As I was leaving the theater over the weekend, after watching the mesmerizing movie "Philomena," a couple of middle-aged women nearby were talking about how much they had learned from the film. "It's awful what happened in Ireland back then," one of them said. "I'd never known about it before."
What they learned, in a nutshell, was that girls and young women like the real-life Philomena -- who got pregnant out of wedlock in that country during the 1950s -- were frequently forced to work under brutal conditions in convent laundries as "penance" for their "sins." And then their sons and daughters were routinely, mercilessly spirited away from them to be adopted by wealthy Americans, most if not all of whom showed their gratitude to the church with generous "donations."
"Philomena" is far more than a glimpse into the past, however, and I hope that people who see it (and I wish I had a magic wand to induce everyone to do so) will derive far broader and more essential lessons. Because the reality is that during the mid-20th century and beyond, severe religious, social and familial stigmas against unwed motherhood were the norm far beyond Ireland. As a consequence, it's almost certainly true that there are more Philomenas in the United States than in any other country -- i.e., women who, given a choice, would have parented their children rather than suffering the anguish of losing them and wondering about them every day because they were placed into closed adoptions.
Perhaps most unsettling, both because some of the stigmas remain and because adoption policies and practices have not yet progressed sufficiently, more Philomenas are being created every day.
So from the perspective of a leader of a think tank dedicated to making adoption as thoughtful, ethical and compassionate as possible for all of its participants, here are a few of the big takeaways that I hope will be imbedded into the consciousness of the viewers of this important movie.
First and foremost, shaming or coercing parents into parting with their children or, worse, removing their children without consent (even when that's necessary), inflicts profound and lasting psychic wounds. On-screen in "Philomena," it looked like a form of torture, and I'm sure many women would describe it that way. A related lesson: Women whose children go to adoptive homes rarely "forget and move on." They may do the latter, especially if they had a real voice in the process, but just as was the case for Philomena, the lives they created remain in their minds and hearts and souls. And, if they don't know where their sons or daughters are, they anguish over whether their children are healthy or sick, even dead or alive.
There unquestionably are circumstances in which children need new families, especially if remaining in their original ones puts them in harm's way; furthermore, there certainly are women and men who willingly place their infants for adoption. Given what we know about the enduring repercussions of being separated from one's child, however, policy and practice must do a better job of ensuring that families can stay intact when possible, and that parents receive the help they need when that goal cannot be met. Moreover, women and men who do consider adoption for their children should be enabled to understand all of their options beforehand, so that they make genuinely informed decisions, and should receive pre- and post-placement counseling and support as well.
There's a vital lesson in this film about adopted people, too: Like their peers who are raised in their families of origin, adoptees typically want and/or need -- and certainly deserve -- to know from where and from whom they came. They are too often prevented from obtaining that knowledge, however, by laws that keep their records sealed; by practices that keep their adoptions closed; and by attitudes that mistakenly equate their desire or need to know with disloyalty to their adoptive parents.
The insights provided by this quietly powerful movie are not simply the conjectures of a filmmaker, written for dramatic effect. Rather, they are based on the real life of the title character -- and they reflect the truths of generations of women and the children they lost. It's also important to say that the lessons in "Philomena" are borne out by decades of experience and research, including "Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process" and "For the Records II: An Examination of the History and Impact of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates." Both are the work of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which is currently embarking on a new "Safeguarding II" study intended to define and shape best practices in options counseling for expectant parents.
Most people who see "Philomena" will undoubtedly come away thinking far more about Judi Dench's riveting performance than about the need for continued improvement of adoption laws, policies and practices. But this movie, because it is so popular and so well-received, provides the best springboard in years for a broad conversation about the undermining consequences of stigma, shame, secrets and lies -- and about how we can reshape social attitudes and institutions that were built on those foundations.