I hate nothing more than purportedly true stories that contain excessive amounts of dialogue. When a nonfiction reads like a fictionalized novel, it should really make the reader question the book’s validity. Perhaps no book is more guilty of this than Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
Sixsmith relates the story of Philomena Lee – or rather, the story of the biological son that she was forced to give away. Lee was a pregnant teenager in 1952 Ireland, and her family had sent her to a convent until her problem had been properly handled. Unfortunately for Philomena, Irish convents were in the habit of selling the babies that they obtained to eager American couples looking to adopt. While she desperately wanted to keep her baby boy, she essentially had no choice but to surrender her child to the menacing nuns in charge.
The book then switches gears into her son’s life. The child, renamed Michael Hess, is not exactly cast in a favorable light. Hess is a homosexual, which quickly becomes the focal point of the book. While he also had an impressive political career in the Republican party, Sixsmith instead dwells on Hess’s sexual exploits and unpredictable mood swings. He plays up Michael’s indiscretion with his partners to such a degree that Michael’s eventual AIDS diagnosis is less than shocking.
Author Michael Sixsmith allegedly researched the events in the lives of both Philomena and her son, but no amount of research makes it acceptable to fabricate entire conversations between actual human beings. I had the same problem with Ben Mezrich’s The Social Network – there is no way that these guys knew verbatim what sorts of private conversations went on amongst the key players, and the fact that they simply makes them up detracts from their authorial credibility.
Susan Kavanagh was a friend of Michael, and she appears throughout the book. Kavanagh was so disgusted with Sixsmith’s version of things that she took to Goodreads to share her concerns. Kavanagh explains that although both she and Michael’s partner were interviewed for the book, none of the information provided made it into the fictionalized conversations. She laments, “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.” Kavanagh goes on to explain that Sixsmith may have concocted such a moody version of Michael to further his own agenda: “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.” Kavanagh and Michael’s friends knew a loving and thoughtful man, a man very distant from the one crafted by Sixsmith.
For all of the inaccuracies and artistic licensing, Martin Sixsmith only managed to produces a slanderous and devastatingly boring book. The film version appears to be largely from Philomena’s perspective, so I am somewhat curious to see if the filmmakers have kept closer to her actual story than Sixsmith did with Michael Hess.
*Susan Kavanagh’s full review of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee can be seen here: