The first time I saw my mother was the day she gave birth to me.
The next time I saw her occurred more than 30 years later.
This is the story of how I met my mother.
If asked to name the 2014 Academy Award nominees for “Best Picture” without looking it up, a knowledgeable cinephile might be able to guess correctly by remembering the many great films of 2013: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Her, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska.
But we’re missing one, an underrated gem of a film. Despite its near-universal critical acclaim at the time, Stephen Frears’ Philomena generally doesn’t seem to garner the same kind of retrospective praise (or derision) as its fellow Best Picture nominees. Philomena is a fine film in every sense of the word—it’s simultaneously admirable and adequate, both phenomenal and (apparently) forgettable.
I will never forget watching Philomena. It proved to be one of the most transformative moments of my entire life.
In the spring of 2014, I was both a pastor and an aspiring film critic, so Philomena seemed right at the intersection of my interests in faith and film. Inspired by true events, the story focuses on an older Irish woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in an Oscar-nominated performance), and her search for her son, who was taken from her by the Catholic Church in Ireland and given up for adoption against her will. A disgraced London-based journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), encounters Philomena and decides to help her in her quest, then write a “human interest” piece about her affecting story. It’s ostensibly an odd couple road movie imbued with serious themes (eliciting comparisons to Coogan’s The Trip films), a comedy-drama with Martin as the Oxford-educated cynical atheist and Philomena as the kindhearted Catholic simpleton. Philomena is a dramatic tale of forgiveness and faith, emotionally anchored in the invisible connection between a mother and a child separated by time and injustice. Philomena Lee’s on-screen story triggered something deep within me, something I had repressed and ignored for the majority of my life: my own identity as an adoptee.
My adoption experience differs in a number of significant ways from the story in Philomena: I was born to a single young Hispanic woman in West Texas, adopted as an infant and raised by white middle-class parents in the Pacific Northwest. From a very young age, I knew I was adopted. But when watching Philomena in my early 30s, I still hadn’t yet done the work of examining what that reality meant for my self-understanding.
We adoptees are a peculiar demographic. Every adoption story is unique, yet every adoptee shares a common quality to our stories of origin: our entrance into a family is not solely through birth but through choice, a choice made entirely outside of our control as fetuses and infants (and, as in Philomena’s case, a choice sometimes made against the mother’s desires or knowledge). The decision of adoption changes the entire trajectory of both child and mother, and no matter how positive or negative the outcome, that decision is an all-defining experience for all parties involved.
As adoptees, we were chosen—to be birthed by our mothers, to be received by our adoptive parents—and from that moment onward we must existentially choose our identities for the rest of our lives. We simultaneously belong to yet are disconnected from two worlds, biological and adopted, akin to what queer Latina literary theorist Gloria Anzaldúa called nepantla, a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning “in-between-ness” or “at home in the middle,” a peculiar double-existence in the familial borderlands. This in-between-ness is compounded for adoptees who are from transracial, transcultural, or transnational adoptions. We belong, and yet are outsiders; we are both Beloved and Other. Through this, we adoptees innately recognize that many social institutions and norms—family, community, class, religion, nationality, culture, sexuality, gender, and race—are always contingent and in flux. Nothing is truly certain; anything can change.
Every adoption contains within it a level of trauma and loss, and thus every adoption also contains an inherent longing for forgiveness. At its core, Philomena understands that fundamental reality.
Philomena’s story begins at a Roman Catholic abbey and convent in Roscrea, Ireland, where 50 years earlier she had been sent by her father after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The strict pre-Vatican II Catholicism of her upbringing meant she was a sinner, a lustful pariah fit for a life of unremitting guilt. After a painful and difficult childbirth, Philomena was forced to work in the convent Magdalene laundry for four years, only allowed to see her child for intermittent moments in the slave-like conditions. Philomena’s memories of life with her toddler son, Anthony, are shown to us as flashbacks shot in 16mm, the grainy visuals subtly adding a tone of historical gravitas to these remembered images of the past interspersed with scenes of the elderly Philomena lighting a candle and saying a prayer on Anthony’s 50th birthday. In the flashbacks, when the nuns give Anthony and another little girl, Mary, up for adoption against the will of their desperate mothers, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. The camera shows us the weight of this internalized pain through close-ups of Judi Dench’s tear-stained face as she clutches a black-and-white photo of her child. When I first witnessed these scenes, I was struck by the horrific injustice and spiritual abuse on display. But I was also confronted by a reality that had somehow never occurred to me until that moment: my own mother remembers my existence. She knows my birthday.
Throughout Philomena, we see Super 8 and Super 16 scenes of Anthony growing up in America. Through montages of home video footage, the boy becomes a teen, then a man with a handsome face and a kind smile. This is more than just a cinematic trope utilized for dramatic effect; Philomena understands that our memories are strikingly cinematic, eikons latent in our imaginations, what Plato described as an impression on the soul. We can recall such memorialized moving images in our mind’s eye in an instant; other times, the memories come to us suddenly and unbidden, startling us with their clarity and force. Memories are the internal trace of an absent presence or a present absence: an unreachable reality—the past—is miraculously brought forth into the here and now, becoming at-once accessible and unreachable. Philomena uses the cinematic apparatus to empathetically draw us into the memories of Philomena Lee, and to allow her access to her beloved son across the impassable distance of time. She was unable to watch her little boy grow up then, but through film-as-memory, she is able to do so now.
Philomena and Martin’s search brings them to the convent in Roscrea, where the nuns claim they have no knowledge of Anthony’s whereabouts due to their adoption records being destroyed in a fire. A woman of faith, Philomena simply takes them at their word. But Martin is more skeptical; he learns from locals how the nuns burned the records deliberately, how they sold the children for £1,000 each to wealthy Catholic Americans, how numerous women like Philomena had returned in search for their children in vain, and how many now-grown adoptees had also returned in the hopes of being reunited with their mothers.
This leads Martin and Philomena to travel together to Washington, D.C., in search of answers. Much of this portion of their journey plays out as a humorous buddy comedy, with the unrefined Philomena marveling at the chocolates left on hotel pillows, giggling at Big Momma’s House on hotel pay-per-view, or chatting up the Latino cook at the hotel’s breakfast buffet about her love for nachos, all of which Martin dismisses with pompous conceit. It all feels a bit cliché, and is mostly played for laughs.
So when Martin is on his laptop at said hotel buffet and opens his email to reveal that Anthony was renamed Michael A. Hess, that he was a senior lawyer and advisor to two U.S. presidents, and that he died from AIDS, the shocking emotional whiplash is experienced by both the on-screen characters and the audience. This comedy-drama has abruptly shifted from former to latter. The quick-witted Martin is speechless when he shows Philomena the computer screen, and her breakfast-induced joy is quickly replaced with the horrifying pain of a parent who has just learned that they have outlived their child.
This scene feels genuine to the adoption search experience: life’s mundane moments are unexpectedly invaded by earthshattering revelations and emotional tailspins. One minute you’re having breakfast or watching a movie; the next minute, reality itself has been turned upside down.
As I watched Philomena, I felt what I can only describe as a transcendent spiritual prompting to begin a quest to find my birth mother, to thank her for the painfully courageous choice she made three decades ago in giving birth to me, then giving me away for adoption. Through her decision, I was given a life trajectory leading me into pastoral ministry, higher education, a wonderful marriage, and beloved children of my own. Though she may have always wondered, she would potentially never know and share in this life, my life. Through Philomena, I was finally made aware of the immense gravity of her decision.
That night, after watching Philomena, I needed time to sit and emotionally process my newfound commitment to searching for my mother. Meanwhile, my wife began typing details (names, dates, locations) from fraying adoption documents into Google. My adoption was “closed,” meaning the records of my biological family were sealed, and that my mother likely had no knowledge of my whereabouts. A closed adoption search could mean involvement from lawyers and social workers requiring much travel and money, all with zero guarantee of a successful reunion. However, my documentation had a list of only the first names of my mother and her immediate relatives—she is the middle sibling of 15 brothers and sisters. It also contained my mother’s birthdate written in the margins of the first page in my adoptive father’s distinctive handwriting. (I’ve since asked him how he obtained this private information, but he insists he doesn’t recall ever writing it.)
Entirely too quickly and against all expectations—it’s terrifying how public all of our lives have become with the Internet—my wife discovered the obituary of one of my biological grandparents which listed the full names of my mother and her siblings. A few minutes later, a Facebook profile which seemed to match my mother was on the screen. Like Martin’s stunned look when showing Philomena what he’d learned about Michael’s death, my wife’s face told me what she had discovered before I ever glanced at the laptop: she’d found my mother.
I was in shock. This all felt rushed, too soon, too instantaneous. Neither my wife nor I knew just how profoundly overwhelming the experience would be for me, how the disequilibration I felt would disrupt absolutely everything in our lives for the next few years. In the search for a long-lost relative, there is a distinct before and after once they are located. I could not unlearn what I now knew—I had choices to make, but I didn’t know how to proceed.
Flying across the country and showing up at her doorstep seemed inappropriate and risky. A Facebook message felt entirely too trivial for a possible re-introduction after 30 years. An email seemed too informal, yet also oddly business-like (“I hope this email finds you well. I am your biological son.”). By forgoing customary routes of inquiry, there was no certainty as to whether this actually was my mother, even less certainty as to how she would respond to my search.
So, I waited.
I waited exactly one year from the day I watched Philomena before I mailed a letter to the woman on the Facebook profile introducing myself and asking if she was my birth mother.
Then, I waited some more.
In learning more details of Michael’s life and death, Philomena notices Martin in the background of a photo of Michael (aka Anthony) at the White House. Recognizing himself, Martin has the sudden realization that he actually met Michael face to face. Philomena’s giddy response to this revelation is perfectly portrayed by Dench. She’s absolutely overjoyed to learn that her Anthony had a “firm handshake,” that he was intelligent (“oh, I always kept him smart!”), that he politely said “Hello.” Every recalled trivial moment is now imbued with immense emotional significance.
However, such moments are also tinged with regret. In another conversation, Philomena shares a memory with Martin about Anthony’s father, a handsome young stranger she met at a local fair and never saw again: “His father made me laugh by pretending to be an old man and I made him laugh by pretending to be an old woman. Now I am one, and I’ll never know if Anthony ever even thought about me. And I’ll never be able to say sorry.” This sentiment—the wondering, the guilt, the desire for apology—is an honest portrait of the adoption experience. Even in the ostensibly healthiest of adoptions, there can remain an underlying sense that something isn’t quite right. Put bluntly, a child and a mother have been permanently separated from one another, each experiencing what psychologist Nancy Verrier calls a “primal wound.” Lingering confusion, fear, and guilt are natural human responses to such elemental trauma. Philomena empathetically understands this traumatic dimension of the adoption phenomenon. And yet adoption can also be beautifully redemptive and generative, creating new possibilities for everyone involved. As she learns more about her son’s remarkable life, Philomena repeatedly marvels aloud, “he would’ve never had this if he’d stayed with me.”
Adding to the emotional complexity are the religious dimensions surrounding adoptions, whether through faith-based or secular adoption agencies. Both adoptive parents and birth mothers often have religious motivations for their choice of adoption, while adoptees raised in religious homes may wrestle with painful theological questions about their origins. When Philomena asks Martin to pause their quest so she can go to confession, the atheist Martin insensitively sneers, “It’s the Catholic Church that should go to confession, not you.” She calls him a “feckin’ idiot,” because, well, he’s acting like one. In the confession booth, she doesn’t say anything—she simply cries. The flustered American priest has little to offer this Irish mother wracked by guilt and grief, sputtering, “Have faith, my dear. God will forgive you.” She walks straight out of the church without touching the holy water. An aporia, her Catholic faith is the source of both her mortification and her mettle. The guilt-ridden anger is directed at not just herself, but also her God. For Philomena, and for so many others in adoption stories, it’s not enough to just hear that God forgives—one has to feel it by experiencing such radically transcendent forgiveness in concrete action.
And she does; experience forgiveness, that is. Indeed, Philomena arguably becomes the very conduit of such divine grace. In the climax of Philomena, there’s a scene—The Scene—which I find to be one of the most remarkably perceptive depictions of forgiveness ever put to cinema. At the end of their trip to America, Martin and Philomena learn from Anthony’s partner, Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), that Anthony never forgot his Irish heritage or his birth mother; that he had come to Roscrea in search of Philomena in his final months, but had been deceived and turned away by the nuns as to Philomena’s whereabouts; that his dying wish was to be buried in the cemetery at the convent where he last saw his mother.
Philomena and Martin return to where they first began at Roscrea, with Martin now furious about the nuns’ sanctimonious duplicity. Upon arrival, he forgoes courtesy, dramatically bursting through convent doors and startling elderly nuns until he finds Sister Hildegarde, the now-ancient nun who was present when Anthony was forcibly adopted, and who turned away the dying Michael, thus disallowing him from any possible reunion with his mother.
In The Scene, Martin demands answers and an apology from a bitterly taciturn Sister Hildegarde. They argue over the validity of her religious convictions, until Philomena steps in, tells Martin to stop, and apologizes to Sister Hildegarde and the other flustered clergy. Martin is incredulous, but Philomena replies, “It happened to me, not you. It’s up to me what I do about it. It’s my choice.” Neither Martin nor Sister Hildegarde will impinge on Philomena’s freedom to choose.
When Martin asks if she is “just going to do nothing,” Philomena tells him no. She then looks to Sister Hildegarde, the woman who deeply and purposefully wounded her, and speaks with a tone of both conviction and mercy: “I want you to know…that I forgive you.”
Martin is justifiably upset. The self-righteous nun has not—will not—ask for forgiveness; she still views herself as being above both Martin and Philomena. What she has done to Philomena, Anthony, and so many other unnamed mothers and children can understandably be declared unforgivable.
But Philomena’s audacious, poignant reply to Martin reveals her whole heart, her tearful face filling the frame at this narrative zenith: “It’s not ‘just like that’—that’s hard. That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.” She sighs. “Look at you.”
“I’m angry,” Martin glowers.
She sighs again. “It must be exhausting.”
Philomena then asks one of the nuns to take her to her son’s grave, and she calmly departs. As Martin slowly follows Philomena out of the room, he briefly turns to the silently stunned Catholic clergy watching his departure: “Well…I couldn’t forgive you.”
To forgive is not only to release someone from the debt of the past, but to also gift them with an unmerited grace for the future. This is even more pronounced in the near-miraculous act of forgiving a perpetrator who has not, cannot, or will not acknowledge their wrongdoing. Many would justifiably follow in Martin’s angry footsteps in not forgiving unrepentant people for their atrocities, both massive and individual—it seems unfair, even unjust or immoral. And yet Martin Luther King Jr., taking his cue from the ethic of Jesus, links such unapologetic forgiveness with the love for one’s enemies: “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.” This is not an ethic of coercion; no one can or should be obligated or forced to forgive. It’s merely an invitation to take a hard path: to choose forgiveness rather than vengeance or hatred.
Philomena neither canonizes nor condemns its central characters’ choices; it simply presents them (and us) with the radical freedom to choose how we respond. Martin chooses anger; Philomena chooses grace. Every act of forgiveness, like every act of adoption, is a choice: the choice to give and the choice to receive.
A week after I mailed the letter, I receive an email: I am your biological mother.
She is happy, overwhelmed, but most of all thankful that I have contacted her. I tell her I am a pastor; she tells me she is married to a pastor, her second husband after my birth father abandoned her and their other children.
There are other children.
She tells me of my brother and sisters, my four flesh-and-blood siblings who never learned of my existence. She tells me that she loves me, that she is proud of me, but she also confesses her fear: she never told my siblings or her new husband about me, and she is afraid to reveal the truth. It’s hard for her, and for them, when she eventually does so. But her confession also proves to be profoundly liberating.
When she later flies across the country to meet me and my family—her three grandchildren!—in person, she can’t stop asking me for forgiveness. Even though her motive for my adoption was love, she cannot help but feel guilty. I tell her that not only is she forgiven, but that I don’t necessarily feel wronged by her. In fact, strangely enough, I am grateful for her decision, for her love and her sacrifice. I tell her she must also forgive herself, because I know that had she kept me, I would have been loved with an unconditional maternal zeal, the same love she demonstrates with my birth siblings and her grandchildren. I tell her that we cannot change the past, what we’ve done and what was done to us. But we can lovingly dwell in the present and lean into the future with hope. We may choose a new trajectory together.
And with those words—and even in typing this now—I am overcome with emotion and begin to weep, for an invisible existential burden has been lifted from both of our shoulders, an emotional weight we have each carried separately for my entire life which could only truly be released by our reunion. My mother is now free to share her whole story, and me, with her husband and children. I am now free to share our ongoing story, to perhaps offer a sense of solidarity with other adoptees living in liminality, in nepantla. It is not easy; if anything, the experiences after reuniting have been more tumultuous than the moments leading up to it. Still, we choose forgiveness, which is a way of saying that we choose love. For love keeps no record of wrongs but simply rejoices with the truth—it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.