Alan Cumming Confronts Horrific Childhood Abuse in New Memoir

I’ve always adored Alan Cumming because he seems like the kind of celebrity that, while completely deserving of fame, is unafraid to be himself because of it.  He’s been vocal about his own bisexuality and backs numerous campaigns for equal rights in his home of Scotland and abroad, supported the “Vote Yes” campaign for Scottish independence, and often lends his talents to charities like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In short, Cumming has always come across as entirely likeable and endlessly endearing.

In his new memoir, Not My Father’s Son, Cumming admits readers will be surprised to learn that his notorious fun-loving and occasionally reckless side likely developed as a reaction to the horrific abuses he suffered at the hands of his father, Alex Cumming, when he and his brother Tom were growing up in Scotland.

Indeed, the first chapter details how something as small as a hair out of place would result in violent physical and cruel emotional abuse that could go on for hours.

Cumming was forced to perform backbreaking farm labor through the night without any instruction, then punished for doing it wrong.  Any refuge he or his brother had was immediately stamped out. His father even attempted to sabotage Alan’s O-Level music examination, so he would not be accepted to the drama school he desperately wanted to attend.

Alan was made to tag along with his father as he carried on numerous affairs while married to Alan’s mother, Mary Darling — his silence bought with a tart, or simply the knowledge he would be brutally beaten if he dared to reveal anything.

But this is far from a misery memoir. The book, to me, is really about how Cumming overcame his childhood, confronted his father, and learned the truth about his family history.

After being asked in 2010 to appear on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which celebrities learn about their ancestors and historians mine for famous family secrets, Cumming learned how the cycle of abuse may have started. Tommy Darling, Alan’s maternal grandfather, left his family behind after fighting in World War II and went to work in Malaysia as a soldier, policing potential terrorist activity in the town of Chaah.  He never returned home to his family, and died from an ominous gunshot wound to the head.

As Alan travels across the globe to uncover past family secrets, what really startles him are the secrets of his immediate family: his father, after years of silence brought to an end by tabloid rumors, calls to tell Alan that he is not really his son, but the product of an affair his mother had one night at a party.

As he investigates more of his grandfather’s past, Alan must also simultaneously find out the truth about his father, whom he realizes has hated and abused Alan because he thought he had the right to — Alan was a constant reminder to his father of his wife’s unfaithfulness. The perceived truth, however, is far from reality.

The real meat of the book deals with the consequences of building one’s entire life upon misinterpretation or outright untruths, the dangers of seeing what you want to see and jumping to conclusions without asking for verification.  It’s a powerful book about facing one’s inner demons and coming to grips with difficult truths  — including those that come from beyond the grave.

The memoir doesn’t shy away from discussions about the stigma of mental illness soldiers suffered upon returning home from war. Cumming writes much of the hypocrisy in the military, which had no problem asking the men to risk their lives for their country, but did nothing for those that survived. As the secret of his grandfather’s death is revealed, Cumming wonders at how his grandfather’s mental state had been allowed to deteriorate — either because he was such a respected officer that no one felt they had the right to offer him help, or because the stigma associated with PTSD was so great that no one wanted to shame him by doing so.

Towards the book’s close, I was struck by Cumming’s ability to forgive and comprehend the situations that push people to do terrible things.  He teaches survivors of abuse a valuable lesson: there is no need to continue to contact those who have hurt you, and you do not owe them anything.  They will most likely never be able to understand, much less admit, that what they did left a permanent mark on your life, or that their actions couldn’t have been justified or excused.

He writes:

“The scariest thing about abuse of any shape or form, is, in my opinion, not the abuse itself, but that if it continues it can begin to feel commonplace and eventually acceptable. Writing this book … is in some way insurance for me that my story will never be acceptable.”

Cumming’s advice is to teach yourself not to tolerate or normalize these behaviors, so that you can break the cycle of abuse, and to surround yourself with people who love and support you unconditionally.  The book’s final page, a photograph of him and his mother, suggests he has continued to do just that.

Firinn Asch
Firinn Asch is the pseudonym of a Southern-born, Manhattan-based writer. She is pursuing her Master's in Creative Writing and has a particular interest in cults, extreme religious sects, and translated literature. She also really appreciates a good Bloody Mary.
http://www.firinnasch.com
  • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

    Good lord. Thanks for this article, I’m going to check out his book.

  • Blahblee

    What is it with dads who suddenly decide to say to their adult children, “By the way, you’re not mine, your mother was a whore”? I have seen this happen to several people and my own father went through this phase too.

    • omgrobyn

      Mine did the same thing after my mother finally left his abusive ass and filed for divorce. He claimed my younger brother, who looks just like I do, couldn’t possibly be his and demanded DNA testing.