Last week, while checking online to see if Alan Cumming’s show “Instinct” had been renewed for another season (unfortunately it hasn’t), I came across his biography called “Not My Father’s Son.” I quite like Alan Cumming - I remember first seeing him in the film Circle of Friends - and I loved his portrayal of Eli Gold in The Good Wife. Because of this and the fact that the title intrigued me (and I am an extremely curious person), I did a bit more research. The book has been described by Damian Barr of The Guardian as a Family Memoir, where Cumming’s “violent upbringing at the hands of his father taught him the value of putting on an act.” I watched some interviews with Alan and was really struck with everything he said. There were four things I especially resonated with:
1. He felt his upbringing prepared him for his life as an actor.
2. He is giving back to his abuser what was done to him as it has no business being with him.
3. He believes that as a society we need to openly discuss these issues. He states: “Not talking is inviting denial because you’re not allowing the conversation to happen.”
4. He was inclined to “protect” his abuser. He has said that his writing of the book after his father died was the last vestige of this.
I have contemplated many times why victims of abuse – especially within family systems – feel absolutely compelled to protect their abuser – and over the last week, I have dealt with many sleepless nights as I turned the question on myself. At the end of the Guardian article, Barr states that “Cumming’s real conflict is with shame about his childhood, and it’s a fight we can be glad he has won.”
What has become obvious to me is that within my own experience, I have not yet won that fight. Yes, I have taken many strides within my own story and I have come very, very far, but in terms of speaking openly about my upbringing, I am still putting on an act, keeping family secrets and “protecting” my abuser – who in this case was my mother. It’s hard for me to write that – to see it in print - not least because the abject denials from my mother and within my family regarding this fact are hard and unyielding (and for me very painful), but because it makes me feel like I am in some way betraying a woman who within her own mind (where she cultivates a completely false self-image) carries the honour of being my protector, but was, in fact, my worst oppressor. It also makes me feel that I am betraying a family system I never felt I belonged to and one who has always protected their matriarch and the identity/security they derive from the system, at the expense of one of their own.
Just to note - I am aware that we live in a world that values celebrity and success above all else. Their words matter! I am also well aware of my lack of success. So in this context, I know that my words carry little weight and my reach is small. But in the world I inhabit, my words are heavy and I have to consider that what I write might make a difference to someone, somewhere. I can’t begin to explain how exhausting it feels to hide my experiences, but it feels even more terrifying to reveal them. I am absolutely sure that somewhere in my child’s mind I received the recurring message that not only was I was expressly forbidden to speak about my mother’s abuse (as that would result in severe punishment), but I was to behave as if it didn’t happen at all and simply accept that I was the problem. While my parents numbed themselves to their feelings, I was taught that it was not safe to be vulnerable or show any emotion as it signified weakness and hypersensitivity. In addition, it would most definitely be used as ammunition against me. The forceful anger, denials, and condemnations that rear their ugly head whenever I have attempted to address the truth within my family actually terrifies, angers, and displaces me, even today. This is how frightened I feel at the prospect of admission. This is the power of conditioning a child’s mind to fear.
I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s, in a dysfunctional family fraught with conflict, anger, sadness, and fear. As was very common among the catholic Irish population at the time and especially in the countryside/small town where I grew up, both my parents were very repressed (my mother more so), and they had a strict, authoritarian approach to parenting. Religious ideals ruled the roost. Rules had to be obeyed without explanation. Shame and guilt were mainstays. Unconditional love and respect for your children were foreign concepts. Emotions were not allowed. Keeping up appearances was paramount. The family was an entity, children were extensions of their parents, and being independent or individual was considered blasphemy. The atmosphere was oppressive and for someone like me who held a very natural precociousness and curiosity, my home was a minefield.
In considering my mother, I would like to say the first word that comes to mind when I think of her is warmth. I would like to say that. But that would be a lie. There are two words that actually come to mind – angry and spiteful. My mother had the capacity to be incredibly mean. She was a bitterly unhappy person - unfulfilled and overwhelmed in the life she had chosen for herself. She revealed her belief that she had no choice at all, through her venomous repetition of “life is a bitch,” and perhaps she never really did. But she compensated for these expressions of helplessness by being controlling and demanding within the family. She operated from a very unaware and unevolved emotional state – she still today displays an unwavering emotional immaturity and a lack of personal accountability - and therefore she drew her harsh, distorted judgments about everything and everyone from a very shallow well. According to herself, however, she was always right.
As a child, I remember becoming acutely aware that I caused my mother immense irritation and upset. She was extremely volatile, and at times she acted as if she could not abide me - as if my very being caused her personal offense. As a child, I didn’t understand why of course, but this manifested itself in violent rages, emotional and physical abuse – the latter in the guise of corporal punishment. In truth, she was taking out her own anger and frustrations on me - frustrations she either could not or would not control. Her constant baseless admonishments and accusations towards me as well as the insidious intimidation tactics she enjoyed - evident in her tone of voice, facial expression, body language, general demeanour and the most prevailing memory for me - her taking me aside and telling me I was a bad person and while I may have everyone else fooled, I didn’t have her fooled - taught me to be vigilant and monitor myself closely so I wouldn’t upset her again. It also taught me to unconsciously hate myself. I remember chastising myself over and over that I had to do better, that I had to stop being myself and upsetting her. When I was tired or just playing, when my imperfect, childish self would kick in and I would forget about my plan to be a “good girl” and keep her happy, I would pay the price. To top it off, I was told that I deserved my punishment and so I had nothing to be upset about. She would completely misrepresent events to my father in order to get him to support her, and on those occasions when he wouldn’t side with her, she would refuse to speak to either him or me for days or weeks. At one point as a child, I used to sleep in a bed with my younger sister. During these times – when my mother refused to speak to either me or my father - she would sleep with my sister and make me sleep with my father. Eventually, he would acquiesce. I was morbidly upset during these times and I felt so conflicted – on the one hand, I wanted my father to support me, but when my parents fought, my siblings - who followed my mother’s lead of course - were against me, blaming me for the friction in the home. My mother was never held accountable. I remember at times feeling as if I was going to go mad – not only at the injustice of how she treated me but because I kept questioning myself when I knew I shouldn’t. Instinctively, I knew she was wrong and I secretly thought she was the “mad” one. But still, I questioned. I felt as if I had to constantly work to ward off the distorted and myopic perspective she kept trying to stuff down my throat in her attempt to replace my own thoughts with hers. It was exhausting and overwhelming in the extreme. I have a very strong memory of standing at the front door of the family home and reminding myself to be “on” as soon as I closed the door on that disordered existence behind me. I had to hide any remnant of what went on behind it.
I have moved through most of my life determined to make something of myself, and I am proud of the person I am today on so many levels. But there have been a lot of challenges and at times my life has felt completely derailed by the impact of my mother’s abuse. However, at the very least, I have always been committed to understanding what I have experienced, to unravel the confusion that resided in my brain, and subsequently, to truly understand the impact it had on me – that is to say to become aware of how I have been conditioned and to recognise those unconscious patterns of thoughts and beliefs I hold today about myself & my capabilities, about others and the world at large. I have read and studied so many accounts of what I now know to be defined as narcissistic parental abuse. I have studied literature on dysfunctional family systems, on scapegoating, on childhood trauma and its effects, and it has given me a welcome reference point and a depth of understanding that I did not have before. It is a relief to have this point of reference, but it is also very sad that so many people the world over have experienced and continue to experience this type of abuse in the home. It has been a painful process for me to come face to face with aspects of complex self-hatred and shame within me that was projected from and passed onto me by my own mother who could not nor would not face her own. She is still unable to accept or admit her abusive behaviour, instead choosing to play the victim which feeds the narcissist supply she needs through special treatment and sympathy from others. She allows herself to disregard the impact it has had on me which prevents her from having to take accountability and show any remorse or offer reparations. She is still wrapped in her own cocoon of victim-hood, limited by her lack of self-awareness and her own degree of trauma...
I was inspired to write this by Alan Cumming’s courage, so I thought it fitting to end with an insightful comment he made about his father in the interview below: “You can’t rationalise an irrational person and you can’t expect answers from someone who doesn’t have them himself”.