' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Philomena: A forced adoption, a lifetime quest, a longing that never waned

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Philomena: A forced adoption, a lifetime quest, a longing that never waned

The book, the true story
Most of you already know the bare bones of the story of the film Philomena: Irish teen becomes pregnant, ends up in one of the horrid Magdalene laundries, her son is forcibly adopted when he is three by rich Americans, and a half century later his mother--Philomena Lee in real life--wants to find him and comes to Washington with a journalist who is writing her story, his newspaper paying the bills.

I made sure I had plenty of tissues with me but in fact, only needed one. True there is sadness aplenty, but served up with levity and even a few comedic moments to relax the tension. Judi Dench, as Philomena, gives a masterful, believable performance as she talks about what happened to her, seen in flashbacks, and in how she portrays the woman dealing with reality today. She says she wonders if her son ever thought about her, because she thought about him every single day. You got that right, I was thinking. Every adoptee who doesn't already know the answer to that should see this film.

Philomena keeps her son a secret, and only on his 50th birthday does she reveal the lost son to a daughter. As in real life, one thing leads to another, and Philomena is connected to a journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who is looking for something to write about.

Dench is the little old Irish lady with a penchant for romance novels, but, having been a psychiatric nurse for years, she has a certain aplomb dealing with hard facts. The most chilling scenes in Philomena are at the abbey where the child was born; yes, there is a horrible screaming birth scene, one that I suppose was necessary but mercifully it was over quickly. Birth scenes continue to make me crazy, anytime, anywhere. Though she has been at the abbey previously trying to learn what became of her son, she makes another attempt with Sixsmith but is told, alas, the records were destroyed in a fire--yet her surrender document has been surprisingly saved! In it, she promises never to search for her son. 

Philomena, in the film, makes the point that she signed the permission for adoption of her own free will, then adding a "I had sinned so I needed to sign the paper." The nuns had drummed that in well. Of course she had no resources to help her care for her son, and the societal pressure to give up her child in the Fifties was enormous--not only in Ireland, but here, there, just about everywhere. At the end of the movie, she says it was my choice, meaning it was her choice to have sex, i.e. sin. Choice and free will are words that echo throughout adoption today--and here at FMF in the comments from adoptive parents--which makes the adoption appear to be, well, a first mother's choice. But these words, no matter how pretty they sound, often hide the reality that mothers had no real options--or believed they had none. Even today.   
Anthony - now renamed Michael - at his first Christmas in America
Michael Hess, his first Christmas in US

SPOILER ALERT Ultimately and rather quickly the identity of her son is found though American files, and he is revealed to be a senior official in government. In fact, her "Anthony"--last seen as he vanishes from the rear window of an automobile--became Michael Hess, an attorney in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations; he was for a time, George H. W. Bush's chief legal counsel. Hess was also gay, and died of AIDS in 1995. Yes, you are going to gasp at this moment you realize he is dead--because I didn't see it coming as the newspaper reviews have left it out. However, enough stories about the real Philomena and the whole truth have been written to make pretending that's not the case unnecessarily coy at FMF. We hear all too many stories from adoptees who waited until both adoptive parents died to begin their search in earnest or at all. Much as I hated this to be happening on the screen, this story point is a good reminder that waiting may be too late. There is more to this ending, but I'll let you discover it on your own. 

Hess's partner refuses to meet Philomena when Sixsmith tries to arrange it; but when Philomena knocks on the door herself, he is accommodating and she ends up watching home movies of her son. At that point, I couldn't help think of all the rejections that adoptees get when they go through intermediaries because they have no choice, or because they are afraid to contact their mothers themselves. This movie poignantly shows the power of the direct contact. Hess's partner had no trouble rejecting Sixsmith, the intermediary, but not his partner's mother herself.

The film has been controversial in Ireland because the nuns at the laundry where Philomena labored for four years to "work off" her payment for her care, are upset they were not allowed to vet the script; they say that a scene with a nun who was cruel to Philomena--and by implication--to hundreds of other residents at Rosecrea was not like that and she died before she could, ah, object. But we know that the asylum/laundries did exist as horror houses for "wayward" girls, some of whom became pregnant outside of marriage, and some sent there for crimes like shoplifting. That was the act that got singer Sinead O'Conner incarcerated to one for 15 months, and is why, she says, she tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992. These damnable institutions were not shut down until 1996. Thousands of babies were adopted by Americans. Church officials deny that payments ever took place, insisting that the nuns were only interested in placing the children with Catholics, and preferably wealthy, Americans. A photograph of Jane Russell is on the wall at the convent; Russell in fact adopted three children, at least one who was Irish, but apparently not through the laundries. I couldn't help be reminded of Chief Justice John Roberts' adopted Irish children--even though Irish law today prohibits Irish children being adopted out of country. But I digress. 

The story in the film moves along smoothly--the cynical atheist intellectual versus the sweet old lady, and while Dench does not make the film great art, she saves it from swallowing itself in bathos. I watched the film as both the mother who lost her child and the skeptical journalist--because I am both, and I have covered my own story--and those of others--with, I hope, a keen eye, but of course I am always falling into the story of adoption myself as I am a mother like Philomena. Some have criticized the Sixsmith character played by Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film for reasons I can't remember, because I thought he played the part beautifully. Journalists and feature writers like myself get pulled into stories, but a part of you has to maintain a certain emotional distance to tell the story as others will see it. At the end, Philomena is kindly forgiving of the nuns and what they did to her, but I was with Sixsmith emotionally back at the convent and wanted to sweep the plaster Jesus statues off the gift-shop counter. He restrains himself. I probably would have too. Smashed trinkets might not do a lot of good. 

The film is causing some commotion--mostly in Ireland--as Catholics want to sweep this part of their history into a great bonfire and be done with it; others are angry that the true character of the damnable laundries has been whitewashed. Thousands of young Irish girls were enslaved in them, working 8-10 hours a day, 364 days a year, subjected to lectures on the evils of the flesh and carnal pleasures and frequent beatings. But a much grittier 2003 film, The Magdalene Sisters, was too grim, arty and grueling to have much of an impact outside of Ireland--I saw it at an art theater--and Philomena is the kind of movie that many more people will see. It will certainly wake more people up to the fact that mothers do not forget. Some may turn away from their offspring, but they do not forget. 

Philomena Lee
The real Philomena Lee
The film is an honest depiction of the lifelong situation of mothers who lose their children to adoption, especially in Ireland, but some critics have taken apart it point for point where it veers from total accuracy in regards to Philomena's story. In real life, Philomena Lee did not visit the United States. So the whole half of the movie in the U.S., with some silly bits about wanting to watch a Tyler Perry movie instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, and a penchant for free champagne, are made up. But this road-trip aspect is what makes the movie, as a story, less than forever sad. While the great majority of the reviews have been positive, at least one (at the New York Post by Kyle Smith) was howling in its denunciation of the movie, calling it "90 minutes of organized hate." He criticizes it for bashing the Catholic Church and the Republican party. The GOP? The film makes no bones about the fact that Hess had to hide his sexuality because the party was not receptive to gays--hardly worth denying as it was particularly true of the era in which he lived. What planet does Kyle Smith live on? 


But Philomena, the real 80-year-old women, will not be bowed. In response to his excoriating review, she wrote to Smith. In part, her letter says:
"The story it tells has resonated with people not because it's some mockery of ideas or institutions that they're in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith. 
"...Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path." 
Amen, Philomena. Though the percentage of women who relinquish their babies has declined dramatically, still far too many in the United States are given up for that dream of "a better life" that agencies trumpet all over the internet. Young girls are duped into thinking that their children "deserve" parents other than themselves. Smith, incidentally, parrots this thinking in his review: 
"The film doesn't mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child's life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed."
That is the same kind of malarkey that adoption agencies spout in their relentless drive to spirit more babies away from their mothers. I'd like to know if Smith is an adoptive father or a very angry adoptee himself. Something in his tone tells me he is likely to be personally involved, especially as a later review sings the praises of Delivery Man, that comedy about the man whose sperm fathered something like 500 children. Smith calls it good entertainment for the holidays, while most critics have slammed it. But I digress. 

 I went with my husband yesterday, and he, without caveats, calls it a good movie that a lot of people should see, and was inspired to write his own blog about it.* The theater was mostly empty. Some adoptees and first mothers have said they will stay away because Philomena, the movie, will be too triggering. But folks! this kind of movie needs our support. Juno went through the roof with accolades and it presented a completely different kind of mother's reaction to giving up a child--and we know it had an impact on some young girls! 


While this movie is about Ireland, and has the horror of the laundries and forced adoptions, the story would be only slightly different if told from an American point of view. Consider this capsule plot line: A good friend of mine who relinquished in 1963 told me that her father always said to her that if she got pregnant, he would "shoot her in the head." She did not keep her baby.

Philomena's particular story is unique to Ireland; but her story is our story too.The wholesale deportation of children has happened in the US and is happening today, albeit the manner is different. Charles Loring Brace stole thousands of children at the end of the 19th century and sent them on orphans trains to work on farms in the Midwest. Georgia Tann stole hundreds of children on the 1930's, 40's, and 50's and sold them to wealthy families in California and New York.  Adoptive families in the U.S. have paid for thousands of children stolen from their families in Guatemala, Cambodia, Ethiopia, China, and other countries. And thousands of American women have been conned out of their babies by slick marketing; thousands of fathers have lost their children through outright trickery and unconscionable adoption laws.  Whether children are taken from mothers imprisoned in laundries or through slight-of-hand, the result is the same. 

Unsealed Initiative at showing of Philomena
Though she was able to find out what happened to her son, because he was adopted in the U.S. weirdly enough, millions of first mothers here--cannot find their lost children due to archaic sealed records statutes. A few weeks ago, members of Unsealed Initiative, the New York organization working to repeal the 1935 sealed records statutes, demonstrated at a theater showing the movie in Manhattan, and held up signs saying they were birth mothers. The response was overwhelmingly positive. 

Go see the movie soon--it won't last forever in the theater--and take a friend. Dench is being promoted for an Oscar for her performance, which could further Philomena's impact. With enough education, we will yet break the logjam that has prevent the United States from opening up its records, as England and Wales did in 1975; not until 1989 did Northern Ireland follow suit. 

What Philomena so ably accomplishes is telling the story that mothers who lost their children to adoption, whether coerced or not, do not forget. It is true, some mothers reject reunion; I don't know how they got so lost and detached; maybe their fathers threatened to shoot them in the head; maybe they have never told their husbands or their other children, as many were advised. Yet they did not forget. They just are unable to deal with the pain of reunion. I am sorry for them, for what they lose. Most of us think about our relinquished children, one way or another, every single day of our lives.--lorraine

For an interview with Martin Sixsmith:
Stolen from his mother - and sold to the highest bidder

* See Sidebar for Completely Out of My Mind by Anthony Brandt: BLOOD

Regarding Irish adoption records and birth certificates of Irish adoptees:  According to one of our commenters: Irish adopted citizens currently do not have the automatic right to their original birth certificate or records. However, because the right has never been legislated for or against the question has been not clearly answered and record-holders are overwhelmed with requests. 

ADDED ON 12/5: Controversy breeds publicity, and today's New York Times has a full-page ad in the arts section on the Kyle Smith review, along with excerpts from Philomena's letter to Smith. I can't reproduce it here, nor does it seem to be running on-line. Let's hope this entices more people to see the movie. 


Philomena (2013)

A Forced Adoption, a Lifetime Quest and a Longing That Never Waned

Philomena: nun too sloppy when it comes to the facts

The Real ‘Philomena’ Answers New York Post Critic Who Condemns Her Film As An Attack On Catholics And Republicans

Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search (Movie Tie-in) What's to say? I'm ordering it today. Click on photo above or here.

The Magdalene Sisters A stirring, must-see motion picture critics called one of the best films of the year, THE MAGDALENE SISTERS is the triumphant story of three extraordinary women whose courage to defy a century of injustice would inspire a nation!

Anything ordered through the portal above from Amazon will be credited to FMF. Thank  you for your support--special thanks to the person who did yesterday!


  1. My husband and I really want to see this movie. Hope we get an opportunity - we had to prioritize "Frozen" with the kids instead!

  2. I was hoping you'd add Joni Mitchell's heart-wrenching "Magdalene Laundries" as a coda, and you did! Who better to write/sing it than as a pregnant young woman who lived alone in Toronto until the birth of her relinquished daughter, rather than face her mother's intense disapproval back home in Saskatschewan?

    Joni did reunite with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, and last I read, is grandmother of two.

  3. Excellent article about Philomena. I have to see that. I also agree with Philomena, who said "This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith." I also was in a Catholic unwed mother's home. I recall scrubbing the nun's bathroom when I was 9 months pregnant. But I also realize it was more complicated than simply moralistic and sadistic.
    Something related is on my mind. I think the Catholic church is on the verge of changing their approach. I'm sure of it and I think we who care about this issue need to make our voices heard, at least write a letter. Why do I feel sure? I have read some of Pope Francis' statements. He is very opposed to "clericalism" and has bitterly criticized clergy who would make life difficult for an unwed mother. He states in his most recent statement (200 pages long, on the Vatican website) that the church hasn't accompanied mothers in crisis adequately. He speaks forcefully about human trafficking.
    Yesterday I received a message sent to everybody in our parish to fill out a questionnaire on the church's treatment of the family and marriage, all kinds of issues about that. The pope is calling a a meeting of the bishops in October and this is in preparation for that. The meeting is to discuss the problems in the family, and I think they will make important decisions there. I think change is going to happen and soon.
    I wonder if maybe some people might like to get together to at least write a letter? At least maybe the Catholics or sympathetic people might do this, but I think even if one is not this faith, anyone can see the benefits if the Pope and the Catholic bishops heard a clear message about our experience.
    Barb Gladfelter

    1. Clarification -Philomena Lee's son Anthony was born in a Mother and Baby home and Not in a Magadelene Laundry...The nuns were paid a state supplement to run these homes .If the woman 's family had a 100 pounds at the time she could have left these homes and where was she to go ???. State funding for mother and child did not come in until 1973. That horrendous concept of the 'illegitimate 'child was not removed from the statue books until 1987..By the way the 'Banished Babies'-those who were sold to the U.S.A as Philomena's son was do not exit as an adoption statistic in the Irish adoption statistic's. The film is excellent and really worth going to see.

  4. For someone whose mother rejected the possibility of a lasting reunion and relationship, it gives hopes and some peace that perhaps she may remember and think of me as her daughter in some sense. Whether or not she is ever able to come to a relationship with me and my family, my hope for her is that she allows herself to have some kind of reconciliation with her grief and pain stemming from the relinquishment and loss. It’s so sad to think of her with that much pain still brewing. Last night during our family advent prayers, we were offering prayers for family members. I was touched when my son said, “We should pray for your mother, you know, even if she doesn’t talk to you and we have never met her.” We all pray for peace and understanding.

  5. The photo of of outside the Paris theater in Manhattan with our "We Love Philomena" signs was taken by a young British woman whose Aunt searched for her son to discover he had dies in a car accident the year before. The Young woman was crying.
    Philomena should be helpful for us!!!

    Joyce Bahr

  6. Barb Gladfelter:

    Why don't you write the letter--I am sure through FMF and Facebook and other connections, you could get a lot of people to sign.

  7. Mary Slattery:

    So the babies sold to Americans were not listed anywhere as born and adopted in Ireland? Were their births even recorded in Ireland? And so they exist as shadownchildren in Ireland, but they actually have new American identities? You can email me at forumfirstmother@gmail.com.


  8. "She says she wonders if her son ever thought about her, because she thought about him every single day. You got that right, I was thinking. every adoptee who doesn't already know the answer to that should see this film."

    It warms my heart to know that many mothers do still think of their adopted-out children often (if not every day). I would love to believe that ALL mothers have that ooey-gooey center, even if their demeanors are crusty and cold.

    But, it seems to me that some mothers either didn't have hearts to begin with or lost their hearts while traveling through life. And,those mothers are not thinking about us much at all.

  9. ADDED ON 12/5: Controversy breeds publicity, and today's New York Times has a full-page ad in the arts section on the Post's Kyle Smith review, along with excerpts from Philomena's letter to Smith. I can't reproduce it here, nor does it seem to be running on-line. Let's hope this entices more people to see the movie.

  10. Hi Lorraine, as you know, Philomena's story is my own as well, and that of more than 2,000 of us trafficked from Ireland to the US. And Philomena and her daughter Jane are absolutely delightful, gracious and tenacious women. Obviously, many of us involved in adoption rights activism in Ireland (and in the campaign for justice for Magdalene survivors) hope this movie does well and draws more folk into the story behind the story, both in the US and Ireland. 'The Magdalene Sisters' did so as well, although the pick-up was slow at first. So I do encourage everyone to get behind the film and see it. For those afraid it will be triggering, I can answer that as a US natural mum and Irish adult adopted person, it was not triggering, and not because I've simply grown immune, because I can still be moved to the point of hysteria at certain times by movies like this! But I think you will find that the leavening of some of the tragedy/horror with a bit of well-placed humour goes a long way, and was a deft, needed touch in this case. Just when you want to howl and rage along with young Philomena as Anthony is stripped away from her, you are transported back to the present and she'd giving out to Sixsmith (Coogan) with a wry, funny twist. It saves the viewer from becoming too stuck in the sadness, and is what makes the movie special.

    Of course, we need that hard-hitting documentary that will take the issues surfaced in 'Philomena' to a much deeper level. But as written, directed and acted, it succeeds on so many levels on its own.

    To answer the question about records in Ireland, Irish adopted citizens currently do not have the automatic right to their original birth certificate or records. However, because the right has never been legislated for or against (the closest was a 1990's Irish Supreme Court case, I O'T v B, but it was actually kicked back by the Court with the caveat that legislation needed to be passed to ultimately decide the case). So we sit in a limbo of sorts, with no clear pathway to identity, lots of secrets and lies, overwhelmed record-holders who now hold agency files and worse.

    For those interested in learning more about adoption activism in Ireland, visit Adoption Rights Alliance.

  11. The movie was very triggering for me. But that is good, I'm an AP with a daughter from China.
    It hurt to my core when the bar owners talked about Americans coming in and buying up the babies. I am sure the orphanage management in China will be as helpful as the nuns were to both the inquiring parents and adoptees.
    Happily, I can point to this movie, and true story, as a model of how her Chinese Mom may feel and react to what has happened to her family. Philomena Lee's story has challenged me to raise a young woman who is financially and emotionally supported in her search.

  12. Momengineer: Thank you so much for that comment. It means so much to hear over and over that there are parents like you.

    A friend of mine did take her daughter to China and went to the orphanage; they couldn't even get in.

  13. I saw Philomena today. I'm really glad they made a movie like this. The movie industry has dealt with every other imaginable topic, but this one has been conspicuously absent, avoided for years. I think it's because people don't want to know what was done to us. I think that's why the church is the villain in the movie - so people can stand it. I was in a home run by nuns that even looked similar. I think the nuns there believed they were protecting us from even greater viciousness of society. I don't think they understood entirely what this would do to us. I think they were somewhat patsies for the people who ran the agency, who really knew who paid the bills (the adoptive parents). This only goes so far though. They were 20 and 30 years older than us and at some level I think they knew what they were doing. It's just that the movie presented a one-sided idea of a complex situation.

    If there are people who were interested in writing a letter as I mentioned above, I will write it if I have some others to work with on it.

  14. Part of the reason for the nuns' coldness might have been that one can assume most of them never had a child and understood the incredible tug of mother-to-child love--that oxctocin effect. Also, anyone totally in the throes of a religious belief, as a devout sister would be, would feel that god's love overcame all and that penance would make up for the "sin." And they were doing what they believed they were supposed to do. Within the walls of their own culture, they were simply the vehicles of the outside society. I am not excusing their behavior anymore than I am excusing the societal push to give up our babies from the 40s on, simply trying to explain their mind sets.

  15. Lorraine and Jane,

    Been awhile since I commented her and this is a little off topic but saw this unknown quote today and it so made me think of the two of you and all the others who will no longer keep silent about losing our children to adoption.

    "A river cuts through rock not because of its power, but because of its persistence"

    Peace to both of you this holiday season.

  16. Thanks, Janet. Coincidentally, I am at this time writing my testimony to give at a hearing on New York's sealed records law dating from 1935. I testified at a similar hearing in Albany 37 years ago.

    I will be posting my prepared testimony at the blog in a day or two.

  17. Here is Philomena's letter in response to the Post bad review:

  18. I thought the film hit the spot between "soft" and "harsh" just about right.

    Here's a link to Philomena's story, as told in her own words:

    It explains a lot that wasn't covered in the movie, including the loss and recovery of her faith, her journey to forgiveness and how her experience as a psychiatric nurse helped her overcome her bitterness.

  19. First fathers search too:

  20. What an excellent look at a birthmother's struggle to find her child in Ireland. Judy Liautaud, author of the memoir titled Sunlight on My Shadow, experienced the same struggle here in the United States. Her book details the hardships she had and sacrifices she made as a young, unwed mother, forced to give up her child for adoption, as well as the journey through her adult life as she searched for her child and for peace.

    I am including a link to her book trailer here. I highly recommend the book as it is an uplifting and inspiring tale of one woman's life overcoming shame and discovering renewal.


  21. Philomena Lee launches Philomena Project, urging release of 60,000 adoption records:


  22. My name is Barbara, my dead friend is Tenny. She had a baby girl, out of wedlock, in Los Angeles at an unwed mothers' home around 1965? She told me horror stories I have never forgotten. I always wish her daughter would contact me so I could tell her how loved and amazing her mom was. Those were some times, the 60s. We lived in Menlo Park, CA. Tenny died around 1977 in her 30s. She used to wonder if the girls she crossed in the street were her daughter. I wish someone would do a film on those homes. Tenny told me total horror stories, but always with humor, because she was extremely funny.

  23. Barbara,
    I encourage you to try and find your friend's daughter. The American Adoption Congress has information on its website that could help you get started.

    Regarding books and films on maternity homes: "The Girls Who Went Away," "The Other mother," Lorraine's book, "Birth Mark", "Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Their Babies for Adoption Tell their Stories", and "Wake Up Little Susie" are just a few of the many excellent films and books about maternity homes and adoption practices in the 1960's.

  24. Thank you Lorraine (and all who have left comments). I watched Philomena recently, and the film has had an emotional impact on me unlike any other. I am a white, middle class Australian male who was until recently ignorant of the many complexities around adoption. The film moved me so much I struggled to work, concentrate or get it out of my head for weeks afterwards. Strangely, I have found that reading more about Philomena's story, and hearing it in her own words (and her daughter's) has helped somewhat. I still find it distressing and incredibly sad, particularly reading and hearing about the image of Anthony's face looking through the back window of the car as he was taken away. But hearing Philomena's own strength, the happiness she has managed to find through family and friends, and the support she has from around the world (including from people like yourselves on this forum), does make me feel better.



COMMENTS ARE MODERATED. Our blog, our decision whether to publish.

We cannot edit or change the comment in any way. Entire comment published is in full as written. If you wish to change a comment afterward, you must rewrite the entire comment.

We DO NOT post comments that consist of nothing more than a link and the admonition to go there.