NONFICTION: Now a major film starring Judi Dench, “Philomena” is the true story of a 1950s Irishwoman forced to give up her illegitimate child.
In County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1952, a vulnerable teenager named Philomena Lee conceived a child out of wedlock. Regarded as a “fallen woman” by her family, she was sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, a convent where young women in her predicament could wait out their pregnancies while working for the nuns. After giving birth within the abbey’s compound, mothers and their babies were allowed to remain — mothers working without pay — for up to three years. Before leaving, each mother was required to sign an official document that relinquished her baby forever and promised “never to seek to know what became of the child.” In return for a “donation,” the nuns gave each baby to a couple for adoption. (The couples were usually American.) In other words, they sold the babies — a lucrative business.
By far the most common and most onerous assignment at the abbey was working in the vast, noisy, overheated laundry. Lifting and hanging wet sheets for 10 hours a day was punishing duty. Other girls chopped wood and cleared brush in the nearby woodlands, or scrubbed floors and washed windows.
Philomena gave birth to a baby boy on June 5, 1952. She relished the hour or two most evenings when she could hold Anthony. One night, when she thought her baby might be running a fever, she asked permission to sleep near him. The nun told her not to be “so stupid.” She scolded Philomena: “It’s not for you girls to say what happens to the children. They no more belong to you than the sun or the moon. Your job is to feed them and work your three years. Then we’ll find them proper mothers who deserve to have children.”
In “Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search,” British journalist Martin Sixsmith impressively conveys the tenor of a place and era in which religion was allowed to dominate the state.
In the later sections of the book, he chronicles Anthony’s childhood in Illinois as Michael Hess, the adopted son of Marge and Doc Hess, and then his life in college, law school and finally his successful career as chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. He affectingly portrays Michael’s homosexuality and his losing battle with AIDS.
It is Michael’s persistent, lifelong feelings of guilt that give the book a unifying theme. From an early age he is convinced that his real mother sent him away because he had done something bad. As an adult, Michael’s “orphan’s guilt” is matched by an inexorable mood of isolation. He never abandons his search for his birth mother. Somehow, he equates reunion with her with happiness.
The book, published four years ago in the United Kingdom, is now a major Hollywood movie, starring Judi Dench, who also wrote the foreword to this edition.
Katherine Bailey also reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit her website at katherine baileyonbooks.com.