The film, “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, has garnered numerous awards, including four Oscar nominations. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor. It’s a marvelous movie (now available on VOD, DVD, and Blu-Ray) that’s based on the true story of Philomena Lee, whose son, Anthony, was taken from her at age 3-1/2 by the Catholic Church in Ireland and adopted to a couple in the U.S.
I had a lovely conversation on the phone with Philomena and her daughter, Jane Libberton, about the film, Philomena’s recent meeting with the Pope, and a project they have started with the Adoption Rights Alliance to help birth parents and their children find one another. Here are some of the highlights of our chat:
Melanie: Tell me about the Philomena Project.
Jane: I’m the figurehead of the project, and we started it as a result of the film…. It’s to give it a public face really, and it’s to point people in the right direction if they’re trying to find out information, because in Ireland, if you’re adopted from Ireland, the records are closed, and you don’t have an automatic right for your information.
Therefore, the ultimate aim of the Philomena Project is to get the legislation changed so that people, once they reach 18, like here in the United Kingdom, can go and seek their birth parents, or parents can find their children if they wish to. I think the European code of human rights says that everybody has a basic right to their identity, and that’s something you don’t currently have with the laws in Ireland.
Melanie: Do you have any idea why there was such secrecy in the Catholic Church in Ireland?
Jane: I think a lot of it is wrapped up with the adoptions that went on in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. We know that 2,200 babies were adopted to the United States, and money changed hands. The families weren’t generally vetted. All they had to have was a letter from the local priest to say that they would bring the child up as a Catholic.
And we know that money exchanged hands – not just the initial donation for a child, but ongoing donations. And personally, I think perhaps the church is embarrassed by that, and I think that’s probably why we still have this secrecy at the moment….
We’re not trying to blame them for what went on. We just want them to hold their hands up now and say, “Okay, this happened. We’re sorry; let’s move forward.” It’s just about giving people their basic human rights now.
Melanie: I still struggle to understand why, if Anthony was looking for Philomena as an adult, and Philomena was looking for him, why they would still refuse to give any information. But I guess that’s what they’re told to do.
Philomena: I don’t know why they refused him because he tried. He went over three times to Ireland to try and find me. We met his partner years later, and he gave us a lot of the information. We found out so much about Anthony….
Jane: It’s something that is beyond me, and I don’t know why they never told him because I have heard they have told some people in the past. It was obviously their own reasons that we’ll never know the answers to.
Philomena: They told him that I had abandoned him at two weeks, when in actual fact, I had to work in the laundry for three and a half years. No money, no nothing, you know. I had to work there to pay it back because they kept me and my baby….
But the thing is, once I had Anthony, I just didn’t know when he was going to be adopted. And he was born in 1952, July 1952…. I signed the forms for his adoption in June 1955, and he never left the home until Christmas 1955. They took him away one week before Christmas.
The lady that adopted him – very nice lady, she was – she came from Missouri, and she had a brother who was a bishop who recommended Roscrea where we were staying. She went and looked at all the babies, and she picked out the little girl, Mary, that was adopted with him [Anthony]. And every time she went to look at Mary, there was Anthony tagging behind looking after Mary.
And in the final stage when … she was about to go, Anthony was there, and she took one look at him, and she said, “Oh, I can’t just go and leave him….” When Mary went, he went. That’s why Anthony went so quickly.
Melanie: Philomena, I had read that you really didn’t know anything about sex or where babies come from, and of course, it was very customary at that time to not talk about such things. But are you now an advocate for sex education after a certain age because of what you experienced?
Philomena: Well, of course! In my day, you just didn’t even know how he [the baby] was going to come out. The thing is, I’m an advocate for young girls, when they get 13 – not too early; let them hold onto their childhood as long as they can. But I think young women, it’s very good for them to find out. I can assure you, I wish we had known.
From the age of 6 until I was 18, I was in that convent, and it’s all girls, of course. And we didn’t know what sex was all about. And even when I left, I didn’t know what it was all about….
I went to live with my aunt in Ireland, in Limerick. She noticed me getting big, and she said, “Are you pregnant?” Of course, I didn’t know what “pregnant” meant. It sounds unreal now.
And she says, “Have you been with a boy?” And then, I said, “Yes, the night I went to the carnival, I was with a boy.” She says, “What did you do?” Of course, I had to say what we did.
Oh, my God, she nearly went crazy. And I still didn’t know anything about being pregnant. So, she took me to the doctor, and they got me into the home…. And my name was taken away. I wasn’t called Philomena Lee anymore. We had to lose our identity there. We were given a house name, which my name was Marcella.
None of us talked about our family. We didn’t talk about sex. When I discovered how awful it was to have a baby out of wedlock, I never stopped thinking about it because we were never allowed to forget about it really. I wish I had known. I only wish I had known.
Melanie: Do you believe that you’ll be reunited with Anthony in the afterlife?
Philomena: I most certainly do. And you know how I feel about it at the moment, because he was such a character, I believe he was a wonderful character, I believe he’s organizing with that one brother I had. I think they’re up in heaven organizing all this. I firmly believe he’s up there watching over us and guarding us and has made all this happen because how I could keep it [a secret] for 50 years and then to be able to tell.
Melanie: Yes, indeed! Tell me about your audience with the Pope.
Philomena: Well, it was such a surprise when we heard that we were going to see him, actually. I just couldn’t believe it. So, we met him and of course, the Pope doesn’t understand English and such…. There was an Archbishop, and there was an interpreter, and he was interpreting to Steve Coogan and myself, so we were able to have words with him [the Pope] then.
Steve Coogan did a lot of the talking, actually, but he [the Pope] was so lovely. The Pope was so beautiful. I had such serenity and peace when I met him. He shook hands with us, and he was such a lovely man.
Melanie: I love the film, and I love Judi Dench, but one of the things that bothered me is that they seem to portray you, Philomena, as not as intelligent as you actually are. You were a psychiatric nurse!
Philomena: I know.
Jane: I’ll answer this. She found that quite difficult when we first saw the film. They make her character out in the beginning of the film to be simpler than she is in reality. But that’s kind of to lull the audience into a false sense of security, I think.
Then, you realize by the end of the film that she’s not this silly billy at all. And there is a lot of humor as well. And Mom could see humor in it. She laughed out loud at all of those lines as well. And Judi thought about that as well quite a lot. She wouldn’t say things that would make Mom look really silly.
Philomena: I’m a very social person. I do talk to everybody and…
Jane: Yes, they picked up on her characteristics.
Melanie: I know they changed some of the facts for the film.
Jane: Yes, there was dramatic license in the film. You probably read some of the articles. My mom and Martin didn’t actually travel to the United States together. But we did go to Ireland together.
But we’re really pleased with the way they told the story in the film. They have to get it into 90 minutes, and I think they’ve done it in a very good way. The response to it has been amazing. I know there have been a few criticisms of it, but not that many at all really.
Melanie: No, not at all. Everyone I know loved it.
Philomena: Oh, good.
Melanie: Tell me about meeting Judi Dench.
Philomena: What can I say, Melanie? What can I say? She is so adored, you know, as a special, marvelous actress. And I’ve always followed all her films over the years. Especially James Bond, because I love the James Bond films, and she was in that for quite a while. She’s retired from James Bond now….
She got the essence of me in the end, you know. We had a good chat, and she took everything I had said on board as well and just took it from there. And she’s such a lovely, charming lady.
Jane: She’s such a perfect actress. You couldn’t ask for anybody better if somebody’s going to play your life story. I don’t think there was anyone that Mom would’ve chosen but Judi to play her in the movie.
Melanie: So, you think if someone asked you to do the casting, you might have chosen her anyway?
Philomena: Well, of course, of course! When Steve Coogan did mention they were going to ask her, I thought, “Oh, gosh, Judi Dench!” Because I didn’t think my story would ever be anything because when I first told my daughter, and it was going to be turned into a book, I said, “This will never make a story! All I want to do is to find my son.”
Jane: That’s true. Mom thought that this is just something that happened to her in her life and, well, actually myself as well. Neither of us realized the impact that it was going to have.
Philomena: I just cannot believe the impact. In America, it was amazing. But Judi Dench? What more can I ask for?