Multi-talented star of stage and screen, Alan Cumming has appeared in more than a hundred television, movie and theatre productions. Currently reprising his Tony award-winning role as the Emcee in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, the openly bisexual actor has never been shy about sharing aspects of his personal life. However, he takes things to new and unimagined levels in his memoir, Not My Father’s Son. With remarkable candour and clarity, Cumming leads the reader through concentric layers of personal revelations that shook his life in 2010. Yet in dealing with family mysteries spanning three generations, the breadth of the book is far greater than such a premise would suggest.

When Cumming was approached by the team of Who Do You Think You Are?, a British television show that traces the genealogy of celebrities in order to dramatically reveal family mysteries, he was thrilled. Here was the opportunity to understand what had happened to his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling. A decorated war hero who fought against the Germans and Japanese in WWII, in 1946 he left behind his wife and three young children to serve as a police officer in imperial Malaysia, dying five years later in Singapore. No one knew what had driven him so far away from the family that loved him, nor what the specifics were of his death. The program’s preliminary research unearthed information deemed exciting enough for primetime, and so the project went ahead.

When at home in London prior to the beginning of shooting, Cumming got an unexpected taste of the revelations to come. His brother told him that their estranged father of 16 years had gotten in touch to say that Alan was not, in fact, his son. Abusive and vindictive towards his family for as long as anyone could remember, through shock and tears there was also a degree of relief. Perhaps, Cumming thought, this offered some sort of explanation as to why his father had seemingly hated him so thoroughly. The actor’s non-existent relationship with his father was no secret. In 1999, their past seized the spotlight when the News of the World inaccurately reported Cumming as having accused his father of sexual abuse. But if what his father said was true, then Who Do You Think You Are? would surely unveil it, which would be hugely embarrassing for his mother, Mary Darling.

Cumming decided to privately deal with one family mystery –by taking a paternity test–while publicly exploring another. While watching the show that aired, it’s easy to see that Cumming was raw, sensitive and battered–he identifies it himself. The strength it took to project his chipper, child-like self past the personal turmoil induced by the way in which his father had unexpectedly returned into his life is visible.

The journey through his family’s past is replete with enough unexpected twists and discoveries to satiate the inner-detective in us all. Taking Cumming from the United Kingdom, to France, Malaysia and Singapore, the experience was more emotionally taxing than he expected. It was also far more beautiful. While he realized that, regardless of the result of the paternity test, he had lost a father, Cumming saw that he had found a grandfather. By piecing together documents, by speaking with people who knew and served with Tommy Darling in the various corners of the earth, he got to know the man who died so long before his birth, yet whose life was so similar to his own.

Cumming writes with a distinctly Scottish sense of playful wit and dry humour. His artistry is on full display, moreover, in the way the composition of the memoir mirrors his personal odyssey. By jumping between chapters set ‘then’ and ‘now,’ events throughout his entire life are strung together in an organic fashion, which lends substance to the themes and motifs of his experience. He writes honestly about depression, therapy and present-day fears and dispositions, and uses vivid and often brutal tales from his past to explain their roots. The remarkable parallels between his life and that of his grandfather are revealed to the reader as shockingly as they were to the author himself. By sharing his history so honestly, the reader is welcomed to experience the profundity of Cumming’s journey. The joy and the heartbreak, the tears and the fear, the disgust and the pride–his frankness makes these emotions as real for his audience as they were for him.

With an obvious gift for storytelling, Cumming sprinkles light and humorous anecdotes throughout the narrative. Playful jabs at Mary J. Blige and Shakespeare, beauty tips from television sets, OBE ceremonies at Buckingham Palace, there’s even a useful tutorial on the Eurovision Song Contest for anyone unfortunate enough to have never experienced the program in all its gaudy-glamor. He offers insight into his training as an actor and his approach to mental and physical health. He also reveals key dimensions of his personal life, from his childhood in Scotland to the tranquillity of his home in the Catskills.

In sharing his most traumatic experiences–the childhood beating he was sure would end with his death, the spiralling depression that broke his first marriage–Cumming allows the full gravity of the discoveries unearthed to be appreciated. Within the space of a few months, he not only learned that there were awful and poisonous secrets within his family’s history, he also had to come to terms with the pained truths. Despite the suffering, he tells of his gratefulness for the experience, saying that the opportunity to take part on the show more than made up for all the pitfalls of fame. Not My Father’s Son sends the important message that it’s always best to know, to wade through the messiness of life with those you love and support. “The truth can hurt,” he concludes at the end of his Who Do You Think You Are? episode, “but not knowing can hurt more.”

 

 

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir
By Alan Cumming
Dey Street Books
Hardcover, 9780062225061, 304 pp.
October 2014



Tags: , , , , , , , ,
  • Michael Craft

2 Responses to “‘Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir’ by Alan Cumming”

  1. Sarah 14 October 2014 at 2:13 PM #

    You mistakenly tagged this as Gay. Alan Cumming is not gay. He is bisexual. Please fix your tags so bisexual people can find books about ourselves.


  2. […] Not My Father’s Son, Alan Cumming, HarperCollins Publishers/Dey Street Books […]



Leave a Reply

Please fill the required box or you can’t comment at all. Please use kind words. Your e-mail address will not be published.

Gravatar is supported.

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>