Interview: The Real Philomena Lee

Posted on February 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Philomena Lee is a retired psychiatric nurse who lived quietly with her family in England until a search for the son taken away from her and adopted by Americans led to a  book by journalist Martin Sixsmith (Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search) and a movie starring Judi Dench and co-screenwriter Steve Coogan.  Since the movie came out, Lee has devoted herself to helping change the laws in the UK so adoptees and their birth mothers can find each other if they want to.  When she came to Washington, D.C. with her daughter, I spoke to them about this project and why it was important to her to forgive the nuns who abused her.

Have any of the other women whose babies were taken away found their children?

I wouldn’t know, we honestly wouldn’t know because when I was in the home, you had to lose your identity, you had to forget your own name. I wasn’t Philomena Lee anymore. We were all given what they called a house name and my name was Marsella. So I didn’t even knew then they name of many of them, they were just called by, it could be , Mary , Kate, Annie or something.  So I was just known as Marsella and they would have known me as Marsella. They wouldn’t have known me as my home name which is Philomena Lee.

Have you heard from many of the adoptees and mothers who gave up their children for adoption?

People’s enquiry is usually “Did you remember my mother? Did you know my mother?” And of course I didn’t know any of them at all really. And this is why we started the project last week in Ireland, The Adoption Alliance, so that the mums that are trying to find their babies will be given the right do so.  At the moment in Ireland, it’s not law , they don’t have to be told anything. So the women are trying to get the right to be able to find out who their mom was, who their dad was. 

Philomena’s daughter added: Yes, we’ve heard from hundreds of people, people have come up to us in the cinemas and things like those, have come us to us physically, we’ve had lots and lots of contact, people sending us messages, people have left message on the graves, all sorts of things which is the reason we started The Philomena Project really and the awareness that people who don’t have an automatic right to information and trying to get that changed if we can.  It’s to have a place for them to go or a website for them to go so they know how to go about starting that if they want to because many of them won’t know where to look in the first place. And for that reason we would like to change the legislation and that is ultimately what we would like as a result of this.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is when you say to the nun who not only abused you and took your son but thwarted your efforts to find him and his efforts to find you.  Why do you think forgiveness is so important?

I was very unforgiving in the very early stages after I eventually left after the adoption, I eventually worked in a boys school in Liverpool from Ireland to England and I was so sad and so hurt and so I was in an unforgiving frame of mind at the time.   But then after a couple of years I left Liverpool and went down south to a place in London. I worked in a psychiatric hospital for 30 years and over the years I’ve been working in the psychiatric hospital I can assure you, you can see life as life is more often than not. So I gradually and gradually saw so much sorrow and hurt that was caused through anger. So I was able to release my anger gradually and start forgiving again so that’s how it is.

And I do forgive because I’ve lived to sixty one last year and so it’s a long time to live.  My son grew up in a lovely home, had an education ended up happy so I’m happy about that and I’m able to put some closure on this because at last I found him. For my whole life all I ever wanted to do was to find him.

Of course he was looking for me, as well.  He went over three times to the home where he was born and they wouldn’t give him any information.   They said no one knew of me and I was looking for him  and so my brother lived at the same home we lived since I was eight years old.  He was only an hour away and they wouldn’t give him the address. When I moved to England several times I sent my new addresses but I never got any answer back so they never took it. They had told him that I abandoned him at two weeks old.  But I was in the home for three and a half years and I wrote him and developed a very close bond with him.

You know at three he was a lovely, friendly, intelligent boy and I certainly believe because he looked for me so much straight on he did remember me. I wondered all the time and prayed that I would find him and eventually Martin Sixsmith, who was the correspondent in Washington managed to get all the information.  Martin called all of his friends and his partner and his partner gave us so much information and they did have a good amount of time together; 15 years together and they were very happy together and he loved him very much and that put my heart at ease when I knew that he tried to find be because I know that he remembered me.

I always thought it was good to have a close bond. He was really such a lovely little boy; such a loving little boy you know. As they say, at least I found him and he will always be within my own heart.  It was very good to know that he had a good life and he was a happy man and he had happy friends and I am happy about that because I knew he was happy, I found out he was happy.   He did request when he knew he was dying that one day if anything happens “please bring my ashes back and have me buried where I was born.”  And now I can visit his grave.

When I first saw the film, I didn’t know what to think but who would ask for more?


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The Real Story: Philomena

Posted on January 27, 2014 at 8:00 am

“Philomena,” star Dame Judi Dench, screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and composer Alexandre Desplat are all nominated for Oscars this year.  It is the real-life story of Philomena Lee, who joined Coogan at the Golden Globes as a presenter earlier this month and spoke with great dignity about the women, like her, who were mistreated by the Magdalene sisters and forced to give up their babies for adoption.

In the movie, Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist who helped Philomena find out what happened to her son, who was adopted by Americans.    The Daily Mail has an interview and some photos of Philomena and Michael.

Philomena’s story is complex and harrowing, and yet the first thing that strikes you about Philomena herself is that she bears no rancour. She’s seen the film twice, she tells me, ‘and the first time was stressful, but the second time I enjoyed it, and I was so glad that they didn’t harp on about the Catholic church because I wouldn’t have wanted that’.

In Politico, writer Todd Purdum provides some additional information about the boy Philomena called Anthony Lee, and who was renamed Michael Anthony Hess when he was adopted at age 3.  As shown in the movie, an American couple intended to adopt a little girl named Mary, to whom Anthony was devoted.  Impulsively, they decided to take him, too.

Half a century later, Sixsmith brought Philomena to Washington, D.C., to find out what happened to him.  He had become a lawyer, served as chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee, and died of AIDS in 1995.  His close friends knew he was gay, but he was not out in his professional life.  Before he died, he made two trips to Ireland to try to find his mother, and his last request was to be buried at the convent where he was born.

Steve Dahllof, Hess’s partner for the last 15 years of his life, said in a telephone interview that the book was “about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy,” while the movie, “in accuracy of spirit, is 10 out of 10.”

While the abuses of the Magdalene sisters in the 1950’s are documented, the movie has been criticized for its portrayal of the contemporary nuns and heightening some of the scenes for dramatic effect.


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