A British journalist’s novelistic biography about an unwed Irish mother and the son she was forced to give up for adoption.
In the sexually repressive Ireland of the 1950s, single motherhood was a mark of shame not only for girls and women, but also for their families. So when 18-year-old Philomena Lee became pregnant in late 1952, her father sent her to a convent for fallen women. Philomena worked as a virtual slave for the nuns who ran it in exchange for room and board. She gave birth to and cared for an infant son she called Anthony, a son who would be forcibly turned over to a Catholic couple willing to offer a “donation” for the privilege of adopting. Against Philomena’s wishes, an American doctor and his wife adopted her son, along with a female playmate he adored. The couple renamed the boy Michael and took him and his “sister” Mary to live in the United States. Michael grew up a model child, but Sixsmith’s (Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, 2011, etc.) psychologically probing portrait of Philomena’s son reveals how he also suffered from a “secret certainty of his own worthlessness,” which stemmed from the pain of maternal abandonment and a growing awareness of his own homosexuality. Michael became a successful Washington, D.C., lawyer whose expertise in gerrymandering issues garnered him the attention of Republican Party elites. Yet due to the fact that Michael could not accept himself, he indulged in darker compulsions—risky sex, alcohol and drugs—that destroyed his relationships and eventually caused him to contract AIDS. His personal tragedy was compounded by the fact that he and his mother searched for each other without success. Since the secretive Catholic Church could not reveal the sordid truth behind the adoption to either Philomena or Michael, the pair “reunited” only after Sixsmith’s chance intervention—and only after it was too late. Judi Dench, who provides the foreword, will star in the upcoming film adaptation.
A searingly poignant account of forced adoption and its consequences.