"Philomena," originally published in 2009, has been reissued to coincide with the recently released movie of the same name, with Dame Judi Dench in the title role. (I have purposely not seen the movie before reading and reviewing the book.)
Martin Sixsmith, a journalist and author, was a correspondent for the BBC from 1980 to 1997 and then was the British government's director of communications from 1997 to 2002. His research for this book began in 2004 when Philomena Lee's family asked his help in locating the son she had been forced to give up 50 years earlier.
In 1952, a pregnant, unmarried, poor and lonely Philomena was sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, a convent home in Ireland for unwed mothers. There, she gave birth to a boy, whom she named Anthony. Anthony spent the first three years of his life in the convent nursery while Philomena worked in the attached laundry to pay off the debt she owed the nuns. It was a difficult and sad life, lightened only by the adoring and adored child she saw for, at most, one hour a day. That precious closeness would be shattered in 1955 when Anthony was adopted by the Hess family of St. Louis.
Like other young mothers, Philomena was forced to "relinquish full claim forever" for her son so that he could be adopted. She also promised "never to attempt to see, interfere with or make any claim to the said child at any future time." It is a promise she kept with fortitude and anguish.
Marge Hess had come to Ireland with the intention of adopting 2-year-old Mary McDonald, but when she saw the bond between Mary and Anthony, she impulsively decided to adopt both children. So it was that Anthony Lee became Michael Hess. It was an unhappy family and, like many adoptees, he struggled with deep-seated fears that he had been abandoned because he was "no good." As a young adolescent he suspected he was gay, but it wasn't until his college years that he began to explore his sexuality.
Michael was intelligent, hard-working and ambitious. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and then went to George Washington University Law School. Michael's interest was electoral law and his expertise in gerrymandering and redistricting led to a position with the Republican National Committee. He eventually became their chief counsel, an ironic appointment for a gay man at a time when the Republican Party was at odds with the gay community.
We learn (more than we need to know) about Michael's pattern of engaging in risky behavior even while in a long-term relationship. He was never able to extricate himself from the demons of self-degradation that he attributed to his adoption. Eventually, not surprisingly, he developed AIDS and died in 1995.
Several times during his adult life Michael Hess had visited the convent where he was born. The nuns always stonewalled his attempts to get information about his mother. Still, the connection to Roscrea was so strong that, when he knew he was dying, he asked to be buried there. With clues found on the headstone, Sixsmith was able to confirm that Michael Hess was Anthony Lee.
"Philomena" is an engaging narrative, but the book is weak on analysis and context. The one exception to this is Sixsmith's clear presentation of the collusion of the Irish government in the massive adoption scheme that enriched the church at the expense of thousands of women and children.
Despite its length, the book holds the reader's attention. We grow to care about Philomena Lee and grieve the injustice she endured. We cringe over the Hess family dynamics, marvel at Michael's success and are troubled by his reckless behavior. Ultimately, though, the title is misleading. This is book is not about Philomena. It is about Michael, the Republican lawyer who kept his own secrets as aggressively as Philomena kept hers.
We learn some facts about Philomena's life -- after Anthony's adoption she trained as a nurse, married, raised two children, was divorced, and is now remarried -- but Sixsmith fails to give us a full portrait of this tenacious woman. That is unfortunate, because from what little we learn, Philomena seems like a woman of integrity, with deep reserves of fortitude, strength and courage and, above all, a remarkable lack of bitterness.