“What was the matter with her?” I asked, beginning to suspect what it may have been.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with her body. She was as fit as a fiddle. It was a different type of sickness, the type that people get when they feel too much. You know what I mean?” She pointed to her head.
I sat back in the chair for the first time. I was right, my mother and I had the same awful affliction in common. I wondered what had brought hers on, or if she had been born with a disposition for it. Maybe I have been born with the same disposition, and all that had happened to me only brought things to the surface.
“They said she had some sort of breakdown. It happened when we were in third form. She just started crying in class on day, and the more anyone tried to talk to her and console her, the worse the crying got. They sent for Ratina, and by the time she got here, your mother was out of control.”
“Did anyone know what happened to her?”
“Till this day, I don’t know what happened. All I know is that your father visited her every day in the hospital.”
“They put her in the hospital?”
“Yeah, we didn’t have a hospital for crazy people like they have here, so they put her in the regular hospital. And your father, the good person that he was, he would visit her every day and take her whatever schoolwork we’d done in class. When she got out of the hospital, nobody would go near her. It was like she had leprosy or something. But your father, he was always at her side and chastised anyone who made fun of her. He was a good person. It was a shame he died the way he did. It’s a shame you never got to meet him.”
I was at a loss for words. As the woman spoke, I felt a warm sensation growing inside of me. With each of her words and slight movement of her body, I was transported back in time to a place I had long forgotten. I was taken back home. Being there, listening to her accent and eating the pudding, reminded me of my history, my story, my origins. I had lived my whole life with a feeling of displacement, of not belonging to the world or anything in it. Ratina was the only person who had fully claimed me, but I wasn’t her child. The two who had given me life were absent my whole life, and I knew that had had a detrimental impact on me. But with this woman’s words, I felt I was somehow regaining a sense of that belonging, a part of myself that I didn’t know existed or had somehow forgotten. I did belong somewhere. I had a home once. I had a family once. But now that family consisted of the women in the house. I had never thought about Susan or Cindy in that way before, no matter how much we had been through. Now they were the only family I know. We were connected not only by your shared secrets, how we had been violated and unloved, but also by the resilience that comes from such experiences. Even though our trauma had not demonstrated to us what love truly was, we had learned to love. We loved each other in our own way. The word love was never used and none of us would have ever admitted to even liking the others, but there was love in that house of damaged souls. It took the stranger’s stories about my dead family for me to realize that I had somehow acquired a new family.
Philomena Jones tells her life story in this novel which moves from bad to worse and, at the end, emerges hopeful. Left to her grandmother, who has already raised eight children and grandchildren, Philomena pines for her absent mother on the small Caribbean island of Montserrat while searching for any emotional connection she can find. Ratina, her grandmother, takes care of Philomena but is often harsh with her. Philomena knows that her grandmother is doing her best to raise her, but Philomena feels unloved. Ratina spends time with people from her church and leaves Philomena at home by herself except when she forces Philomena to attend Sunday school. It is at Sunday school that Philomena’s tragic tale worsens.
Although Ratina doesn’t have much money, she is always sure to feed and clothe Philomena properly. She is careful to teach Philomena how to behave politely, hoping to raise her to be a ‘good girl’. Though these attributes of obedience and not talking back are often a good thing, in Philomena’s case, they make her a target and a victim. When Philomena is about seven years old, her Sunday school teacher, Miss Pierce, keeps her in after letting the other children go and sexually assaults her, as she has many times before. However, after this time, as Philomena is rushing to leave, Miss Pierce’s brother, Pastor Pierce, enters the room and asks after the child. “Oh, that’s my Philomena,” Miss Pierce says. It is only a short time later that this becomes Pastor Pierce’s line.
Over the following years, Pastor Pierce visits Philomena at her house every time that Ratina goes out to spend time with her church group. At first, Philomena is sickened by what the Pastor does and what he asks her to do, but slowly over time she becomes dependent on his visits. Philomena agrees to call him Pauly, at his request, as their strange relationship develops, and Philomena’s thoughts only look to the next time they can meet.
On one of Pastor Pierce’s routine visits when Philomena is in her teens, Ratina returns to the house early with some of the other church ladies and catches Pastor Pierce just as he’s putting his clothes on. The ladies are stunned but know what’s going on as Philomena emerges from her bedroom naked with her dress in her hand. Ratina leads the way as the ladies grab whatever they can to beat the Pastor out of the house. Ratina questions Philomena and learns that this has been going on for a long time, and Ratina is surprised at Philomena’s calm response, “He said God would be okay with it,” Philomena states and doesn’t understand Ratina’s rage. Although the incident is reported, no charges are laid against the Pastor, but he is removed from his position and takes a house in town.
Years continue to move by, and despite the discovery, Philomena continues to visit the Pastor, going to his house in town on a regular basis. On one particular visit, Philomena sees a woman leaving the house with a kiss from the Pastor. Philomena is enraged especially after she is on her way to tell him that she is pregnant with his child. After confronting the Pastor, she turns in tears to leave and accidentally steps out in front of a vehicle and is hit. She wakes up in a hospital, only to learn that she’s lost the baby and sinks into a depression not speaking for days. Worried, Ratina contacts Philomena’s mother who arrives but abruptly leaves after she and Ratina get into a fight. More days pass while Philomena continues in her depression but is speaking again. One of her friends from school comes to the house for a visit and brings with her a note from the Pastor. This gives Philomena some hope, and the next day she is up and dressed and makes her way to town to visit the Pastor once again. After a short and uncomfortable conversation, they make their way to the bedroom and things return to normal for Philomena.
On her eighteenth birthday, the Pastor surprises Philomena with a plane ticket to America and tells her that he’s registered her in a nursing program, secured her an apartment, and will pay for everything for a year. She doesn’t want to leave the Pastor but decides to take a chance and go since she may be able to find her mother whose last known address is in the area of Philomena’s new apartment. Further, she feels that the Pastor may be done with her anyway. She tells Ratina her plan, and, although Ratina’s against it, she has to accept it as Philomena is now an adult.
Over the next few weeks, Ratina falls ill and is prescribed pills for her heart condition.
Philomena doesn’t know what to do as she doesn’t want to leave Ratina in such a state, but her dilemma is solved when Ratina dies days later. After the burial, Philomena falls into depression, and voices in her head tell her to end her life by swallowing all of Ratin’s remaining pills. Overcome with grief, she swallows the entire bottle and goes to sleep hoping that she will finally be rid of all the pain - leaving the Pastor, Ratina dying, her mother leaving her. However, she wakes up in the morning only to discover that the doctor had given Ratina placebos, and Philomena sees this as a sign to keep on living and try a new life in America.
For the first part of the year, Philomena is at the top of her nursing class. She waits for letters from the Pastor and looks forward to the time he can fly to meet her. Before this can happen though, Philomena learns that the Pastor died. Again, she falls into a deep depression that causes her to fail her year. The Pastor’s money that paid for Philomena’s apartment is no longer, and she gets evicted and now must live on the streets.
Years go by and Philomena sleeps under bridges and follows only the schedule of which soup kitchen is open when. The voices in her head continue to plague her and give her headaches. One day the voices become overpowering, and Philomena jumps from a bridge landing on the street beneath. She wakes up in a hospital and is told she’s been in the hospital for a week and was in a coma for some of it. Philomena becomes agitated as the doctor asks her questions. This agitation is heightened as the nurses try to restrain her, and all of the feelings of her childhood come flooding back - the touching by Miss Pierce, the Pastor, the abandonment by her mother, the cold dealings with her grandmother. The orderlies sedate her, and Philomena wakes up naked in a padded white room.
Philomena endures several rounds of electroshock therapy, medication, and visits with the psychologist. After some time, she is released to a rooming house where other women who have similar life experiences also live. Philomena not only has to deal with her own realities, but also those of the other women. However, it is through their shared experiences that Philomena is able to access her resilience and keep going. It isn’t until she meets an older woman who lives down the block that Philomena regains a sense of hope. The woman is from Montserrat and knew Philomena’s mother and father, including details about her father’s tragic drowning death. She is able to give Philomena some of the information about her parents that she was missing and, although Philomena knows she will not see her mother again, the stories bring her some peace. Meeting the woman gives Philomena enough hope to continue with her life and try to put her past behind her.
As noted in the acknowledgements of the novel, Browne weaves together elements of stories from several women’s lives into a realistic fiction that is both alarming and raw. The story is told simultaneously through two time periods - Philomena’s life after her jump and the time that leads up to the jump. Though the chapters move forward and back in time, Browne does a solid job of not losing the plot in the transitions. Philomena's consistent voice lets the reader empathize with her position and somehow understand her thinking despite the disturbing turn of events. Her story builds, piece by piece (or deconstructs piece by piece) so that the reader stands at the end begging, “How could this possibly happen?”, even though the answers are known. It is the end, however, that offers a reprieve to the emotional devastation that the plot exacts. Here, Philomena is able to move beyond her past and see a sliver of hope through her resilience.
Philomena (Unloved) is mostly disturbing, but it is also encouraging and does have some humorous sections. Though it deals with very dark issues including sexual abuse, mental health, and suicide, in the end it presents a sense of hope and provides a definition of resilience that would otherwise be difficult to convey. I would suggest this novel be presented to adult readers due to its content. Though I understand this novel is written from true events with the intention of honouring the stories of several women, I strongly believe that the stories are best left to adult readers who may be more equipped to understand the nuanced meanings and navigate the logic with a more knowledgeable perspective.
Penta Ledger is a teacher-librarian at Gravenhurst High School in Gravenhurst, Ontario.