Comedian Simon Amstell on his tricky relationship with his father
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