Being both a fan of the actor Alan Cumming and genealogical shows like ”Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots,” I eagerly checked out “Not My Father’s Son” by the talented Mr. Cumming. I knew it would not be a frolicsome read from the reviews which alluded to the abuse Cumming’s father dealt out to his family, but I was prepared.

I was not aware that the original ”Who Do You Think You Are?” series began in England in 2004 and spawned Irish and Australian versions before the American version started in 2010. Many of them are available on YouTube, but I refuse to be drawn down that time sink!

At any rate, in 2010 the production company approached Cumming about appearing on the program. He immediately said yes, primarily because of the family mystery about his maternal grandfather who had fought in World War II and subsequently left his family and died under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia.

Around the time that production was starting, Cumming did some interviews and (as is often the case with English journalism) there were some misstatements. Some of them greatly angered Cumming’s father, with whom he had had little contact since he left home at seventeen to work for a year before attending the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Cumming’s older brother Tom called to tell him he needed to speak to him urgently. He refused to discuss whatever the issue was on the phone, but immediately began the three hour trip to see his younger brother. After he arrived, the brothers sat down and the by now rather distraught Alan asked what the problem was. His brother told him that their father had called him ten days earlier to give him a message to relay to Alan. What message? “He told me to tell you that you are not his son.”

Now, given the title of the book I wasn’t in complete shock to read that, but the circumstances were certainly shocking. He told Alan’s brother to tell him? Huh? What kind of man would deputize one son to tell another something like that? Well, the book answers that, and it’s not pretty. Cumming senior was, at best, a man with undiagnosed psychiatric disorders. At worst, a monster. Either way, he made both boys’ lives miserable for most of their childhoods. He was a dreadful husband, to boot, although I kept wondering why the boys’ beloved mother didn’t find a way out of the situation before the boys were both grown and gone, as she eventually did.

I don’t want to give away anything about the discoveries made and the past revealed in the book, but the book is both interesting from a genealogical viewpoint and as a memoir of a terrible childhood. It is extraordinarily well-written and I found it engrossing. I was hard pressed to put it down to eat or sleep. I can only hope that Mr. Cumming feels an urge to write more in the future. I would listen to him read the phone book, and I think I would read his shopping list!

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