When Philomena first debuted in theaters, I’ll admit I was afraid to see it. It wasn’t because I thought it would be no good (Judi Dench stars in it after all). I was afraid it would be too good. A friend had texted: “Have you seen Philomena? Just saw it. SO good. Made me think of Ann.” By the end of the movie’s first week, two more friends had emailed, “thought of Ann through the movie.”
There was no way I was going to see that film now. My birth mother, Ann, passed away four years ago, and I was hesitant to trigger the very lonely, and very “complicated grief” (therapist’s term) I struggled with in holiday seasons past. Why see a movie about a naive Irish teenager who had made love, got pregnant, was sent away, and then forced to give up her son for adoption and keep quiet? A trajectory that was the same as Ann’s, and a son whose existence was a secret, like I was, albeit not for 50 years.
I had work deadlines, holiday shopping, a packed month of basketball games and holiday events to attend—and a determination to avoid anything that could cast a somber tone on Christmas.
And then, on December 18, after the last deadline was met, and the presents were bought, and our guests were due to arrive, I had a change of heart. We had been quietly working on Secret Sons & Daughters for months. I had to see the film, so I texted Heather: “Philomena —11 am tomorrow?”
And off we went. We sat in a nearly empty theatre, a few rows in front of a group of college girls home for break, and I discovered that there was everything and nothing somber about Philomena.
I laughed when Philomena spoke bluntly about her sexual parts, and felt my heart rest as I listened to her soft way of saying hard things in scene after scene. Ann had both those qualities. Then there was the irony—the scene where Philomena asks Martin if he could use a fake name for her in his article, “or maybe Anne, Anne Boleyn” she mused.
What surprised me most though, was that I was as captivated by Martin Sixsmith’s storyline as I was by Philomena’s. To me, he was sort of like Nick Carraway to The Great Gatsby’s Jay Gatsby—a peripheral narrator whose life changes as he witnesses a story and becomes part of the action unfolding. Sixsmith’s interactions and observations are what cause us to think about the role we play in viewing our pasts, and the role of faith, as we watch Martin’s faith and beliefs about human nature (or at least “human interest” stories) be tested during his pursuit of Philomena’s story.
Perhaps that’s how Philomena might change others too, not in a Martin Sixsmith journalist sort of way, but maybe in the way we decide what to keep secret.
In the days after I’d seen the film, there was one scene that lingered. It’s the part when Philomena grapples with which is the greater sin—what she did, or keeping the secret for 50 years—and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I was talking about the movie with an editor I often work with, who is also a friend and adoptive father.
Preparing to launch Secret Sons & Daughters has a strange coming out of the closet feel to it for me, I shared with him. I’m thrilled one minute, and then truly dread that someone will actually read through it the next. The site’s mission goes against a natural impulse.
I’m from a generation that was supposed to keep quiet about adoption, be thankful, be loyal—why dredge up the past? Don’t dredge up the past—that’s the kind thing to do. And yet there’s a part of me that believes that the kindest thing you can do for another person is to listen and try to see him or her, the true him or her, and honor those stories—even stand up for those stories, as Philomena’s daughter Jane, and Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench, and Steve Coogan have done with this film.
In our own small way, that’s what we hope to do with each Secret Son & Daughter story shared. If you have a story to tell, we’d love to hear it. And your thoughts on Philomena too—what parts of the movie struck you?
Image Credit: JUDI DENCH and STEVE COOGAN star in PHILOMENA, Photo by Alex Bailey © 2013 The Weinstein Company.