Originally published in the Herald-Sun, July 4, 2015
Alan Cumming, author and reader of his memoir Not My Father’s Son (Harper Audio, Blackstone Audio, 6.5 hours), recently won two 2015 Audie awards — one for Best Narration by the Author and the second for Best Memoir. Both were well-deserved.
Cumming grew up with the constant threat of cruelty. He, his mother and older brother were all held hostage by his father’s terrible bouts of anger, chilling silences, and unrealistic demands. Wisely Cumming relieves the painful intensity by providing listeners with needed strong sensory descriptions and imagery.
He writes, for example, of fetching Christmas trees from the tractor shed for customers, “the blast of intense pine from hundreds of the felled spruce trees, piled high against the walls assaulted your nose.” He worked “late into the dark freezing night cutting trees, carting them to the saw yard, pushing their prickly sappy carcasses through a tube to encase them in nylon netting and carrying them to the buyer’s car.”
Remembrances from his ragged past is all not there is in Cumming’s memoir. Skillfully he weaves in his passion for acting as well as a family mystery. Cumming’s adored mother last saw her father, Tommy Darling, when she was 8. Though the family was assured of his hero status during WWII, there were confusing reports of his having died in a gun accident.
Cumming makes fluid transitions between past and present, merging memory fragments, views of his present life, and scant bits information about his grandfather’s life. Cumming’s wit, tension and reflection blend beautifully. These are only improved by a Scottish accent as smooth as his homeland whiskey.
Twining themes come together in 2010 when the producers of “Who Do You Think You Are?” offer to do a show focused on his ancestry. Cumming agreed, eager to please his beloved mum and resolve generations of questions. Suddenly, however, he learns that his father, with whom he’s had little contact, believes Alan is not his son. Instantly, Cumming’s fear of his father’s abuse resurfaces.
While he tries to mesh filming a series in Africa with chasing the elements of his grandfather’s past from England to Malaysia, Cumming waits for paternity tests. There are surprising conclusions in all matters and Cumming writes thoughtfully about these. Connections are not missed on him. He sees how lucky he is to have resources to solve mysteries of the past and the same time he fears revealing painful truths publically.
He sees commonalities with his grandfather’s past and his own — how they both lacked a father figure, shared reckless behavior and waited their whole lives to be told they’d done well. And he sees differences between the two males who figure strongly in his past.
“One of them had never sought the truth and lived his life based on a lie. The other’s truth was hidden from us because society deemed it unsuitable. Both caused strife and sadness. Now both combine to reinforce for me what I knew to be the only truth. There is never shame in being open and honest.”
Alan Cumming’s memoir embodies this truth and do so eloquently.