After being enchanted by Judi Dench’s portrayal of Philomena Lee in the 2013 award-winning film Philomena, I eagerly sought the 2009 book upon which it was based. The book was a great disappointment and, in my opinion, even a betrayal of the real-life persons described. Thus I recommend watching the Oscar-nominated film but not reading Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search. In fact, I am shocked that Dame Judi Dench was willing to write a “forward” and to have her photograph on the cover of Martin Sixsmith’s pseudo-journalistic work.
Spoilers are included in the paragraphs that follow.
In a nutshell, both film and book tell the story of a young unwed mother in 1950’s Ireland, sent to a convent and then coerced by the nuns into giving up her toddler son for adoption by well-heeled Americans. After fifty years, she collaborated with an unemployed English journalist to find her son in the U.S. She discovered that her son Anthony Lee had been re-christened Michael Anthony Hess, grew up as the well-educated son of a physician, nephew of a Catholic bishop, and worked as a lawyer for the Republican National Committee during the Reagan and Bush administrations. He was also gay, contracted AIDS, and died in 1995 at age 43.
Appeal of the Film
Most of the film centers on the gradual and unlikely bonding of the elderly Irish Catholic woman of humble origins (Judi Dench as Philomena Lee) with the Oxford-educated and self-consciously modern ex-BBC correspondent and ex-U.K. government communications official (Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith). Most of the film depicts a road trip to the U.S. undertaken by the two–a road trip that did not actually take place. In fact, Philomena Lee did not visit the U.S. until after the film was released, when she participated in the Golden Globes awards ceremony, posed with Dame Judi Dench, and appeared on daytime television. The film is very much Philomena’s story and reveals the life and fate of her son as she discovers it, with Martin’s help.
The film has texture and personality, charm and humor, along with the genuine sadness and pathos of Philomena’s separation from her child and her later discovery that he died before she found him. It is fascinating to see Philomena’s forgiveness of the nuns and continued faith even as she acknowledges the evil done to her and others. While Martin uses his journalistic connections and access to obtain the information the nuns refused to disclose, Philomena still wants the nuns treated with respect when she and Martin visit the abbey. He is only partially able to comply. At the abbey, she discovers that her son Michael has been buried on the grounds–a scene filmed at the actual grave. It is clear to her that he knew and valued his origins and wanted her to find him, even if after his death. The intense poignancy of this scene was beautifully captured in the film.
Sins of the Book
The book also covers the time when Philomena was coerced into signing a document relinquishing her parental rights. But it goes into a great deal of detail about the legalities, the largely unsuccessful efforts on the part of some government officials to prevent the “sale” of babies to wealthy Americans, and the unbridled power of the Catholic church over this whole sector of Irish society. It is interesting to learn that the particular adoption of Anthony Lee was not smooth sailing–that he was part of a package deal with Mary, who did not have a completely clean bill of health. Ultimately, the power of a bishop in America (brother of the prospective adoptive mother) was brought to bear and all potential obstacles to the adoption of both children were removed.
At this point the book shifts gears to describe the life of Michael Hess (and to some extent that of his adoptive sister, Mary Hess). This is when Martin Sixsmith loses his journalistic moorings and simply creates fantasies about what Michael thought, felt, and said, starting with his three year old self up through his death. Sixsmith follows the documented outline of the actual Michael’s life–number of siblings, profession of father, family movements from city to city, schools attended, jobs held, significant others–but he interpolates and embellishes to a degree that is simply astounding. He makes up extensive dialogue out of whole cloth! He claims that Michael had fears, desires, goals that no one but Michael could have known about and there was no opportunity to interview him (since he died in 1995) and no extensive diary to be cited.
Not only is it outrageous to simply fabricate a “tell all” biography for a person who is not alive to debunk it, but this is the fabricated biography of a respected, accomplished figure in Washington, D.C. circles of power who was gay but not fully “out.” Sixsmith has not only “outed” him, but depicted him as reckless, depraved, irresponsible, and promiscuous. He describes gay liaisons in lurid detail, over and over. It is stunning. Only the participants in these liaisons could have known these details and, perhaps more to the point, only the participants ethically have the right to publish descriptions!
Friends and colleagues of Michael Hess, including his long-time partner, have expressed dismay at the fabrications in this book. Although they participated in interviews, they deny having said anything close to what is described in the book and they were not given an opportunity to review notes or drafts prior to publication. In an interview with Politico magazine, Michael’s long-time partner Steve Dahllof said that the book was “about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy,” while the movie, “in accuracy of spirit, is 10 out of 10.”
The Bottom Line: No Need to Embellish the Story
The fact that a penniless Irish Catholic young woman was forced into virtual slavery and constant emotional abuse from cruel nuns and then forced to give up her son to strangers makes a compelling story. Then the fact that she kept this secret for fifty years and finally found a skilled journalist to help her find her son was also fascinating. The results of their search were even more interesting–her son was a prominent and successful attorney in Washington, D.C., gay, with a long-term partner, and died of AIDS years earlier. But nothing is more poignant than the revelation that both son and mother had visited the abbey repeatedly trying to find each other, without success. The mother is left with only the opportunity to visit his grave, which he has placed at the abbey so she could find him after his death.
All the statements in the prior paragraph are well documented, widely accepted as true, and provide enough human drama for films and books. The film Philomena took some theatrical license (such as showing a road trip that never really happened) but it is true to the spirit of the actual events. The book Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty Years Search could have provided a wealth of interesting detail about the mother and son, but instead gets derailed into spinning prurient and essentially irrelevant fantasies about the son’s sexual life. I am sure this was distressing to the actual Philomena Lee, who is still very much alive and would have liked her son’s memory to be treated with more respect. By far the most valuable part of the book is the collection of photographs and documents, which do add to the story.
Ironically, the same man who penned the disrespectful book is a main character in the film, which shows him in a quite favorable light. In fact, the Martin Sixsmith of the movie could never have turned Philomena and Michael’s story into a beach novel. He was classier than that and an actual journalist. He was also revealed to be a sensitive human being who offered not to publish any book at all if Philomena was troubled by it. If only the actual Martin Sixsmith had shown such scruples.