Saturday, 11 February 2017

Who Do You Think You Are?

In 2010, Scottish actor Alan Cumming  was invited to be part of the BBC genealogy television show Who Do You Think You Are?  The show takes a celebrity and traces their family tree. Cumming was keen to explore the mystery of his maternal grandfather, war hero Tommy Darling, who died while serving as a British police officer in Malaya.

During the weeks and months that Cumming was filming this show, a mini-series and his recurring part on The Good Wife, another drama was unfolding. His estranged father Alex Cumming told him that Alan was not his son. At age 45, Cumming was suddenly in turmoil as he tries to make sense of his life. This sensemaking is the basis for his wonderful memoir Not My Father's Son (2014).

Cumming has avoided a celebrity memoir of glitz and glamour to tell the story of his upbringing.  His childhood was extremely difficult by his violent, philandering father, who physically and emotionally abused and belittled his children and undermined his wife. Cumming's mother Mary Darling countered this abuse with love, support and encouragement.

The memoir moves back and forth in time, from the 2010 filming of the documentary to Cumming's childhood on the Panmure Estate in Carnoustie, Scotland, and to various times in between. The exploration of the double mysteries - uncovering grandfather Tommy Darling and the surprise of Alex Cumming's bombshell - is a great narrative device.

While some of the memoir is quite dark, Cumming's wit, humility and honesty make it compelling reading. Deeply moving, intimate, funny and intriguing with its' many twists and turns. Cumming's conversational tone makes the reader feel as if you are there with him, a dear friend, sharing his journey. By the time I finished, I wanted to hug Alan tightly and then go out with him for a beer.