Some Thoughts on American on Purpose
There are only about five million Scots, which is amazing when we stop to consider Scotland’s capacious record of supplying the world with brilliant and industrious citizens. This minuscule divisor makes Scotland, on a per capita basis, the second greatest contributor to what is often referred to as Western Civilization.* (I figured this all out with a slide rule. It was actually a statistical dead heat between Scotland and Greece, but Scotland won the tiebreaker–fashion. Kilts beat togas.)
But despite the fact that they have provided us with so many outstanding writers, thinkers, engineers, industrialists and explorers, the Scottish people are often portrayed as a bunch of brassy, belligerent, bibulous, bargain-hunters.
In his memoir American on Purpose, the immensely gifted actor, comedian, writer and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson asserts that, Scrooge McDuck notwithstanding, the inhabitants of his native land “are very generous” (46). Otherwise, he does little to dispel the dominant stereotypes about Scottish people.
For Ferguson, the most dreary and oppressive institution in Scotland was the public school system where teachers were extremely liberal with the lash. Ferguson realized that he wanted out of the “redbrick gulag” on his first day (31). And strap-happy teachers weren’t the only threat. Ferguson soon discovered that “what was especially perilous to do at school was to stand out in any way” (22). School was a scalding hot cauldron of anger and resentment where “if you were noticed, you got hit” (67). (Ferguson recalls his brief teenage sojourn to America with this stunning observation: “And nobody wanted a fight. Not once.”) (40)
But this is not a bitter memoir, and Ferguson isn’t one to blame others for his problems. He is extremely honest and reflective about how his innate sense of seclusion contributed not only to his profound feelings of alienation at school but also provided a fertile ground for his burgeoning addictions:
it seems to me that this profound sense of isolation, resentment, misanthropy, and fear in a prepubescent child is an extraordinarily ominous portent. I should have put my name down for rehab then (23).
Ferguson first tried marijuana at a concert when he was just thirteen-years-old, and it was love at first puff:
From this moment on I would dedicate my life to rock and roll and take as many drugs as possible.
What could possibly go wrong? (42)
Despite blacking out the first time he drank as a teenager, Ferguson was soon off and running on a binge that lasted for over a decade. His motto is, “Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure” (196). And Ferguson was a true daredevil in pursuit of a buzz, eventually adding cocaine (the “wonder drug”) and even heroin to his repertoire (114). But this adventure story eventually transmogrified in a horror show: “More shame brought on by behavior instigated by alcohol, which only fueled the need for more alcohol, and on and fucking on” (160). The vicious downward cycle eventually led Ferguson to contemplate suicide. In a fit of total desperation Ferguson contacted his friend Jimmy Mulville, a television producer and recovering alcoholic, and confessed, “I can’t drink and I can’t not drink. I’m too sick to live and too chickenshit to die” (174)
I’m a sucker for a story with a happy ending, and American on Purpose is full of them, particularly the birth of Ferguson’s son Milo, his successful endeavor to become American citizen and his third marriage to Megan Wallace Cunningham:
She makes me feel like I’m lucky, and I know because I have her that I am. I’m happy to be her husband, and I can absolutely positively categorically swear that this marriage is definitely-and-without-doubt-I’m-not-kidding-you-I-really-mean-it the last one for me (262)
Despite being hard on his homeland at times, Ferguson acknowledges that “Scotland made me what I am and America let me be it” (268).
American on Purpose is an enlightening and entertaining memoir.
* You’re not necessarily an anti-Semite if you have to ask which group has made the greatest per capita contribution to Western Civilization, but the answer is pretty freaking obvious.