8am and my home phone rings. Two months ago now. Landline calls come in only two varieties. Shills or people looking to purchase tents. The latter group are after Paddy Palin, purveyor of camping consumables. Only one fat finger fumble digit difference, alas.
That morning, the friendly chap was searching for Lyle Rosewarne.
My knowledge of the Rosewarne dynasty – and a quick Google search – assures me that we aren’t a people who name our babies Lyle. ‘We’ might be sex monsters, sure, and ‘we’ might have our mitts in the till occasionally, but we certainly don’t name our young'ns Lyle.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been contacted out of the blue as part of a missing Rosewarne search. One day I’ll write up the tale of the guy who arrived at my office thinking he was my brother. I rationalise the whole thing as being like cats who rub up against people they know hate them; I’m approached by randoms rummaging for Rosewarnes because I’m hostile to the whole genealogy thing.
During the same week that the Lyle call came through, I was reading the actor Alan Cumming’s memoir Not My Father’s Son.
I’d picked it up because, with Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and The Good Wife in mind, I felt I really liked Cumming. Reading his memoir didn’t change that (of course), but afterwards - perusing his wares on IMDb - and the only other thing I’d seen was Spy Kids.
He just seemed so much bigger in my pop culture imaginings.
Anyhow. In Cumming’s truly lovely memoir, a running thread is his participation in the television show Who Do You Think You Are?
For a show I’ve only seen snippets of, my loathing is perhaps a tad disproportionate. Every episode of this screen nightmare involves the same set of histrionic events. A celebrity finds out that a relative generations back was a slave, a slave owner, a member of the SS, whatever. And there are tears. So many tears.
Why the hell are they crying about? Surely this isn’t the first time they’ve heard about slaves, about Nazis, about the grotesque things humans can do to each other. Why is it suddenly more real now? Are they feeling responsible? More responsible than before their names were plotted on some shonky family tree?
Of course, in Cumming’s memoir it’s even worse. He discovers that his grandfather - who he hadn’t ever met - was reckless. Think motorcycles and Russian roulette. And the charming Al sees himself as reckless and suddenly his life has a new kind of logic.
I won’t play naive here: I get why people love biological explanations. Biology, genetics, feel like an excuse, an explanation, in a world that is otherwise complete chaos. But surely smart people, savvy people - people like Cumming who comes across as wise and witty for nearly the whole book - could be a tad more critical about ancestry-as-answer.
Aside from my hostility to biology-as-destiny explanations - I’m a social scientist, of course I’ll battle the blood explanation until my last breath - I’ll admit there’s some ego-preservation at play here.
Do I not become a little less original if I’m just like my mother/my grandmother/my big-haired, sarcastic great-great-great aunt Esmeralda?
My position is that if that New Zealand sex devil is related to me, I don’t want to know. If the coffee machine embezzeler guy is related, again, I don’t care. These are not ‘my people’, they aren’t getting a bloody kidney and I’m not feeling guilty about their misdeeds.
They aren’t more real to me because there’s a highly-diluted blood connection.
A lecture, of course, that I spared the man looking for Lyle. I’m a morning person; he got a friendly Lauren who cheerily provided him the contact details for my uncle, the family genealogist.
Alan Cumming in Romy and MIchele’s High School Reunion (1997)
Authors: The Conversation