaves, working in the laundry all day and seeing their
children only an hour a day once they were weaned. Philomena obtained from one of her brothers a
few Pounds and asked Sister Annunciata to go into town for her and get a few little toys for
Anthony, including the tin airplane which we see in the film and which he has in the few pictures
of his early childhood, both at the convent (orphanage is not a proper title for this place,
because the children were not orphans) and after his adoption by the Hesses. The little airplane
was the one toy he did not share with other children. Its presence in the photographs helped
establish for sure that he was, in fact, Philomenas son.
While the film depicts Philomenas efforts to find her child,
the book is more of a biography of the son, reconstructed from information provided by those who
knew him, including Michaels adopted sister, Mary, who was the daughter of a fellow
inmate at the Abbey, and his partner at the time of his death, Pete Nilsson. One of
many details that is different in the book is that the sister had also been searching, and had
been to the convent with her brother.
Michael and Mary were extremely close throughout their childhood.
Their physician adoptive father was tyrannical, while their mother was loving, but rather passive,
having adopted the children in an attempt to please her husband because shed had three sons
and no daughters: Philomenas son was only adopted by the Hesses because the two children
were so inseparable. Afterwards, their adoptive father tried at various times to return them as
defectives, because they werent speaking English or were too shy. He did not
even realize they were speaking Gaelic, not gibberish.
There is a fair amount of detail about Michael Hesss private
life as a gay man, particularly his propensity to engage in high-risk sexual activity, which is
how he became infected with HIV. These portions were hard for this writer to read, because,
having seen the film, I knew the eventual outcome and yet kept hoping for something better. As
a birth mother, the urge to protect kept coming through. I finally read the rest of the book
and then went back to read those difficult portions. Others may not be as bothered, or may be
more so. After thirty years of being a therapist, I am not easily shocked by anyones
life, but as a mother, it was hard not to have a protective view.
After reading the book, I saw the film a second time, and found
that helpful. We have heard there is a film sequel in the works, and will certainly want to
see it. As for the book, it is recommended reading for anyone with an adoption connection,
and Philomena Lee is to be commended for her courage, not only in searching, but in allowing
her story to be made public. Martin Sixsmith was also courageous in helping her so faithfully
and doing such a fine job of writing, but also in allowing his own struggles with this
situation to be portrayed. He could have, after all, just written the story without disclosing
his own involvement or viewpoint, or he could have dropped the whole project when it became
difficult. Instead, he allowed his own life to be changed by Philomena.
This book is available through Amazon, and will no doubt see a
resurgence in sales since the success of the film. This is an important book for birth parents,
for adoptive parents, for adoptees, and for anyone who wants to know the truth about the history
of Irish convent laundries, or the truth about many political developments in the 1970s,
80s, and early 1990s.
Excerpted from the April 2014
edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2014 Operation Identity