John Hanlon Reviews


Book Review: Not My Father’s Son

Posted in: Book Reviews  |  By: John Hanlon  |  October 22nd, 2014
Not my Father's Son

Alan Cumming is not Eli Gold. In fact, illness the Scottish-born actor is so different from the political adviser that he plays on The Good Wife, doctor it’s surprising that casting directors were smart enough to realize that Cumming could pull off the difficult role (a role that he performs so wonderfully that it’s often hard to remember he’s playing a character) but Cumming is not Eli Gold.

Whereas Gold is loud, information pills abrasive and manipulative, Cumming is quiet, introspective and thoughtful— qualities that are fully explored in Cumming’s unforgettable new memoir Not my Father’s Son.

When I started reading Cumming’s memoir, I expected a colorful and provocative look at his Hollywood career. What I found was so much more. Cumming bares his soul and some of his family’s most painful secrets in the volume.

Cumming opens the book by focusing on his violent father’s abuse of his two children and his wife. Soon enough, the book is delving into the complicated familial dynamics Cumming grew up with. “Our family has always been one of secrets,” he writes, “of silence, of holding things in.” As an adult, Cumming has realized the ugliness of such secrets and as a response to that, Cumming has gone in the opposite direction. He openly writes about his painful childhood memories— memories that he stored away for years because of the pain connected to them— and he discusses some of the mysteries of his family’s history.

Much of the memoir revolves around Cumming’s decision to appear on the television program Who Do you think you are?, a reality program that delves into the family history of a specific actor or actress. By accepting the invitation, Cumming agreed to let historians dig into his family’s past and to be filmed as he learned about his painful family secrets. Cumming knows he’ll be publicly vulnerable on the program but becomes personally vulnerable when his estranged father, the abusive man who tormented him, reveals a secret to Cumming’s brother right before filming is set to begin.

For much of the story, Cumming flips between telling the story of his own upbringing and investigating his father’s identity and learning more about the history of his mother’s father, who died under mysterious circumstances. Cumming wraps the story in dueling mysteries and if readers aren’t interested in Cumming himself (who wouldn’t be?), they will easily become involved in the unfolding stories he tells. There’s a lot of pain on display here (physical and emotional) but there’s a lot of love too and Cumming balances both handily, showing how uncomplicated, ugly and heartbreaking life can be while never shying away from the goodness that still exists (in people like Cumming’s sweet mother and his kind husband, Grant).

As Cumming writes late in the memoir, “The two parts of this story now seemed so clearly connected, mirroring each other perfectly… both combined to reinforce for me what I knew to be the only truth: there is never shame in being open and honest.” It’s a sentiment that Cumming revisits again and again and it’s one that the Emmy-nominated actor should be proud of. In being so honest, he’s written a powerful and unforgettable memoir that has the potential to touch and enrich the lives of its readers.

Alan Cumming is not Eli Gold. While Gold hides his feelings beneath the façade of a fake smile, Cumming lets go of his revealing the depth of his pain and the triumph of his spirit.

Grade: A-