I met Tina Alexis Allen for the first time in a phone interview as she was promoting her show Outsiders for the WGN network. She played Shurn, a grieving and now-outspoken member of an Appalachian clan.
The normal hard stop for interviews with actors didn’t come into play at the half-hour mark, and Allen seemed like someone I could spend a long time on the phone with. She was open and interested in talking across topics, and toward the end of our conversation, as I mentioned a book deadline, she likewise brought up a memoir she was writing. She said it was about her father and his secret life, and the secrets she kept for him. Already nervous that I had too much to transcribe, I didn’t ask too much more about it.
A year later, Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs, Deception, and Double Lives was in print. It wasn’t solely about her father, Sir John—who drank heavily and worked dedicatedly for the Catholic Church. It was also about Allen herself, Sir John’s gay youngest daughter and the first family member to whom her father revealed that he, too, was gay. (The secrets we keep become the stories we tell about ourselves.)
In a recent conversation, Allen and I talked about the awkwardness of recovery, the call to help others, and forgiveness.
The Rumpus: You buried your parents in 2005, and then you started with the one-woman show about your father. How did that come about?
Tina Alexis Allen: That was maybe two years or so after my dad passed. Somewhere in me I knew that was the one story that I hadn’t fully uncovered or explored, in terms of my relationship with him. I had a lot to process and heal and deal with, so I sort of took my life on in layers. I had dealt with a lot of the layers but, by the time he did pass—after a couple of years—it felt like a way to tell the final story of him that I hadn’t really explored.
I think that maybe losing him, there was a longing to understand him better than I did. I had to deal with some regrets of not asking the tougher questions of him because I was kind of scared of him even when we were closer.
Rumpus: What was the show about?
Allen: That show, Secrets of a Holy Father, was basically all him—about his early days as the father of thirteen, him as the taskmaster and the rager, the drinker. I basically explored his life from that point until he passed away. I was really exploring him as a man, and that included everything. It included him as a father, a gay man who was having a secret life, his business as a travel agent, but then also the secret world of a Vatican courier.
Rumpus: He was very mean, and in your book you don’t strive to paint him any other way in those moments. But do you ever excuse it now, when you think of him as so hiding so much—not only while working for the Church, but truly loving the Church, and to be so in love with something that would have punished you for being who you were?
Allen: I have complete forgiveness and love for my father, and the same goes for my mother, my brothers, my family. That’s not to say I pull punches or am masking their behavior because I don’t.
My father was devoted and he was a sinner in their eyes. I think those two things coexist a lot more than we’d all like to think. I mean, everybody has darkness and lightness, but I do believe he was authentically committed to the Church, committed to service, committed to the poor and the handicapped. He had a tough time with the family. I don’t think he really trusted a kind of love where he could be hurt. I think, for some people, it’s easier to give to people outside of their family because it’s less risky.
Rumpus: But growing up with him, even when he did something nice, it probably was like, well, he’s still a son of a bitch.
Allen: As a kid? Absolutely. Today I have more perspective, but as a kid I couldn’t see that because all I saw was he’s being mean to my mom—I adored my mother—and he was mean to us, too. There was goodness in him, and he supported us, but it’s hard to see that if your parent is not a nice person to you.
Rumpus: Coming from such a big family, like, do you ever feel that your siblings were jealous of your relationship with your father? You write that you lasted at the travel agency your father ran longer than any of them, for example. Do you think they coveted that or wished they could have known him that way?
Allen: One family member, years later, said that at the time he didn’t know why I became the chosen one and why was I getting all this preferential treatment, for as long as I did. We [Allen and her father] lasted years as partners. I remember one of my brothers saying to me, “I was jealous. I felt, why is she spending this time with him? I’d run into you out to dinner, see you guys out at a local restaurant or something, and feel jealousy.”
That was difficult because none of us got enough of my father.
Rumpus: It seemed like once his secret of being gay was out and yours to keep, you were able to reveal yourself to him, though you got around to your brothers’ abuse of you more slowly. One thing in the book that you didn’t get into is that abuse and the pain it caused you, and that it also sort of led to your relationship with an older woman when you were twelve. And with regard to that relationship, it almost seemed you have an accepting outlook. By the book’s end, you don’t look at her necessarily fondly but there’s not a lot of anger there, either. I was curious because I felt at points that she had maybe taken advantage of you, a child painting for her and gardening with her.
Do you view that relationship in particular as part of who you are or were?
Allen: What dawned on me is, there’s so much in my life that had to get into that book and it covers only a few years, right? The thing I realized was, oh my God, I didn’t thread through my recovery around her. So even though at the beach, at the end of the book, there’s some resolution in the sense of, I see I don’t want that anymore and she’s not appealing to me. What I didn’t pull through in that final chapter was her. Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to write an essay about it, which is about how it was child abuse.
Rumpus: It seemed like it took you longer to recognize that as abuse, whereas you were clear on what your brothers did as abuse.
Allen: It takes a long time to get honest. I stayed friends with her until where I ended the book, sort of into my twenties. I think I was protecting her, to a degree, and also probably protecting myself. I think in some way I needed to believe that this person really loved me, and maybe they did in their own weird way despite me being eleven, twelve, and thirteen. The fact is that I did not get clear until I became her age. It really dawned on me, wow, this is weird. Like, I’m twenty-seven, and I would never be looking at a twelve-year-old. I can’t even imagine, I can’t even conceive…
I remember she used to say to me, “I hope you don’t hate me when you’re older”, and I always would think, Of course I’m not going to hate you. I love you or I think I love you, or I’m getting attention in a way that I’m not getting elsewhere. I’m speaking separate from the intimate attention—the other attention. What it was that I was craving, it just came at such a price, but the short answer is, I’m very clear that that was child abuse and I don’t condone it any way, shape, or form. It was just very complicated for me because I had already been sexualized by adults. It seemed like a small price to pay. I was getting these warm arms and attention outside of [the sexual attention], which was a different experience than with my brothers and other people that had harmed me.
That’s not in the book, you know. I think I ran out of space.
Someone asked me at the Woodstock Book Festival, is there anything that you wish you had in your book or not in your book? Anyway, that’s my answer; in hindsight, I wish I had pulled that thread through even in two sentences just so the reader would know I was in no way condoning it.
Rumpus: You say that young people finding this book might examine themselves.
Allen: I hope they find it is because I don’t feel the book is preachy and I think a lot of the young people don’t want to be told what to do. But I do think it’s a good opportunity for them to look in a mirror about some of this. If they’re using sex as a way to act out, you get that in the book and you move through it and then see who I’ve become. I think that it could be an eye-opener for them to see where they may be and why they may be using sex or drugs or alcohol to mask their own pain or their own childhood or their own difficulties at home whether it’s sexuality or a hundred other things that people have going on in their families. So I want them to find it because I think they could actually digest it and relate to it and then hopefully get awakened to the possibility that they don’t have to do that.
Rumpus: Were there memoirs or pieces you read that made you realize you wanted to tell parts of your story or inform how you wanted to tell your story?
Allen: I remember reading Angela’s Ashes a million years ago and thinking, I want to write a memoir someday. I thought that McCourt’s voice was so clear but he had humor and he told his story so honestly. And The Glass Castle, there was something about Walls’s bravery managing that crazy situation and surviving it and then getting away.
In terms of the voice, I felt that writing it in the first person was the way to go so that I didn’t get in my own way. Maybe it’s my background in screenwriting and my knowledge of filmmaking, but I generally think the audience, whether it’s a reader or someone watching a movie, tends to be smarter than we give them credit for. In my case, I thought if I just let [my younger self] take the wheel, the reader could sit in the passenger seat and watch. I felt they would understand why she’s driving like that as opposed to putting them in the back seat with a narrator driving.
Rumpus: Did you refer to diaries you kept as a child, or did you just have to call up memories of these moments?
Allen: One thing that I think serves me is my acting. Particularly as a method actor, one of the great tools that we use is emotional memory, which is like sense memory. It’s pulling back out of your life a time and remembering through your senses the experience: taste, smell, sound, touch. It’s something I’ve been doing for well over fifteen years in many different forms, in the solo shows and all the other non-autobiographical acting work I’ve done on TV and stage. So, I didn’t keep journals when I was a kid but I also wasn’t in denial. I wasn’t someone who woke up at twenty-five and went, “Oh my God, that happened to me?” I knew each and every step of the way what was going on.
Rumpus: You talked about that you’ve been sober since before or around when you got into acting. And you said you don’t do a program but you told your dad, “I don’t drink anymore.” I remember from our last interview that you said having a glass of wine would make it harder to tap into the emotions you need to access when you’re acting. And now you’ve accessed it in writing, so is you plan to return to acting or do you have other goals to fulfill?
Allen: I definitely want to write more—I still love acting and am looking for my next series—but I also know is that I feel very ready to pay my healing forward and that’s something that I’m interested in pursuing, whether that means writing a book that can help others or perhaps speaking more. I’m actually speaking at a conference for the first time; it’s not a TED Talk but it’s that format. The topic is the price of hiding, which is where we started this conversation. It’s kind of ironic you were talking about that because that is what I’m going to talk about—the price we pay when we hide any part of ourselves.
Rumpus: Do you worry at all about sort of the emotional cost of doing it, given that you’ve worked for a long time on your healing? Do you worry people might come to you with a lot of need?
Allen: To me, it’s part of writing a book. I have had people come to me on social media or in conversations or Q&As with some of the difficult things in their lives. I do feel I’m at a point in my life where I’m just not a victim of my past and I’m eager to help others kind of hold the space for their own pasts, if you will. If they need to explore things that they felt shameful about or maybe still haven’t quite resolved or secrets they’re keeping, I feel pretty strong and centered around that. With what’s come at me thus far, I feel capable and willing and eager to help other people.