Wednesday, March 19, 2014

384 (2014 #12). Philomena

by Martin Sixsmith

This book should have been called "Michael" instead of Philomena.  Or perhaps it should have stuck to its original title, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, since the book is more about the child, Michael Hess, than his mother Philomena.  I read that the original book didn't sell that well, and was resurrected with the title change to tie-in with the movie starring Judi Dench in an Academy Award-nominated performance.

I haven't seen the movie (and have no intention of doing so now that I've read the book).  I want to be clear that this is a review of the book and NOT the movie.

Besides the misleading title, the book is marketed as being a "true story." While reading it, I had to question that, given that the author attributes a lot of actions, conversations, and feelings to Michael Hess, when he did not even interview Michael (who had died in 1995, 14 years before the book was written).  I felt the author had an adoption rights agenda to promote - that Michael's "troubles" were a result of his being adopted and being unable to find out who his real mother was.  I felt a lot of Michael's supposed behaviors were sensationalized to promote this agenda.

It turns out some of those "troubles" were in fact highly exaggerated or even invented.  There's an excellent review of this book on Amazon by a friend of Michael's who was interviewed for the book and appears as a character in it (under another name).  This reviewer rightly points out that "this book should be categorized as fiction."  I strongly suggest that you read this review as it gives examples of numerous inaccuracies.

The review also refers to an interview at of Michael's partner (called Pete in the book):

Steve Dahllof, Hess’s partner for the last 15 years of his life, said in a telephone interview that the book was “about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy” ... He said the book had “portrayed Michael as this very dark, brooding type of person that he was not,” though he acknowledged that Hess “didn’t let very many people in.” Still, Dahllof said, all of Hess’s bosses and colleagues in the [Republican] party knew he was gay and had a partner. “It didn’t need to be part of the conversation,” recalled Dahllof... “Now it’s more relaxed. Society has moved on. He was never tormented by his sexuality. He was a Republican, more a fiscal Republican than a social Republican. We really didn’t talk politics that much.” In fact, if Hess was consumed by anything, it was his search for his biological mother. “Was Michael tortured?” Dahllof asked. “No, he wasn’t tortured. But he had this deep desire to find his biological mother, to understand her"....
Sixsmith’s book portrays Hess as carousing in biker bars, but Dahllof said the reality was much tamer. ...   Dahllof, [Robert] Higdon [one of Hess’s closest friends and the former executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation in Washington], and Hess’s other friends and co-workers all resist tendencies in the book and movie to caricature or pigeonhole him as a gay man, or a Republican, or anything else. He was, above all, they say, a whole person.
Even Mike's hometown newspaper, the Rockford [Illinois] Register Star, pointed out inaccuracies:

Lynn Cuppini McConville, Boylan Class of 1967 who is now director of advancement at Boylan, said Hess was involved in many school activities, including debate and stage productions. Some information in the book is incorrect, including Hess' role in the play, "Mame," the last name of a girl he appeared with and their relationship, McConville said.

I only read this book because it was my book club's selection for the month.  I'm glad I didn't purchase it, and I can't recommend it to anyone else.  No stars for this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]


  1. Susan Kavanagh3/22/14, 8:35 PM

    Thank you for linking to my Amazon review of Philomena, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search and for describing it as excellent. You have written a very thorough review. Your links to newspaper and online articles clearly support your conclusion that the author of this "nonfiction" book sensationalized his account of Michael's purported behavior to drive home his thesis that Michael lead a tortured life because of his adoption and inability to find his birth mother. To support this premise, the author created dialogue and incidents that can't possible be tracked to a source and, in my case, made up the dialogue and incidents even when a source was available.

    1. Thank you, Susan! I hope everyone reads your review on, LibraryThing, and GoodReads before buying or reading this book.