The Philomena Effect—An Adoptee Reflects on Truth and Silence

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.

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10 Responses to “The Philomena Effect—An Adoptee Reflects on Truth and Silence”

  1. […] Leslie Pate Mackinnon, who recently appeared on Katie Couric’s show as the “American Philomena.” Leslie weighed in in the comments section as well, saying in […]

  2. Maureen Bourg says:

    Thank you for taking the time to review “Philomena” from an adoptees’ point of view. Being an Irish American from one of the Mommy and Baby homes that Philomena Lee was incarcerated in, whose birth mother cannot get past her shame of the time she spent there to meet me. I am so glad that these stories are being told hopefully my mom will be freed from her guilt and pain.

    What was done to these women was the worst of evils. There is nothing natural about losing a child. And these women were forced to dress these children and send them away as if there was no grief involved.

    The bond that breast feeding a child for 6 months, are said to be the strongest and most unbreakable bond to be formed between two humans. Working 12 hour days in these homes, either in the laundries, or the farms, or even cleaning in the houses on the estates. This is what the nuns in these homes forced on these young women before and after birth of their children. They were forced to stay and work off their “penance,” even though the state provided these homes with stipends for the children and mothers.

    My own mother stayed with me for 2 years. I only remember small glimpses of images of that time, but the scars are immeasurable. I, for example, would not talk to my adopted family (except my adopted brother and cousin) for 6 months. So, I can only imagine the pain my mother went through.

    I do believe adoption is a wonderful legal process to be used only when there are no other means available…ie., the mother is physically incapable of taking care of the baby, and there are no other family members available to care for the child, and perhaps death of both parents. Every other situation can be dealt with using proper instruction and necessary funds to keep the mother and child together.

    Thank you again for publishing your reaction to Philomena. Just as a side note, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Martin Sixsmith and he is absolutely delightful.

    I am looking forward to Secret Sons & Daughters, and will keep my eye open for the release.

    • Thank you very much for your kind words about “The Philomena Effect.” I am so sorry your birth mother is struggling with shame to the point that it is difficult for her to meet. One of my friends was born and adopted in Ireland and while she has met her birth mother, her birth mother is too ashamed to tell her husband and other children that my friend exists. It’s heartbreaking, as you know.

      What you wrote about being glad “that these stories are being told hopefully my mom will be freed from her guilt and pain,” – is one of our great hopes in creating this space to share stories. And, we’re so glad that we’ll soon have an opportunity to share yours! Many thanks for the video you sent.

  3. […] stories have sparked everything from comments on the movie Philomena, to what it’s like to find out everyone knew about your adoption—but you. The benefits of DNA […]

  4. Nancy NeJame says:

    I was moved to tears several times during Philomena, and again when I read your reflections on the movie. Both reminded me of the strong mother-child bond. There’s nothing quite like it. As I watched the movie, I thought about my mother, who passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was in high school, what it must have been like for her to know she was about to leave her children, and women, like Philomena, whose children were taken from them. Mostly, I felt appreciative for movies like this, websites and blogs like yours, that prompt a wider dialogue about loss, love, motherhood, abandonment, grieving, reunions, enduring connections and human rights.

    • Thank you so much for your comments. Nancy! We were as moved by your post as you say Philomena moved you. You captured the essence of what we hope Secret Sons & Daughters can do perhaps better than we could and you we said as such, quoting your beautiful words about “prompting a wider dialogue about loss, love, motherhood, abandonment, grieving, reunions, enduring connections and human rights,” in our first “Secrets in Review.” Many thanks again for your reflections on the parent child bond.

  5. Michele Kayal says:

    Christine, what a beautiful post. Congratulations on launching the site. I really connected with all of the feelings you so poignantly express here. We celebrated my daughter’s 10th birthday yesterday. She was born in the same town in India that my husband was born in and she came to us at 15 months. Every year on her bday we celebrate her birthmother, and remind our daughter of her bravery and generosity and let her know that yes, she is probably thinking of the daughter she doesn’t know. Her birthday is always a happy occasion and a sad occasion for all of us. She isn’t able to articulate that yet, but we know she feels it because she doesn’t want to talk about it. And just for the record, I’m also too chicken to see Philomena. Though everyone has told me I should….I’ll keep you posted.

    • Happy 10th birthday to your daughter! Even though she doesn’t say much about it at this time, I imagine it means a lot to your daughter that you and your husband acknowledge where she came from in such a special way. What you shared reminds me of something I heard an adoption counselor once say: “when you honor the birth mother, you honor the child.” Many thanks for your message about Philomena. Glad to hear I wasn’t the only chicken. Let me know what you think if you see it!

  6. I thought Philomena was spectacular! I never had the chance to meet my birth mother in person, so any story about what happened to first / birth parents always sparks my interest. (Judi Dench adds bonus points!) I loved how Martin Sixsmith had an amazing awakening regarding a subject he’d never considered before, and…well, I don’t want to be a plot-spoiler, so…
    Just go see Philomena if you haven’t…That’s all I’m gonna say!