“Philomena” Finds Forgiveness

Racilous column topper

[This post contains spoilers for the movie Philomena.]

From the moment I saw my first preview of Philomena, I knew this would be a movie that hit close to many of those in the world of adoption. The story is of a woman who gives birth to a son in Ireland in the 1950s. During her pregnancy she was sent to an Abbey where they forced her to do manual labor and after her child was born kept her separated from her child. She finally signed away her rights to her son rather than having to pay the 100 pounds they demanded for release of her and her child. She spent the next 50 years not talking about her son, not mentioning him to her family. The movie begins on her son’s 50th birthday; Philomena is sitting with glistening eyes in a church lighting a candle for him. She then goes home, breaks down and tells her daughter about his existence. That evening the daughter runs into a journalist who agrees to take on Philomena’s search for her son as his next story.

philomenaThe two of them journey to the Abbey where she stayed–a journey Philomena took once prior in an earlier quest for information about her son. From the first scenes it’s clear who the villain of this story is–whether it boils down to the nuns directly involved, or the church in general, not only were the actions in 1957 detestable but more so, the church had been actively tried to protect itself by keeping adoptees seeking information separate from the birth families who loved them. Time and again throughout the movie this Abbey and the nuns who live there are shown to actively undermine any birth mothers from knowing anything about their children.

As the story continues the journalist and Philomena travel to America to find her son–the journalist is able to use his connections to first discover he (along with another little girl from the Abbey) were sent to America and then to discover his identity. Once they know his name is Michael Hess, they quickly track him down only to discover he has passed away. Her devastation in those moments, knowing she was too late to see her son again, to meet him as an adult, to meet him as Michael Hess instead of the Anthony she remembered were gut-wrenching to watch.

With the loss of meeting her son, Philomena decides she still needs to get to know him so begins to meet those who knew him. Throughout her journey she is desperate to find out that her son thought about her, even just once, she just wants to know he thought of where he came from. She asked those from his life–his co-worker and sister– if he ever mentioned it and they have to admit he didn’t, at least not to them.

They finally talked to Michael’s partner and find out after Michael had fallen ill that they had taken a trip to Ireland, to the Abbey, because he wanted to see where he was from. At the Abbey they were told they had no records and no way to track Philomena. This was of course not just untrue, but the Abbey had actively deceived both Michael and Philomena because they had both visited the Abbey around the same time looking for information.

As I sat down to watch this movie, one of the voices in my head kept saying, “This story is so different from yours, open versus closed, baby scoop era versus now, is there really that much in common to my own journey?” And time and again throughout the movie I realized there really was.

Philomena for so many reasons resonates in my world today–the movie honestly shared Philomena’s insecurities as she saw the places Michael grew up, the jobs he had, the success he achieved–she time and again kept saying, “I could never give him this.” It’s true, the life he would have had with Philomena would have been completely different, but that doesn’t mean better. I too felt trapped by my circumstances, and made the only decision I felt I could, I too can see all my child has in life and think how I don’t stack up, how I’m less than. I think this movie was so captivating–it made Philomena into this wonderful woman, a little quirky in that talkative way, but so funny and kind, so loving and accepting, that I don’t think anyone would doubt how lucky someone would be to have her as a Mother. Perhaps my personal experiences color my views, but I can’t imagine most people don’t walk out of that movie thinking that Michael would have had a wonderful life if he had been raised by Philomena. To see a woman who so clearly would have been an amazing Mother doubt what she could have done for her son just because someone else had more money–well, I time and again shook my head, wanting to tell Philomena how amazing she was and how the money wouldn’t have mattered. It gave me pause in my own self-doubts about myself being less than.

Philomena also showed an amazing example of the connection between Mother and Child. Her comments frequently about how she thought of him every day, about how important every bit of information she found out about him was, how she just couldn’t give up on hearing all about him, the love she had for him was so profound and showcased throughout. But what this movie did so well was show how important Philomena was to Michael–maybe he didn’t always talk about it, maybe he kept it close to his vest, but Michael really did feel tied to his Mother. Not only did he want to travel to Ireland, but he wanted to be buried there–to return home was how he referred to it. The movie was a reminder that even those adoptees who don’t actively talk about their birth families can still find importance in that connection. Interestingly I think the movie also did a good job of showing how this may not hold true in all cases, as Michael’s sister Mary sat in a room with Philomena for several hours talking about him and never asked a question about her own Mother or her own story.

For me though the most profound point the movie touched on was anger and forgiveness. In this particular case there was ample reason to be angry: Philomena not only was treated horribly by the Abbey while she was there, but their behaviors in the years after were appalling. They would lie and deceive, keeping a dying man from meeting his Mother just to save their own reputation. Philomena had every right to be angry–in fact the journalist was quite angry on her behalf. Instead in her last visit to the Abbey she came face to face with one of the nuns who was there when she was pregnant, a woman who lied to her directly about Michael in the years after, a woman who talked about how Philomena deserved it all because of her promiscuous behavior as a teenager and instead of finding anger she found forgiveness. When the journalist questioned why she took the easy way out and told her she forgave her instead of saying how she really felt, Philomena quietly explained the forgiveness was the hardest thing she could have done. She then showed her strength again by allowing the journalist to publicly share her story. I don’t think this version of a birth mother is seen often. One who is deeply and profoundly impacted by injustices, but one who is able to forgive. I think the fact she not only found forgiveness but also showed her strength by telling her truth was an example for me. I think that the struggles Philomena faced were those so many of us face–maybe mine take on a different face than hers but at the core, I still struggle with anger, with feeling betrayed, with wondering if I’m worthless, and yet to see this woman find forgiveness even with all she faced was an true example for me.

Has anyone else gotten a chance to see this movie? What parts resonated with you?

About the author:
In addition to being a monthly contributor to OAB, you can also find Racilous at her personal blog Adoption in the City. There she writes about her experiences as a birth mother, navigating an open adoption with her son and his family, and how adoption has impacted her.

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5 thoughts on ““Philomena” Finds Forgiveness

  1. I cried a lot during this movie. Judi Dench is definitely a fine actress and the movie itself was so well-written and performed. And I think this is one of those movies which every adoptee and birth mother will be watching- even if it does trigger bad memories for them. Great post!

  2. I’ve been avoiding reading your post for about a month to avoid spoilers. I thought i’d get to see the film much sooner, but life got in the way. i read your post as soon as i got on the train after finally seeing it and i have to agree. Despite the difference in era i completely saw myself in her as I did in “A Girl Like Her”. When she started clinging to the smallest details like his handshake i thought yep i do that (as i cried) when she compared the life he’d have had with her to that which he’d had i thought yep i do that too…While i’m well aware of what has changed since the BSE it was eerie how much HASNT changed.

    What also struck me is that from what i read the real Philomena did not forgive the church or the nuns and it made me wonder why we have to be shown as happy *cough* juno *cough* or forgiving why can’t we be angry…much for me to think about…

    • The one thing I will say is I think this movie did a good job of showing why she had a right to be angry (heck everyone around were angry for her), and I do think in the movie her way to express her anger was to tell her story. I do think sometimes humans do get stuck in anger to the detriment of only themselves and for me this is an example that you can choose to forgive others for yourself where Juno seemed to say that there weren’t any negative emotions you would ever have I think Philomena was a

  3. I liked your article very much. Many people have said that the nuns were evil, but the fact that it was a different time is very relevant. It was her father who took her there and never wanted her back! Philomena’s forgiveness is wonderful. And the real Philomena did forgive eventually, but there was a time when she was angry. However the movie is a fictionalized to some extent, so the real Philomena did not necessarily live out the exact scenes that Judi Dench acted. and Steve Coogan made the character of Martin Sixsmith more cynical and angry than he is in real life.

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