Publicity around Stephen Frears's new film ‘Philomena’, starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, has touched me deeply. The film tells the story of Philomena Lee who, according to the BBC website, as a young unmarried woman in Ireland was forced by nuns to sign away her rights to her son. The film follows her struggle to find him, decades later.
I am not Irish or Roman Catholic but I was given up for adoption 1947 when I was six months old. I was gently made aware of that fact by my adoptive parents when I was eight but, at that age, such information meant little to me. I was happy and content and simply felt they were my parents. However in my early thirties I felt a growing need to discover my roots and very quietly began to try and find out about my mother. Consequent to the passing of the Adoption Act 1976 I had been able to discover her name but quickly found that I had no right to contact her, and so let the matter rest. Until then the emphasis had been to protect the rights of the adoptive parents: ‘Child adoption had no legal status in Britain … until 1926, when the first Act was passed which regulated this in England and Wales. Until then, child adoption was an informal and generally secretive procedure which gave the adoptive parents no rights whatsoever: a biological parent could (and in some cases, did) appear at any time and demand custody of a child they had neither seen nor contributed to the care of for years at a time.’ (A Child for Keeps: the History of Adoption in England, 1918-45)
Unlike some others I was happy with my adopted parents and did not want to upset them by giving the impression of wanting another family. So it was not until some time had elapsed after my father died in 1989 that I felt able to take steps that might lead to the discovery of my birth parents and, in particular, my birth-mother. In 2001 I began the search again and with the help of NORCAP (National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents) I was indirectly able to contact the family of my birth-mother only to discover that she had died in 1995 leaving a son and daughter – my half-siblings. As she had never mentioned my existence they felt it would dishonour her memory by establishing any relationship with me.
In one comment on the film Coogan says that "it's not our intention to hammer the Catholic church of 50 years ago, times were different. But two wrongs took place here - one that Philomena was forced to give up her child, and secondly that they refused to reunite the pair. I hope that though we criticise the institution, we dignify people of faith." My reason for writing this is that I fear many people will simply criticise the Church without further reflection on the wider context. It is easy to point a finger at the agencies of the State (or Church) and ignore the way society viewed illegitimacy. I was also an illegitimate child and, whilst I was not forcibly taken from my birth-mother, will never fully know the reasons why she placed me for adoption. In one document it simply states that she ‘could not provide a home or adequate care for the child.’ But it is clear from the records that my birth had to be kept as secret as possible: to have a child out of wedlock at that time was a grave matter but, having read letters from her to my adopted parents, it is clear that she did not want to have to part from me.
I doubt I shall see the film as it will stir feelings that are still painful but I hope that those who do, or who become aware of practices concerning adoption that are now almost universally felt to be repugnant, will remember that the reason for these lies as much in the social attitudes of the time as it does with the practices of those who, no doubt, believed they were doing ‘the right thing.' Society was as much responsible for what happened as the agencies of the State - and that is as true today as it was in the past.