Not My Father's Son, a new memoir by bisexual actor Alan Cumming, is at once poignant, honest, heart-wrenching, hopeful, humerous, devastating, and affirming. That may seem like too many contradictory emotions all at once, but in the book, Cumming details a particularly difficult and emotional span of time in his life.
The book centers around the late spring and early summer of 2010, when Cumming appeared on the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, a series which uncovers secrets or mysteries in the family trees of celebrities.
The book also focuses on Cumming's relationship with his abusive and estranged father, who comes back into his life for one last painful episode. Anyone who has suffered physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a parent will find sections of Cumming's childhood memories painfully, vulnerably real. Much of the memoir takes a “Now” and “Then” approach, detailing particularly devastating memories from Cumming's childhood and then returning to the present day. This provides much-needed background into the abuse and its long-term effects on his life and psyche.
While not an easy read, seeing Cumming's journey to rid himself of his father's negative influence is both encouraging and inspiring. Without giving too much away, Cumming learns valuable lessons about love, family, the importance of honesty, and the danger of shame which would be useful to a wide variety of individuals.
It's difficult to speak too much more to the details of the plot because it is full of so many surprising revelations. I would not want to spoil future readers; the book is too expertly written for that. Cumming crafts his story in such a way that he literally recreates his own emotional experience of the events for the reader. The reader is therefore able to live vicariously through Cumming-as-narrator as he deals with each revelatory blow, and like Cumming, we don't know and couldn't have guessed what's coming in advance. Being able to journey with Cumming through such emotionally volatile territory feels surprisingly intimate, but it makes his story resonate all the more.
The humility and vulnerability Cumming expresses throughout the memoir is refreshing. He struggles in some ways with his celebrity, and the privilege (as well as the pain) of it. On the one hand, not everyone would be able to gain the resources of a show like Who Do You Think You Are? and put to rest a family mystery. On the other hand, not everyone would have to deal with their relationship with their estranged father being the subject of tabloid headlines. Cumming is able to tow the balance between acknowledging his celebrity but not being defined by it, allowing the reader to relate to him in a human way, not as a fan.
Cumming ultimately discovers that secrets and lies are poisonous to families, and that to know the truth, no matter how painful, is always better than the alternative. While not everyone has access to the historical documents which could explain their family mystery (assuming such documentation would even always exist), the choice to be open, honest, and vulnerable within our families is indeed an important one.
As we move toward the Christmas season, one which is difficult for many individuals – LGBTQ or otherwise – who have troubled family relationships, Cumming's memoir is quite relevant. I can't help but relate part of Cumming's decision to live honestly and without shame to his sexuality. For once one skeleton is out of the closet, I think it becomes easier to brush the dust off the rest.
Not My Father's Son is extremely well-written, cathartic, thought-provoking, and a glimpse into the life of a celebrity which shows that regardless of social status, we're all still a part of the human condition. I would recommend this book to anyone who has struggled to overcome their own family history, and hold it up as proof that abuse doesn't have to forever define the lives of those who survive it.
If you do pick up Not My Father's Son this holiday season, just be sure to carve out a chunk of time for reading it. Once you start, you won't want to put it down.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 12/04/2014.