Book Review: “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A mother, her son, and a fifty year search” by Martin Sixsmith
On paper (pun intended), the story behind Michael Hess’ rise to political power in the Republican Party has all the trappings of a smash hit. Unwed mothers! Greedy nuns! Irish orphans! Homosexuality! Seedy nightlife! AIDS! Politics! A mother and son’s long search for the truth! Sixsmith must have visualized some sort of movie in his head while he pounded out this story. In fact, the story itself nothing short of compelling. The execution of the story, however, is completely disappointing.
If you go on the Goodreads website and read nearly all of the one to three star reviews for this book, you will see a general complaint: Martin Sixsmith, for whatever reason or another, fabricated most of the dialogue in his work. Why he chose to deviate from the journalistic style from which he’s built his career and write this story as a work of non-fiction meets fictional setting is beyond me. I urge everyone to read the review by Susan Kavanaugh. Susan is featured in the story as one of Michael Hess’ (né Anthony Lee in an Irish Catholic Abby to Philomena Lee) close friends, and her review completely lambasts Sixsmith’s butchering of the life of her good friend. She confirms much of the dialogue is made up, although it doesn’t take long for the reader to gather as much, especially since the main character is deceased. As I mention in my comment on Goodreads, I don’t believe for one second that 3 year olds sit in cribs at night having existential conversations about their adoptions and what it all means. This type of dialogue was written solely for dramatic effect and it becomes very clear that the author had designs on making this a dramatic, or rather melodramatic, work.
Only 10% of this book actually covers “the mother” and her “50 year search” as the subtitle proclaims. The bulk of the book is devoted to Michael Hess- his journey to America, his adoption into an American family, his youth, his rise to political stardom, his sexual escapades, and his fight with AIDS that ultimately ended with his death in 1995. The first quarter of the book is decidedly the best and most intriguing, as Sixsmith describes Philomena’s struggle in the convent to keep her child and the historical aspects of Irish adoptions through the Catholic Church during the 1950s and 60s. At first I thought I might be in for a great read- full of scandal, despair, and hope.
After such a promising start, the book quite drastically switches focus and Philomena Lee becomes a mere footnote. The story would have worked much better if Sixsmith had given equal weight to Philomena’s search for her lost child along with Michael Hess’ struggles to find his identity and Irish birth mother. The only way this could have worked is if Sixsmith wrote it as a journalist and not as a first person narrator. But somehow I suspect that either Martin Sixsmith or his publishers decided that this story wouldn’t sell without a heavy dose of sensationalism. And that is what characterizes most of Michael’s story. The amount of time the author devotes to Michael’s sexuality, relationships, forays into the darker aspects of the gay lifestyle in 1970’s Washington D.C., and his own troubled sense of self-worth overrides most of the main premise. Many of the reviewers on Goodreads point out that in the end the title of this story is misleading.
I wouldn’t say I felt misled by this book, but I have to wonder why Philomena was given such short shrift. In the last 50 pages or so that the author devotes to her story since leaving the Roscrea abby in Ireland, we learn she remarries twice and has two other children. We discover she went back to the abby to search for her lost son. We soon realize that she lived most of her life in pain and aguish, keeping her shameful secret from those who loved her. In the very beginning of the book, Sixsmith admits that he only came to know of this story through Philomena’s daughter. When I first read this, I thought “Ok, she obviously leaves the abby and goes on with her life. How does this happen? Does she get married, reunite with her family? Was it emotionally painful to have a second child?” I didn’t think my questions would ever be answered. As we moved painfully slow, year by year, through Michael’s life (1973-74 was a particularly long year- over 3 chapters), not once did the author touch on the parallel life of a mother in search of her son, or her thoughts and longings as she met her own daily struggles. I would rather Sixsmith trim all the extraneous points in Michael’s life- his early theatre career, his role in Gerrymandering laws, even the details of some of his early relationships- and share focus to Philomena’s side of the story.
I haven’t seen the movie “Philomena”, but from what I can gather from the trailer the focus is more on the mother than the son. I wonder if Dench ever read the book, or just skimmed it? In the afterword written by Judi Dench, she thanks Sixsmith for the “fairness” he gives to Michael’s story and the Catholic nuns. What a laugh. If anything, the nuns are depicted as greedy and scrupulous hags who have nary a compassionate bone in their bodies. Michael is characterized as a moody sexual deviant who treats his boyfriends like dirt, and for all his supposed charm is absolutely devoid of an interesting personality. Per Kavanaugh, Martin Sixsmith dishonored her friend’s memory with an unflattering portrayal that was contrary to any interview she, or Michael’s partner Pete, gave to him. I believe her. Sixsmith had an obvious agenda while writing this book and the result is a total mess. What could have been a fascinating read turned out to be an utter dud. Skip it.