May 31, 2015

Alan Cumming at AWF 15: "Not my father's son"

            Auckland Writers Festival


"His Twitter profile is Scottish elf trapped in a middle-aged man’s body", Michael Hurst tells us in his introduction. We laugh appreciatively. The windows to the soul of the figure on the stage with Michael laugh with us.

And yet, and yet. The thought which began to grow on me, from the first exchange, was whether it wasn't perhaps the other way around. Outside, the lightness of the elf -- nimble on the feet, slight of build, pointy chin, pointy shoes; inside, the weightiness of the mortal, the years lived, all of them.

"How would you describe your childhood?"
"Pretty bleak. Pretty awful."

Alan Cumming's book Not my father's son is not, as I had thought when I first heard about it, about liberating oneself from the conventions of a middle-class childhood as represented by, say, doilies on furniture, tea cozies, assumptions about a future in business, or who knows, the military; about coming out as bisexual, marrying a man. It's about coming to terms with a childhood passed under the thumb of a violent, sadistic father, going to school with a bleeding head from his father having sheared him as if he were a sheep, coming home from school every day hoping Dad wasn't home.

It still is about liberation; from guilt, and above all from shame.

"From an early age I knew my father was wrong," but, "Anyone who is abused becomes protective of the abuser. If it goes on you become complicit in it".

"It was not something we told the world. And now obviously I've changed that."

And it still is about gaining self-knowledge, or more colloquially, growing up.

"I realised I was the sum of my parts. Then you realise that some of the parts, you're not that happy with them."

In the book, which I've just finished reading (the first-ever book I've read in ebook format, having been inspired to take the plunge after seeing the hundreds of requests for the library's print version, vs the opportunity to be second in line for the ebook version; you might want to keep this in mind, fans), he calls the nervous breakdown he had in his late twenties his "Nervy B". This is a term I'm definitely going to be adopting. I love the way it puts the nerves at the centre, as compared to a nervous breakdown, where the emphasis is on the breakdown, and the 'nervous' seems merely to echo a certain nervousness about even talking about it. A Nervy B is something you can own, and Cumming does.

There was a "box in the attic", he explains, full of "denial and years of unresolved pain and hurt". And, "the thing about boxes like that, is that eventually they explode".

As happens in life, the Nervy B was not a nice clean turning point in the plot. There was more to come. In 2010, he accepted an invitation to take part in a BBC programme called "Who Do You Think You Are?", in which celebrities are teamed up with family historians and genealogists who expertly delve into their family mysteries. He was curious about the circumstances in which his maternal grandfather had died in a "shooting incident" in Malaysia, where he had joined the police force after serving in the Second World War. What he discovered was that his grandfather had died playing Russian Roulette, not for the first time, and offhandedly.

And meanwhile his father, from whom he was emotionally estranged but not completely out of contact, transmitted the news that he wasn't his child. A DNA test later revealed that he was, but not before Cumming had created a whole story-line for himself, where his father's abuse was due to resentment over raising another man's child, and not his own mental disorders. Just as when, upon being given the official police report of his grandfather's death, which recorded only a gunshot wound to the head at close range, he had imagined a scenario of execution by a criminal gang, his grandfather kneeling, regretting he'd never seen his family in Scotland again, but resolute and stalwart as he awaited the shot.

But no. This is real life. This is not a play.

Cumming knows a lot about the place plays and acting have in his life, or he in theirs. From his earliest years, he tells us, learning to act was necessary to his survival.

"Acting students ask me 'Alan, what is your process?'. I say, 'I'm not a cheese - I don't have  a process'."

"All that mythologising of acting. You just have to pretend to be someone else -- and mean it."

He reads us a passage from the book, one of the most powerful, on rejecting shame.

"I reject shame," he says. "I think shame is a terrible thing. It's so crippling. In America I felt this wall of shame -- if you like anything too much it becomes an addiction and you need to get rid of it".

"Shame is a horrible horrible thing and I won't do it."

It was one of the moments which moved me most during the entire Festival. Maybe the most.

Alan Cumming's portrait now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, having replaced one of the queen. He is wearing a kilt; I haven't seen an image of it, but apparently the kilt is around his shoulders like a cloak, and the rest of him is naked. And unashamed.

-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 16:22
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2 comments:

  1. I hear echoes here of another festival guest, Damian Barr, whose memoir 'Maggie and Me' also describes the abuse he suffered at the hands of a parent figure, in this case his stepfather. Barr, who is gay, also describes the dread of coming home to his abuser. I didn't hear him at the festival but strongly recommend his book. It's much more than a misery memoir. Kathryn Ryan interviewed him on National Radio 'Nine to Noon' a couple of months back - that was what first captured my attention.

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    1. Thanks Claire! I hadn't realised Barr's book was a memoir as well. It sounds as if, like Alan Cumming, and to borrow Alan Cumming's words, he didn't want to just write "one of those shitty tell-all books"! Don't we just wish it were possible to hit every session!

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