The only way I can begin is to say that, having literally just finished, this is a powerful and devastating book. Originally published as The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Martin Sixsmith’s exposé recounts the story of Philomena, the birth of her son Anthony, and his adoption and subsequent life in America. There are lots of brilliant aspects of this book – I think one of its great achievements is Sixsmith’s writing, which really does read like a novel – but overall I’m walking away with a hole in my heart and a greatly lessened desire to see the movie.
Let’s put it this way: you know it’s going to be a tough read when the whole point of the story is that the mother and her son are separated and trying to find each other. But here’s what you might not be expecting (or, at least, I wasn’t expecting, probably because I’m not well-versed in modern history): they’re separated because of Americans wanting to adopt Irish babies and the Irish government/church working to make it possible through bastard children.
In the case of Philomena Lee, she is an unmarried pregnant woman in 1952. Her child will not be “accepted” because of his mother’s position as a “fallen woman,” ideas which seem more compatible with a novel from Hardy than the twentieth century, but there you have it. Sixsmith develops the budding relationship between Philomena and Anthony, even though the convent where she gives birth attempts to keep mothers and children separated to (I suppose theoretically) reduce attachment.
Of course, Philomena is pushed to sign her rights to her child to the Mother Superior, a nice American woman comes to adopt Anthony and Mary (the daughter of Philomena’s friend), and the children are whisked away from Ireland to live in America.
The stories of Anthony (now dubbed Michael) and Mary’s new life in America is heartbreaking. Although Marge, the mother, seems to love her new children in addition to her three older sons, Doc (the father) appears to fluctuate in his affections. And Stevie, the youngest son of Doc and Marge, seems to have it out for Michael, who has usurped his position as the baby brother.
Sixsmith follows Michael’s youth, touched by some traumatic experiences, through his adult life. With a significant portion of text devoted to Michael’s college experience, during which time he accepts his homosexuality, the book feels focused on his growing understanding of himself. As in all teen/young adult stories (fiction or nonfiction), the development of Michael’s sexuality is a pivotal point. The time in which he lives is hardly conducive to homosexual behavior, and he struggles to balance his desires with society.
It must be a sign of how far we have advanced that this portion of the book did not make me uncomfortable, but frustrated. My college (and even high school) experience was one colored by friends figuring out their sexuality, and though they met with some difficulties, I think they ended up feeling pretty comfortable. And maybe it’s because I live in a smaller town with a tighter community than a big city like Washington, D.C. or New York, but I think the world has made some pretty positive steps. It was frustrating to watch Michael navigating relationships, especially since they had to be fairly secretive, and often resulted in distressing break-ups.
Moving through college and into his adult life, the story becomes heavier. Michael becomes a lawyer, explores wider sexual practices, and watches as the new disease (AIDS) crops up. Eventually, he does develop a stable relationship with a man named Pete, but the road there is rocky. And, despite the fact that I know this is a true story and very unlikely to end happily, I hoped. And hoped.
SPOILERS AHEAD – THIS IS YOUR WARNING.
Michael contracting AIDS is the worst part of this story. His first test is clear, but the second time he isn’t so lucky. I don’t know how else to say it, but Sixsmith does an excellent job of making your heart break. Pete (who is clean and will live) trying to accept that the end is coming is especially horrifying. And despite making several trips to Ireland, Michael is never able to find anything more about his mother than her name.
This was the passage that haunted me, though:
Early on the morning of Tuesday 15 August, after thirty-six hours at Mike’s bedside, Mary and Pete went to the cafeteria for coffee. They returned at 11.30 to find Mike’s bed empty and the doctor writing up his notes. Mike had suffered a series of cardiac arrests. He had died at 11.10 a.m.
Sixsmith then describes his own work with Philomena herself. A friend made the connection and they work together to try to find her son. And when she finds out he’s dead, I think my heart actually broke. Philomena is able to connect with Pete and at least find some peace in knowing that Michael/Anthony led a prosperous life. And, most importantly, he never gave up his search for her.
I think it’s also important at this moment to point out that this is not an anti-Catholic, anti-Republican, anti-anything book. Yes, there are elements that sound like it, but it needs to be read while keeping in mind the times. If this story took place in 2014 (wow, it’s 2014 already!) it would certainly feel like a long essay on the badness of religion and the right wing, etc. This was 1950s-1990s for the most part (obviously ending in the early 2000s), and issues like gay rights (or rights in general) were great dividers politically. As a gay man working in the RNC, Michael would obviously have run into some issues. And even in the moments when the Catholic church seems like a pretty bleak entity, there are still good people in it. Philomena has stated “This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith” (read more here). So don’t read this and praise or condemn its politics – it’s a different world, and one that offers us an a look into how far we’ve come.
As I’ve said, this is a haunting, wrenching story. And I’m glad I’ve read it because I really did want to. But I can’t say this makes me want to go sit through the movie when I know it won’t end happily. Was it so wrong of me to hope for something positive? For them to meet just once? And I know that’s not the point – the point is that she found him eventually. But my God, it’s a painful book.
So overall review: great writing by Sixsmith, and powerful story, but only read it if you’re in the mood to sob your heart out.
And now I’m off to find something a little lighter. And a Kleenex…