Review: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Martin Sixsmith

Being honest, I was drawn to this one by the film.  I have yet to see the film.  I may not see it.  I don’t know.  Either way, I wouldn’t have picked it up without the previous publicity.  I felt slightly misled though because the film appeared to show Philomena Lee’s search for her child while the book itself does not offer us Philomena’s story, but rather that of her son.  And this made me uncomfortable.  I ended the book with distinctly mixed feelings.  I was glad that Philomena had discovered what had become of her beloved baby, sorrowful that the ending could not have been more joyful but although this is the story of people who were silenced for far too long, I was not sure if this was the right way to tell their story.

The Catholic Church has many crimes to atone for in the way it treated unmarried mothers and their offspring in Ireland.  Philomena Lee was not the only one to be worked too hard and spoken to without mercy, sympathy or any kind of grace by the nuns.  Sixsmith describes how the nuns berated the ‘fallen girls’ and details those who had suffered violent rape, long-term incest, shocking violations yet all of whom received the same condemnation from the sisters for their failings of the flesh.  Still, I was unaware of just how commercial the scandal was as the Church opened the door to Americans to simply buy these fatherless children, no questions asked.  Passports were supplied, babies were handed over and that was that.  Even when the nuns received intelligence that many of the Americans applying to adopt had been denied in their own country, the Archbishop of Dublin advised them to ignore it and continue to sell the children.  He loudly condemned any attempt to provide assistance to unwed women as no more than an incitement to immorality and only agreed to consider an Adoption Act due to suggestions that he would be blackmailed over his own paedophile activity.

Philomena Lee

As a Christian, for me these allegations are not merely shocking and upsetting but they feel like a further betrayal – the Church itself was brought into disrepute and will never ever quite shake off the scandal.  Sixsmith writes that upon on his deathbed, the Archbishop was said to speak of his fears of the judgement that awaited him.  In describing the nuns who knew Philomena in later life, again Sixsmith describes their remorseful behaviour.  But is this wishful thinking?  We want to believe that the villains get what they deserve, that they are punished as they ought to be.  The idea that the man who had so long acted as a traitor to the Church should recognise the wrath of God awaiting is tempting but yet it also absolves us of our own guilt.  Society spared little love for these babies and their mothers when it was in their power to save them.  It reminded me of all the outcry after the horrible death of Baby Peter Connolly several years ago.  A photograph was posted on Facebook of where his ashes had been interred and someone commented how it gave them a ‘warm feeling’ to see how well tended the grave was.  Never mind how appalling it is that a two year-old child should be in a grave already, well-tended or not.  We cannot simply nod wisely that the nuns and the priests are suffering beyond the grave – this was a crime carried out by people, people motivated by narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness and who failed in their love for their fellow man.

Anthony Lee at Roscrea Abbey

Philomena Lee gave birth to Anthony in 1952 in Roscrea Abbey.  The rule was that girls had to work for three years to repay their debt to the Sisters unless their family could pay one hundred pounds to set them free.  Girls had to nurse their babies for at least a year because the Sisters did not want to pay extra for baby food.  Every moment of every day they were expected to consider their sins.  Nobody was allowed to leave with their babies; they signed to give up their guardianship and their babies were given away.  Philomena loved her baby desperately and hoped that she would be allowed to keep him.  Anthony grew up to the age of three and his dearest friend was Mary, the daughter of Philomena’s best friend Margaret.  One day Marge Hess came over from America, searching for a daughter after giving birth to four sons.  She was the sister of an American bishop and the Church was more than happy to give her what she wanted.

It’s hard to condemn Marge.  She seems to have been a good mother.  She saw that Mary and Anthony were devoted to each other and decided to take them both.  When a medical report returned some negative results about Anthony, she persuaded her husband to have the tests run again and that Anthony was worth adopting.  She worked at making her new children feel in her family, even though her other children were less co-operative.  Yet still, she and her husband would lie to Anthony, who they renamed Mike, they told him that his mother gave him up straight after birth.  They told him that he had been given up willingly.  Yet she and Doc Hess knew that their youngest son and daughter had been taken aged three and two without the willing consent of their mothers.  No matter what kind of mother she was, she knew she was party to a crime.  She was a woman who had lost a child herself.  I struggle to understand how she could have done such a thing.

Most of the story is taken up with the story of Michael Hess’ upbringing.  His transformation from the Irish Anthony Lee to the American Michael Hess was uncertain.  He was apparently tormented by insecurities and self-loathing based on his belief in his birth mother’s rejection of him.  This was further complicated by the fact that he came to realise that he was gay during the 1970s and then found himself working for the Republican party which was not known for its openness and acceptance of homosexuality.  Sixsmith traces Mike’s life as he loved and lost several young men, often pushing them away through self-destructive behaviour.  Mike began to soar through the Republican party, eventually becoming chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee.  He found some measure of happiness with his partner Pete.  Yet he longed to discover the truth about his mother, even journeying to Ireland to visit Roscrea Abbey.  There he was met with stony silence from the nuns – they had burnt all the records as the scandals began to pile up.

The tragedy of Mike is that he never did meet his mother once more.  She is still alive but Mike Hess is not.  Having survived the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Mike succumbed to it in the 90s instead.  I had never read of the utter irresponsibility of United States healthcare policy in regards to AIDS and HIV – it was truly alarming.  I grew up in a sheltered but liberal home; my mother was a single parent, my best friend during childhood was the daughter of two mothers.  I did not find out until I joined the Christian Union at university that there were still people out there who were openly homophobic.  I truly believed that those attitudes were confined to the cardboard villains of the soaps – you know what I mean, the mean characters who say nasty things and then are promptly punished for it and either banished for good or inexplicably turn over a new leaf.  I genuinely didn’t realise that otherwise rational people could come out with that sort of thing.  Again, it was upsetting to realise that a country could so betray its citizens in refusing them access to healthcare that would save or at least prolong their lives and for what?  Because who they loved made them uncomfortable?

The adult Michael Hess

Again and again in this book it seemed as though people called up God to justify their own selfish narrow-mindedness.  I will be honest – when I picture the face of religious intolerance, one face comes to mind for me, a boy I knew growing up who called my former flatmates morally bankrupt for using responsible contraception.  I think we all know someone who is like that – someone who we thought we knew but who can turn around with such a skewed perspective that just for a moment, it takes one’s breath away.  Yet it is quite another matter to think of an entire political system skewed in this way.  The Irish government allowed the Church control of its orphans.  They were either sold on for a profit in forced adoptions or brought up in the Church’s schools from which the Church kept the profits.  The American government allowed the ‘Moral Majority’ its own way in healthcare.  I couldn’t help wondering if any other these people ever spoke out loud even to themselves what they were doing.  Selling children to strangers.  Forcing people to suffer and die.  And if they ever said it out loud, did they ever stop to consider the question, what would Jesus do?

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee lays bear two very emotional topics which have often overshadowed my relationship with the church; I am not an unwed mother but I am the daughter of one, I am not gay but I have dear people in my life who are.  I have never questioned whether God loves those who are unwed or homosexual but I have at times wondered about the church.  This was a thought-provoking read.  I found myself praying for Philomena Lee, who only found her baby again because Martin Sixsmith discovered his grave.  I remember being three years-old and adoring my mother – I was the Big Girl at my childminder’s but yet could be easily reduced to tears when a younger girl shouted out at collection time that my Mummy was not my Mummy but was hers instead.  There are photos of me aged three being my auntie’s flower girl where I apparently interrupted the vows by repeatedly kissing my mother’s hand.  I knew exactly who my Mummy was.  It makes me shudder to think of little Anthony being taken from his so cruelly.

Very little of Philomena’s life after Roscrea is told in this book – it is not surprising.  She has had so much taken from her – why should she lay bare anything further?  Yet still, I was troubled by the way that Martin Sixsmith narrated Mike’s life.  Michael Hess was a real person, he was well-known in his own right for his work in the Republican party.  He was private about his personal life.  There was something ‘off’ about the way that Sixsmith wrote these words and put them in Mike’s mouth.  As a baby, Anthony had no choice in his fate.  He did not even have a say in his new name.  He was lied to about his origins.  As a teenager, when he and Mary were finally naturalised, Michael was angry to read a newspaper article which reported that he could no longer remember Ireland.  Yet this entire book imagines his thoughts and opinions.  It is historical fiction about a man who has not even been dead twenty years.  He was silenced as a child.  This book cannot give him a voice again and it seems … odd to try.  Particularly alarming when I checked Goodreads was this review from Susan Kavanagh who is a major character in the story.  Medieval historians used to write screeds of dialogue for their subjects because they imagined that God guided their pen.  It seems that Sixsmith was hoping for something similar.

I found the tone of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee to be very flat.  It was an emotional read because of the facts; tears came when I saw the photograph of the elderly Philomena at her son’s grave – the most ghastly reunion imaginable.  I also was unsure about the implication that Michael’s self-destruction which led to his contracting AIDS was in some way linked to his early trauma.  By the time he got ill he was a man in his forties.  There is a statute of limitations when it comes to blaming things on other people – Michael got ill because he was unfaithful and unlucky – perhaps even careless.  He paid for any mistakes he made and then some but it felt wrong for Sixsmith to speculate about his motivations.  If he had not gotten ill, he would not have died, he would not have been buried in Roscrea, Sixsmith would not have found the grave and Philomena would never have known what became of him – things happened the way that they happened.  I found myself more impressed by Philomena Lee than by any other character – she went through all of this but came out at the other end with her faith intact.  For all that she was beaten and broken down by those who thought themselves above her, she comes across as one of the most loving, forgiving and grace-full women I have heard of.  I pray for her and for her lost boy and I trust that he now knows that his mother was a woman of whom he can be truly proud.

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Philomena by Sixsmith
Published by Pan Macmillan on October 24th 2013
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, General, Political Science
Pages: 452
ISBN: 9781447245223

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Martin Sixsmith

  1. Wow. This looks like the movie definitely lightened up this story (but isn't that what Hollywood always does?). I wonder, does the movie end the same way? I'll have to look for this book next time I'm in a thought-provoking mood.

  2. Yes, I think the film made more of the 'road-trip' elements from what I heard. The review from Susan Kavanagh was very troubling though – I think that this book misappropriated the life of Michael Hess. He has not been accurately quoted and when you think of all he endured it seems very unfair.

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