When child abuse is a family affair

4 / 5 stars

Not My Father’s Son

BEING born to, and bred by, a sadistically violent parent is a life sentence.

Alan Cumming author of Not My Father's sonGETTY

Alan Cumming’s autobiography is a brave book

Not My Father’s Son

Alan Cumming, Canongate, £16.99

In his opening chapter, actor Alan Cumming describes with spinetingling honesty what that simple word “abuse” represents.
Sitting at the family tea table, his throat closes with terror as he watches his father’s eyes darken and his voice spiral into a baying roar.
After dragging him into a shed on the Scottish estate that he managed, Cumming Senior shaved his 12-year-old son’s head with sheep shears.
He once backhanded Alan with enough force to knock him across the barn.
On another occasion, he slapped his bare backside with such ferocity that the boy could only crawl.
He would set him impossible tasks which Alan knew could have only one outcome: another beating.
Some might say that tough love is better than no love but I know from my own experience as the child of a disturbed parent, my mother, that physical violence is poisonously destructive.

Alan Cummings autobiography Not My Father's sonThe actor’s memoir will break your heart [PH]
Cumming follows his elder brother Tom’s example and eventually escapes, enrolling in drama school in Glasgow.
His ecstatic reaction to the letter of acceptance reminded me of my own when offered a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School.
Cumming went on to build an award-winning acting career, appearing in, among many other roles, The Good Wife on television and currently starring as the Emcee in Broadway’s version of Cabaret at the former nightclub Studio 54.
However, Cumming’s bravery is breathtaking. Whereas all I could do was to escape the nightmare and never look back, Cumming stepped up to the plate and confronted his nemesis eyeball to eyeball.
Four years ago, Alan took part in the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? Although Cumming Senior did not take part, he claimed when the programme was announced that Alan was not his son but the product of his then-wife Mary’s affair.
The two brothers take a DNA test to reveal their true blood line. While they wait, father and son meet.
The hopelessness in Cumming’s notes prior to that meeting is revealing.
Cumming writes: “You brutalised and terrorised us. We were made to feel useless, unworthy… Hitting an eightyear-old boy so hard that he is thrown across the room is not right… You had psychopathic tendencies… We were terrified of our own father, the man who should have been protecting us.”
The harrowing father and son tete-tete, after years of separation, will probably break your heart.
Cumming clearly dotes upon his mother Mary but she was a silent member of this tragic and dangerous cast, knitting away and saying little to influence the suffering inflicted on her offspring.
This is a brave book, airing fundamental agonies of the human condition with as light a touch as is perhaps possible.
However, for me, the effects of an abusive parent still linger and the same is likely to be true for Alan Cumming.

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