Tale of a not so dear old dad: Not My Father’s Son

Review: Alan Cumming’s appearance on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ had surprising repercussions

Alan Cumming, the actor, in New York’s Tompkins Square Park,  Photograph: Amy Lombard/The New York Times Photograph: Amy Lombard/New York Times

Alan Cumming, the actor, in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, Photograph: Amy Lombard/The New York Times Photograph: Amy Lombard/New York Times

Sat, Nov 8, 2014, 01:00

   
 

Book Title:
Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir

ISBN-13:
978-1782115441

Author:
Alan Cumming

Publisher:
Canongate

Guideline Price:
£16.99

In 2010 the BBC asked Alan Cumming to participate in Who Do You Think You Are?, the television programme that investigates a celebrity’s genealogy and reveals buried family secrets – often on camera. Viewing it as a chance to solve a long-standing mystery involving his maternal grandfather, Cumming agreed, having no idea what his decision would unleash off camera.

Cumming was raised on Panmure Estate, thousands of acres of woodland on the east coast of Scotland, where his father, Alec, was head forester. Alec, who died in 2010, was an abusive tyrant. Cumming’s mother, Mary, still living, seems a lovely woman. Her father, Tommy Darling, the focus of Who Do You Think You Are?, was a decorated soldier in the second World War, a man she last saw when she was eight years old.

When the war ended, instead of coming home, Darling joined the police force in Malaysia, where some months later he died of a gunshot wound. The official line was that Darling had accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun, but something had always seemed a bit fishy about that explanation. Then there was the question of why Darling had never returned home to his family after the war.

Cumming’s memoir shuttles between Darling’s story, as unearthed by BBC researchers, the puzzle of Cumming’s own paternity (as hinted at in the book’s title) and his childhood at Panmure, where he and his older brother were subject to his father’s unpredictable rages. In spite of Mary’s warm presence, Cumming writes, “there is not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear of humiliation or pain.”

Cumming snr was also given to a “pandemic infidelity” – sometimes dragging Alan along when he went to meet a lover, whether as a reminder to the woman that he had a home and family or in an effort to pretend that this was a nice family outing, Alan was never sure. (There is a rather funny scene in which a 13-year-old Alan, left to wander the showgrounds while his father and a woman are off having sex in a van, consoles himself by buying a dinner set.)

In the way of people back then, the Cummings just kind of got on with things, nobody saying much about all the pain and fear and betrayal in which family life was steeped. Cumming’s brother married. Cumming went off to drama school in Glasgow. Mary finally left her awful husband, the two of them having agreed, in rather civilised fashion, to separate once their younger son was grown and Mary felt financially secure.

Nervous breakdown

Hamlet

That confrontation was the last time the two men spoke until just days before Cumming began filming with the BBC. Cumming’s father got in touch because he wanted him to know that, well, he wasn’t actually his father, and he was telling him now, he said, because he didn’t want him to find this out while on air with the BBC. Cumming was, he insisted, fathered by a family friend with whom his mother had had a liaison.

Cumming, understandably, is both appalled by the deception and delighted by the possibility that he may have a kinder, saner father out there somewhere.

Thus begins a roller coaster of a time. The day after a stressful Q&A with Cumming snr about the supposed circumstances of his conception, Cumming must go on camera with his mother (not knowing then whether his father is lying or if his mother has colluded in deceiving him) to talk about her father.

The BBC crew don’t realise that the story they’re filming has now paled in comparison to the story taking place off stage, which grows stranger by the day. As Cumming says, “another day, another bombshell”.

Not My Father’s Son is the story of how a self-described feeble, weak and inept boy becomes “cheeky chappie Alan Cumming”, a jet-setting Broadway star and television and film actor, with a Tony and an OBE to his name. “All I know is that I am the product of all the experiences I have had, good and bad, and if I am in a happy place in my life (as I truly am), then I can have no regrets about any of the . . . events and circumstances that have led me to the here and now.”

If you find this a penetrating insight, and you are an Alan Cumming fan, I wouldn’t discourage you from reading the book. But if the takeaway seems a tad pat, and the tone of it a little too Chicken Soup for the Soul, steer clear, because the book contains a lot of this sort of thing.

Red herrings

Cumming is married to the illustrator Grant Shaffer. (“Grant is the kindest, funniest person I’ve ever met – and I’ve known some kind, funny people. I feel so lucky to have met him because I think we should be together.”) The memoir never touches on Cumming’s bisexuality, about which he has spoken publicly. This seems a curious omission, as bisexuality, unlike abusive parents and the celebrity life, is not yet a worked-over topic.

There is little doubt that Cumming has walked the walk, freeing himself from the menacing presence of his father and making a happy and fulfilling life for himself. He seems a likable guy, a loving husband and a devoted son to his mother.

Life gave him lemons, and he just learned one lesson after another. Some of these lessons, alas, are less interesting than others: “I have had some issues to overcome in the follicle department and successfully reclaiming control of my tresses has been achieved via a constantly revolving and eclectic range of haircuts throughout my adulthood.” Molly McCloskey is the author of the memoir Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother, published by Penguin

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