Modern fam­ily

Co­me­dian Si­mon Am­stell on his tricky re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther

The Guardian - Weekend - - Starters Contents -

When I was 23, I went to my dad’s sec­ond wed­ding, full of tightly re­pressed rage, given ex­pres­sion only by my wed­ding out­fit. I wore a suit, be­cause it was a wed­ding, but I also went for a bright red T-shirt with the word “ANTI” printed on it, a neck­lace with a sil­ver gun pen­dant and a brooch that looked a bit like a swastika. “OK, Dad, I’ll come to your wed­ding, but only if I can come dressed as anger.”

Two years ear­lier, telling my fam­ily I was gay caused a ma­jor cri­sis. My dad sug­gested some kind of ther­apy. He de­nies it was elec­troshock ther­apy, but he def­i­nitely gave me a flyer for some­thing. I was sum­moned to my aunt and un­cle’s house, and taken into the liv­ing room, where my mum was wait­ing with my un­cle. My aunt started cry­ing and didn’t stop for two hours.

It was so over­whelm­ing. They were very wor­ried that I’d be bul­lied and have a ter­ri­ble life, and I was sat there think­ing, “This is the worst thing that’s hap­pened so far.”

My un­cle, an ac­coun­tant, gave me a book, writ­ten by a client of his, called A Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex.

“Thank you, Gra­ham.”

Even­tu­ally I was al­lowed to leave as long as I agreed I wouldn’t tell my grand­par­ents be­cause it would kill them. (It’s gen­uinely be­lieved in this fam­ily that when my par­ents got di­vorced when I was 13, which was quite a drama, it was the di­rect rea­son for my grandpa be­com­ing di­a­betic.)

I can’t feel too an­noyed with these peo­ple. They just hap­pen to be from a par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tion, liv­ing in a par­tic­u­lar place, and from their per­spec­tive, a hard­core sex book and elec­troshock ther­apy were gen­er­ous gifts.

My grand­par­ents ac­tu­ally turned out to be much less trau­ma­tised than any­one. My grandpa was par­tic­u­larly sweet with a photography stu­dent I went out with. They dis­cussed ex­po­sure rates at a fam­ily lunch and I al­most cried.

When I was 25, my friend Kevin told me about some­thing called the Land­mark Fo­rum, a three­day, life-trans­form­ing course. Around 150 peo­ple in a room in Eus­ton were en­cour­aged by the “leader” to phone peo­ple “who you’ve been blam­ing for ev­ery­thing in your lives”. I phoned my fa­ther and said, “Hi, I think I’ve been… I’m sorry for blam­ing you for the di­vorce that hap­pened. I think I un­der­stand now that you were a fal­li­ble hu­man be­ing, and not the evil mon­ster I made you out to be at the time.”

He said, “I’ve been wait­ing 10 years to hear that.” It felt like a real mo­ment of heal­ing. And then he said, “What else did you learn at this course? Did they tell you it’s pos­si­ble the di­vorce made you gay?”

I said, “Shush, we just sorted ev­ery­thing out!” I called my mum dur­ing the course, un­sure what to say to her, but cer­tain I should call to re­solve some­thing. I said, “I don’t blame you for the di­vorce”, and she said, “Of course you don’t. It was your fa­ther’s fault.”

She then told me that my dad wasn’t very good dur­ing the preg­nancy. A friend of hers called Marc took her to the zoo one day. He was ap­par­ently very sweet and kind to her. She thought about rais­ing me with him in­stead. She said, “I de­cided to stay with your fa­ther, but that’s why your mid­dle name is Marc.”

I con­vinced my mum to come to the course, to see if she’d sign up. She thought I’d joined a cult. My dad had no in­ter­est in at­tend­ing.

Marc would have come.

My dad didn’t take up the in­vi­ta­tion to see ei­ther of my last two standup shows. He told me it wasn’t his sort of thing and that I didn’t need his val­i­da­tion any more. I tried not to be hurt. I’m not into darts, but if I had a son who played pro­fes­sional darts and was re­ceiv­ing won­der­ful re­views, I’d watch him play darts, wouldn’t I?

De­spite my fa­ther’s lack of at­ten­dance, I used to see him in the au­di­ence, any­way. Every time I spot­ted a man who wasn’t laugh­ing, I’d feel my fa­ther’s in­dif­fer­ence and say things like, “Do you think you’ll laugh at any point or carry on with this face?” If a man ever left to go to the toi­let, I’d scream, “Where are you go­ing? How funny do I have to be, Daddy?”

In the end, I thought, “Do I re­ally need my fa­ther’s love? Can’t I just love my­self at this point and be grate­ful to the strangers who love me as long as I’m funny?”

I re­alised, even­tu­ally, that the problem was my ex­pec­ta­tion of this man as a “fa­ther”. I thought, “Let’s stop think­ing of him as my ‘fa­ther’ and start think­ing of him as ‘the man who ejac­u­lated’. He ejac­u­lated and so I’m alive – what more do I want? And of­ten, when men have ejac­u­lated, they are tired. You can’t ex­pect them to love you. I can’t keep shout­ing for the rest of my life, ‘If you can’t love a child, don’t ejac­u­late in a wife, do it out the win­dow!’”

If I’m to fo­cus on any­thing, it should be on thank­ing my mother for birthing me out of her own body. How can I ever thank her for that? The best I can do is oc­ca­sion­ally in­tro­duce her to a celebrity. “Thank you for your womb, here’s Der­ren Brown.”

I’d let go of the idea of my fa­ther as my fa­ther, but then some­one said, “But he’s your fa­ther”, and I felt some­thing. So we met up and he told me he’d just trained to be a hyp­nother­a­pist. In my head, I screamed, “What? You can’t be the healer, you’re the trauma!”

He then said he just needed some clients to get started. What he’d love was for my “crazy friends” to come to him so he could be a “hyp­nother­a­pist to the stars”. I said noth­ing. Be­cause why tell some­one how you feel at the time, when you could save it up for a book and in­vite them to a launch that won’t be their sort of thing?

Yet through this hyp­nother­apy train­ing, my fa­ther seemed to have de­vel­oped a lan­guage for ex­press­ing more emo­tions than I’d wit­nessed in him be­fore. We spoke about his child­hood. He told me he had a very cold, dis­tant mother, which must be worse than hav­ing a dis­tant fa­ther. So it turned out he was the more vul­ner­a­ble one and I had to love him. How did he turn it around? I re­alised I could no longer feel hos­tile to this sneaky lit­tle hyp­no­tist.

Yet I’d also come to a place where there was a mild sad­ness and an ac­cep­tance of the fact that we didn’t re­ally have a re­la­tion­ship. I fi­nally knew in my body that he wasn’t go­ing to be­come a dif­fer­ent per­son. I for­gave him, but didn’t nec­es­sar­ily need to see him, which I think is a valid po­si­tion to hold.

And then my mum called me, very up­set, be­cause I hadn’t been in­vited to his daugh­ter’s (my half-sis­ter’s) bat­mitz­vah, on ac­count of hav­ing a boyfriend who is a boy. In the Jewish re­li­gion, if you’re a boy and you have a boyfriend, it’s im­por­tant that he’s a girl.

That line is straight out of the To­rah.

I said to my mum, “Of course we haven’t been in­vited. It’s fine, he’s not a mon­ster; he just has a re­li­gion with­out which he can’t cope. You can’t be an­gry; he’s a man with spe­cial needs.”

Hav­ing said that out loud, I felt like I’d fi­nally shifted all the rage. I was over any need for my fa­ther’s ac­cep­tance, val­i­da­tion or at­ten­tion. I was at peace. And then, the next evening, I re­ceived an email invit­ing my boyfriend and me to the bat­mitz­vah. I was fu­ri­ous. All that work to ac­cept that he would never change and then he changed? I tried ev­ery­thing to make him be OK with me. How dare he de­cide the fight is over?

I called him a few days af­ter the email. Fol­low­ing some po­lite chit-chat, I cau­tiously said, “So, you’ve had a bit of a change of heart?” He said, “Not re­ally.”

I said, “Some­thing hap­pened, no?”

He said, “Lis­ten, let’s say you were in St John’s Wood and you wanted me to drive →

I re­alised the problem was my ex­pec­ta­tion of this man as a ‘fa­ther’. He ejac­u­lated and so I’m alive – what more do I want?

you to Edg­ware”, which al­ready made no sense.

He con­tin­ued, “… and on the drive you fell asleep, then, when you woke up, you were ex­actly where you wanted to be, would it mat­ter how we got there?”

I thought about this. Does it mat­ter how we’ve got here? I said, “Hang on, I haven’t been asleep for 20 years!” And then, be­cause I was scared I wouldn’t be able to stop shout­ing at him if I started, I said, “You know, feel­ings have been felt.”

He said, “I un­der­stand.” And I de­cided to hear, “I’m sorry”, be­cause of­ten it’s best to make up the words you need to hear, like when he said, “You don’t need my val­i­da­tion any more”, I could have heard, “I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

He also sug­gested this had all been good ma­te­rial for me, which was dif­fi­cult to ar­gue with.

My boyfriend and I went to the bat­mitz­vah. In con­trast to the ten­sion I felt at my fa­ther’s wed­ding, I felt in­cred­i­bly peace­ful. As I walked in, I could see how vul­ner­a­ble my dad was. It must have been quite scary for him, hav­ing us there. My fa­ther found re­li­gion when my par­ents di­vorced. One of the first peo­ple I saw at the wed­ding was a woman who, years be­fore, had tried to con­vert me to Or­tho­dox Ju­daism. When I told her I didn’t think it was for me, she said, “But are you happy?” And I wasn’t happy, so I thought, “Oh, she’s got me.”

See­ing this woman again, I thought,

“I’m happy now.”

She said, “It’s been a long time. Are you mar­ried?” I ges­tured to my boyfriend and said, “No, I’ve been with this guy for five years.”

She looked ner­vous and I could have left her hang­ing, but I filled the space by telling her how great he was. She said, “OK, I guess that’s OK.”

I agreed that it was OK and then she walked away. I thought, “Yes, I killed her with love.”

Then a rabbi came over and I took a deep breath. I asked him what he gets up to when he’s not host­ing bat­mitz­vahs. He said he also does wed­dings and sug­gested he could do my wed­ding. I was about to say, “Oh, well, you won’t be­cause you won’t.” But in­stead I just smiled.

He asked if I was mar­ried al­ready and I pointed to­wards my boyfriend again. The rabbi didn’t know what to say, so he hugged me. In the hug, I went from feel­ing alarmed to pa­tro­n­ised to re­al­is­ing that he wasn’t hug­ging me, I was hug­ging a child who had just heard some­thing that had scared him.

It feels like an un­kind thing to do, to at­tack re­li­gious peo­ple. It just feels rude. If you’re at a party and you get into a con­ver­sa­tion with some­one who says, “Oh, I’m a Chris­tian” or, “I’m a Mus­lim” or, “I’m a Jew”, it’s very rude to say, “Oh, how ridicu­lous!”

I feel at this point we have to treat peo­ple with kind­ness, love and re­spect in the same way you treat a child run­ning around the party say­ing, “I’m a he­li­copter.” Good for you, we’re all hav­ing fun; I’m a choo-choo train.

There is a calm now to my re­la­tion­ship with my fa­ther. We stopped want­ing to fix each other. And I’ve ac­cepted that ev­ery­thing that hap­pened could not have been any dif­fer­ent. If it had been, I’d be an en­tirely dif­fer­ent per­son, so to want to al­ter the past would only be an­other form of self-hate.

The key story I have for re­mem­ber­ing that my fa­ther is just a fal­li­ble man is this one: when I was 10, my mum was preg­nant for the fourth time. At the time, our two pet rab­bits had just had five of their own ba­bies. My mum was con­cerned that there would soon be a hu­man baby crawl­ing around the gar­den and didn’t want there to be rab­bit drop­pings ev­ery­where. So she asked my dad to re­home the rab­bits. How would he do this? My fa­ther took my seven-year-old brother and me to the lo­cal park and set the rab­bits free. A dog came. We watched as the dog chased and mauled at least two of the small­est rab­bits. My brother cried. I kept it all in­side, where it stayed for 20 years. And when I think of the baby rab­bits, I know that if they’d been look­ing up at my fa­ther, des­per­ately search­ing for an ex­pla­na­tion or an apol­ogy, they would only have suf­fered more. Bet­ter for the baby rab­bits to think, “This is just a man who doesn’t know what he’s do­ing.” •

This is an edited ex­tract from Help, by Si­mon Am­stell, pub­lished next week by Square Peg at £12.99. To or­der a copy for £11.04, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

My fa­ther sug­gested our re­la­tion­ship had been good ma­te­rial for me, which was dif­fi­cult to ar­gue with

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