Hazel McHaffie

Catholic indulgences

Adoption, AIDS and attitudes

It’s 22 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised in Ireland. Civil partnerships for gay couples have been legal there since 2010. But this Saturday Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote. So it seems timely to review a book I read a while ago, which sets a context against which this latest development seems the more extraordinary.

Roll back to 1952 … An unmarried teenager, Philomena Lee, is sent to a convent for ‘fallen women’ – to spare the blushes of her family and society. There she gives birth to a little boy, Anthony. For three years she remains closeted with the nuns and her fellow unwed mothers, caring for him, loving him devotedly, and working like a slave. Life is harsh and the Catholic sisters severe, endlessly reminding the girls of their sinfulness. Those mothers and babies who die aren’t even buried in consecrated ground but in unmarked graves in a nearby field tended by no one. For the ones who survive, part of their endless punishment is to form deep emotional bonds with their child which are destined to be suddenly and irrevocably broken.

And so it is for Philomena: after three years Anthony is taken away by the church and ‘sold’ to an American couple. The authorities condoned the export and sale of Irish children at that time, trading them, choosing them on a whim, like ‘valuable pedigree animals’.  They turned a blind eye to the irregularities within the religious orders. 

PhilomenaThe real life story of Anthony’s experiences growing up in America, as told by TV presenter Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, is both painful and sad. Though reinvented and re-named – Michael Hess – he nevertheless remained full of ‘Catholic guilt’. All his life he believed he jinxed those whom he got close to – even presidents of the USA! And indeed bad luck did seem to follow him, although reading his story with a dispassionate eye, suggests that his own behaviour and innate sense of unworthiness was the cause of much of the unhappiness in his private life and relationships. As one therapist explained to his adopted father (himself a doctor) orphans make up a disproportionate percentage of inmates at treatment centres, detention facilities and special schools: ‘The orphan is always looking for acceptance but always expecting rejection.’ True to form, Michael was dogged by the adoptee’s sense of ‘never going to be good enough’, a belief reinforced by the nuns’ false report that he was abandoned at birth because his mother didn’t want him.

The effect on his relationships was corrosive from a young age, but when he started to have homosexual feelings the problems escalated. This was, after all, an age where same sex relationships were outlawed, hated and punishable. And his strict Roman Catholic upbringing meant that personal guilt was superimposed on inculcated religious guilt. It’s heart-wrenching to read of this naïve young man, while his urges still remained fantasies, researching the indulgences which promised a lessening of his punishment in purgatory, and concluding that ‘he could not hope for a plenary indulgence, a complete remission of his sins, because his offending thoughts were still within him, but he strove as best he could to minimize the retribution he would suffer for them.’

Once he began to actually indulge in gay liaisons his behaviour became increasingly erratic, risky and debauched, his attitudes to those who grew close to him was brutal, and again and again he destroyed the chance of private happiness offered by others. His public persona though, was quite different. There he was debonair, suave, kind, gentle, ambitious, successful. He rose through the ranks of law and politics until he was a right hand man to President Ronald Reagan; moving in the highest circles, respected, listened to, courted. The price he paid was high. In order to pursue the career he wanted he was obliged to join a party which promoted a harshly punitive anti-gay message, suppressing his principles, hiding his real proclivities. A tortured and destructive dual existence, lived on ‘a dreary carousel of recrimination and unspoken resentment’.

And throughout, even though he had risen ‘from illegitimate birth in an obscure Irish convent via the lottery of adoption to a position of influence in the world’s most powerful nation’, the lurking sense of his own unworthiness never left him. He was, he felt, like an imposter just waiting for his secrets to be exposed; both ‘a gay man in a homophobic party’ and ‘a rootless orphan in a world of rooted certainties’. His ‘addiction was secrecy and the rush of being in the wrong – of proving he was the flawed being he always knew he was.’

And what of his biological mother, Philomena? In her teens she was forced to sign official papers relinquishing all rights to contact or to try to trace him, but she never forgot him, and remained convinced that he would try to find her one day. We can only mourn with her that his efforts to do so were thwarted by the nuns, and she could only weep at his grave.

Philomena, then, is a much bigger book than I expected; much more than a story of their search for one another. It’s also an unravelling of attitudes; attitudes to homosexuality in America as well as to illegitimate sex in Ireland. Hypocrisy, double standards, condemnation in both cases. And it particularly resonated with me because as a midwife I cared for unmarried mothers terribly damaged by clandestine treatments and society’s cruelty before the abortion law was passed in this country; and as a university researcher I carried out empirical research into the attitudes and practices of people in relation to HIV and AIDS in the UK during the years when AIDS was incurable and gay men were fighting for equality and fair treatment. I saw at first hand what ignorance and fear and secrecy and a lack of human compassion could drive people to do. And how extraordinary acts of kindness can illuminate the darkness of misunderstanding and guilt.

And reading this haunting story of Philomena and her baby, of Michael’s life as a gay man with AIDS, I was reminded all over again of Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke’s adage: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

 

 

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