By Jasmine Crittenden
“Get there early – earlier than you think. Have a Bloody Mary immediately. Find out if extra services are available, like massages or haircuts. Potentially, you’re about to have a n
ear death experience, so you should unburden yourself as much as you can,” Alan Cumming said, advising his audience at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on how to make the most of airport lounges.
The airport lounge is one of the motifs running through Mr Cumming’s memoir, Not My Father’s Son, which he shared with David Marr before a full house at the Joan Sutherland Theatre.
A Scottish actor best-known for playing Eli Gold in The Good Wife, he recounts his life in scenes, moving between his glamorous, jet-setting present and his violent childhood, dominated by his controlling, abusive father.
Simultaneously, he chases the truth behind two family stories. One is the cause of his maternal grandfather’s mysterious death in Malaysia “in a shooting accident”. Unravelled during Mr Cumming’s appearance in a 2010 series of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the “accident” turns out to be a game of Russian roulette. The other is his father’s suggestion, made in the same year, that Mr Cumming is “not his father’s son”, but that of his mother’s lover.
“The structure of the book is hewed from an oral tradition. I would tell everyone my story, even in taxis. I couldn’t shut my mouth. And people were fascinated,” he said. “I thought, if I’m going to write about my life and be authentic, then this is the story I should tell. The public knows me in a particular way, but now I’ve shown a more holistic version of my life.”
This version includes a childhood, shared with his brother, riddled with psychological torment and beatings. Mr Cumming recalled his father dragging him into a back shed for a “haircut”, which involved hacking his hair with a pair of blunt, dirty, rusty shearing clippers, leaving him bleeding and looking like “a concentration camp inmate”.
He remembered his father ordering him to sort an enormous pile of saplings into keepers and “rejects”. When his decisions proved displeasing, his father bashed him so badly that he not only felt like “he might die”, but “wanted to”.
“Even after he died, he managed to traumatise me from beyond the grave. He was a very powerful man,” Mr Cumming said.
In the face of such torture, the writing of Not My Father’s Son was empowering. “I knew, as a little boy, that my father was wrong. But still, with someone telling you you’re useless and dismissing your whole life, you need to get away, to understand life better.
“Now, my father is right here. I talk about him a lot. I think I should. I had to write the book, to tell the world, to bring him back into my life, but on my own terms.”
And, despite the humiliations, Mr Cumming has emerged shameless. “The only positive thing I learned from my father is that shame is such a negative, crippling emotion, especially in the sexual areas of life. He had many affairs and could not control his desires, which taught me that we are animals. There are some desires we cannot and should not control. But we should be kind about it.”
Mr Cumming’s determination to “say no to shame” has inspired activism – from campaigning against circumcision as a member of Intact America’s Board of Advocates, to championing the “Yes” side of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. When the “No” result was announced, he was in the US, where he became a citizen in 2008, so he could “vote for Obama”. He retains his British citizenship.
“It was midnight. I was in my dressing room, after a Cabaret show. I was devastated. I cried. The idea of letting people who disdain you control you, which is what the English have done, is something I’d been fighting against. The country had an opportunity to throw off the shackles and I thought they would. I started to feel as though I wasn’t in touch with the people.”
However out of touch Mr Cumming might have felt then, his memoir has had a bigger impact than he expected. “I didn’t think there’d be such a strong reaction. Perhaps it’s because it’s a hopeful book. It shows that we can overcome things – that I triumphed.”
Mr Cumming lives in Manhattan, with his husband, Grant Shaffer, a graphic designer, and two dogs, Honey and Leon. He’s working on his next book, May the Foreskin Be With You: Why Circumcision Makes No Sense and What You Can Do About It.