Yesterday my mom and I went to see Philomena, the film based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who spent 50 years looking for the son who was taken from her when she was a teenager. Because of lack of sex education and available birth control, there were a number of teenage girls who found themselves pregnant and alone in mid-20th-century Ireland and ended up in Magdalene Houses for lack of other options. Philomena was essentially enslaved in one of these houses from the ages of 18-22 where she worked in a laundry 7 days a week and was permitted to see her son for 1 hour a day until he was essentially sold to an American family and his mother never saw him again. Her son, Anthony, was never out of her mind for a moment as she left the house, became a nurse, married and had other children. On her son’s 50th birthday she tells her daughter about the existence of this son and that she’s always wanted to find him. Her daughter by chance meets Martin Sixsmith, a cynical journalist who has recently been sacked from a position in the British Prime Minister’s office. She asks him if he’d help her mother and he rather pointedly explains that he doesn’t do “human interest” stories. Sixsmith ends up changing his mind and the two end up on a rather winding journey to find Philomena’s son and resurrect Sixsmith’s career.
The journeys of these two individuals are somewhat disparate, as Sixsmith goes on this journey motivated by his atheism and his disdain for the Catholic Church and Philomena, a devout Catholic, goes to prove God’s hand in her experience. During the search for Philomena’s son, now known as Michael Hess, the name given him by his adoptive parents, Philomena & Sixsmith discover that Michael was a successful attorney who worked for Presidents Reagan and Bush 41. They also discovered that he died 8 years earlier. This is a heartbreaking moment in the film that momentarily derails Philomena’s resolve and she almost returns to England. Knowing that there are people she can talk to who knew her son she and Sixsmith continue to seek out people who knew her son and who could tell her what she wanted to know – did he think of her?
Philomena and Sixsmith finally get Michael’s partner Peter to talk to them and show them pictures. Philomena explained that he had been taken from her and that she had wanted to find him all along. It turns out, Peter and Michael had gone to Ireland and visited the convent where he had been born andin a shocking twist, learned he was in fact buried there. Their initial visit where they had been told all records were burned and no one knew anything of Michael was a lie. Philomena was baffled, as one imagines a naive believer might be, whereas Sixsmith was enraged, feeling justified in his disdain for the church. When they returned to the convent, he confronted the old nun who had been around when Philomena had her son and the nun was recalcitrant. She angrily proclaimed that these girls had gotten what they deserved. Philomena heard the commotion and interrupted, chastised Sixsmith for his rudeness and offered the nun her forgiveness.
I’ve recently been thinking about forgiveness and wondering if I truly have forgiven a couple of people. I’ve had recurring dreams about them in which they are trying to reconcile with me and I won’t have it. Then I’d feel guilty in my waking hours and trying to figure out what was going on and why I couldn’t let go of this. Turns out I’m ok. I feel like God said, you’re good and you’re being fooled. So my dreams, which have often been a tool of oppression for me, had once again been used to make me think I was not as far along on this journey as I actually was. That was a relief. Forgivenss is hard. Philomena said that when Sixsmith accused her of taking the easy way out. It’s not easy. But it is right. In that moment, Philomena was Jesus and it was beautiful to see.