' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Philomena: The Book

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Philomena: The Book

"These things did tale place" said Steve Coogan on The View. Coogan wrote the script for the Oscar-nominated film Philomena and played Martin Sixsmith the journalist who helped Philomena Lee find her son, Anthony, placed by Irish nuns for adoption in the United States in 1955.

Yes, these things did take place and they still do. The players are different: social workers and lawyers have replaced nuns as marketeers of children. Unwed mothers-to-be are no longer hidden away in convents but coerced through slick marketing campaigns to give their children away so they can have "a better life." Adoption records continue to be closed in most states. Children in foreign countries are still sold to Americans whose only qualification as parents is their ability to pay large fees. Records for these children are often non-existent or false. Unlike American adoptees who may find their birth families through the Internet and search angels, foreign-born children may never learn anything about their origins.

Thankfully intercountry adoptions have declined; sadly there is legislation in Congress to coerce poor countries into making their children available for adoption through taking away their aid if they don't comply. The champion of this legislation? Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu whose husband Frank Snellings was adopted from Ireland!
Adoption, particularly intercountry adoption is often defended with "at least the children are better off." Philomena herself said "'He had a good life, didn't he? I could never have given him all that.'" As we learn from Sixsmith's book, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search, on which the screenplay was based, the answer is No! No! Anthony had a wretched life. 

He was adopted by Michael "Doc" and Marge Hess when he was three and a half. and renamed Michael Anthony Hess. He believed he remembered his mother but the Hesses assured him he could not; that she had left him in care of nuns at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland when he was born. In fact, as the Hesses knew, his mother lived at the Abbey and spent as much time with her son as the nuns allowed and prayed for him when she could not be with him.

Michael struggled all his life with feelings of abandonment  and worthlessness. He was also gay, in conflict with his strict Catholic upbringing. When he could resist his urges no longer, he began frequenting prostitutes even while retaining the facade of a model student at the University of Notre Dame. After college, he went to George Washington University School of Law because of his interest in politics. He also began a series of failed relationships with men. He could not be faithful to his trusting partners, seeking pleasure in gay orgies and through alcohol and drugs.

Michael was obsessed with Ireland, and when he graduated from  law school, he became determined to find out the full story of his background. He traveled to Ireland with his adopted Irish sister Mary. Mother Barbara who had arranged their adoptions refused to give them any information. Michael returned to the U. S. full of hopelessness and self-loathing.
"Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan's rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life's tempests. These were the moments in which his desire to belong became paramount, when any chance to be part of the established order was sought like a refuge in a storm."
Although a Democrat, Michael went to work for the Republican National Committee when it offered him a good job, eventually becoming its chief legal council even though he was appalled by the Republican party's opposition to gay rights and lack of support for AIDS research.
"At age thirty-two Michael Hess had risen from illegitimate birth in an obscure Irish convent via the lottery of adoption to a position of influence in the world's most powerful nation. ...His appointment should have satisfied his striving to belong, confirmed his acceptance by the world, but the lurking sense of his own unworthiness did not leave him: I don't deserve to be where I am; I am an impostor, just waiting for my secret to be exposed. He was a gay man in a homophobic party, a rootless orphan in a world of rooted certainties."
In 1993 when he was 41, Michael was diagnosed with AIDS and given at most two years to live. He told his partner Pete Nilsson he needed to return to Ireland. "For Mike, in the shadow of the unknown, the reunion with his mother seemed the key to unlocking the sorrow and the pain, a last chance to find the answers to the puzzle of his life. Because if I don't find out now, he told himself, I never will. And I have to find out who I am before I am no more."

Sister Hildegarde, who had succeeded Sister Barbara, refused to give him any information about his mother or his early life even when he told her he was dying. He then made one last request -- that he be buried at the Abbey so that his mother could find him; he was sure she would come looking for him. Sister Hildegarde granted his request conditioned on Michael making a significant donation to the Abbey. Michael died two years later and was buried at the Abbey.

Philomena had returned to the Abbey twice seeking information about her son and had been rebuffed both times. She returned for a third time with Sixsmith and her daughter Jane, again receiving no answers. When they returned to their hotel, Jane looked at pictures they had taken and saw a gravestone for a man with the same birth date as Philomena's son. At last Philomena found her boy.

The hardest hearts cannot read the story of Philomena and her son without breaking out in tears. Even The View matriarchadoptive mother Barbara Walters, usually outspoken on the positives of adoption, didn't try to defend this adoption. Yet these stories will continue albeit in new forms until legislators unlock adoption records and Americans accept that devastation that can occur when children are taken from their mothers whose only sin was having sex with the wrong man at the wrong time. --jane
From FMF:
Philomena: A forced adoption, a lifetime quest, a longing that never waned.
Senate bill encourages more international adoption


  1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-pertman/philomena-big-lessons-that-transcend_b_4674092.html

    Big Lessons That Transcend the Movie: There Are Philomenas All Around Us:

    "Philomena" is far more than a glimpse into the past, however, and I hope that people who see it (and I wish I had a magic wand to induce everyone to do so) will derive far broader and more essential lessons. Because the reality is that during the mid-20th century and beyond, severe religious, social and familial stigmas against unwed motherhood were the norm far beyond Ireland. As a consequence, it's almost certainly true that there are more Philomenas in the United States than in any other country -- i.e., women who, given a choice, would have parented their children rather than suffering the anguish of losing them and wondering about them every day because they were placed into closed adoptions.
    Perhaps most unsettling, both because some of the stigmas remain and because adoption policies and practices have not yet progressed sufficiently, more Philomenas are being created every day."

  2. Not too much gets to me, but this.. this made tears come to my eyes.
    Yes.. just to all yes..."Yet these stories will continue albeit in new forms until legislators unlock adoption records and Americans accept that devastation that can occur when children are taken from their mothers whose only sin was having sex with the wrong man at the wrong time." yes, they still do....

  3. I have not seen this movie. I think I will do better to read the book. Believe it or not, there is no one who wants to see this movie with me....so I will just move on from there.

    The fact that the Catholic Church was so involved in adoption back in the day is extremely upsetting. I was raised Catholic. I do not know if Catholic Charities was involved in my adoption because most of my beginnings are still shrouded in secrecy.

    My AP's, as I have stated, never said or say anything about "the girl" who gave birth to me, and they never met her. But once they let slip that her only stipulation was that I go to a Catholic family.

    The Catholic Church has to get back to the business of religion and get out of everyone's personal business. In the Baby Scoop Era, the Church ruled the adoption industry. Now all we hear about is Catholics marching against abortion. That's not what the religion is supposed to be about, and I just wish it would stop!

  4. The CBS Sunday Morning Show profiled Steve Coogan and this movie. Ironically, his own family fostered youngsters with the goal of helping families get on their feet during rough times and ultimately getting them back together.

  5. Julia: I find it nearly unbelievable that no one wants to see the movie with you--not even friends? It's a great movie and all kinds of people have gone to see it. If you lived near either Jane or myself, we would certainly go with you.

    Rent it eventually. You'll probably cry, but that is okay. Oddly enough, I am a huge weeper, but this movie did not make me cry that much.

  6. Hi Lorraine: I find it unbelievable, too. No one is interested. I'd love to see it, so I will wait for the DVD to come out. I can cry all I want if I watch it by myself!

    I have seen the real Philomena on various talk shows....she is amazing and so strong, and it's an amazing story. Hopefully it will open some eyes.

    I am not a huge fan of TV or movies, just by my nature. But....my AP's are very into it. Especially now, right before the Oscars. They ask me to get DVD's for them to watch from the library all the time. They have not so much as mentioned this movie, in any capacity. Not once. I know my mom must have seen Philomena on The View....she's a huge fan. Never mentioned it.

    I honestly give up!

  7. Once again I hit "publish" without typing in my name! Sorry.

  8. I agree, Lorraine. It's a great movie. Like you I know all sorts of people who have seen it, mostly not directly connected to adoption, and they all found it affecting and eye-opening. Sure, it's not going to change hard-core hearts and minds but it is a remarkable and encouraging thing that it has had such an impact and been taken seriously by so many people of good will who do want change.

    The recently launched Philomena Project on Change.org has already garnered well over 5000 signatures and continues to grow. I hope everyone who reads this adds their name to the petition. Every name helps.


  9. Hey anonymous, stop being anonymous with interesting stuff like the above.

    Just hit the Name/URL option and use a name. Your real one!

  10. The Philomena Project is certainly growing fast! As well it should. The Catholic Church can't hide this truth any longer.

    Just like the truth can't be hidden from First Moms and Adoptees any longer.

    I don't know how this has been allowed to go on for decades, with adoptees having not "amended" documents, but FALSE ones, and the governments sealing the truth away under lock and key.

    All while we Baby Scoop kids went to Catholic school to learn "Thou shalt not lie".

  11. I went and saw it alone. I am glad I did as I cried throughout the movie.
    My mom said she would like to see it, my found son said he would too. My daughter who generally does not deal with issues said she would go but not one did go with me.

  12. Ah, I've only just spotted the sleight of hand in the word 'amended', when it refers to the birth certificate of people who have been adopted.

    Amended, as if there had been a slight mistake and a small tweak has been made to put it right.

    Not 'changed' or 'falsified' - amended. Such a subtley devastating word in this context.


  13. There is a new programme airing in the UK called 'Finding Mum and Dad'...[sigh].

    It centres on hideous 'adoption parties' (called adoption activity days to make it sound sane).

    On this programme I was horrified to hear the adoption official say something akin to 'The moment the adoption is made legal by a judge, it is as if the child is born to these parents'.

    Thirty years just flew out of the window, and a whole herd of unicorns came tumbling in.

    Why is it so difficult to face the truth with language? To say 'adopted by' rather than 'as if born to'?

  14. O/T, but regarding "Philomena," the movie, I just checked to see if Dame Judi Dench had been nominated for Best Actress, and yep, she is. Also two screenwriters are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. w00t!

    I hope Philomena Lee is flown in for the ceremony, with champagne from London to LAX! Alas, she'd rather have had her little Anthony back... Still haven't seen the movie, and have just recovered from reading the book.

  15. I believe that one of the contributing factors in the difficult reunion relationship I had with my child was her complete lack of understanding of the forces that led to adoption as illustrated by the fact that she told people I "threw her out like a piece of trash" which of course I didn't. So movies like Philomena can be an invaluable and powerful resource in educating not only those lives have been affected by adoption, but the general public as well.

  16. Regarding The View interview
    Walters could barely wait to get Philomenia off stage.
    Too close to Barbaras faux life with faux daughter.
    Philomenia, needs to speak up and out loud since it is herlifestory. Its time to speak out loud and clear oncein media

  17. Having seen how TV shows like this are organized and run, I don't blame Barbara. The View that day was way overbooked and the segment was as long as the segment was going to be. The producer (who might not have been Walters) saw their appearance as just another plug for the movie--which is why they are all over the media in the last few days--and not as an issue that the women on the panel (as at least one was)and the audience would find gripping. I give Walters a pass on the timing here.

  18. PS:
    We in NY who are testifying tomorrow are planning to send out testimony to the media, the Mayor of NYC, and the Governor.

  19. If the women on show let out feelings as the newby. On show did they might be . Gone.

    I dont give Walters pass as she goes on and on with her subjects. Time to retire, Barbara

  20. @Rose,
    If your daughter was born in the BSE and you and she are still in contact, I'd recommend that you suggest some reading material for her.

    Lorraine's "Birthmark", "The Other Mother" by Carol Schaeffer and the "Girls Who Went Away" by Ann Fessler would all go a long way to helping her understand the societal pressures and mores.

    I even wrote a guest post at another family preservation blog about how the two memoirs affected my own search and reunion. It is written, of course, from my POV as an adoptee, but I had gotten the message that most mothers of that era were hardly giving their babies up freely and willingly. These books gave me the courage to search and to not believe that my mother "threw me out like a piece of trash", as you put it.


  21. Philomena Lee, US lawmaker push adoption rights.
    Wall Street Journal.
    Assoc. Press.

    "McCaskill said Ireland could do more to help other mothers and children reunite and signaled that the Congress would press the issue, either through a resolution or during Senate confirmation hearings for the next American ambassador to Ireland.

    "The Irish government has not been as aggressive on this front as we would like," said McCaskill, who described her own blended family with adopted children. "They have not done what they need to do in terms of making this an easy process."

    She argued that they should pass legislation to open the adoption records and ensure that any measure is retroactive."


  22. Robin: The Girls Who Went Away is a great book. As is The Sound of Hope, which I just finished yesterday. Very helpful reading.

    I have been on the receiving end of derogatory comments many times. What Rose said was very upsetting. When I was young, and still naïve about this whole thing, a member of my extended adoptive family felt compelled to tell me that my mother had me and "threw me in the garbage". This was decades ago and it upsets me to this day.

    Adoption is a very un-natural and difficult thing.

    Let's hope the hearing in NY today goes well!

  23. I think it's great that McCaskill supports the reunification of Irish mothers with their children.

    But, it is also incredibly hypocritical. What about the reunification of American mothers with their children? What about supporting open records in the United States?

    I don't think the U.S. can pressure Ireland when our adopted citizens do not have the right to their adoption records. Start with Missouri, Senator McCaskill, and then branch out.

  24. Maybe, Supreme Court John Roberts will be able to find his kids parents, nah, he avoided Irish laws on importing to States by way of Siuth America. These are the people who pass laws and make sure records stay sealed for their benefit.

  25. @Robin, Yes, my daughter is from the BSE and she has read two of the 3 books you suggested (Birthmark and The Girls Who Went Away); however, her opinion about me didn't change. I think for some adoptees a movie like Philomena might be more powerful than a book due to the added visual effects. Given my unfortunate experience with trying extremely hard to forge a positive relationship, I can only imagine how much more difficult it will be for reunion relationships for later generation adoptees when so much more help was available to firstmothers. Getting adoptees to understand today's coercion tactics may prove to be very challenging indeed.
    On another note, I personally do not know a single firstmother from my era who willingly and freely parted with her child. So you are right about this.
    Your firstmother is lucky to have you back in her life.

  26. Rose wrote:" I can only imagine how much more difficult it will be for reunion relationships for later generation adoptees when so much more help was available to firstmothers. Getting adoptees to understand today's coercion tactics may prove to be very challenging indeed."

    I am glad you brought this up. This issue has occurred to me several times. I believe that if I had been born after the BSE I would have a very hard time accepting any reason that my mother gave for giving me up. She would have had some serious 'splaining to do. I can't honestly say if I would have been able to understand or forgive. Although I should add that reading the blogs of post-BSE mothers has given me the insight I needed and made me much more compassionate.

    Your firstmother is lucky to have you back in her life."

    Thank you for saying that. I'm sorry your daughter has not been able to soften her stance towards you after learning about what really happened to unwed mothers during the BSE.

  27. HDW, my initial reaction was the same as yours, but then I thought Sen. McCaskill deserves to be given the benefit of doubt. She is a convert to Catholicism so Philomena's story may have caused her to understand the injustices done by her church to first mothers and their children much more clearly than she did before.

    It is most unlikely that she would not have considered the implications of publicly endorsing the Philomena Project. Her position there suggests that she would be sympathetic towards American adoptees and first mothers who have experienced similar injustices.

    It can't hurt to solicit her support. She can be contacted through her Facebook page.
    Or her web page here: http://www.mccaskill.senate.gov

  28. The press release on Senator McCarkill's website
    http://www.mccaskill.senate.gov/p=press_release&id=12075 quotes her, "Philomena's story is heart-wrenching, and she has one of the most just causes you could possibly have-the simple premise that if a child is taken from a mother against her will, there should be an easy way to reconnect with that child. Unfortunately in Ireland, for many years there was a repugnant practice of children taken from their young mothers, put in a home, and when the child got a certain age, shipped off to America to new parents. I have a blended family of seven children. All of my husband's children from his first marriage are adopted, and we are fortunate in that his oldest son has reconnected with his birthmother-we know and socialize with her, and they have a wonderful relationship. So I know firsthand how important it is to keep those doors open and to allow the transparency and availability of adoption records so that children and parents can have the opportunity to reunite when it is their life's wish."

  29. If you write to Sen McCaskill, ask her to withdraw her support for S. 1530 which would require foreign countries to make children available for adoption in order to receive aid. The bill has NO requirement that those supplying children to the US adoption market maintain any records or make any effort to help these children find their original families.

    Here's a link to information about the bill. http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/senate-bill/1530.

    This post also contains a link to a previous FMF post about the bill. S. 1530 is opposed by adoption reform organizations.

  30. Here's the email I sent to Sen McCaskill through her web page.

    Sen. McCaskill, I applaud you for supporting Philomena Lee in helping Irish children adopted in the US reunite with their birth parents.

    However, S.1530, Sen Landrieu's bill which you co-sponsored would allow -- actually encourage-- the same practices that took place in Ireland in the 50's and 60's

    Under this bill children in Guatemala, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and other countries would have to be made available for adoption in the US as a condition for these countries to receive foreign aid. There is no requirement that these countries keep records on these children or help them when they return to find their birth families.

    Adoption reform organizations including those run by international adoptees uniformly oppose this bill. The bill will do nothing to find homes for many of the children in orphanages who are older or disabled and not desired by many of those seeking to build their families through adoption. In fact the bill will most likely increase the number of children in orphanages as adoption agencies fund them to gather children for the American market. The best way to help these children is to help them within their own families.

    Jane Edwards

  31. "Under this bill children in Guatemala, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and other countries would have to be made available for adoption in the US as a condition for these countries to receive foreign aid."

    This is one of the most disgusting things I've ever heard. How can anyone not see this as treating human beings as just another export product? It sickens me to think that my taxes will be used as aid in exchange for another country's children. No country has any obligation, in any way, shape or form, to give us their children. Children are human beings, they are not a commodity.

    Sign me,
    An adoptee repulsed by senate bill 1530

  32. 'When I was young, and still naïve about this whole thing, a member of my extended adoptive family felt compelled to tell me that my mother had me and "threw me in the garbage". This was decades ago and it upsets me to this day'.

    I have often wondered where that recurring phrase 'threw me out like trash' arose from, because it arose from somewhere and is so absolutely at odds with the reality of women like myself and many others who relinquished their children for adoption.

    Like those many others, I believed that my son was going to have a far better life by being adopted, and that was my primary motivation. That was the promise, by the trusted adults around me, and I believed them.

    Locked into that was also the belief that he would start with a ruined life if he stayed with me. So said all the trusted adults around me and I believed them.

    Thirty years later, I meet my lovely son and find out that he has not had a better life at all. I also read around, to try and understand how the reality of his life and feelings have been so different to anything I was told or expected.

    On my educational travels around the Web, I hear over and over again that phrase 'she just threw me out like trash' and I'm horrified.

    Horrified that the motives of mothers like me are so absolutely and completely misunderstood.

    And horrified that those adopted people into whose soul this cruel phrase has insidiously crept, will be so profoundly hurt, and have their self-worth so deeply wounded, by believing such a possibility might be true.

    Where did this absolutely cruel - to the child, to the mother - phrase come from, I often wondered? Always the same phraseology, the same devastating arrangement of utterly damning - to the child, to the mother - words.

    If it didn't come from the truth, where did it come from?

    Julia Emily, your recollection confirms what I suspected.

    When adoptive families use this phrase (actively promoting this idea as a reality, as Julia Emily's family member was 'compelled' to do), it is entirely self-serving. It is designed to provoke gratitude, and to uproot and destroy any deep connection a person might still have with his or her mother. And it damns the mother before she speaks, so the truth will never even be listened to (as Rose and many others have found out).

    I am so often aghast at the cruel lengths many adults in an adoptive family will go to in order to have the world appear and function as they want it to. It sometimes seems pathological, psychopathological.

    I feel so sorry and so sad for any adopted person who believes this selfish, spiteful phrase might possibly be true. What damage such a belief would wreak on someone's self-worth, what hurt.

    So much around adoption reminds me of a 'through the looking-glass' scenario, where the truth is hidden and falseness reigns.



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.