Not My Father’s Son
By Alan Cumming
Harper Collins, €17
Reviewed by Nadine O’Regan
In the afterword to this memoir, Scottish actor and Tony award-winning theatre veteran Alan Cumming – best-known these days for his role as the brash, witty campaign manager Eli Gold in the Emmy-winning The Good Wife – describes the conversation he had with his agent about writing this book.
Much to his surprise, Cumming was not asked to write a typical memoir about “my fabulous celebrity life”. Instead, Luke Janklow asked him to write about something he felt passionate about. Surprised and intrigued, Cumming was happy to comply.
The result is Not My Father’s Son, a brilliantly vivid and heartrending account of Cumming’s early life, interspersed with some well-observed, comic and intriguing scenes from his more recent past.
The book begins with a shocking recollection: Cumming as a young boy in his family kitchen near Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland. His father has walked in and demanded that Alan gets his hair chopped. “I’ll take him to the barber’s on Saturday morning,” his mother tries to interject. But that’s not good enough. Alan’s father drags him across the kitchen, through the hall, out the front door and to the bike shed, where he grabs a rusty pair of clippers used to shear sheep.
“They were blunt and dirty and they cut my skin, but my father shaved my skin with them, holding me down like an animal,” Cumming writes.
Later, as he cries in his bedroom, eyes so puffed up he can barely open them, he feels like he wants to die. It won’t be the only time either. Throughout his adolescence, he and his older brother Tom are kept in constant suspense, fearful of their father’s every move, knowing that the wrong glance, the wrong words, are enough to set him off. It wasn’t the actual violence that hurt the most; it was the threat of it, the anxiety that it generated as a constant.
Years later, when Cumming’s first marriage breaks down, it sets off a major depression in which he relives and flashes back to the events from his past that he had previously suppressed.
In itself, that would be enough of a reason for a memoir. But actually, the jumping off point for Not My Father’s Son is revealed in the unusual title.
Back in 2010, Cumming agreed to take part in Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC show in which celebrities have their genealogy investigated. All set to examine the history of his maternal grandfather Tommy Darling, Cumming is knocked for six when his father – who he hasn’t been in contact with in years – gets in touch via his brother to say he believes Alan is not his biological son. Is Alex Cumming telling the truth? It’s Alan’s job to find out, before the BBC gets in ahead of him.
The book accordingly proceeds on several different fronts: there’s the compelling BBC-related unravelling of the history of Tommy Darling, his grandfather who died via a gunshot wound in Malaysia after playing a heroic role in World War II.
Then there’s the core story of Alan’s childhood, his relationship with his father and his subsequent frantic DNA testing. Then, for the showbiz fans, Cumming throws in several juicy nuggets from the entertainment world – his story of Patti Smith and Mary J Blige, horrified when they’re asked on stage to sing together for charity, is a typically sharp example of his style.
The structure of the book is brilliant; it freeze-frames, pans and flips back and forth in time with the ease of the very best of film directors. Cumming has a very visual brain – each scene is rendered in perfect clarity. He doesn’t go into the story of his coming out, or the breakdown of his marriage.
But he doesn’t need to in order to get his perspective across: there’s great warmth here, for his mother, for his partner Grant, and for his protective brother Tom. These partial glimpses are so well rendered that they offer a deep and lasting impression of the whole picture.
Perhaps, in some ways, this isn’t the memoir his fans would have wanted. It doesn’t go into The Good Wife – or indeed any of his television, film or theatre work – in any great detail. It’s often determinedly non-showy. But it is brilliant: moving and compelling.
At a certain point, Cumming is asked to perform in concert for a week at Feinstein’s, Michael Feinstein’s cabaret space at the Regency Hotel on the Upper East Side in New York. He decides on an esoteric song selection, but feels he can justify it.
“I knew my song choices were probably a little idiosyncratic, but I believe if you’re honest, true to yourself and committed, and especially if you use humour as a tool as well as a balm, people will respect you more than if they agreed with everything you said. It’s actually a good tool for life: go into the unknown with truth, commitment and openness, and mostly, you’ll be okay.”
Cumming takes a similar tactic with this memoir – and the results are hugely impressive.