Life, Adopted at the Movies: Philomena

The first time I visited Baltimore’s historic Charles Theater was in the fall of 1989. At 18-years-old, I had just arrived in town to begin my freshman year at Loyola College. A new friend joined me for a showing of Stephen Soderbergh’s film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Sitting in the dark theater, I had no idea at the time that this formative part of my life would set into motion my own journey of self-discovery as an adoptee.

I recently found myself back at the Charles Theater. This time, it was for a showing of Philomena, a British drama film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith. Both the book and the film depict the story of Lee and the son she lost to adoption.

Sex, Lies and Adoption

Lee’s story is one with which many of us involved in adoption reform are familiar. As an 18-year-old in 1950s Ireland, Lee became pregnant. Disowned by her strict Catholic family, she joined the thousands of single, pregnant Irish women sent to Catholic Church operated convents during the 1950s and 1960s. Lee ended up at the Sean Ross Abbey which was operated by the Sacred Heart Sisters in Roscrea in County Tipperary. According to Mike Milotte’s book Banished Babies The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business, 438 babies born at Sean Ross were secretly sent to America for adoption. Lee’s son was one of those babies.

The flim presents Lee’s story as it unfolds after she becomes acquainted with the journalist Sixsmith and the two embark on a search for her lost son soon after his 50th birthday. Judi Dench is superb as the elder Lee and Steve Coogan gives life and humor to the cynical Sixsmith character. The relationship between the two is a highlight of the film and brings a sense of lightness to what is truly a poignant and heart-wrenching tale. In fact, relationships are the key theme of the film. While the atrocities endured by Lee and other young women are depicted and acknowledged, the heart of the story is in Lee’s own heart as a mother who feels a deep connection to the son who lived at the convent with her until he was 3-years-old. As an adoptee and a viewer, I liked this aspect of the film very much.  I liked that the focus was on Lee’s deep love for her son and how she never once stopped thinking of him or searching for him. This film offers a reminder that the connection between parent and child can rise above even the most horrific of circumstances.

Certain aspects of the film also mirrored some of my own experiences with Catholic institutions as a domestic American adoptee who was adopted through Catholic Charities as an infant in 1971. In the film, we learn that Lee visited the Sean Ross Abbey on several occasions with the hope of finding out what had become of her son. We also learn that as an adult, her son had also visited the convent with the hope of learning more about his mother. The convent nuns never tell one about the other, despite having the information readily available and having engaged in discussions with both.

Personal Parallels

My natural father first visited Catholic Charities of Fairfield County in 1989, around the time that his 18-year-old daughter was sitting in a Baltimore city movie theater watching actor James Spader point a video camera at actress Andie MacDowell. His intent was to inquire about me and make all of his information available. The Catholic Charities social worker would not tell him anything about me—not even my birth date. But she did tell him that, for a fee, he would be allowed to fill out paperwork containing all of his information. He was then informed that if I ever contacted the agency, his details would be provided to me. My father wrote out the check, completed the forms and began searching for his only child.

In 1998, at the age of 27, I did contact Catholic Charities of Fairfield County to inquire about my natural parents and learn what I could about my background. The same social worker who worked with my father years earlier spoke with me. She never mentioned that my father had released his information to me. But she did say that if I were to pay a $250 fee, Catholic Charities would conduct a search for me. I opted to keep my checkbook closed.

Fortunately, my father and I found each other through ISRR. After we reunited, my father told me about how he had released his information and asked if the agency had provided it to me. No, they did not, I confirmed. Then, seeing as Catholic Charities had no idea that my father and I had found each other, I decided to make an inquiry. I sent a letter requesting that any information left for me by either of my parents be provided as soon as possible.

A week later, I received a phone call from the same social worker who had worked with both my father and me. She informed me that Catholic Charities had good news and bad news. The good news, she said, was that my father had released all of his information to me years earlier. The bad news, she then explained, was that the agency could not release it without my mother’s permission—because she was considered the agency’s client (please note that as the actual former “child in need,” the agency does not consider me, one of its adoptees, to be a client). My father was not informed of these details when he paid his fee in 1989. To this day, I have never been provided with the information that Catholic Charities promised my father it would release.

That Which Transcends

While watching the film and considering my own personal experience, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lack of compassion offered to the natural parents, sons and daughters of adoption by some global Catholic institutions. Some of these actions occurred not only in the 1950s, but in the 1990s and 2000s. So this is not a matter of “oh well, that was a long time ago.”  In one sense, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County in Connecticut did to my father and the adult me what the Sean Ross Abbey nuns in Ireland did to Philomena and her adult son—withheld vital information, lied by omission and intentionally kept us from one another.

In the film, Lee does find out what happened to her son. She also agrees to let Sixsmith share her story, which he did in film and reality. Hers is one of abusive treatment and profound loss. It is also one of the deep, pure love of a mother for her son. This film does not shy away from the ethical issues in adoption yet manages to allow a mother’s love for her son to transcend all else, even the Catholic Church and the adoption industry. As such, this film is a gem and a must-view for anyone interested in taking a closer look at the topics of ethics in adoption, parental love and basic human compassion.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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