A Conversation with Philomena Lee

In the ’50s, Philomena Lee became pregnant outside of marriage at the age of 18. She was sent to an Irish convent to have her baby, and after that, worked off her expenses in the laundry, permitted to see her child for an hour each day. Against her will and as part of a large and secretive program of forced adoption, the nuns gave her young son away when he was three years old. Philomena was able to track down her son — a successful lawyer and former chief legal counsel to the RNC — only after his death. Her search is the subject of the movie Philomena, starring Judi Dench.

I talked to Philomena and her daughter Jane on the phone this week.

In the abbey, you went by the name Marcella, right?

Yes. As soon as you entered, you weren’t allowed to use your own name at all. I was known as Marcella and that was that. We didn’t talk about our families or use our own names.

Does your time there feel like it belongs to another person?

It’s such a long time ago. I do feel like a different person now, of course. Anthony would have been 62 years old if he were alive today.

But in the abbey we just all had to do it. We all had to lose our identity. And at the time I was so young, and every other girl was in the same boat. It did bother me that I couldn’t use my name, although I do like the name Marcella. But then again that’s how it was in the early ‘50s — you just accepted what you were told. They never gave us any reason.

Jane: I believe it was to create more safety around the adoption. So the children wouldn’t know their mothers.

What about your son’s name — did you get to pick Anthony?

Yes. But where I got it from, I don’t know. I had a very difficult birth. I could actually hear them saying, “I’ve never done a breech birth,” and I was in such pain, and I could hear them going out for the other girls and saying, “Get on your knees and say a prayer for Marcella, she may die.”

It was all so traumatic. Not just the birth. I never thought about his name beforehand. For one, we didn’t discuss that kind of thing, we couldn’t.

And then, when you saw your baby, he just looked like an Anthony.

Yes. I guess I just liked it — there’s no Anthony in my family or anything.

Did the other girls at the abbey feel guilty? Did you all feel very deeply that you’d sinned?

We were certainly made to feel we had sinned. According to the Catholic religion, the nuns never stopped letting us know that we had done something absolutely horrible, and we were young — I was 16 to 18 — and we firmly believed everything they told us. We were fallen women. We had committed a mortal sin, a crime against a church.

Did you lose your faith?

Not while I was there. Only after Anthony had gone, and they’d got me a job in Liverpool, in a boy’s school — to get rid of me, I think — and I went there and began to doubt everything. I began to stop going to confession. Actually, I’ve never gone since, and these days I don’t really believe in that. I confess my sins in my own heart.

But I never stopped praying. If I passed a church, I’d go in and sit down and have a prayer, have a talk. I’d wonder where he was, say “Please God let me find him.”

I was angry. For a long time I was a very angry person. But then over the years, I was in psychiatric nursing and I saw so much sorrow and hurt caused by anger. That’s where I began to forgive again. I was able to be there in my work just to help people — I saw some very, very sad cases there — and I was able to let my anger go. Eventually I did go back to the church.

Jane: Mum returned to the church just before she told me.

Were there any aspects of life at the convent that were fun, that you remember happily?

Well, the one relief, the one thing I love to this very day, was singing in the choir. I was a good singer back then. And we were brought up with the Latin mass, the Gregorian hymns. One lovely young nun and I would harmonize to “Ave Maria” together and we developed a bond.

Choir practice was just an absolutely lovely thing to do. You would work in the laundry day in and day out, the whole of the week, then you had your baby for an hour a day, then you had choir practice.

What vocal part did you sing?

I think I was a soprano. I could reach the high notes then — I can’t so much nowadays. But I still love choirs. I listen to lots of records.

Was Jane the first person you had told about your son? Your brother had already known — anyone else? Did you tell your friends?

No, no no. I never told anybody. My first husband — Jane’s dad — he was a male nurse, and before marrying him I told him. He said, “It’s in the past,” and from that day until it came out all these years later he never mentioned it. Never, ever.

He died three years ago now. I was always in touch with him, and when the story came out, Jane said, “Mom has this story,” and he told her that he knew.

That was shame as well, you see. I was ashamed of having to tell him.

Did you ever think that you would take your pregnancy back if you could?

No, no no. Not whatsoever. Anthony was an absolutely adorable child, A gift to me. The hardships, yes — they were very hard. But that beautiful little boy was a gift from God to me.

I thought that bit in the movie was so interesting, when you (or I guess I mean Judi Dench-you!) find out about your son’s partner — and you’re very matter-of-factly not at all surprised.

Well, yes, he was a sensitive and loving boy, but of course I didn’t know he was gay when he was a baby. Really I didn’t know anything about being gay in those days, in the ‘50s.

You know, many people in America have asked me lots of questions about that. “How did you feel when you found out he was gay?” I tell them I didn’t feel anything whatsoever! It certainly didn’t faze me at all. I worked with lots of gay male nurses and they were absolutely charming.

What makes you happiest?

I have the most wonderful family, a son and a daughter, four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and I adore them. We have our ups and downs, but everybody does. We are a very close, united family and I love them all dearly.

Had you ever thought about who you’d want to play you in a movie, just sort of for fun? Judi Dench is a pretty good outcome.

I never thought about it at all! And when they suggested Judi Dench, I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell off my chair. She’s famous all over the world, you know! I was over the moon. A lot of my friends thought I’d gone soft, because they didn’t believe that it was true. I was so glad to be able to say, “Actually, look, it is true.”

You’ve since started the Philomena Project, and you’re working to get adoption legislation changed. How has that work been?

Jane: Lots and lots of people have come forward. They email and ask if Mum remembers their mother, but of course it’s hard to know, because they were all given different names, and it was such a long time ago. But the other day we heard of an 84-year-old mother who as a result of the film found her child, and he’s been embraced by his other brothers and sisters. For the pair of us, those stories are amazing.

Mum has been quite touched by the reaction to the film, and by everything since. And we’re going to carry on until we get the law changed. The attitude around adoption, too — what happened in the ’50s happened in the ’50s, but now it’s 2014. We had such a sad outcome when we found Anthony. If we can prevent that sort of thing, that’s an incredible outcome.

Philomena, how did it feel to find out that your son had been searching for you?

When I found out that he had been looking for me, it was wonderful. Deep within my heart, I did know that he remembered me. I know he was only 3 ½ when he was taken away, but really we had such a close bond, we had the most wonderful relationship. I’ll never forget that. It made me so happy to see that my intelligent little boy had turned into such a highly intelligent man, it really did, and with a good life. That makes me feel so good inside.

And the whole of my life, all I wanted to do was find out what happened to him. And I did. Everything has turned out so well.

More information about the Philomena Project and the Adoption Rights Alliance here. The movie Philomena will be out on DVD April 15th.