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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Fri 08-Nov-13 11:50:27

Philomena and Me: Martin Sixsmith, on a mother's search for the child she was forced to give up

Stephen Frears' 'Philomena', which stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is already being tipped for next year's Oscars. It's a dramatisation of a book by former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, and recounts the true story of his friendship with Philomena Lee, an Irish woman forced by the Church to give up her illegitimate child for adoption when he was three years old.

Years later, she and Martin set out to find her lost boy. In this guest blog, he explains how Philomena's plight - and her extraordinary resilience - drew him into her story.

Read the post, and do tell us what you think on the thread below.

Martin Sixsmith

Author, 'Philomena'

Posted on: Fri 08-Nov-13 11:50:27


Lead photo

Judi Dench stars as Philomena Lee, who was forced to give up her child for adoption

The story told by my book ‘Philomena’, and the immensely moving film that has been made of it, is one of mothers and children - of the intense maternal bond that develops between them in the first years of life. In that sense the story is a universal one. But the tragic event at the heart of ‘Philomena’ concerns the emotional turmoil that is unleashed when that sacred bond is broken by the callous actions of others.

Philomena Lee was just eighteen when she met a handsome young man at the county fair in Limerick, Ireland one evening in 1952. She had spent the whole of her young life in a Catholic boarding school and she had no idea about the facts of life. After an evening of romance Philomena had fallen pregnant, a shameful thing in 1950s Ireland. Philomena was sent to the nuns at a convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary to give birth as a ‘fallen woman’. She was forced to spend over three years there, slaving in the laundries while also caring for her son, Anthony.

But worse was to follow. When Anthony was three and a half Philomena was told he was being taken from her, given for adoption in America, in return for a hefty ‘donation’ to the church from his new parents. Philomena was devastated. Sent away to England, she trained as a nurse and raised a family. But she kept the ‘guilty secret’ of her illegitimate child for fifty years, not telling her other children or her friends because the church had told her she would be damned if she did so. Full of regret, Philomena spent five decades secretly searching for her lost son, while he – unbeknown to Philomena – was also searching for her.

It was at this stage that I entered the story. On the day of what she knew to be Anthony’s fiftieth birthday, Philomena had finally told her daughter Jane that she had a long lost half-brother. Jane knew I’d been a journalist and asked me for help in finding him.

Her son had gone back several times to the convent where he was born, and asked the nuns if they would put him in touch with her, so the nuns knew that both of them wanted to find each other. But - perhaps ashamed at the church's role in selling babies - they refused to help.

My own background was in foreign reporting and politics – I’d been the BBC’s correspondent in Moscow and Washington and had worked in Whitehall under Tony Blair – so at first I was dubious about taking on what journalists mockingly refer to as a ‘human interest story’.

It took just one meeting with Philomena to rid me of that cynical attitude. From the very first moment I was struck by the immense humanity of the woman. She was friendly, bright and hugely likeable – qualities that had been in short supply in Westminster and Whitehall. We hit it off straight away. And over the next four years as I worked with her to try to unravel what had become of her lost child I came to appreciate Philomena’s emotional wisdom, the way she took what the world had thrown at her and refused to let it make her bitter or ruin her life.

The detective story I embarked on took me to Ireland and to America. And what I discovered about the forces that had separated a mother from her child made me very angry. I managed to find out that Anthony had become a successful lawyer and had risen to the heights of the American political world. Renamed Michael Hess he had served as the White House’s Chief Legal Counsel under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, but he had never stopped thinking about and yearning for his mother.

Like her, he had gone back several times to the convent where he was born and asked the nuns if they would put him in touch with her. Some of his visits coincided almost exactly with Philomena’s own trips to the convent, so the nuns knew that both of them wanted to find each other. But, perhaps ashamed at the church’s role in selling babies, they refused to help.

If you read the book ‘Philomena’, you will discover the true story of the lost son who made a material success of his new life, but was haunted by his love for his absent mother and by painful regrets that blighted his existence.

If you watch the film of ‘Philomena’ you will see a faithful recreation of the bond that developed between her and me as we embarked on our shared detective odyssey. The film is a moving mix of laugh out loud humour and tender, poignant sadness. But it has a powerful emotional message. It reminds us that life can dish up some pretty bad things. None of us can choose what lands on our head; but we can choose how we react to life’s tragedies. And the relationship between Philomena and Martin depicted in the film is a pointed demonstration of two people reacting very differently.

Philomena is shown to be full of forgiveness and understanding. Her emotional wisdom, unshakeable faith and breadth of spirit restores your faith in humanity. She accepts life’s unfairnesses and gets on with the business of living. Martin on the other hand is angry about the injustices of the past and speaks out forcefully. He cannot share Philomena’s serenity and it leaves him restless. Philomena says, ‘It must be tiring being so angry all the time’.

There are of course differences between the Martin Sixsmith played onscreen by Steve Coogan and myself. I am not such an angry person, and I am an agnostic rather than a convinced atheist. But I share the film’s intolerance of injustice in all walks of life, and I share its admiration for a woman like Philomena who has the strength to rise above them.

The book ‘Philomena’, by Martin Sixsmith is published by Pan Macmillan at £7.99. ‘Philomena’ the film is in cinemas now.

By Martin Sixsmith


TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Fri 08-Nov-13 22:08:55

is Mary the child who was adopted along with Anthony?

Maybe Mary's mother wasn't with her until she was 3, like Philomena & Anthony, so she didn't have the same ties?

Please don't give any spoilers, I spoiled it for myself by googling, I wish I hadn't sad

Mignonette Sat 09-Nov-13 08:21:15

Oh the irony of a bunch of nuns accusing the film of twisting the truth.

These women wouldn't know truth if a god struck them blind with it.

Merguez Sat 09-Nov-13 11:33:54

Another example of terrible deeds being perpetrated in the name of "God."

Loved the film, very moving story, and glad to hear that Martin Sixsmith isn't as angry as he was portrayed in the film.

However, was slightly surprised at the luxury hotels they stayed in … as a former journalist myself that doesn't chime with my own experience!

TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Sat 09-Nov-13 11:50:33

Philomena didn't actually go to the US with him, Merguez - they did it for the film to make it more entertaining (or something) - to turn it into something of a road film anyway

I doubt if he stayed in luxury hotels grin

Merguez Sat 09-Nov-13 12:15:02

I guess I will have to read the book then for a more accurate account.

The other bit I thought was odd was that he tracked the son down on the internet at breakfast in the American hotel - could just as easily have done that in the UK!

IComeFromALandDownUnder Sat 09-Nov-13 14:42:41

Such a sad story. I am looking forward to seeing it in the cinema. I find it heartbreaking that both son and mother were desperately looking for one another.

tiktok Sat 09-Nov-13 17:56:39

Merguez, I thought he needed special access to documents and files, which he got from his US contacts?

And he only got this access when he got there.....?

MissBeehiving Sat 09-Nov-13 20:39:53

I would really love to see the film/ read the book but DH is currently searching for his birth mother (a young unmarried Catholic woman) and it's just a bit too raw at the moment.

What these women went through in the 50's and 60's was truly horrendous. sad

ElizaCBennett Sat 09-Nov-13 21:40:05

Saw this last week. I really enjoyed it but there were some really sad moments that brought tears to my eyes.

edamsavestheday Sun 10-Nov-13 12:01:33

I've seen the film and it was very moving. Made me angry. My colleague interviewed Philomena Lee afterwards and said she was remarkably not bitter at all - immense forgiveness for such a terrible wrong.

IRL apparently Philomena is quite different to the Judi Dench character - far less naive and, I dunno, uneducated (she's a retired nurse, I gather).

I didn't cry, because I already knew of similar stories, have read a lot about them. My friend, a hard-bitten news journalist, did.

My mother, who only discovered she was adopted in her 40s, and is still searching for her mother (her late mother, by now), can't bear to watch it or anything along the same lines. Not even Who Do You Think You Are.

edamsavestheday Sun 10-Nov-13 12:02:37

Quite funny seeing Steve 'Hacked Off' Coogan playing a sympathetic journalist, though. Even though the film is quite clear that journalism isn't necessarily 'nice'.

VoiceofRaisin Sun 10-Nov-13 13:39:19

Amberleaf I expect Philomena's story might have been different had her own mother been alive when she fell pg. Lots of grandmothers became older "mothers". It's the poor girls without mums to do that for them that ended up with the nuns. I blame Philomena's father most in this instance for what happened to her as he is the one who turfed her out of the house from misplaced shame and didn't visit her for over 3 years in the Convent.

Had the Convent not taken Philomena in, I guess she would have been forced to find a back street abortionist or take her own life. I am so glad that we don't deal with vulnerable PG women like this any more, but still venture to opine that the nuns in the story were not the most evil characters in the tale (that would be everyone else who did nothing for Philomena).

Edam I wish your mother luck in tracing her own mother.

ScandinavianPrincess Sun 10-Nov-13 16:23:14

There is a fantastic film called the Magdalen Sisters, directed by Peter Mullan, which shows what truly evil people many of the nuns were and how cruelly they treated the vulnerable women that entered their hell holes. There is a link as these places were run by nuns and the Catholic church, as I assume the place where Philomena stayed was.
I was adopted in the seventies and feel strongly that my mentally ill mother could have been helped far more than she was. Single parents were still frowned on in the seventies and my being born out of wedlock was seen as evidence of mental instability. I know it's not the same thing exactly, but I do feel the prevailing views of the past led to a lot of children being adopted.
I haven't seen the film. I imagine it would make me weep buckets. I know there is no happy ending, but I do hope there was some peace at the end of it because as many people have said, the pain of having your child taken away is surely unbearable and many children mourn for the parent they lost. I know I did.

SirChenjin Sun 10-Nov-13 16:47:06

I saw the film last night - I had braced myself for a very emotional couple of hours, which it was, but it was also very funny and that helped to make was essentially a terrible, tragic story bearable.

I still came away with a sense that the Catholic church and (the vast majority) of the nuns involved display/ed a complete lack of compassion or kindness at a basic human level - to the extent that they still refuse to do all they can to help reunite mothers with their children. I can't claim to know very much about the religion - but as Martin Sixsmith says in the film, it's clear that it's them who should be sitting in the confession box, atoning for their evil.

TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Sun 10-Nov-13 17:20:17

Didn't the Catholic Church in Ireland receive large donations from the Americans who adopted babies like Anthony?

SirChenjin Sun 10-Nov-13 17:23:56

Yes. The babies were effectively sold sad.

edamsavestheday Sun 10-Nov-13 19:15:43

Thanks, voice, really hope we can get some answers for my Mum.

Re. the nuns - did you realise that they sold the babies?

VoiceofRaisin Sun 10-Nov-13 20:09:58

Yes. And I don't defend it! I just point out that the nuns provided an option for the girls that was better than any other. I suspect that realisation may be partly why Philomena herself is not bitter about it. She did after all sign the adoption papers - no doubt because she had no other choice but that was not the fault of the nuns without whom she would not have had the first 3 years even with her son. It was still appalling but I suppose it would have been unrealistic for the convent to keep the children and their mothers for 18 years as they would not have room for the newly PG vulnerable. The forced adoption of the little ones was a pragmatic solution of its time. Heartbreaking all the same.

SirChenjin Sun 10-Nov-13 20:39:28

It doesn't matter how many times you repeat yourself Voice - you are still incorrect.

TheOneWithTheNicestSmile Sun 10-Nov-13 20:44:55

From an interview with Philomena

"I knew that the children there might be adopted and I wanted to leave, but the nuns said my family would have to give them £100.
That wasn’t going to happen, there was no way they could come up with that sort of money.
Anyway, my father wouldn’t even acknowledge that I was still alive and I didn’t have a single visitor in the three and a half years I was there.
I asked them to try to find me a job in the outside world so I could keep Anthony, but they wouldn’t help. Even if I had tried to walk out with him there was nowhere to go and the police would have brought me back."

"The saddest thing to learn was that he had been to Sean Ross Abbey to find me and was told they knew nothing about me, in the same way they had told me they knew nothing about him.
I can accept some of what they did; they really did think I was a sinner and should be punished. I can’t condemn them. But the part that hurts me the most is that he went to see them, for the third time... they didn’t just refuse to put him in touch — they told him I had abandoned him at birth. I think that was evil. "

Those nuns were just full of love & charity, weren't they? hmm

& yes, her father doesn't come out of it well either, but at least he was just a sad, probably badly educated, ordinary bloke, not a representative of the Church

working9while5 Sun 10-Nov-13 22:07:45

To be fair Irish society turned its back on these women. Long after the laundries were gone there were families forcing adoption out of shame. I grew up in a tiny rural village and the girl next door was forced to adopt her son. Sent away for confinement, her own brother (my friend) only found out she had been pregnant when he was rooting around in her room for concealed cigarettes and found a box of letters to the baby she had been made to give up.

The other thing to remember is these nuns, in the main, did not choose a vocation. They were sent to the contents at 11 and 12 and denied their own life choices. I can imagine to be faced with young girls who had had the chance of romance and motherhood could be a challenge to women deeply repressed and without much autonomy of their own. I would never condone any illtreatment but it's complicated and terribly sad all round.

edamsavestheday Sun 10-Nov-13 22:41:44

Just adding a message to bump working's down so I can read it - drat this stupid 'blog hides most recent post' gremlin.

SirChenjin Mon 11-Nov-13 08:06:15

Irish society looked to the Catholic church for guidance though

VoiceofRaisin Mon 11-Nov-13 09:08:51

SirChenjin your last point is completely valid. I agree that the Catholic Church was majorly responsible for the mindset of shame if a girl in the family got PG out of wedlock. For that, I blame those (MEN) much higher up in the church than the nuns who were taking in girls that everyone else turned their backs on.

The film perhaps picked the wrong villains, although TBF they made one nun out to be sympathetic - I expect as in all places, there were a mix of characters. We shouldn't get so caught up in condemning the Nuns that we forget to look at the wider and more important immediate causes of this suffering which was society's views as moulded by the Catholic Church. Similar (but not identical) suffering is still going on regarding the availability of contraception and family planning choices around the world. It should also be the responsibility of ordinary decent human beings (like Philomena's father and aunt) to stand up against clearly cruel doctrines. They failed Philomena much more comprehensively than did the nuns.

SirChenjin Mon 11-Nov-13 09:35:23

They did - but that doesn't excuse or explain the simple lack of basic human kindness that they displayed, especially given their claim to be Christian. Could you withhold pain relief from a terrified young girl who was screaming in agony during childbirth, for example? I know I couldn't. While the men were dictating higher up in the church the woman lower down were complicit - and so for that I condemn them.

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