Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Written by Victoria Best

Alan Cumming memoirMy abiding memory of Alan Cumming is from the Bond movie, Goldeneye, in which he plays his character of Machiavellian computer programmer like a cheeky and irritating little brother. In the action-packed climax to the movie, as he races time to crack a password while the satellite control station explodes around him, a jet of freezing nitrogen petrifies him in place as he cries out ‘I am invincible!’ His is such a familiar face on television, and the roles he plays are so often mischevious and playful (he describes himself on twitter as “Scottish elf trapped inside middle-aged man’s body”), that it’s hard to imagine him as a survivor of childhood abuse. But his moving and compelling memoir shows not just the dark past he came from, but the many fine, joyful qualities he possesses that helped him move beyond it.

In fact, the memoir focuses in part on a period of his life in late spring 2010, when he had been chosen by the BBC as one of the subjects for their genealogical research programme Who Do You Think You Are? The programme intended to find out the truth about his mysterious maternal grandfather, who dropped out of his mother’s life when she was in her early teens, never to be heard of until the notice of his death arrived in the post, victim of a shooting accident. Tommy Darling was living in Malaysia then, though what had happened between his time in the Second World War, during which he had been decorated, and his demise on the other side of the world, was shadowy at best.

Just as Alan Cumming is bracing himself to face up to the many revelations and shocks the programme will bring, he receives a devastating message from his father. Cumming takes us through just enough of his past to make us understand their difficult relationship. His father was an angry man who had a ready hand with punishment, but more damaging was the tyranny he imposed on his family, in the threat of his violence and his highly judgemental nature. He was head forester on a Scottish estate, and he liked to give his sons tasks that were far beyond their strength and ability, in order it seemed to abuse them when they failed. He was also repeatedly and publicly unfaithful to his wife. Thankfully, Alan Cumming’s mother was deeply caring towards her sons and a force of strength and love in their lives, but she didn’t leave their father until Alan was 20, and throughout his childhood she never quite found the courage to stand up to his temper. But then, times were different, and wifely obedience was the cultural norm. And Alan was finding the strength to forge his own path:

My father told me I was worthless, my mother that I was precious. They couldn’t both be right, but they evened each other out and I began to make my own mind up, not just about myself but about everything that was going on around me.

He escaped to drama school at 17 and found his salvation in acting. But then at 28, when he was reaching new levels of fame and success, and his domestic life was under pressure from his wife’s desire for a child and his own reluctance towards fatherhood, he had what he calls a ‘Nervy B’ and realised he had to confront his past. He and his older brother returned to Scotland to visit their father and ask, as adults, for an explanation of his conduct. After that meeting, Alan didn’t speak to his father again for another 16 years, until he is at the start of this fateful period of family discovery with the BBC. And then, his dying father drops a bombshell in his lap.

I’ll leave readers to find out more about both of these complicated and shocking family stories – Alan’s father’s and his grandfather’s – for themselves. But one of the things I really loved about this book was Alan Cumming’s ability to make the best of whatever situation he found himself in and his immense capacity to enjoy the life he has created for himself. Frequently, what’s happening with his father causes him great pain and stress, which must somehow be dealt with in the midst of a hectic filming schedule. The first strategy he has is his acting skills:

No matter what is going on in my real life, I know how to block it out when I am working. Whether I have had good news, bad new, am feeling hungover, joyful, sick, it’s all part of the job description of an actor to neutralise it all and become whatever the character needs to feel.

You get the impression that this ability to re-energise by inhabiting another emotional space entirely is something that does him great good. But it also seems that he is (perhaps another beneficial side effect of acting) unusually open to his own experiences, able to live them in their full consequences. He recounts his time in therapy after his breakdown, and concludes:

It was truly horrifying, but it was also incredibly liberating because in accessing these horrible memories I was beginning to understand who I really was. Such a huge part of my psyche had been closed off for so long, and now I was embracing the fullness of my life experience for the first time.

And of course, Alan Cumming is openly gay and an actor who is nothing if not cutting edge in his choices. In the middle of filming the BBC programme, he has to break off to fulfill his commitment to a television mini-series in which he plays a transvestite nightclub owner. Reading the memoir, I had a sense of a man who has had to make courageous choices in his life, and who now lives in authenticity, surrounded by family and friends who love him, engaged in work he is passionate about. I found myself cheering him on, full of respect and admiration for the way he was dealing with the most extraordinary of family situations. And by the moving conclusion I had more than a tear in my eye for the poignant solutions he and his mother and brother found. A wonderful, powerful, tender book.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son (Canongate, London, 2014). 978-1782115441, 304 pages, hardback.

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