Philomena (Italian) Hardcover – 1 Nov 2013
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The book fleshes out Michael Hess's life from his birth at the convent at Sean Ross Abbey, his adoption by the Hesses of St. Louis, Missouri, his childhood in the Midwest, to his rise as a prominent attorney in the Republican National Committee., his life-long longing for his mother, and-- sadly-- to his early death from AIDS. A brilliant lawyer, he was responsible for much of the work on political redistricting that allowed the Republicans to take the House in 1994 for the first time-- I believe-- in 40 years. He had both access to Presidents Reagan and Bush and became a walker, along with other gay men in high positions in the Republican Party, for Nancy Reagan and her friends. (For those unfamiliar with the term, walkers are gay men who escort prominent women to events so that their husbands don't have to; think Truman Capote on a good day.)
Michael had everything going for him but harbored a deep secret. He was a closeted gay man in a fiercely anti-gay Republican administration. His story sounds so much like so many gay men of his and my generation who had successful careers and lived two separate lives. He inhabited a transparent closet that no one talked about. Apparently practically everyone who knew him professionally was aware of his sexual orientation. When he died of AIDS in 1995, Nancy Reagan sent a note of condolence to his gay partner.
Michael Hess's life was fraught with many twists of fate. For instance, he was adopted by the Hesses although they originally were seeking a daughter. He and another child named Mary were best playmates in the convent so Marge Hess made the decision, along with her husband, not to separate the two youngsters. Michael was three when he was taken from Philomena who, along with the other unwed mothers, was treated pretty much as a slave because of her "sins." Particularly unpleasant is learning that the nuns wanted all the details about how these young girls became pregnant. I believe we call that living vicariously; don't we? It was another twist of fate with help from uncooperative sisters at the convent that both Michael and Philomena visited the convent only weeks apart, each seeking unsuccessfully information about the other. (Sister Hildegarde, who brokered the adoption in the first place was tight-lipped some fifty years later but did honor Michael's request to be buried at the convent-- if he gave a sizeable donation-- since he had always felt his home was Ireland.) Because Michael was buried at Sean Ross Abbey, Philomena saw his gravestone and noticed that his date of birth was the same as her long-lost child. With the help of Mr. Sixsmith, she was able to find out the truth about what happened to him. A final twist of fate: it would appear that Michael was given a placebo in a double-blind study with the drug cocktails that in all likelihood would have saved his life.
I find it sad beyond measure that Michael Hesse apparently made a Faustian pact with the Republican Party since it seems that the Reagans and their circle cared not a whit about his sexual orientation. They were interested only in pacifying the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the GOP. But who is to say what I would have done, had I been in Michael's position.
I had the same problem with Mr. Sixsmith's narrative that I have too often with these sorts of books. He makes what I would call great leaps, telling the reader what Michael was thinking, and arriving at conclusions impossible to know for certain since he never interviewed the subject of his book. Of course he had access to Philomena Lee, Michael's sister Mary, his partner and friends in Washington, but we have to take some of what he says on faith. He does say in his Prologue the following: "Everything that follows is true, or reconstructed to the best of my ability. . . Gaps have been filled, characters extrapolated and incidents surmised." I rest my case.
Hess led a successful life as an excellent scholar and successful Washington, D.C. attorney, which may determine why so much was devoted to his professional and personal life. His friends in D.C. must have been open and willing to provide information to the author about him, which is to his credit. He was apparently beloved by his friends and colleagues.
However he could not shake a deep psychological guilt that he was abandoned by his birth mother because he was a "bad person". It was unfortunately manifested in some risky homosexual behavior (we didn't need to know so many details) despite having several very loving and supportive relationships in his home life. Overall, I wanted to know more about Philomena's quest rather than Michael's life.