A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
After viewing the recent film Philomena several times, I sensed there was much of the narrative missing, and when I read Sixsmith’s book, I saw that my hunch was correct. While the film, with Dame Judi Dench starring as Philomena, focuses mostly on the mother’s search, Sixsmith’s book must otherwise spend nearly two-thirds of the narrative on Michael Hess, or Anthony Lee, Philomena’s long lost son, and her son’s search for her. The narrative, on film, might have been better served if it had been made into a miniseries largely because it is the two stories combined, the fact that mother and son search out each other, that makes it so compelling and poignant.
Anthony Lee and Mary McDonald—whose unwed mothers are allowed to "nurse" them while still toddlers, in the questionable haven known as Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland—are both adopted in 1955 by a family from St. Louis, Missouri. The babes’ birth mothers, Philomena and Margaret, full of shame, and manipulated by many of the sisters, are coerced into signing away their rights to ever see their children again.
So what kind of life does Anthony Lee/Michael Hess have in America? On the one hand, he becomes part of a family that is able, financially, to care for him and Mary. However, two of Michael’s older brothers seem noncommittal at best, and a third one is downright hostile; he physically and emotionally abuses Michael. Michael’s adoptive mother is nurturing, if in a clinging manner, and Doc, his adoptive father, is, at turns, aloof, then ever meddling, trying to make a "man" of Michael.
Sixsmith does an admirable job of recreating Michael’s life from the time he enters America until he dies from AIDS in 1996—with a great deal of help from Michael’s long-term partner, Pete Nilsson. In the years between, the reader learns of Michael’s education, his time at Notre Dame, where he seeks help from a less than sympathetic priest about his sexuality. The reader learns of Michael’s education on the streets, particularly in Washington, DC, where he pays his own way through law school at George Washington University (his father having withdrawn all financial support when Michael refuses to attend law school at Iowa University). A furtive life of seeking out sex with men that begins in Chicago during his undergraduate days then escalates in the DC area, where bars abound and he discovers than many other underlings who work in congress are gay.
The entire narrative—Philomena’s wrenching story in the abbey, where some of the nuns treat the mothers and their children despicably, Michael’s childhood, his secret life as a gay man working for the Republican National Committee in the nation’s capital, a mother and son's mismatched search to find one another—is not only heart wrenching, but it serves the reader in a number of other ways, as well. Sixsmith’s narrative exposes a brand of Catholicism that hopefully has been exorcised from the world. He also revisits the AIDS crisis as it occurs during the Reagan years, when, because its victims are largely gay men, the US government elects to do little or nothing about it, creating a race in which modern medicine desperately attempts to catch up, something it has never quite been able to do.
We must remember . . . all AIDS stories, like all holocaust narratives, create a condition in which one is too many and a million are not enough. They will be with us always, and we must listen to each one.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2015
Date of Original Post:
11/13/14 — Introduction to My Long-Playing Records
11/20/14 — "My Long-Playing Records" — The Story
11/27/14 — "A Certain Kind of Mischief"
12/04/14 — "Ghost Riders"
12/11/14 — "The Best Mud"
12/18/14 — "Handy to Some"
12/25/14 — "Blight"
01/01/15 — "A Gambler's Debt"
01/09/15 — "Tales of the Millerettes"
01/15/15 — "Men at Sea"
01/22/15 — "Basketball Is Not a Drug"
01/29/15 — "Engineer"
02/05/15 — "Snarked"
02/12/15 — "Killing Lorenzo"
02/19/15 — "The Age I Am Now"
02/26/15 — "Bathed in Pink"
03/12/15 — "A Certain Kind of Mischief"
03/26/15 — "The Best Mud"
04/02/15 — "Handy to Some"
04/09/15 — "Tales of the Millerettes"
04/16/15 — "Men at Sea"
04/23/15 — "My Long-Playing Records"
04/30/15 — "Basketball Is Not a Drug"
05/07/15 — "Snarked"
05/21/15 — "Killing Lorenzo"
05/28/15 — "Bathed in Pink"
Watch for more podcasts later this summer!