Not My Father’s Son
By Alan Cumming
Harper Collins, €17
Reviewed by Nadine O’Regan
In the afterword to this memoir, Scottish actor and Tony award-winning theatre veteran Alan Cumming – best-known these days for his role as the brash, witty campaign manager Eli Gold in the Emmy-winning The Good Wife – describes the conversation he had with his agent about writing this book.
Much to his surprise, Cumming was not asked to write a typical memoir about “my fabulous celebrity life”. Instead, Luke Janklow asked him to write about something he felt passionate about. Surprised and intrigued, Cumming was happy to comply.
The result is Not My Father’s Son, a brilliantly vivid and heartrending account of Cumming’s early life, interspersed with some well-observed, comic and intriguing scenes from his more recent past.
The book begins with a shocking recollection: Cumming as a young boy in his family kitchen near Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland. His father has walked in and demanded that Alan gets his hair chopped. “I’ll take him to the barber’s on Saturday morning,” his mother tries to interject. But that’s not good enough. Alan’s father drags him across the kitchen, through the hall, out the front door and to the bike shed, where he grabs a rusty pair of clippers used to shear sheep.
“They were blunt and dirty and they cut my skin, but my father shaved my skin with them, holding me down like an animal,” Cumming writes.
Later, as he cries in his bedroom, eyes so puffed up he can barely open them, he feels like he wants to die. It won’t be the only time either. Throughout his adolescence, he and his older brother Tom are kept in constant suspense, fearful of their father’s every move, knowing that the wrong glance, the wrong words, are enough to set him off. It wasn’t the actual violence that hurt the most; it was the threat of it, the anxiety that it generated as a constant.