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on March 2, 2014
As a person who was interviewed for this book and who appears as a "character" in it, I believe this book should be categorized as fiction. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith, was originally published in 2009. After the success of the movie Philomena, the book was reissued with a new title. By now, everyone knows that the book tells the tragic story of Philomena Lee, who had an illegitimate child in the early 1950s while living at an abbey run by nuns in Ireland. An American couple adopted her son, Anthony Lee, when he was 3 years old and renamed him Michael Hess. Philomena and Michael were stymied in their search to find each other by the nuns' refusal to give them information before Michael's death from AIDS.

About 7 years ago, Michael's partner (called Pete in the book) referred me to a journalist who was trying to pitch a book based on the story of Michael's birth mother's search for her son. Following Pete's lead, I agreed to speak to Martin Sixsmith about my friendship with Michael. He recorded our 2-hour conversation. Pete expected to hear from Sixsmith if the book proposal ever came to fruition.

When the book appeared without prior notice to Pete or me in 2009, I was appalled to find that Sixsmith had written a fictional version of Michael's life in which characters engage in conversations that never happened. Because the book received consistently bad reviews in the British newspapers, I decided not to write a review, hoping that the book would fade from view. That is exactly what happened until Steve Coogan read the 2009 newspaper article by Sixsmith and the rest is history.

I cringed when I read my "character" engaging in fictional dialogue with Michael. Things only went downhill from there. The dialogue that Sixsmith invented for the conversations Michael and I supposedly had were not quotes from the interview I gave, and I did not agree to my interview being turned into scenes with made-up dialogue. Michael is dead and cannot verify these conversations or, for that matter, any of the conversations he is purported to have had throughout the book.

Inaccuracies abound. I met Michael when he hired me to work for him in December of 1977. The book has me engaging in fictional conversations during 1975 and 1976 with Michael about his boyfriend Mark, and even having conversations with Mark about Michael's supposedly dark moods and behavior. I think the author created these events to support his premise that Michael was a troubled and tortured soul because he could not find his birth mother and because he was required to hide his sexuality at his place of work. This was the 1980s and there were very few gay men or woman who were "out" at work.

The fiction continues. I did not discuss politics with Michael during this time period and never talked about supporting Carter. Also, Sixsmith has Michael moving in with me to "recover" from too much partying. Not true. The many purported conversations in which I provide advice to Michael about his love life or work problems simply did not occur. Like most good friends, I did a lot of listening and nodding.

It is really difficult for those of us who knew Michael to see him portrayed so poorly. He was smart, charming, good looking and thoughtful. Michael always went out of his way to make his friends' birthdays special. For 10 years, he took my young daughter and me to many, many Christmas tree lots in search of the perfect tree.

Michael was a great boss and mentor who taught me so much about legal research and writing and encouraged me to take on difficult and challenging assignments. He was a terrific writer and speaker. These talents and a lot of hard work contributed to his successful career.

Pete and other friends have tried to correct Sixsmith's depiction of Michael as a tortured soul in recent articles that appeared in The New York Times and Politico. They stress his long-term relationship with Pete and his multifaceted interests, which ranged from following Notre Dame sports to predicting the best new Broadway musicals to his prodigious gardening.

Between the made-up dialogue and almost prurient focus on Michael's sexual behavior, the author has failed to present anything near a recognizable picture of Michael Hess. While I can only speak definitively to the information that I gave Sixsmith and my knowledge of Michael, the book contains other conversations that can't possibly be sourced because the people are dead. If you plan to read the book, be aware that you will be reading fiction and, not very well written fiction, at that.
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on December 31, 2013
I really enjoyed the movie version with Judi Dench and Steven Coogan and was a little surprised when a one-star reviewer claimed how inferior the Martin Sixmith (played in the movie by Coogan) book is to the movie. I want to take issue with that assessment. The movie—which is wonderfully done—is only a slice of the whole. The movie is focused upon Philomena Lee with very little about the son she lost to an American family whereas the book is much more about the one, Anthony, who becomes Michael Hess.

The evilness of Archbishop McQuaid in Ireland is not part of the movie. So reading this book has given me a much broader view of what happened, of just how truly horrific this archbishop was and how terrible the Catholic Church was as an institution dealing with unwed mothers and their babies. The Irish government quite literally allowed for the selling of these babies and never allowing the mothers to have their own children. The church treated these young women as though they were Hester Prynne—marked for life as sinners.

The book is primarily about the two children who are adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who have three biological sons. Marge has a brother who becomes a bishop, a very kind man, a real counterbalance to the evil McQuaid. The reader is given a chronological look at the life of Michael within this family, within the American Catholic church, with a lot of dialogue which, of course, has to have been created by Sixsmith. We don’t really know too much about his sources. But I read the book the same way I would read a novel.

In the movie we know little about Michael’s motivation to see his biological mother whereas in the book a lot is made of his efforts. In fact as I read the book I thought this: there should be two movies: “Philomena” and a second titled “Michael.” We experience his struggles with his homosexuality in an era when coming out was often dangerous. We experience him as a high schooler who loved singing and performing in musicals. And as an excellent student at Notre Dame and then as a law student at George Washington University. And then his struggles as a closeted Republican during the Reagan years when he was so involved in Washington politics.
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VINE VOICEon January 9, 2014
Small portions of the beginning and end of this book (very small portions) deal with Philomena and her search for her son. The VAST majority of the book is a detailed chronicle of the life of Michael Hess -- a gay man in a time when that was not as acceptable at it is today. We are told about Michael's difficult time as an adopted child, we learn of his struggle to acknowledge his sexuality and then his life long struggle to keep it a secret while acting upon it in a wide variety of ways that eventually lead to his demise.

Almost none of the book details the search that his birth mother undertook to find him and there is virtually no discussion of her feelings as an adult forced to give away her child in the unyielding Irish world in which she lived. Instead this is a long expose of the life of gay men in America in the 70s and 80s. There are huge sections of the book discussing how terrible the Republican party was (in the eyes of the author) to gays and many long, drawn out sections of Michael mentally demeaning and demoralizing himself about this current and past choices. Most other characters are very black or very white. Michael's mother can do no bad and his father can do no good. His brothers are portrayed as cruel and selfish while his sister can do no wrong.

This is not the book that is advertised on Amazon or in the movie trailers and I was sorely disappointed in having the subject matter changed from what was portrayed. I have not seen the movie but it must have taken a significant amount of imagination and liberty with the book to come up with the plot that I hear the movie has. I would not buy or read this book again.
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on June 29, 2016
It was an interesting book, but certainly not what I expected. I expected to read a book about Philomena, but she was in the story only in the early chapters and the epilogue. About half way through the book, I updated my status and noticed a review by one of the characters in the book stating how she had been interviewed, but her facts and dates were not reported accurately, nor her final review or permission ever requested or given for the information included in the book. From that point, I read the rest of the book as a historical fiction, despite the photos at the end. Yes, the story happened, but as told in the book? Probably not. And when I start reading a book about a particular person, I expect the book to be centered on their story. The information on the Irish homes for mothers and babies seemed to be credible (hard to believe, but credible). Based on conversations with my own birth mother in the US, even here, the mothers were considered sinners, and no real medical attention was obtained, even in the case of a breach birth, or complications, because the girl had sinned and any pain and suffering was a consequence of that. Overall, I was not pleased to read a "true story" that was not. (less)
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on December 15, 2013
The underlying story of an unwed mother, her child, and the coerced surrender and closed adoption could have been the underpinnings of a good book. That story was heart wrenching ; the Catholic churches complicity was despicable.

While the title is Philomena, the focus is almost exclusively on her son, Michael Hess (born Anthony Lee). While it is important to understand the psychosocial and spiritual repercussions that ensue when an older child is torn from the loving arms of his birth mother I felt the story focused entirely on Michael and his gay lifestyle. I understand that this was his identity, but I would have liked the focus to have been more evenly divided between the mother and her son.

I probably won't go see the movie after reading this book.
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on February 8, 2014
This book is almost two different books melded into one. The first seems to be a relatively straight-forward factual account of a forced adoption, which I found gripping. The second story of a young man who reaches great heights in DC appears to be littered with too many factual errors, logical inconsistencies, and sentimenal schmaltz for me to have enjoyed.

The first quarter of the book tells the story of a young woman forced to give up her child for adoption by the Irish Catholic Church. My own mother has told me similar stories of her sister who had gone to live in an Irish convent when she was a teenaged unwed mother and who ultimately gave up her child for adoption. Based on my mother's accounts, the first quarter of the story seemed factually accurate and, thus, heart wrenching. I sobbed when I got to the page where Anthony left the orphanage. I also gained a new level of empathy for my aunt who had to make such a decision and for my grandmother who could not help her or her child. I felt an overwhelming sense of loss for my mom, who never really knew her sister (she was exiled to England after her baby was adopted) or her niece. It forced me to confront uncomfortable questions of my own generation and the adoptions I see now out of poor countries to the US--God help us if the circumstances surrounding these present-day adoptions are similar to those recounted in this book.

The rest of the book is an account of Anthony (Michael Hess) as he was raised in the US and his subsequent career. Here, I found the book lacking and feel the author did a great disservice to Mr. Hess in the author's unmittigating effort to blame any adversity in Mr. Hess' life on the circumstances of his adoption. While portrayed as a semi-factual account, the author was very heavy-handed in filling in factual gaps so as to always connect the troubles Mr. Hess faced as an adult to the tragedy of his forced adoption. I know too many high-achieving lawyers--who were not adopted--who suffer from the same issues of depression, substance abuse, self-loathing, feelings of being a fraud, and self-destructive behavior, for it to be sensible to squarely put all of these troubles on Mr. Hess' adoption (and, by extension, the church).

As a lawyer myself, I spotted irregularities in the narrative that made me believe that either the author was loose in his fact-checking or took great artistic liberties as it suited his needs (e.g., lawyers write "memos" for their superior, not "reports"; lawyers would never "testify" in front of any court, much less the US Supreme Court serving in its primary capacity of providing appellate review--they "argue" in front of the appellate court). The section of the book where he claims Anthony can recall words his mother said during his birth is, in my view, just pure schmaltz and I found myself getting annoyed with the author from veering so far from reality and impatient to finish the story.

Too, I found the blame put on the convent for not aiding Anthony or Philomena in their search for each other simply misplaced and the patent factual inconsistencies in this part of the story infuriating. With Anthony's financial resources and his wits, I found it simply incredulous that he could not have found Philomena (who ultimately never strayed very far from the convent) through a PI had he tried. He had her name and his birthdate and Ireland just is not that big of a country. While he visited the convent a few times, I found it incredulous that Mr. Hess, in fact, wanted to find his mother if he let his search stop with a few visits to the convent and interviews with aged nuns. Again, the fact that Mr. Hess wanted to be buried at the convent so that his mother could find him was belied by the fact that only his adopted name (and not his birth name) was put on his tombstone (bear in mind that he made arrangements for his burial before he died).

Here, it seems the author has done Mr. Hess a great disservice in describing his inept attempts to find his mother, yet blaming all of his human frailties on the lack of her presence in his life. If a true account, it seems Mr. Hess was a rather pathetic creature in his personal life, albeit successful professionally.
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on April 17, 2014
** spoiler alert ** I wanted to read this book because I saw the preview of the movie, and it sounded like a story I would enjoy. I decided to read the book first, because I always spend more time with the book and would rather not know how it's going to turn out more than the movie.

I loved part one of the book...and I would rate it 5 stars. Part one is all about Philomena, which one would assume the book and movie would be about based on the title.

But, part two (which is a huge part of the book, much more than half) is about Anthony/Michael. Upon doing a little research, it made sense that this version of the book is a "movie tie-in," whereas, the original title is "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." As soon as I started reading part two I had a bad feeling...it starts right after Philomena's son is adopted. There were several parts where I thought, "how could he [meaning the author] know if that conversation happened, or what was said and done here and there." As Anthony/Michael ages in the book, details of his life are revealed that I don't think he would have wanted shared if in fact they are true. It is one thing to write a story that offers the reader a "fish bowl" view into someone's life, and it is another thing completely to share the darkest aspects of someone's life when they are not there to give or not give permission. There was far too much sexuality in the book, and some language to boot. I think Mr. Sixmith has defined Anthony/Michael based solely on his sexuality (and the darker aspects seem to take the forefront). But, when you read things that were written by Anthony/Michael's friends, you get a much more well-rounded glimpse of who he was. For instance, his friend Susan Kavanagh (I know it might not really be her, but it sounds like it could be) has written a review of the book on goodreads, and her descriptions focus more on his kindness and heart than on his "dark days." I know that writers take liberties...in film and in book publishing. There is a necessity for liberties in making things fleshed out, in completing scenes, and in giving the readers what they want. But, I think this was a missed opportunity to know the real Anthony Lee/Michael Hess. I think it was a disservice to his Mother, Philomena, who longed for some 50 years to know what became of her little boy.
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on January 7, 2014
I was surprised that the book focused more on Michael's life and that the actual search, as depicted in the movie, was a very small part of the story. And Philomena never came to the US looking for Michael. However, the book was very moving and poignant. For me, it was a walk down memory lane during the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's as our country grappled with the concept of homosexuals being people of worth deserving of our respect and love. I had forgotten the conservative stances taken by many of our leaders; their derisive, hateful, hurtful, statements; and their refusal to fund and acknowledge the importance of AIDS research that could have saved many more lives. My heart bled as Michael struggled to find himself amid all the negativity of the time against gay people; his position in the Catholic Church and its stance against gay people; and his misconception that he had been abandoned by his mother--due to the lies told him. These and other factors fueled his self loathing. When good, loving people were in Michael's life, his self loathing, that always lurked beneath the surface, destroyed the relationships. HIs final partner, Pete Nilsson, was blessed with enough love to support Michael as he walked the last part of his journey on earth. With respect to the Catholic Church in Ireland, it has a lot of atonement to acknowledge for its actions during that era. My heart ached as Michael and Philomena tried so desperately to contact each other and "missed by a hair"--if only the nuns had exercised some compassion. Their cruel treatment of the confused, young women; their selling of their babies/children; the lies that were told about the births and relinquishments of the babies; and their refusal to help mothers and children reunite; that was the greatest of all sin. Philomena and Michael are now reunited but it could have been before his death had the nuns lived the love they professed for their Christ. As I finished the book, I took pride in the fact that we have come a long way in recognizing the rights of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And we have a long way to go but history is finally moving in a positive direction. If only Michael could have lived to see this day. If somehow he and his mother could have been reunited. It is a book that has left me thinking about its message and longing to share it with other people. It was not an easy book to read--it breaks your heart in so many places. But it is a book that those of us, who strive for the human rights of all people, need to read.
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on January 25, 2014
The writing was good but the story left me wanting. It went into great detail about the son's life and not enough of Philomena's life.
Rather than know every sexual experience of the son, I would have liked to know much more about the Mom's story line as well as the other young women who had their babies taken from them. It is titled Philomena but she is the second person in the story by far. If the reader is a young gay male, the story is probably much more interesting than it was to a middle aged woman. This is a very sad story.
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on July 26, 2015
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.

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 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, their 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 kind of Catholicism that hopefully no longer exists anywhere in 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.
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