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Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Real Philomena

Actress Dame Judi Dench and Philomena Lee attend the 'Philomena' American Express Gala screening during the 57th BFI London Film Festival at Odeon Leicester Square on October 16, 2013 in London, England. (Zak Hussein/Getty Images for BFI)

Actress Dame Judi Dench and Philomena Lee attend the ‘Philomena’ American Express Gala screening during the 57th BFI London Film Festival at Odeon Leicester Square on October 16, 2013 in London, England. (Zak Hussein/Getty Images for BFI)

Philomena,” the movie starring Dame Judi Dench, has been both a critical and commercial success.

The film is based on the story of Philomena Lee, who as an unmarried pregnant teenager, went to a Catholic-run home for unwed mothers in Rosecrea, Ireland in 1952.

“In those days it was such an awful thing to have the baby out of wedlock, we were ostracized all over the place,” Lee told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “My father didn’t want to know me. He disowned me.”

Lee was compelled by the nuns to put her son up for adoption, and he was taken away when he was three and a half.

Leenever saw her son again, although she left word with the nuns for her son, in case he came looking for her. As a grown-up, Lee’s son tried repeatedly to contact her, but the nuns never put the two in touch with each other.

Lee eventually attempted to find her son, with the help of her grown daughter Jane Libberton 10 years ago, but the two found out that he had died of AIDS in 1995.


  • Philomena Lee, her life inspired the film “Philomena.”
  • Jane Libberton, daughter of Philomena Lee.




The movie "Philomena" is a huge hit, even though it is a story of almost unbearable loss. Dame Judi Dench plays the title character, the real-life Irish woman Philomena, who became pregnant as a naive teen and was sent to one of Ireland's mother and baby homes, Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea County, Tipperary, where her son was taken away from her when he was three and given to an American family for adoption. She searched for him for years. That's all true. The film deviates from the real story by having her travel to America with a journalist played by Steve Coogan.


JUDI DENCH: (As Philomena) Now we're getting closer. All these years wondering whether Anthony was in trouble or in prison or goodness knows where. But as long as I didn't know, I could always tell myself he was happy somewhere and that he was doing all right.

STEVE COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) Don't upset yourself.

DENCH: (AS Philomena) What if he was obese?

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) Obese?

DENCH: (As Philomena) I watched this documentary that says a lot of Americans are huge. What if that happened to him?

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) What on Earth makes you think he'd be obese?

DENCH: (As Philomena) Because of the size of the portions.

YOUNG: All right, that's a somewhat funny line - there are a few. But the real Philomena Lee says she's OK with that because the story, the real story is so sad. It turns out her son was looking for her as well. Like two blind people feeling their way around the world, they never touched. He died of AIDS before they could. Philomena Lee joins us from the NPR Studios in Culver City, California, with more. Philomena, welcome.


YOUNG: And your daughter, Jane Libberton, joins us as well. Jane, welcome to you.

JANE LIBBERTON: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: I just have to ask you, I'm sorry, is that hard for you to hear, that clip from the film, or does the light moment...

LEE: No, not - not really, no. No. Not hard at all. No. This is all true, yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. You've said that you thought of Anthony every day for over 50 years.

LEE: Well, I kept this - as you know, Robin, for 50-odd years, I kept this as a secret. I never told anybody about it because in those days, it was such an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock. We were ostracized all over the place. Nobody - and my father didn't want to know me - disowned me. And I had one brother that was on my side, so I ended up in Roscrea.

And there I stayed for three and a half years. He was born the 5th of July, 1952. In June 1955, I had to wait for him to be adopted because there's no way I could take him home with me. My father didn't want to know me.

YOUNG: So you were resigned to the thought that he might be adopted. You had no choice. I can't imagine, you felt you had a choice.

LEE: No choice, whatsoever, because there was nowhere I could go.

YOUNG: Well - and you have said that image of him being driven away in a car, you were watching from a window, it's just unbearable. How do you survive that?

LEE: I don't know. I just kept thinking - I kept that image in front of me all the years that I kept the secret to myself. I knew he had to go because I had signed him away six months previously to that. But one of the very nice nuns that were there, she came down, she said: Quick, come up and look out the window. Anthony's going. I didn't really have time to say, good-bye, darling, or give him a hug or a kiss or anything. He was just gone, put into the car.

And all I could see was the little face at the back of the window looking out. And I'm looking down the window thinking, oh, my God, he's gone, you know, after three and a half years looking after him and loving him and nursing him (unintelligible). And, you know, Robin, you know, I've never forgotten the scene and never will do. I still have tears about it sometimes, you know, so sorry about that. But anyway...

YOUNG: Well, it's understandable. And yet we should jump ahead. You, in fact, got a job. You eventually had a career as a psychiatric nurse.

LEE: I did.

YOUNG: Always looking, always - as you grew up, grew away from the convent, always sending word back to them, them never saying anything to you about where he was.

LEE: No.

YOUNG: Yeah.

LEE: No. And then when I told my daughter 10 years ago, I thought - my brother said, for goodness' sake, will you go home and tell your daughter? But I couldn't tell her. I just kept the secret so long.

YOUNG: Well, yeah, you didn't - you weren't sure how she'd react. And, Jane, I'm sure you remember that moment.

LEE: That's right.

YOUNG: How was that for you to hear that your mother had carried this around for 50 years?

LIBBERTON: I'd felt extremely sorry for her. I have children myself, and I couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to have to give a child away at three and a half years old. But my immediate reaction was I wanted to go to search for him. I was curious. I was happy, actually. It was like, there was like somebody else out there that would be part of our family.

YOUNG: Well, except that, as you find out eventually, he became Michael Hess, raised by a family in Missouri, became a prominent lawyer, served with the first President Bush and was looking for you. He had gone to the convent. And just as you get, as we said, close, you find out that he has died.

LEE: Exactly. Yeah. Roscrea was turned into a home for handicapped children. And all the records were supposed to have been sent down to Cork. We actually rang the nuns in Cork to see if they had any information about him. The nun that answered there, she said, yes, we have. And I thought, oh God, we found him at last. But anyway, the next breath, she said, yes, we have information, but I'm so sorry to tell you he's dead. And I got - the shock of that was really awful.

You see, the awful, sad part of it was that when he went looking for me, they actually told him I'd abandoned him at two weeks, and he died thinking I had abandoned him.

LIBBERTON: Yes, that's something that angers me greatly. The fact that he went three times, and particularly on the third occasion, they knew he was unwell. And I don't understand the reason why they wouldn't tell him, why they wouldn't tell a dying man.

YOUNG: You know this has provoked a lot of discussion. In Ireland, adoption advocates are hoping that this is going to lead to a government investigation of what happened to young girls like yourself. There are others, though, who have been somewhat critical. Some in Ireland think it was a little bit sanitized.

And also, there was that exchange with the reviewer of the New York Post, a conservative tabloid in New York, Kyle Smith, who said the movie was anti-Catholic and anti-Republican. Anti-Republican because, of course, it pictured these Republican politicians working with your son who had AIDS, and it's - they were seen as foot-dragging on AIDS. You responded to that with a letter of your own that Harvey Weinstein, the producer, published in The New York Times. What did you want to say to people who think that this film is anti-Catholic?

LEE: It's not anti-Catholic, not whatsoever. I'm still a Catholic, you know?

YOUNG: Well, but explain to someone how you can have faith in this church that was so cruel.

LEE: I took up psychiatric nursing, and I did it for 30 years. Now, Robin, to think when you walk in a psychiatric hospital and you see such sadness that comes out of being bitter about something, I was able to forget about my sorrows and put them in the background and just carry on with my life. And within my heart, I never lost my religion because I always prayed for everybody and any but family, and always prayed that Anthony would one day be - I'd find him. That's all I wanted to do was to find the whole of my life. That was it.

YOUNG: Jane, for you, it was not just wanting to have your mother have this completion, but it's a brother.

LIBBERTON: Yes, indeed. It was the saddest thing of all to learn that he died before we ever had the opportunity to meet him. And I did say to her when we found out that he died, I was obviously then very concerned that it was a whole can of worms that I'd opened up. But she's glad that we did find him, we did know what happened to him and that, you know, he tried just as hard to find her, as she did to find him.

YOUNG: Well, and I'm wondering if, Philomena, with your faith, you maybe do get a little bit of a feeling now that you can tell him that you were looking for him.

LEE: Oh, all the time. I do pray to him all the time now, and I'm thankful that I did eventually, after all the years, I found out what happened to him. And he went to good parents, and he had a good life.

YOUNG: That's Philomena Lee. Her story about giving up her son Anthony as a teenager has been fictionalized in the new film "Philomena." Philomena Lee and your daughter Jane, thank you so much for speaking to us about it.

LIBBERTON: Thank you, Robin. It's been a pleasure.

LEE: And thank you very much, Robin. Thank you very much, indeed. Thank you.

YOUNG: Devastating.



YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • nanhen

    Phillomina Lee’s story of having to give up her out of wedlock child in the ’50s is not just an Irish story. It is the story of many women in this country as well. Ann Fessler’s book “The Girls Who Went Away” documents many heart wrenching stories of the price paid by girls who got pregnant in the decades before birth control and abortion were available.

  • DebraH

    I was impregnated when I was a Catholic grammar school girl here in the USA. My life was ruined by my lack of choice in any of what happened to me and/or of my child. The movie Philomena understates the cruelty of this system. Mothers coerced into surrendering their children suffer PTSD and so do the children who are taken from them. Having one’s child taken or being coerced into relinquishing the child is the only circumstance where breaking up a family is viewed as a joyful event. Mothers and infants bond and by the end of nine months, it is cruelty to both lives to separate this natural and primal family relationship. The nuns who sold Philomena’s child practiced human trafficking and the fact that Philomena signed a paper matters not at all. She had no choice because society and religion gave her no choice.

  • Rebecca Byrd Arthur

    I was born in 1960, and adopted through the Catholic Church from a Catholic home for unwed mothers, to a couple who adopted 3 more children after me. All of us attended Catholic private schools with nuns and priests. When I was 19 in 1979, my Catholic boyfriend left me pregnant, because of what his parents told him I “really was.” My parents had me come home from college and tried to protect me from society’s shunning. Did it work? No, and for many years I was in turmoil. But I, in turn, tried to protect him. Today, he is a most excellent contributor to the community and humanity at-large; I cannot imagine life without him or how he has, in return, helped his grandparents navigate their “golden years.” They showed us how to live, by their example. I found my birthparents 10 years ago after searching from 1974-1993 (the Catholic Church private adoptions kept us all apart), and while they are interesting and nice, and answered so many questions, my parents are the Mom and Dad that raised me, never abandoning me. One good thing that has come from this part of my life is that because of these circumstances, I know that loving children has nothing to do with blood. I am now the stepmother to a wonderful young girl, after my first two children have grown and gone out into the world.

    I am so very glad that stories like Philomena’s come out into the open for those of us who have lived with broken hearts of even knowing that our children haven’t any father that wants to know them… that it is devasting to them in their school work (History: Trace your Roots. I had no idea of my roots, and I wasn’t sure about his father’s roots, either. So I had him trace his roots to Elvis!) But they can overcome the stigma, and become the college student body president, be the best debater in their state, and bloom in their career.

    I hurt for Philomena, but I rejoice that the whole world is better because of her love. I wish somehow I could tell her that.

  • Kyle

    My departed grandmother came to America from England with her unwed mother as a baby 90 years ago. Very little is known about the circumstances that led my great great grandmother to bundle up her baby and leave home for America. Years ago my mother visited a friend in Ireland. She told a group of Irish women her grandmother’s story. The women told my mother that her grandmother’s first and last names were very Irish and that unwed mothers commonly left for England and many of those continued on to America years ago. This story about Philomena made me wonder what trials and tribulations my own great great grandmother went through almost a century ago. What did she give up to be able to raise my grandmother herself?

  • Kyle

    I meant to say my great grandmother came to America with my grandmother. Got carried away with the word “great”. Although it would also be interesting to know how this affected my great great grandmother. As it is, we will never know.

  • Kim Butterfield

    I am writing from Vermont where the agency that took my baby 45 years ago proudly promotes itself as “the oldest adoption agency in Vermont”. This agency has made no attempt to acknowledge, address or, heaven forbid, repair the damage done to the thousands of mothers and babies separated by its policies and practices. For decades, the agency arranged to practice (against hospital policy) in the hospital maternity unit so as to maintain control over the surrendering mothers.The agency continues to recruit the wealthy and powerful to its board, and to hire personnel who lack credentials and who fail to follow professional best practice standards, ensuring continuing control over the adoption market in Vermont.

    • Forbidden Family

      Hello Kim! It has been over 20 years since we met! I am glad to meet you again here online. I am very sorry for what you, and many other mothers, have gone through. Keep educating. I know I am. These moralistic agencies and religious maternity homes need to be shut down. Peace, Joan

      • Kim Butterfield

        Hi Joan, Thanks for remembering! I agree with your sentiments.

  • http://www.gertmcqueen.wordpress.com/ gert mcqueen

    My boy friend and I wanted marriage and our baby, the priest said we could not be married in the ‘holy’ place of the church, because my husband to be was not Catholic, so we had the ceremony in his office. Just before the ceremony the priest told me I did not have to keep the baby I could place it in adoption. I said NO. I was 18, legal age. NO ONE took my baby, I and his father had ALL THE SAY THAT MATTERED.

    Life circumstances change, as they do, and after divorce and a remarriage, ADOPTION was an option for my children. But there was NO agency NO church that interfered with my legal parental rights to decide what was right for my
    minor children. NO, it was a sibling, who was placed into adoption due to death of our mother, who decided that it was WRONG for me to adopt my own children!

    If you are willing to place blame for what the church has done why aren’t you willing to TAKE THE BLAME for your own actions…blood sister of mine! Know the background of anti-adoption activists, they all are NOT pure of heart.

  • Ruth Herr Sippel Pace

    forbidden family has gone on her twitter page to call for other “angry adoptees” to come here and spam and cyberstalk your page. This is what she does – yet screams that she is “cyberbullied” when I (her birthsister) refute lies that she tells about me. You cannot be an “anti-cyberbully” and BE one at the same time.

  • Kathie C

    I was heartbroken when I heard the story of Philomena Lee. In 1995 I went to Ireland full of pride about my Irish roots. Now I feel some shame…not because of the warm wonderful people but how the Church sold babies for profit and then covered their tracks instead of helping this mother and son find each other in life. I believe they will be united in Heaven but I wish both had been spared the pain they endured. I can’t believe those awful laundries were still open when I was in Ireland. I am an adoptee whose birth mom was able to share her story with me. I was not taken from her- she had choices and she made the best one for us both. I am blessed that I was able to get this information from her and that my adopted family instilled in me that I was chosen by them. Someday I wish I could tell Ms Lee how much I ached for her story and how much I wish her well.

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