Triumph Over Shame

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness …

(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

Shame ravages. It eats away at you. It makes you collapse into yourself and live with secrets – seemingly too shameful to tell. Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) story is the story of shame. In Stephen Frears’s film, Philomena, Philomena’s journey begins with shame until she comes full circle to where her shame began. Hers is the story of a hard-won triumph over the forces that shamed her – a 1950’s Irish Catholic belief system capitalizing on shame and humiliation to make an unwed mother believe she had no right to her child. Could we call Philomena’s victory forgiveness? Maybe. But, as a psychoanalyst, I know it is so much more.

Forgiveness or Triumph over Shame?

Many reviewers do call Philomena a journey of forgiveness (Kevin Williams of The Washington Times; Steve Holden of The New York Times; Paul Byrnes of the Sydney Morning Herald). Others describe the film as a story of tenacious faith (Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post; Ty Burnes, The Boston Globe; Robbie Catlin, The Telegraph). Although there are elements of faith and forgiveness in Philomena, I disagree. I believe that triumph over shame is the essence of her story.

Philomena’s story begins in early 1950’s Ireland. She meets a boy. He’s flirtatious and good-looking. She’s 18, motherless, and inexperienced in matters of love and sex. In the Catholic culture of her time and the convent where she lived after her mother’s death, there is no sex education, there is to be no sex before marriage. She knows nothing, but she enjoys the boy’s physical attentions and becomes pregnant.

Most of us, in our commonly more open-minded culture today, don’t see sexual desire or sexual curiosity as shameful or a sin. But, Philomena’s family and religious traditions were different. As soon as her pregnancy is revealed, her shamed father whisks her to Sean Rose Abbey. There, she and other young, unwed mothers are considered sinners and suffer the punishments such sinners are “due.” The most terrible: she’s forced to sign a relinquishment, made to believe her child is better off with someone else.

Losing a Child & No Place to Grieve


Every mother knows: the worst possible nightmare is losing a child. What if there is no one to understand your grief? What if shame makes you believe you’ve done something terribly wrong to produce that beloved child in the first place? How do you stay justifiably determined to search for your child? Shame stops Philomena for almost 50 years. Her triumph begins when she finally tells her daughter about, Anthony, her first-born son.

With this courageous revelation, Philomena begins. That same night, her daughter meets Martin Sixsmith and convinces him to take on the search for Anthony as a human-interest story. He agrees, begrudgingly (since human interest is beneath the former BBC foreign and political correspondent). Nonetheless, he and Philomena set off on a heartwarming odyssey that not only sets the stage for these two opposites to teach each other a thing or two (about anger and optimism) but, most importantly, traces what happened to Anthony (whose American identity was Michael Hess).

The film gives Martin (Steve Coogan), as an alter ego, the non-believer and angry role. What the film adaptation doesn’t show is Philomena’s own struggle with anger and faith (although she did ultimately maintain her religious beliefs). From the Mail Online article as told to Catherine O’Brien by Philomena Lee, Anthony was taken a week before Christmas in 1955. She went back to the convent that summer and begged the nuns to tell her where Anthony was. They refused. “Her sadness turned to anger and left her faith in tatters. ‘I remember going to confession and thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m not doing this anymore.’”

Anger & Loss of Faith

No wonder. Isn’t this much more understandable than a story of uninterrupted faith and forgiveness that make Philomena almost a martyr? The most poignant scene in the movie and a recurring traumatic memory in Philomena’s life is watching Anthony driving away, staring out the back window of a Rolls Royce, taken by one of the wealthy American couples the Abbey was selling babies to. She didn’t know he was being adopted and, suddenly, he was gone: “‘I cried out his name, and I didn’t stop crying for two weeks.”

How could anyone – shamed, punished by being forced to endure a breech birth with no drugs, condemned to slave labor in a Magdalene laundry, and made to feel she is a sinner with no rights to her child – escape the anger and completely maintain her faith? What made her forgive the nuns for their lies? Lies revealed during Philomena and Martin Sixsmith’s quest for information:

Adoption records destroyed in a fire (one they actually set), saving only the relinquishment papers. Never telling her, when she’d inquired, that they had news of Anthony and he’d come looking for her. Telling Anthony, when he came to Sean Ross Abby searching for his mother, that she’d abandoned him at birth; and never telling him, when he came to inquire again as a dying man, where to find her. She had every reason to hate them. Perhaps, she couldn’t help forgiving them. As a little girl who’d lost her mother at six, the nuns were the only mothers she knew.

Living with Shame & Regret

The fact that Philomena could be so forgiving is, in large part I believe, due to the same shame that kept her from searching for Anthony: “If only I’d mentioned it all those years ago. Oh Lord, it makes my heartache,” she says. “I’m sure there are lots of women to this very day – they’re the same as me; they haven’t said anything. It is the biggest regret of my life.” (The Telegraph, by Martin Sixsmith, October 14, 2013) What is worse than the nuns’ lies, though, are the lies Philomena was forced to tell herself. That she was the reason for her shame. That she was bad. Sinful. Wrong.

If only I had Philomena on my couch, at a much younger age. I’d help her see that the real forces that shame her are the shaming voices of the Nuns and Church and Father in her head. I’d help her get free from the crushing nature of this internal, punishing judgment. Mostly, I’d help Philomena uncover her anger at the forces that shame her. Not just her father and the nuns at Sean Ross Abby, but, more particularly, at the nuns that continue to live inside her mind.

I’d help her stand up to them. Especially the shaming voice of Sister Hildegard that prevents her from actively searching for Anthony because she believes he hates her as much as she hates herself. I’d help her prove those voices wrong. Maybe, then, she might find Anthony before it’s too late.

Stopping Shaming Voices in the Mind

It’s not easy to shake the shaming voices in your mind that taunt and convince you that you should be punished. But Philomena does. In the end, her belief that secrecy and lying are really the “sin,” not Anthony, wins out. Then, she can turn her self-hate into rightful anger at what’s been done to her and to her son. The way she expresses that anger? She tells Martin Sixsmith: “People should know what happened here” and his book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, is born. No longer shameful, her secret helps other mothers. Other children not known, because not looked for, can be found.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.