WASHINGTON — Even today, there's a lingering stigma about women who choose to place their children for adoption. Unnatural, people say, and jump to conclusions about the woman's lifestyle, character and state of mind. If times have changed, it's only in that the stigma used to attach unilaterally to unwed mothers. And that stigma was strong enough to keep Philomena Lee silent for 50 years.
The world now knows about Philomena Lee. In 2009, journalist Martin Sixsmith published a book about the son whom she bore in an Irish convent, and whom the nuns tore from her when he was 3 years old and sent off to America with a new set of adoptive parents. In 2013, the book became the basis for a film starring Judi Dench, who has been nominated for a best-actress Oscar for playing the role of Philomena — more or less.
“I was a bit of a dumb cluck in the film,” the real Philomena says, chuckling. “Some of those things I didn't say. But it had to bring a bit of laughter into it. Because it's so sad, you know.”
Philomena is now 80. She was sitting in a Ritz-Carlton in Washington last week with her daughter, Jane, as part of her ongoing campaign to drum up support for legal changes that would allow children adopted from Ireland to access records that would help them to trace their biological parents. It's part of a wave of publicity in the wake of the film that will crest at the Oscars, which the two women will attend on March 2.
Sitting in her hotel suite at the end of three days of nonstop interviews, nibbling on room service between questions and talking about everything from meeting Dench (“She didn't want to meet me at first — but it went absolutely fine”) to the gown she got to wear when she spoke onstage at the Golden Globes (“They let me keep it!”), Philomena is living out a fairy-tale ending to a tragic and traumatic story — something she could never have imagined in 2003 when she finally confessed to Jane that, before Jane and her brother were born, she had had another son.
Once upon a time, before there was Guatemala, before there was Ethiopia, before there was China, before there was Romania, there was Ireland: a country to which Americans traveled when they wanted to adopt children. And before there was Angelina Jolie, before there was Madonna, there was Jane Russell, a star who went abroad to adopt in 1950 and brought 15-month-old Thomas home after reaching an agreement with his mother. The resulting scandal about baby-buying made headlines and shook up the Irish administration, but didn't eradicate the draconian practices of the church, which had made itself responsible for the problem of unwed mothers and took it upon itself to treat these supposedly horrible sinners — in some cases teenage victims of rape or incest — with the strictness it felt they deserved.
If the film takes liberties with the present-day Philomena, it sticks to the facts of her past. Pregnant after a chance encounter with a man she met at a fair, she was turned over to the nuns, in a dormitory where unwed mothers spent three years delivering their children and then working at manual labor — Philomena worked in the laundry room — for the church's profit. The mothers did get to see their children every day, but they didn't always fully realize that those children were offered for adoption, as orphans, to American couples. Thus it was that Anthony Lee, age 3, was whisked off to America where he became Michael Hess and grew up in St. Louis. Philomena never saw him again.
Like her son, Philomena's story has made its way in the world in all kinds of ways she couldn't have expected. Sixsmith's book focuses largely on the biography of the son, Michael/Anthony, who became the chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee in the 1980s before dying of AIDS-related complications at 43. The movie, adapted by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, goes a step farther into fiction and depicts Dench's Philomena and Coogan's Sixsmith going together on an oddball road trip to Washington in search of Philomena's son — a trip that never actually happened. It also, predictably, takes dramatic license with some of the story's highlights: having the Sixsmith character, for instance, discover on the Internet, while sitting in the hotel breakfast room, that Anthony has died.
“The way we found out wasn't much better,” says Jane. Both Anthony and Philomena repeatedly returned to the convent over the years, trying to find out more information about each other. The nuns told them they weren't able to help. Finally, Jane was able to gain some traction. “I'm sorry to tell you he's dead,” Philomena says the nun told them. “Clinical,” she adds, remembering the pain of the words.
Philomena's story has highlighted one side of the often ill-understood phenomenon of adoption. Having decided to come forward after so many years, she receives abundant messages and queries from around the world. However, the letters come not from other mothers, but, overwhelmingly, from adoptees — particularly people who were born in the convent and anxious to know more about their own pasts. She isn't able to help much; the girls in the convent were forced to use other names — Philomena went by “Marcella” — and never knew each other's true identities.
The book also helps dismantle the stubborn myth that silence is the best policy: that children should be sheltered from the facts of adoption, and that love and material comfort will conquer all. Adoption mores have certainly evolved over time; today, adoptive parents often keep in touch with their children's birth families.
Sixsmith's narrative reflects some of the stereotypes that surround both adoption and homosexuality: Michael, the main character, remains rather wooden and subject to some rather clinical-sounding demons (a dark side, a self-destructive drive, a sense of never fitting in). Philomena “didn't bat an eyelid” at the fact that her son was gay (something accurately reflected in the movie), but says “we weren't happy with” the book. “I don't think he had this deep, dark side that is portrayed in the book,” Jane says.
Philomena, of course, has no real insight into the character of an adult son she never knew. But breaking her own silence has enabled her to put to rest the fears that haunted her for most of her life. “I used to think, 'Is he on Skid Row?' ” she says. “I continued praying for him all my life.” And, having built a rich life of her own after the trauma of her early years — two marriages, the current one of 31 years' standing; two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and a 30-year career as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital — she says she has found peace. “I was so happy; happy to have found him, and happy that he turned out so well, and happy he had such a wonderful happy life.”
She has even made her peace with the church, even though the deceptions continued until the very end of the story. Having learned that her son had died, and that he had chosen to have his ashes buried in Ireland at the place of his birth, she and Jane traveled to the abbey again, but were told that there was no other information about him. “And then we met Martin Sixsmith in between times,” Jane says, and “he found all the American side of things.” The following year, they returned and told the nun they had located Anthony/Michael's family. “And the nun went to the cupboard and gave me all the paperwork that she could have given me the year before,” Jane says. “But had she given it to me the year before, there would have been no book, no film, none of this. So they really do have themselves to blame.”