Content note: mentions of physical abuse
In reading celebrity reviews, I either seek out someone I know and like or someone about whom I’m curious. I knew Alan Cumming, but I hadn’t watched any of shows. I don’t live where I could see him in live theater. I wasn’t terribly curious about him. However, I do love memoirs and when Not My Father’s Son was a daily Amazon deal ($1.99), I was definitely at least that curious to read the story.
The memoir is a alternating set of flashbacks to a tormented childhood and its aftermath and an account of contemporary events, including a search into the history of his grandfather, who died years before under mysterious circumstances. That description likely makes the book seem choppy, but the narratives flow and the style gives the reader a chance to catch his/her/their breath after the chapters that feel like a punch to the gut.
The power of the story lies in Cumming wrestling with how the past shapes him. Our pasts both inform and form our future. Each of us has to make a decision about whether to live in the negative space (defined by what we are not) or in the positive space (defined by what we are). Cumming is sifting through the negatives and positives of his history to discern his own shape and how it is defined.
Is his father actually his father? If his father is his father and his physical abuser (as opposed to one or the other), how much of that is a defining percentage of his life experience? If his grandfather was a hero, how does he fold that late knowledge into his self understanding? If the women of Cumming’s family history are strong and resilient, how does he embody those own traits within himself.
Cumming writes through how playing roles, including playing himself, helps him to sort through the fire hose of information that is presented to him. He acknowledges that the pace of his acting career, at times, allows him to hide within roles or to use them to parse out his own thoughts. He is fully present in his roles, which is its own kind of exhaustion- something that he welcomes and resists, depending on what else is happening.
For me, the power of the book was within Cumming’s self-analysis. Watching someone ponder his own fullness in positive reckoning was helpful to me because I am trying to do that work myself. To work to be “not X” is not enough if it stops there. The work to be “Y” is equally difficult and equally important. For anyone who has come out of abusive or manipulative situations, that work cannot be underemphasized.
As I read Not My Father’s Son, I wondered about the texture of the book and why painful memoirs are interesting to read. In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay notes that we have to learn to perceive happiness and joy with the same texture we see in grief and pain. Cumming explains that he wrote his book in part so that others would realize that a bad childhood or even a painful war experience does not create the sum total of one’s being and worth.
The flood of stories of pain comes from having broken the dam of years of silence around abuse, suicide, post-traumatic stress, and addiction. Now that it is possible to discuss these things, some people cannot stop themselves from telling their story. And we must learn to listen. We must learn to listen not so that we will perceive a bogeyman around every corner, but so that when we hear the truth- we will believe it. And so that we will not allow pain to have any more defining power than it deserves.