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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 5, 2013
I saw the film on Thanksgiving evening and was captivated by the story so I rushed home and ordered the book. I've given it three stars only because it was interesting, but the film is better. The film tells the story from Philomena's viewpoint while the book tells the story from Anthony/Michael's side of things. There is very little of Philomena's story in the book and that was disappointing. The factual/historical details of the HIV/AIDS outbreak and the government's lack of timely reaction to such a medical crisis was informative, but I would save my money and just see the film instead for a heartwarming story with exceptional acting by Judy Dench.
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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 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 March 9, 2014
Read this book because I had seen and loved the movie. There is little relationship between the book and the movie except that the first few chapters are about the mother and son. Once the little boy is adopted there is almost no relationship between the two. The book is the story of the sexual coming of age of the son. Don't know how the author found out all of the gory details about the son's sexual encounters, his advice from confessional events at Notre Dame, his participation in extreme homosexual encounters as a young man and other very personal events in the son's life. At times it read like a diatribe against the US government and the presidency in particular for not getting on board the aids epidemic earlier. I felt like I was reading a "movement" book, not the poignant story portrayed in the movie. In conversation with someone I was describing the book and the person said "How did the author know all of that about the boy's life" and I realized I was reading, in the middle of the book, a fiction. Once I realized that I quit reading it. It is not a "Fifty-year Search" as much as it is a "coming of age sexually" kind of book. So unless you are in to such fictions, don't bother.
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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 15, 2014
Not even close to what I expected. Minimal story about a 'search' Just a story of a gay guy. Don't care that he was gay, it just wasn't about a 'mother's 50 year search for her son'.
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on January 27, 2014
I expected to gain additional insight about Philomena and the search for her son. Instead, I read about her son's trials and tribulations, with particular emphasis on his sexual preferences. I truly wondered how the author got some of the detailed information he used about the son's physical proclivities and from whence he got the quotes. I tend to think a lot of it could be attributed to the author's imagination and story-telling ability; in other words, I believe the quotes were made up in a large number of instances. I realized early on that the name of this book had been changed by titling it 'Philomena" to take advantage of the film by that name. To say that I was disappointed in this book would be an understatement.
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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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