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.
Posted on: Fri 08-Nov-13 11:50:27
(81 comments )
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
The cruelty was institutional, no doubt about it, and went beyond the individual culpability of the nuns, many of whom may well have been powerless to challenge it. The Catholic church worked very hard to prevent the state establishing social services that might have given an alternative to the girls - they felt that there would not be the necessary element of punishment and shame, and atonement for sin if social workers took the place of nuns.
That was then - but the cover-up and the continued punishment of the mothers is inexcusable. Public opinion in Ireland moved on decades ago, and the power of the Catholic church was consequently lessened. There was no reason other than a desire to hide their crimes with a view to clinging on to the shreds of a reputation in a desperate attempt to maintain some sort of hold on people.
It's exactly the same with the child abuse scandals.
The nuns were "only following orders" I suppose, Voice?
There is a little of that NicestSmile but actually the nuns were offering a kindness in taking in the girls when they too could have shunned them. I imagine we have to take the demeanour of the Head Nun (? tecchnical term) with a pinch of salt as portrayed in the film for artistic purposes - it is not a fact. It is amazing how often women take the blame in situations when in fact it is men that are the main culprits (here: Philomena's father, brother, Church doctrine, the mores of Irish Society set largely by men). The Nuns were not blameless btw - witholding pain relief (if they did intentionally withhold it rather than it simply not being available because no doctor would lower himself to offering it or could not be afforded) was a cruel act . The idea of a 3 year sanctuary of sorts - a chance to live and to eat and to be warm with her bairn, may have been very attractive to Philomena at the time. It was not perfect but, I repeat, it was better than anything anyone else had to offer her. We should widen the debate to look at the root causes of this suffering instead of merely the effectors.
The payment point is a red herring, imo. The nuns were not blowing money on wild living and fast cars. They too probably lived in some poverty. It will have been expensive housing, clothing and caring for lots of small children and their mothers and the Nuns will have had to cover their costs somehow otherwise they would not be able to continue to offer this service. Just as now surrogate mothers are entitled to "costs" but not "profit".
PS Of course I also condemn the nuns for the later cover-up and lack of help in repairing the situation when they could have helped in terms of re-uniting mothers and children. I also condemn the cold hearted cruelty with which young PG girls were treated by their friends and family in Ireland at that time.
"kindness" wasn't a word that sprang to mind when i watched the film last night Voice.
I was totally with Martin when he said "I couldn't forgive".
Reminds of that adage about good people being good, bad being bad, but to make good people bad takes religion.
What those nuns did not only at the time but also later, keeping the mums and children apart was utterly shameful and despicable. I hope they got their just desserts in whatever judgement day their twisted minds believe in.
No, the nuns didn't receive any money personally of course, but they clearly facilitated a lot of money going to the church. However expensive it might have been to house & clothe the wicked women & their children, the women more than made up for it in the work they did.
& after Philomena (& others) had been punished for 3 years or however long was considered reasonable, why couldn't she (& others) have been helped to find a job elsewhere & move on with their children, if it wasn't really all about selling the children to Americans?
Once Anthony was gone & her time was up she was found such a job, after all.
The nuns did not behave with Christian charity & regardless of where their orders were coming from, they could have done
Voice, I think you are trying to present a more nuanced, less black and white interpretation of what happened.
Individual nuns varied in how deeply they were involved in these crimes (that's what they were - crimes). Individual nuns varied in how humane and understanding and kind they were.
All of them were involved in secrecy and cover-up, even at the time, but they varied in how many options they had in exposing what went on - some would have accepted in and felt uncomfortable about it, some would have not accepted it and simply left the convent, some would have tried to whistle-blow and been silenced, some would have convinced themselves they were doing the girls and the babies a huge favour, some would have thought the wicked little strumpets deserved all they got for sinning, some would have enjoyed punishing them....etc etc.
Beyond them, the institution of the Catholic church justified what was happening on religious grounds and practical ones (where else would the girls go? In a society that ostracised single mothers - because the church told them to - there were not many choices) but it was still criminal.
And nothing can excuse the cover-up.
"why couldn't she (& others) have been helped to find a job elsewhere & move on with their children"
Having heard Philomena talk, and being of some great age myself so having a distant memory of how things were, those jobs simply weren't available. I doubt it was maliciousness on the part of the nuns not finding the girls jobs. Part time working, affordable childcare, child tax credits, affordable housing were all pie in the sky back in the 50's and 60's: there genuinely was no place for single mothers and their children. Like I said, the Nuns actually facilitated a 3 year sanctuary where these mothers could have time with their little ones. The portrayal by the film of them as the prime villains is too simplistic and too easy to buy into - we let ourselves as society off the hook if we can meretriciusly blame some group of women as being the perpetrators of a grave injustice. I am only making the hard point that the easy villains in the film may actually have been the only ones offering any help at all to single pg girls, and that the real villains (the male led church structure, the male relatives) get off without comment. The only girls who stood a chance were those with mothers who were prepared to take on the grandchildren as their own. Poor Philomena had no mother.
tiktok I agree with all you say.
The church did make a lot of money from fallen women as apparently the Irish government paid £1 a week for every mother in its care, and a further two shillings and sixpence for every baby. On top of this, the laundries provided income, along with the illicit baby trade - where thousands of children were given up for adoption to US couples in exchange for ‘donations’ of $2,000 to $3,000 (£1,250 to £1,900).
well, yes, a sanctuary from how their lives would have been otherwise.
I would like to direct my anger at:
1. the bloke who had sex with Philomena without contraception when she was clearly young and naive, and then presumably refused to marry her when he found out she was PG
2. her father for kicking her out, not visiting for 3.5 years and not even providing a home for her when the child was older so that she could keep him.
3. the senior echelons of the Church (? the Pope) for creating an environment where it was acceptable/encouraged to disown PG daughters.
4. Society for not providing a welfare net.
The Nuns slightly ameliorated the situation for a bit. What they did was far from sufficient but it was a step in the right direction. The film makes them out as the hate figures because that is an easier story to tell.
re 1 & 2 - the father of the baby never knew, & Philomena's father scarcely knew her. Given the circumstances, she could have been shown a little more charity by the nuns, don't you think? At least her brother tried to help...
& re 3 & 4 - it's quite clear where the Church's interests lay - it was all about cash for them
'My mother died of tuberculosis when I was six and my father put me and my three sisters in a convent while he kept my three brothers at home. He didn’t really ever come and see us; he was a poor man and only had a bicycle and we were 20 miles away.
'I left the convent when I was 18 and went to live with an aunt. A few weeks after she took me to a carnival in Limerick. Well, as you can imagine, it was like nothing I had ever seen in my whole life which until then had been full of nuns and praying day and night.
'It was there that I met John. He bought me a toffee apple and we had a kiss and we did the deed that same day and that was it. I didn’t know what I had done because I didn’t know what sex was. A few months later my aunt noticed my growing bump.
'I hadn’t — I didn’t know anything about the facts of life. You might be thinking I am making it up but this is the truth: when she said, ‘Are you pregnant?’, I said ‘What’s pregnant?’ As God is my witness I didn’t even know what pregnancy was!
'I had arranged to meet John the next week, when the carnival came back, but she locked me up and wouldn’t let me see him again. He never knew he was a father. All I knew about him was that he worked in the post office in Limerick which meant he was educated.
'My father and aunt disowned me. My father told my siblings: ‘I don’t want her mentioned again, she’s dead!’ Only my brother who was closest to me in age knew what had happened — through my aunt, who he was close to — and he got me into the nursing home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary. My sisters thought I really was dead. I had vanished off the face of the Earth.'
It wasn't a sanctuary at all. It was enforced slave labour, resulting in your child being sold while you were required to sign away all rights. I disagree that it was a better option - a better option would have been that the church supported these women and allowed them to keep their babies, whilst promoting the use of contraception. The Catholic church is an immensely wealthy church, which has consistently chosen not to practice kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, decency or even common sense - they could have easily helped these girls, then and now as women as they try to find their children. They chose not to - instead they hide behind their cassocks and their confession boxes.
I don't think the nuns did anything positive at all. They are villains just as much as the church hierarchy. Taking in these girls? More like exploiting vulnerable women as slave labour and making a pile of money by selling their babies.
That was bad enough but they continue to harm people today, by continuing to lie about their crimes and continuing to frustrate the search for truth.
I am profoundly grateful that my Mother's birth mother got out of Ireland. She still gave her baby up, but at least she was not abused by cruel, vindictive, baby-trafficking nuns.
I have just read the book and was thoroughly impressed by your commitment to this story and to Philomena Lee.
I was also very impressed by Judy Dench's forward, mentioning that like in any drama, no one can be a total villain.
Are you familiar with the play, "Be My Baby" by Amanda Whittington?
I have a friend who works in Abu Dhabi and she works in theatre and film. What she has found is that all those social mores that happened in Ireland in the 50s (shame, family honour, attitudes to women/sex/reproduction) are happening now that society. And whilst it makes for interesting drama, it seems that those attitudes which are so shocking and unbelievable to our 21st century western eyes are being played out today in different cultures and different religions.
I wonder how many more "Philomenas" there are around the world?
bumping most recent post down so people can read it!
I met some pretty cantankerous nuns in my life who I imagine could be abusive bullies to those around them, but I do think that pointing the finger of blame at nuns misses a trick.
Again, the majority of these women did not willingly make a choice to enter the nuns out of any vocation or desire to live a Christian life. They were more often than not pushed into it by their families. I know in many orders, girls had to bring dowries with them on entry - and hierarchies developed within those institutions based on dowry size, with nuns from wealthier families given privileges while those with small dowries treated as slaves and skivvies in... you guessed it, the laundries.
What you see in stories like Philomena's is often the story of deprived girls who were pushed into servitude in their late childhood/early teens, denied sexuality and the opportunity of any autonomy, unleashed on girls like Philomena they were taught to view as amoral and wicked
while also probably harbouring feelings of jealousy about what they had been able to experience that these nuns had been denied e.g. sex, love, motherhood.
It's a powderkeg, really. It doesn't surprise me that some of these nuns and brothers treated people so cruelly. They were repressed and raging themselves and the whole system and its values and morals and institutions encouraged them to treat "illegitimates" and "harlots" as lesser than themselves, as animals.
I have no great love for the Catholic Church, but I think the Catholic Church gets a lot of blame in the same way that the Nazi party gets blame for the atrocities of WW2 when*the whole society* bears some culpability for buying into and going along with these abuses. Yes, the Catholic Church was very powerful in Ireland, undeniably so.. and yes, there are complex historical and social reasons behind that power, but ultimately I know that in both my mother and father's rural villages people knew what was going on with these young women and with children and young people in industrial schools and they acquiesced and shunned the vulnerable from their communities. No one held guns to anyone's heads and the whole thing was a crying shame. The fact that years afterwards, "illegitimate" mothers were still ostracised, gossiped about and outcast was also a choice made by many individual Irish people. My uncle talks of how huge numbers of the local community knew of sex abuse carried out in the orders too, how the "good parents" would make sure that their sons weren't altar boys for Brother Paedophile meaning that, as is always the case, the children from chaotic, poor and neglectful homes were often at immense risk from these predators.
The whole thing was just insane. Thank God it has passed in Ireland. Yet I agree, this will be played out elsewhere in other cultures in the name of similar values and morals. Unfortunately human beings seem to have this innate desire to harm as well as to help and at certain times in certain cultures the worst aspects of humanity come to the fore.
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