Not My Father’s Son
In 2010, Alan Cumming, the Scottish actor best known perhaps for playing the “uptight politico” Eli Gold in the American television show The Good Wife, agreed to do an episode for the BBC’s reality television program Who Do You Think You Are? The result was a “genealogical maelstrom” lasting several months that brought to a head a number of things for Alan, especially the violence that had been inflicted upon him by his father, Alex, when he was a wee lad.
This book’s treatment of the subject of family violence is suitably serious. The lens of Cumming’s memory pans back and forth from his glamorous present featuring fancy airport lounges and chauffeurs, to his painful past featuring a badly bruised bottom and a head bloody from a rough haircut administered with sheep shears.
The heaviness of the book’s subject is leavened by a canny structure, but Cumming is careful to convey the awful reality of living in a house with a tyrant when his “ire was building and his cruelty unfurling”. Alan is so keen to escape the Moirae of his destiny that when he is 13 he buys himself a full dinner set in readiness for the day when at the gate of the Panmure estate he can say to his father “That’s me away!”
All of this cutting back and forth lightens the mood, and builds the tension. Cumming’s memoir reads like a thriller. When chapters end you are there with him, hanging on a ledge. You are with him in a trailer, in a hotel room, in a dressing room putting on your silicone breasts to play Desrae the transvestite. You are eager to learn what the next telephone call or email will reveal about a couple of genealogical mysteries. Was Alan’s father really his biological father? And what really happened to his mother’s father, Tommy, who died in mysterious circumstances in Malaya?
To Cumming’s credit and also to that of the assistants acknowledged at the end of the book, the strands of interlinked story unfold not only with dramatic effect, but without confusion.
You may not think that a book about family violence and, as it turns out, post-traumatic stress disorder, could be enjoyable, but Cumming’s courageous book is full of unexpected joy. “Go into the unknown with truth, commitment and openness,” he counsels, “and mostly you’ll be okay.” MG
Canongate, 304pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son". Subscribe here.