“[This] is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman… a naïve teenager, whose only sin was to get pregnant out of wedlock” writes Academy Award winning actress Dame Judi Dench in her foreword of this reissue of Martin Sixmith’s 2009 book. Dame Dench stars in a film version that details Philomena’s struggles as she desperately tries to find the son she was forced to give away five decades before. “What I wanted more than anything was for the film to do her justice and to do justice to Martin Sixmith’s book” explains Dench. Her performance and the film have already earned countless accolades (including an award for its screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival), but it’s safe to say Dench’s wish of doing justice to the book remains unfulfilled, because the book has very little to do with Philomena.
Originally entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Sixmith’s book concentrates on the mother’s side of the story during the prologue and a short epilogue, but then transfers the entire weight of the narrative onto her son, a boy we meet at the time of his birth. It’s 1952 and his mother has been sent away to Sean Ross Abbey (in the town of Roscrea in Ireland) by her family who are ashamed of her being pregnant and unmarried. There she is forced by the cruel Mother Superior to detail her sin, and as if getting pleasure out of the child’s naïvety she explains that no painkillers will be given at the time of the birth. “How many times have I told you that pain is the punishment for sin?” she asks one of the younger nuns, “These girls are sinners: they must pay for what they’ve done”.
“The utter loneliness of all the hundreds of girls in that place, and other like it across Ireland, was etched on Philomena’s face. Sent away for a sin they barely knew they’d committed, they were in many cases mere children, subjected to cruel, adult punishment,” writes Sixmith. In the prologue he explains how he came into the story almost accidentally, when one of his friends invited him to help her “solve a puzzle” in the shape of a long lost brother one of her friends had just discovered existed.
Sixmith’s further investigation took place across many years and had him tracing people who’d left Ireland as children and if there’s something clear across the book is that more than mere journalistic investigation, Sixmith was interested in the drama of the story, he has no problem highlighting the villainous traits of the nuns of Roscrea, yet ironically he finds a way to humanize Reagan-era Republicans in latter chapters. “Gaps have been filled, characters extrapolated and incidents surmised. But that’s what detective work is all about isn’t it?” he asks to skeptical readers as if washing his hands from any blame in advance.
The truth is that the book, despite its mild sensationalism, is a joy to read and can be easily devoured in a few sittings. Sixmith has the ability to tease his readers with glimpses of larger plots, like the fact that Hollywood actress Jane Russell was involved in the buying and selling of Irish babies during the ‘50s, which also involved high-rank Church officials and a lackluster government, “Every child sent to America is a donation more for the Church and a problem less for the state,” he explains.
It becomes an even more fascinating book once Philomena’s son, Anthony, is adopted by an American family who raise him as Michael Hess. As Sixmith follows his life and eventual career in the government he paints the portrait of a bright man who never got over the fact that his birth mother gave him away. He and his adopted sister, Mary, are raised believing that their mothers didn’t want them and the author wonders if this affected the way in which Michael thought he wasn’t deserving of love. His personal history is one of great success (he was a top aide during the Reagan administration) and heartbreaking tragedy (his highschool sweetheart died in a horrific car accident).
Michael Hess’ story is one that might very well serve to chronicle the lives of immigrants who come to America in search of a better future—albeit one the child didn’t even know he needed when he was taken from Ireland—but who spends their lives connecting the dots, trying to preserve whatever is left of their essence. Michael was also gay, which gives Sixmith the ability to try and determine how his adoption came to shape his sexual identity.
The author sometimes seems to be making great assumptions, such as the belief that Michael’s lack of self worth drew him to engage in risky sexual behavior that led him to become infected with HIV and dying of AIDS at a very young age. “When he asked himself what was missing, it dawned on him that in spite of the countless men who came and went in his life, he was lonely” explains Sixmith, which might lead to some troublesome conclusions about the nuns’ “blame” in his death. Not all adopted children are self-destructive, but Sixmith enjoys telling a story with villains that are easy to find.
In the end, what remains true is that the author, despite his shortcomings, has depicted the life of someone we would’ve liked getting to know. Michael is described as a sensitive soul, who had nothing but kindness for those he loved, and who was loyal once he knew it was alright to give his heart away. Sixmith finds the universal in his story, it’s only a shame that the marketing machine behind this reissue of the book and behind the film, deemed him only secondary to the tale of his mother, one that is not unworthy, but which we come out knowing very little of.