I took Friday off from work, so that I could have a long weekend, and it’s been perfection. Hopefully you’ve had a lovely weekend as well! Long weekend = Finally finishing a book! Yay! It’s been soooo long.
I decided to read Philomena by Martin Sixsmith after watching the movie, also titled Philomena. Have you ever watched the movie or read the book? If not, you should. Both the book and the movie are equally good.
Philomena is a true story, and it will break your heart into a million little pieces.
The book starts out in Ireland in the early 1950s with the birth of Anthony Lee. His mother, Philomena, gave birth to him at the convent of Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. Girls who had “sinned” and became pregnant were sent to the convent, mostly by their families, to finish out their pregnancy and give birth. Following the birth of their child, the young women remained at the convent and worked to repent for their “sin” of having a child out of wedlock.
Now, this wasn’t a place where you went to have your baby, recover, and then leave a happy little family. Nope. While there, the girls worked all throughout their pregnancy, gave birth, and then went straight back to work. Not just any work, though. Some jobs were labor-intensive…like washing laundry by-hand. They had to do this work for at least 3 years after having their baby, unless their family was willing and able to pay the convent a large sum of money (100 pounds).
The girls were worked to the bone and were only allowed to see their children for just a few hours per day, if that. They’d care for them in the morning and then were allowed to spend their short lunch break with them. The girls saw their children every day, up until the day their child disappeared.
Once Philomena learned that she and her son would inevitably be separated, she tried to flee the convent with him. But, she didn’t get far. One of nuns followed right behind her, took her son from her arms, laid him on the ground, and proceeded to beat her.
The convent “sold” the children to American families looking to adopt. The girls had no say in the matter because they were forced to sign statements giving up the rights to their child, a document that also stated they’d never try to search for their child…ever. Maybe your first thought, like mine, was why sign? Well, they were forced to. Forced to believe they really had no other choice in the matter. Forced to believe they were such awful individuals for what they’d done.
Philomena signed the document on June 27, 1955, just a few days before her son turned 3 years old. During the 3+ years that Philomena and her son were together, they naturally built a bond and were very attached to one another. You know, I can’t even begin to imagine what this must have felt like—to spend 3 years with your child and to be torn away from each other in an instant, without the chance to even say good-bye. Ugh, how incredibly heartbreaking.
When Philomena found out that her son was being adopted, she was allowed to contact her family—for no other reason than to figure out where she’d go after leaving the convent. Her brother and father visited her, but her father wouldn’t allow her to go home with them. He said there was no way a “fallen woman” could return to their town, not without causing a “desperate scandal”.
On December 18, 1955, Anthony was picked-up at the convent by his adoptive mother, Marge. But, she didn’t only adopt him; she also adopted Mary, the daughter of Philomena’s best friend at the convent. Marge only intended to adopt Mary, but after witnessing how protective Anthony was of the girl, she decided to adopt him too. Upon returning to America, Anthony’s name was changed to Michael Hess.
Other than Marge, their adoptive family included 3 brothers and a controlling father. He never quite liked his adoptive family, nor did he ever really fit in. Growing up, Michael was always curious about Ireland. He wanted to know where he came from and why his mom had given him up for adoption. He thought for sure it was because he must have done something bad to make his mother not like him.
Michael began looking for his mother and even traveled to Ireland, back to Sean Ross Abbey, but was never given any information that would help him find his mother. The nuns at the convent were very secretive and elusive, stating that the records had been lost in a fire. They also said they didn’t remember him or his mother, when in fact they did.
Philomena kept her son a secret for over 50 years, never telling a soul about him—not even her husband or children. Not until Christmas 2003, when Philomena finally revealed her secret to her family. Just after New Year’s 2004, Philomena’s daughter connected with a journalist, Martin Sixsmith (the author of this book), and asked him to help her mother find the son she’d lost so many years ago. He agreed and together with Philomena, they began the search for her son, Anthony Lee. At the time, they did not know his name had been changed.
Here’s where the book and the movie are slightly different. The movie details Michael’s life and accomplishments through Martin and Philomena’s search, but the book delves into his life history as a whole. The book details Michael’s life growing up, his realization that he was gay, and his promiscuous “lost nights”—periods of time where he’d disappear into a very different kind of life, a life completely opposite that of his professional life. In his professional life, he was Chief Counsel of the Republican National Committee. That’s right—despite everything, he found great success. A truly incredibly story, if I do say so myself.
I won’t tell you how this book ends, because….well, it’d ruin the whole thing. But, I will say it’s sad and devastating. You’ll sense a lot of regret and a lot of pain. And you’ll also learn a lot—about how cruel life can be, about how incredible life can be, a little about irony, and a lot about American politics. Though above all, I think you’ll learn mostly about love.
And because I always end with a few quotes that caught my attention…
How many times have I told you that pain is the punishment for sin? These girls are sinners: they must pay for what they’ve done. (pg. 13)
The girls were forbidden to talk among themselves and told not to reveal their real identities or even where they came from. Their lives were cloaked in secrecy, loneliness and shame. (pg. 20)
The nuns told the girls that their scrubbing, wringing and ironing symbolized the cleansing of the mortal stain on their souls. (pg. 21)
…more than 4,000 illegitimate children from all corners of the country were in the care of the Church and there was little prospect of the number going down. (pg. 22)
Our real mammies didn’t want us because we were bad. (pg. 109)
…but sometimes it seems I can remember my Irish mom, like she was right there and I can picture her face and hear her voice. (pg. 171)
For Mike, in the shadow of the unknown, the reunion with his mother seemed the key to unlocking the sorrow and the pain, a last chance to find the answers to the puzzle of his life. (pg. 377)
Because if I don’t find out now…I never will. And I have to find out who I am before I am no more. (pg. 377)
How could they tell him I abandoned him! How could they do that! I never wanted to give him away – never! (Page 417)
Whew! There you have it. Thanks for sticking it out with me. I hope you read the book and watch the movie. Be prepared for a real tearjerker!