TIME Opinion

Ellen Pao Was One More ‘Difficult’ Female Executive

Ellen Pao
Eric Risberg—AP Ellen Pao, the interim chief of Reddit, has alleged she faced gender discrimination from former employer Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers

She may have not been the right person to lead Reddit. But that doesn’t mean the deck wasn’t stacked from the start

Take a woman in the middle of an intensely polarizing Silicon Valley gender-discrimination lawsuit and put her in charge of cleaning up a tech company known for its mostly male, highly vocal and often controversial user base. What could go wrong?

You could say it’s no surprise that Ellen Pao is stepping down as interim CEO of the message-board site Reddit. Her short and brutal tenure began last fall and slammed into a wall in May when she announced that the site would begin enforcing antiharassment policies that some of the site’s 164 million, mainly anonymous users believe to be antithetical to the community’s free-speech ideals. (Though a for-profit enterprise, Reddit has grown into a powerhouse because it is largely self-governed.)

The company’s decision in early June to ban of five of the site’s notoriously virulent and abusive forums, many of which have been condemned by civil rights watch organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and various women’s groups for glorifying everything from racism to rape, was not Pao’s alone. The site’s executives, board and high-profile investors realize that the company has to modernize, i.e. become more commercial. Doing that means shining light on the darker corners of the site so the socially enriching part can thrive.

But Pao became the face of change. The controversial, “difficult” female face of unwelcome, unholy change. The resulting clash of an anonymous online army and a perceived lady enforcer is worthy of an HBO epic series.

The announcement about the renewed antiharassment rules, designed to protect individuals from attack, came just few months after Pao lost her high-profile suit against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In the suit — she is currently appealing the ruling against her — she alleged the company retaliated against her for calling executives out on endemic corporate sexism. The firm, in turn, alleged that she was not promoted because she was “difficult” and not a “team player.”

Sure, Kleiner Perkins didn’t come out looking particularly good either, especially when partner John Doerr was quoted as saying that the most successful tech entrepreneurs are “white, male nerds.” But Pao’s reputation took the biggest hit. So when she told Reddit’s users that they were going to have to shut down five threads accused of fat shaming individuals among other nefarious deeds, she might has well have been wielding a flamethrower. Even if Reddit management was united about the rules, it sure looked like mom was coming in to make everyone behave. That did not go over well.

A Change.org petition sprung up in June accusing Pao of ushering in an age of “censorship” and calling her “manipulative.” The document — and the flood of anti-Pao threads on Reddit — argued she had attempted to “sue her way to the top.” Never mind that she has better on-paper credentials than most executives. (She is Princeton-educated engineer with a Harvard law degree and an MBA.) Nor was she the most controversial, or abrasive or difficult boss in an industry known for CEOs that sometimes lack, to put it gently, interpersonal skills.

But the rules are so often different for women at the top. Personality matters and the margin of misinformation is tiny. Be very good at your job. And also, play nice. When Jill Abramson was fired as editor of the New York Times she was described with many of the same adjectives used to vilify Pao at trial. Abramson made a fuss over gender inequities, she was “difficult,” she “challenged the top brass.”

By July 2 when Pao made the mistake of firing a popular female staffer who served as an intermediary with the volunteer moderators, the site’s users were already primed to grab their virtual pitchforks. The petition to get rid of her racked up thousands more signatures and moderators started shutting down pieces of the site and writing editorials in the New York Times. Pao apologized, not just for the abrupt firing, but also for a general lack of communication with volunteer-forum moderators, a problem that even many of her critics admit predated her tenure.

Then on July 10 she announced she would be stepping down and that co-founder Steve Huffman would return as permanent CEO. She is planning to stay on as an adviser, though in an interview with TIME, the company’s chairman Alexis Ohanian did not clearly define what that actually means. However, in his statement board member Sam Altman did acknowledge some of the toxic abuse aimed at Pao saying: “It was sickening to see some of the things Redditors wrote about Ellen. The reduction in compassion that happens when we’re all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is Internet between you.”

Finding a way to curb those baser impulses without crushing the vibrancy and goodness that exists on the 10-year old site will now be Huffman’s challenge. It won’t be easy. In reality, the censorship that some users were so furious about barely nicked at the not-so-subtle undercurrents of hate and misogyny. Sure, the repulsive “creepshots” thread is no more, but “CoonTown,” Reddit’s 10,000-subscriber racist community, rife with the N word is still there. And at a moment when Southern Republicans are calling for the removal of Confederate flags, fighting to preserve those kinds of forums looks as outdated as it does insensitive.

TIME TIME View

Happy Father’s Day to My Ex-Husband

father-sons-beach
Getty Images

Susanna Schrobsdorff is an Assistant Managing Editor at TIME. Previously, she was the Editorial Director for Newsweek Digital. She is the winner of a New York Press Club award for Outstanding Web Coverage and three Front Page Awards for cultural commentary and interactive journalism.

Really.

In the early years, the Father’s Day gifts in our house were spectacular affairs—giant clusters of beads, feathers and glitter on little wooden pedestals, like Oscar statuettes for alien birds. Then came the handprints on plates and picture frames that say pappa spelled the Swedish way with a few umlauts sprinkled in like textual seasoning. After two kids and 14 years of marriage, we had dozens of these Father’s and Mother’s Day creations—accolades from small people who didn’t know yet how to zip up their own coats, much less what they were writing on those cards.

Thinking back, I realize that those gifts were really gestures of love and gratitude that we as parents were giving each other–for making the coffee, for patience in the wee hours, for being the sane one today and just for showing up the next. After all, it’s the grownups who sustain these made-up holidays. We’re the ones who buy the glue, the paper, the T-shirts and the flowers. Or push the teenage daughter to sign a card even though you bought it. In doing so, we’re teaching our children to say thank you to their parents, the very people whom they could reasonably take for granted.

It’s a lesson I have to keep relearning. Mustering up that kind of gratitude is a lot harder since I got divorced. But it is all the more necessary now because, as it turns out, your marriage may end, but parenting is a lifetime gig. In some ways, you’ll still be living with your ex-partner. You’ll be reminded of this just by looking at your children—the color of their eyes, the small gestures they got from their father, the way they flick a light switch, their handwriting. And yes, they’ll have some qualities from your ex-partner you loved, and the habits that drove you bats. You don’t get to walk away from those. This is contrary to what you imagine before you separate. Married people who are having a tough time tell me they fantasize about getting divorced. They think of the relief. Make that one really hard decision and voilà, you can move on, become a master of your own destiny. All the ridiculous arguments will be over. So not true.

Separation is just the beginning of a graduate class in diplomacy and empathy. You might not be haggling over the laundry or the dishes (now you really will be doing all of it), but so much of your dynamic will remain. You’ll still be tempted, as even lots of married people are, to wallow in martyrdom or indignation, assembling evidence that the other spouse is useless or wrong. But if you think it’s hard to keep those all-too-human tendencies in check so you can find a way to agree on curfews or schools or spending, know that it takes an extra dose of maturity (and possibly some therapy) to do it when there is no balm of romantic attachment to fall back on. Managing it all well, the two houses, the divergent rules, the ex-families-in-law, pretending not to be furious in front of your children and just generally keeping the toxicity at bay really does deserve a giant feathered parent Oscar.

Most of us fail at this a lot. I do. But after eight years, I find it helps if you keep that most basic rule in mind: the kids need both of you. If you are lucky, you will be sitting next to this person at graduations, weddings, baby showers and, yes, funerals for the rest of your lives. There is no divorce from the kinds of celebrations and crisis situations that require both of you to show up for your children and each other.

And if that doesn’t work, remember that whatever you’re dealing with is preferable to the alternative—a father or mother not present at all by choice or by tragedy. I’ve been thinking a lot about that this month, reading about the recent losses of two beloved dads: Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg and the Vice President’s son Beau Biden. That’s reason enough to celebrate Father’s Day.

So yes, if at all possible, muster up the gratitude for someone whose presence is easy to take for granted. Keep buying the glitter, the cards and the scented candles for your ex until the kids figure out how to do it themselves. Give the teenager money for a card or maybe some aftershave. Consider it a gift for everyone. Even you.


This appears in the June 22, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

Surviving That Mad Max Road to High School Graduation

Rear view of female family members walking through field
Getty Images

Susanna Schrobsdorff is an Assistant Managing Editor at TIME. Previously, she was the Editorial Director for Newsweek Digital. She is the winner of a New York Press Club award for Outstanding Web Coverage and three Front Page Awards for cultural commentary and interactive journalism.

I’m starting to suspect that I was covertly enrolled in some sort of secret government stress test to see what happens when you put a woman of a certain age and two teenage daughters in a small Brooklyn apartment with a disgruntled cat and no central air-conditioning.

It’s the perfect hormonal storm: all the angst of middle school, a high-stakes dose of college-application hell, plus a trip through the Bermuda Triangle of women’s health–what doctors so poetically call perimenopause, a condition they blame for everything from ankle acne to homicide–and the irrational urge to get yoga-teacher certification.

Let’s just say there are moments when I think anyone who visits our house should be issued an estrogen dart gun. We run high on laughter but low on impulse control, mood regulation and common ground when it comes to room-temperature preferences and body piercings.

Nonetheless, we have not only survived the past four years, but both daughters will be getting diplomas this month. This was not a given. The usual maladies of puberty are magnified by our frantic digital ecosystem–even the toughest kids can be knocked off track.

Then there are the unexpected tragedies. For us, it was when the girls lost their beloved stepmother in a freak accident. At the time, my eldest had just finished a rocky entry into high school and her sister was in fifth grade navigating the maddening rules of tween cliques. The fragile bridge they were building to adulthood crumbled in a day.

Grief seemed to reshape my girls at a molecular level. One held tight to the tangible evidence of loss, cycling through photos and calling her stepmom’s cell phone just to hear her gentle voice until the account was shut down. The other turned inside herself, shutting out school, shielding herself from the outside pressures to counteract what was going on inside. It was a dark summer.

I wonder, are young hearts more resilient? Do they heal better than an adult’s? Do they become stronger or just accumulate scar tissue? All we can do is wait and see, and that might be the hardest part of being a parent. But for now, for us, the world is back in focus, if in a new, more tenuous way. Every college acceptance letter or drama performance that seemed unlikely or impossible three years ago brings a sweet kind of gratitude.

This week we will get new dresses for graduation, in all new sizes (good news for them, bad news for me). You’ll see us on Facebook looking as if we floated into the frame effortlessly. But know this: if our clothes reflected the reality of our journey, we’d look like extras from a Mad Max movie, sweaty, proud and buttressed by homemade armor.

Come graduation day, I know I won’t be the only parent with invisible armor who worried that a diploma might be knocked out of reach or rendered irrelevant by bigger issues. There is an epidemic of depression and anxiety in our schools–and I suspect we’re only documenting a fraction of the problem. So while there will be tall young women, cool and confident in their caps and gowns, some will have spent eight weeks at grueling wilderness camps foraging for food because they stopped eating at home. There will be brilliant boys who cut themselves, a tangible reflection of wounds they get in the social-media Thunderdome. There will be kids who don’t have safe homes, or homes at all, and others who have everything but a purpose.

And the school auditorium will be filled with the parents who’ve soldiered on, mortgaged houses to pay for substance rehab, spent more time in emergency sessions with teachers than on vacation, who turned the city upside down to get their son a place at that last-chance school. They know about the impossible choices and disappointments that aren’t in any parenting book. And they include some of the people you think have done everything right. Sometimes what looks like indulgent, competitive helicopter parenting is really a desperate fight to be ordinary. For all of them, this rite of passage is anything but ordinary, but you wouldn’t know it.

Sometimes it feels like a secret society. Kid trouble is the last taboo, after all. We confess to infidelity or Botox or grownup mental-health battles, but we cover up or downplay our most visceral fears about our children even when we’re talking to our oldest friends. It’s the topic that makes us most vulnerable. Which is all the more reason to celebrate a diploma.

Plus we’re at the cusp of June, and everything is a few tender days away from full bloom. By August, my family will be back on the Mad Max highway. But until then, the three of us get to argue about tattoos over dinner. One of us will leave the room sobbing (probably me). We’ll take turns turning the air conditioner on and off in our ongoing climate war. No one will clean the cat box unless I yell. And we will all know that this is the good stuff.


This appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

The Grandparent Deficit: Fertility Isn’t the Only Biological Clock

Grandmother and granddaughter walk
Getty Images

There's often one forgotten variable in the decision about having kids later in life

A few months ago I was sitting in the vast dining room of an assisted-living home in Washington, D.C., watching my 5-year-old niece bounce like a pinball between tables of seniors. It was a startling sight–that small, smooth blond blur amid a hundred crinkly faces. Her audience, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, grinned as she navigated all the parked walkers, canes and wheelchairs as if it were a playground.

Sahar is a bit of a celebrity here. Far younger than most of the other grandchildren who visit, she is a rare burst of kindergarten energy in a place where even the elevators move very slowly. She comes frequently to have meals with my dad, her grandfather. He’s 81, and she doesn’t know what he was like before dementia took hold. Nor does she remember her grandmother who died four years ago, except in the funny stories my sister tells so often that Sahar refers to them as if they were her own memories.

She and my two daughters are among a growing number of kids who will see their grandparents primarily as people in need of care rather than as caretakers. They are the leading edge of a generation whose mothers and fathers had children later in life. They’ve seen us juggle our jobs, their school schedules and their grandparents’ needs simultaneously–one day missing work to be at the bedside of a parent who’s had a bad fall, another day trying to call an elder-care aide from the back row of a dance recital.

It seems naive to say this tripart balancing act came as a surprise to me and my sister, but it did. Somehow, while we were worrying about our biological clocks and our careers, it didn’t occur to us that another biological clock was ticking down: that of our parents’ health. And while medical science keeps coming up with new ways to prolong fertility, thwarting the frailties of old age is harder.

Our parents seemed so vibrant, so capable in their 60s that we couldn’t imagine how fast things would change. We knew that three or four years could make a huge difference in our fertility, but it turned out that three or four years could also mean the difference between a grandmother who can take a toddler to the beach and one who can’t lift her newest grandbaby out of a kiddie pool because of arthritis.

My daughters may face an even greater grandparent gap. I was almost 39 when I had my second child. If she has a child at the same age, I’ll be over 80 when that grandchild enters pre-K. And I’m not alone here: about six times as many children were born to women 35 and older in 2012 as they were 40 years ago.

I’m aiming to stay spry, but by the time I become a grandmother, I’ll likely be past the age that my daughter can drop her kids off at my house for a weekend. Will I be one of those exceptional octogenarians who jogs every day? Will I be able to babysit, or will I need my daughter to find me a babysitter? I don’t know. But with about half a million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s each year, plus the usual maladies of age, there’s a fair chance I’ll need some kind of help.

If I had thought about all that, I might have gotten pregnant a few years earlier, just to give my kids that little bit of extra time with my parents in their prime. Of course, it’s not as if my sister and I could have chosen exactly when we met the men who became our children’s fathers. Nor do I regret spending my 20s and part of my 30s living in different countries, doing all kinds of jobs, soaking up the world. It was glorious, and it made me a better mother. But I do know I’d give anything if my kids could have one more weekend at the beach with my parents in peak grandparenting mode–full of silly jokes and poetry and wry observations from extraordinary lives lived fully.

And now, amid the ongoing debate over when to lean into a job or a relationship or children, my take has changed. I want to tell my daughters, “Don’t forget grandparents in the high-pressure calculus of modern life. I would like to make it easier for you if you want to lean in and have babies at the same time. I’d also like to know your children.” Who knows if I’ll get that chance, given the million variables at play, but I want them to know it’s an option.

In the meantime, I’m leaning into this new phase, one ripe with gratitude even as my father fades, losing more of himself every day. My children are discovering that they are not always the center of the world. And while my little niece may never know what my dad was like when he used to hide Easter eggs or swim after us pretending to be a shark, his white hair pluming like sea foam, she’s learning something beautiful from her mother. She sees my sister visiting him daily, feeding him, talking to him. Sahar is seeing kindness firsthand. And she understands that the thin, confused man in the bed is someone worth loving. That he is family.

Schrobsdorff is an assistant managing editor at TIME


This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Parenting

Why It’s So Hard to Talk to Our Daughters About Campus Rape

Susanna Schrobsdorff is an Assistant Managing Editor at TIME. Previously, she was the Editorial Director for Newsweek Digital. She is the winner of a New York Press Club award for Outstanding Web Coverage and three Front Page Awards for cultural commentary and interactive journalism.

We tell our girls that they can do anything boys can. But what if that's not exactly true?

I have two teenage daughters, which means I live in a household of head-snapping contradictions. Everything you’ve heard about adolescent girls is true, and not true. They are in equal parts infuriating and beguiling, full of arrogance and certainty one minute, crumpled by insecurity the next. And just when you think you’ve accidentally raised judgmental mean girls, they do something so kind, so empathetic (like help you change their demented grandfather’s sheets without a word of complaint), that the memory of it sustains you through a whole month of snark.

One day they go into their bedrooms all gangly and tweeny and come out looking like women. This is to be expected, yet we are not prepared for the way the world looks at them in the wake of that transformation. After one daughter’s middle-school graduation, she strode down the street in her new heels and with her new curves, plowing ahead of us without looking back. It was all I could do not to follow her waving my arms yelling, “I know she doesn’t look it, but she’s only 14!”

Now she’s 17 and applying to college. I have to let her disappear around that corner on her own. This is never easy for parents, but perhaps it’s even less so these days. She’s busy imagining who she’ll be when she’s living among her peers, on a campus somewhere that is not here. Meanwhile, I’m unable to stop reading the headlines about sexual assault and bungled rape investigations at some of the best universities in the country.

In late January, I couldn’t escape the accusations that a group of football players had raped an unconscious neuroscience major at Vanderbilt University. At a trial for two of them, the lawyer for one of the accused said his client’s judgment was distorted by a campus culture in which drunken sex was prevalent.

Just the fact that this case wasn’t swept under the rug is encouraging. New federal mandates that aim to reform the way universities handle sexual-assault cases represent huge progress. And sure, the stats on how pervasive the problem is are still being debated, but the awful stories keep coming. So while I might have worried more about pregnancy, now the specter of assault looms larger. How do I talk to my college-bound daughter about that?

The irony is that while we’ve always warned our little girls about strangers, the numbers say that if our college-age daughters are assaulted, it will likely be by someone they know. And like a lot of mothers, I’ve spent years telling my girls that they can do anything a boy can, that they can rely on their smarts above all and that they should never be ashamed of their bodies. But that’s not exactly true. No, girls can’t get drunk like guys can at a party, not without compromising their safety. And yes, girls are more vulnerable, physically and in other ways. Accusations of promiscuity can still damage a woman to an extent that many men can hardly fathom. Just ask that Vanderbilt student, now a Ph.D. candidate. Her alleged assailants took humiliating photos of her during the attack.

It’s not fair, but it’s reality. I realize that I need to have some version of the talk that so many African-American parents have with their sons about being careful of what they wear and how they behave so as not to put themselves in danger. To our girls we say, be brave, take risks. But internally we want them to do whatever it takes to stay safe. We say, be proud of your beauty. Yet we fear that showing it off will make them a target.

It’s a thicket of contradictions and hypocrisy–as my daughters are quick to inform me when I dare suggest maybe they put on a jacket over that strappy top. But I can’t help offering some advice as I watch one prepare to walk out the door:

Nourish your female friendships. You want women in your life who will have your back at parties and will speak up when you’re about to do something you shouldn’t. And you’ll have their back too. Being a part of this kind of posse is a lifelong gift.

When it comes to guys, look for kindness over cool. And trust your gut. If it feels wrong, leave. Say no. Say no. Say no.

I would defend your right to wear what you want and have just-for-fun sex if you want. But as your mother, I wish you so much more. I hope you take any chance you can to know someone truly and intimately. It is the best perk of being human.

If the inequities get you down, know that you are part of a revolutionary generation that is insisting on change. Just look at the women in a new documentary debuting at Sundance called The Hunting Ground. It’s the story of student assault survivors who cleverly used Title IX (the legislation forbidding gender discrimination) to force the Department of Education to investigate sexual-assault accusations at schools across the country. They transformed their vulnerability into something powerful.

And if you need me, I’m still here.


This appears in the February 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Opinion

The Inevitable Rehabilitation of Ray Rice

From left: Janay and Ray Rice arrive for a hearing on Nov. 5, 2014 in New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images From left: Janay and Ray Rice arrive for a hearing on Nov. 5, 2014 in New York City.

Susanna Schrobsdorff is an Assistant Managing Editor at TIME. Previously, she was the Editorial Director for Newsweek Digital. She is the winner of a New York Press Club award for Outstanding Web Coverage and three Front Page Awards for cultural commentary and interactive journalism.

Any NFL team that hires Ray Rice in the next few months will get a little flack. But don’t be surprised if Rice makes a full comeback on the field and off.

Consider that just a few weeks ago, Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist and self-confessed wife batterer, was making small talk on the late night circuit about his sold-out one-man show, directed by Spike Lee. The show is based on his memoir, Undisputed Truth, which has lines like: “How do you rape someone when they come to your hotel at two in the morning? There’s nothing open that late but legs.” There was the fun game he played on Jimmy Fallon called “Punch Out.” And last year, there was much mirth with Chelsea Handler about his three years in prison, drug tests and conjugal visits. Tyson has also joked about “socking” his ex-wife Robin Givens. According to a biography by his former friend Jose Torres, Tyson said the “best punch” he ever threw was at Givens–it was so hard she “bounced off two different walls” and was knocked out cold. (It’s worth noting that the New York Times‘ Michiko Kakutani glossed over that abusive relationship, calling it a “tumultuous marriage,” in her review of Tyson’s book.)

The one journalist to refer to the fighter as a “convicted rapist” in a TV interview got a long profanity laced rant from Tyson who called him “negative” and “a piece of sh-t.” That reporter, a Canadian broadcaster, later apologized for hurting Tyson’s feelings. Undisputed truth indeed.

The moral calculus of who we shun and for how long is nothing short of perplexing. Let’s not forget that a decade of happy Jello salesmanship intervened since the last time Bill Cosby was caught up in a maelstrom of rape accusations. And what about Chris Brown who was convicted in 2009 for felony assault of his then-girlfriend Rihanna? Or actor Josh Brolin who was charged with spousal battery in in 2004? (His wife Diane Lane declined to press charges.) Neither man’s career seemed to lose much public momentum after those incidents. And there’s Sean Penn, who was charged with assault during his marriage to Madonna in 1988 and later pled to a lesser offense. Yes, there’s a huge difference between allegations, arrests and convictions, but those distinctions don’t seem to matter much when it comes to the vicissitudes of public opinion.

In Rice’s case, the main thing keeping him from total rehabilitation now that he’s been reinstated will likely be his recent lackluster playing record. Never mind the fact that half the planet has watched a video of him punching his then-fiance so hard he knocked her unconscious, then dragging her limp body, face down, out of an elevator.

America loves a good comeback.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Alan Cumming’s Boyhood Was No Cabaret

Alan Cumming attends the HRC Marriage for Equality USA celebration at the Calvin Klein Boutique on April 17, 2013 in New York City.
Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images Alan Cumming attends the HRC Marriage for Equality USA celebration at the Calvin Klein Boutique on April 17, 2013 in New York City.

The actor's funny, heartbreaking new memoir recalls his struggles with an abusive father and his journey from the Scottish Highlands to Broadway

When Alan Cumming arrives for brunch at a café not far from his apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, he’s wearing a blue baseball cap with a big white yes on the front. It’s been almost two weeks since Scotland voted no to separating from the United Kingdom, but Cumming, a Scot who campaigned heavily for the yes side from New York, hasn’t quite gotten over the loss. He heard the results in his dressing room after a performance of Cabaret, a revival of the 1966 musical that brought him a Tony for his electrifying performance as the androgynous Emcee when it returned to Broadway in 1998. “I just cried,” he says. “I felt like it was the difference between choosing imagination and hope and positivity or being cowed and doffing your cap and letting the establishment tell you what to do.”

Scotland still defines the effervescent 49-year-old Cumming in a way that nothing else does. He grew up there on a vast estate called Panmure where his father was the head forester. The men who worked the 21 sq. mi. (54 sq km) of woodland addressed the authoritarian elder Cumming as “the maister.” Alan and his brother Tom might as well have called him that too. Doing grueling chores under his unforgiving eye, they were always fearful of paternal rages that often ended with a beating. Cumming once wound up with a vicious haircut administered with sheep shears that left the 12-year-old bleeding and half bald.

How Cumming finally freed himself from the grip of that painful past is the subject of his new memoir, Not My Father’s Son. “I wrote the book partly to say that this kind of abuse is not normal,” he explains. “Abusers make you feel like it’s acceptable. And for the world who knows me one way, now they’ll know me in a different way, and I’m glad, because it’s all a part of me.”

It’s hard to fathom how the terrorized little boy grew up to be the slender, joyful man who can’t stop cackling as he shows off photos of the pink neon sign saying “Club Cumming” that he had made for his dressing room at Cabaret. Reading the book, you understand how he got so enmeshed in the Scottish campaign. Self-determination and liberation–of himself and others–from old conventions, gender restrictions or just boredom have been Cumming’s quest since he left home at 17 to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

He began writing his memoir after his father’s death in 2010 while working his day job as the Emmy-nominated co-star of CBS’s The Good Wife, now in its sixth season. On that show, Cumming plays Eli Gold, the tightly wound, manipulative political adviser to Chris Noth’s Governor Peter Florrick and his wife, played by Julianna Margulies. His book takes us from his primary school in the Scottish Highlands to London, where he played Hamlet in a cast that included his then wife Hilary Lyon as Ophelia in 1993. His father came back into his life a few years later when a British tabloid wrongly reported that Cumming had been sexually abused in childhood. (Harking back to his father’s beatings, Cumming had told another publication that he had been “abused,” a quote the tabloid misinterpreted.)

Cumming weaves into this story his 2010 turn on the British version of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? which researches the family histories of celebrities. The program’s producers focused on Cumming’s maternal grandfather Thomas Darling, a much decorated World War II vet who died mysteriously in Malaysia. The effort to unearth the truth about his death sparks a crazy journey that sends Cumming around the world, from the former battlefields of France to a graveyard in Asia. It turns out that his grandfather died in a fatal game of Russian roulette. To complicate things, Cumming’s father hears of the family research and announces that Alan is not his son but the product of an extramarital affair of Alan’s mother’s. DNA tests eventually prove the father’s claim is false, but the episode leads Alan and his brother to confront their dad about his lifetime of cruelties toward them–after which, they never see him again.

Cumming leaves off a few years after his 2007 marriage to Grant Shaffer, an illustrator. (His first marriage ended in the mid-1990s, and soon after, he declared himself bisexual.) Now happy, settled and extraordinarily busy, Cumming suspects that not really getting to be a child when he was young might be what keeps him so preternaturally youthful now. (Holding his own in a Cabaret kick line of 22-year-olds is no easy trick.) A friend, British theater director John Tiffany, jokes that there must be a Dorian Gray–style portrait of Cumming in an attic somewhere. He just doesn’t age. “J.M. Barrie could have written him,” says Tiffany. “Alan’s got an incredibly impish, Peter Pan sense of humor. In fact, he’s a gorgeous combination of Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Mrs. Darling.” (Let it be noted that Cumming’s mother’s name is Mary Darling.)

The ongoing tension in his nature between dark and light, so evident in the book, is part of what gives Cumming’s work such breadth. It allowed Tiffany to cast him at various times as both Macbeth and Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Cumming can slip from playing a movie Smurf to the übersexual host of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Club and then host Masterpiece Mystery on PBS without dropping a sequin. He combines a Calvinist work ethic with an eternal party-boy vibe. And the party is almost always on. Not only do legions of friends show up nightly at Club Cumming after the show, but he even has a kind of Camp Cumming–a second home in upstate New York where the landscape reminds him of Scotland. He often invites the entire cast of whatever show he’s in for weekends.

Cumming’s brother also thinks that in his offstage and offscreen life, his famous sibling may be re-creating a childhood he didn’t have. As evidence, you could point to the big trampoline that Cumming installed at the house. When guests ask about it, he’ll insist they try it. “‘It’s really great,’ I tell them. They say, ‘No, no, that’s not for me.’ People are so afraid of being judged. But as the weekend goes on, you look, and there they are, bouncing away. I love seeing that. It makes my heart swell.”


This appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of TIME.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com