Marcus Dalrymple, Perth

Father was a Scientologist

AS is the case for many young children, the world around me collapsed when my parents divorced. It was 1982 and I was eight years old. But for me this devastating event was further complicated by the fact my father had become a Scientologist.

My dad Raymond was loving, warm, generous and mostly absent. He worked abroad in the oil industry and his interest in the Church of Scientology started when a friend gave him a copy of the book Dianetics, written by its founder, L Ron Hubbard. He started doing Scientology courses back in Scotland and tried to get my mum involved, even putting her through some of the sect’s “purification” and “detox” rituals, but she wanted nothing to do with it. As the association deepened, he also gave them thousands of pounds.

There was no way back and, divorce sealed, Dad set off for St Hill Manor in East Grinstead – Scientology’s UK headquarters – to become a full-time member. All this put my mum in an awful position: she wanted to prevent me from being embroiled in this world, but I was desperate to see my dad.

I was eventually allowed to visit him when I was 12, with cast-iron guarantees that he wouldn’t try to involve me in the religion.

Dad had risen to a high position in the church, so the folk at St Hill didn’t object to a wee Scottish boy roaming about and I was welcomed into the bizarre world of Scientology. I actually liked most of my dad’s Scientology friends and associates. The headquarters was always upbeat and friendly, although I became aware of the “love bombing” techniques and I was sometimes pestered to do courses.

I also witnessed many things the outside world would consider very strange. On my first visit there was a ceremony to celebrate Hubbard’s birthday and at the end everyone turned to a bust of his head and started clapping, which went on for 20 minutes.

I thought it was never going to end, that hypnotic rhythm going on and on and on. I found it disturbing in the extreme. Then there were the students talking to ashtrays and the ridiculously long working hours with terrible food and next-to-no pay.

All this made my teenage years a real contrast. My everyday life was with my mum, sister and brother in Leslie, Fife, but holidays were spent at St Hill embedded in the Scientology world of my dad. It was all very surreal and confusing. On one hand I Ioved my dad dearly, especially his huge and irrepressible zest for life, constant wit, sense of fun and ability to make good times out of thin air. We would always be doing something, whether it was long coastal walks, stock-car racing or listening to music together.

On the other hand he was trying to convince me of the merits of Scientology, and underneath I felt uneasy. It made me quite introverted, too. I found it difficult to talk about it with anyone.

Still, I tried to see him as just my dad rather than a Scientologist, even though – apart from quick visits to Scotland – it was an all-encompassing part of his life. We managed to maintain a good relationship throughout and I certainly wouldn’t view my childhood as sad.

We were more like best friends than father and son. My friends loved Dad, too, and we had a shared passion for music. We went to hundreds of gigs together, constantly shared music and hung out with his

friends, including the wonderful Woody Woodmansey from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band and legendary Stones/Beatles session man Nicky Hopkins. He was the sort of dad who would knock on the door and tell me to turn the music up. There was very little not to like.

Dad always played up that we were best buddies and perhaps that made it easier for him to accept that he didn’t play the “proper” fatherly role. He wasn’t there for the everyday stuff. He always seemed so exotic and my mum had to deal with that, which must have been very tough for her.

In 2003 Dad had a heart attack and because of his Scientology beliefs he wasn’t interested in getting the treatment necessary to prolong his life. Instead, he bought a 1000cc motorbike and took up surfing. In the August of that year he was involved in a crash and he and his girlfriend both died. He was only 52. The accident wasn’t his fault but I can’t help but think he would still be here if he had just eased off the proverbial gas. But that was never “Big Ray”, whose motto was: “Burn out, don’t fade away.”

A fair bit of emotional damage resulted from my dad’s life choices and I spent many years reading books and researching things, trying to understand it all. The internet has helped to expose a lot of the realities of Scientology, but at the time it didn’t exist. Now I’ve made my peace with it and I’d be interested to know what his thoughts would be on Scientology now.

I have two sons of my own and I think it’s so important for kids to have both parents around. My own experiences have made me want to spend as much time with them as possible.

It’s definitely a big regret that Dad never got to meet his two grandsons. He was great with kids and I feel both they and he have really missed out. For my part I’ve no interest in being a larger-than-life, exotic or eccentric figure. I’m happy to be the more mundane dad who’s always there, being grumpy and telling them to do their homework, albeit asking them to turn the music up … with a nod in the direction of their grandad.

Katie Ailes, Edinburgh

Father was sperm donor

The circumstances of my birth are not necessarily “the norm” in terms of donor sperm families. It was the early 1990s and my parents were a heterosexual couple in their late 30s and early 40s who were experiencing fertility challenges. Their doctor suggested introducing donor sperm to ensure there was a reliable factor in trying to conceive, and my mother became pregnant shortly after.

My parents made the decision not to do a DNA test when I was born, to determine whether I was genetically my father’s or the donor’s, because it didn’t matter to them. They were just happy to have a healthy child. As I grew up in Philadelphia my dad assumed genetically I was his. I have two half siblings from his previous marriage and I look quite like my sister. I also look quite like my dad.

When I was 18 my dad sat me down and told me how I was conceived.

He talked about taking a DNA test but made it clear he was always going to be my dad, no matter the result. He said it was up to me. I thought about it and decided to have the test. It wasn’t for emotional reasons – I’m in the privileged position to have a great dad – and it wasn’t about searching for something. I did it because I wanted more knowledge of my medical history.

When I found out I wasn’t my father’s genetic child I primarily felt a sense of curiosity rather than loss. It came as a bit of a shock but somehow not an overwhelming one. My parents apparently tried to tell me when I was 12 but I didn’t understand. I have a distant memory around this and maybe it sunk in more than I thought.

At first, my instinct was to think this explained things, like “this is why I always felt awkward at family gatherings”. But then I knew that really I probably felt awkward because I was a teenager.

I wrote a poem during this time, to help me work through it, and I spent a lot of time looking at my face in the mirror and trying to evaluate what it all meant. I had always thought my high forehead was down to my dad.

It also made me re-evaluate my thoughts on “nature versus nurture”. Genetically things don’t come from my dad, but a huge amount of my behaviour is shaped by and through him.

It was harder for my dad to accept. He always knew there was a possibility I wasn’t genetically his, but it was challenging for him to find out for sure. He has been in a process of coming to terms with it since then. I always try to reinforce to him that I have no wish, or need, or want to find another father – he is my dad.

Interestingly, my dad is one of five siblings and each of them has raised children that aren’t biologically theirs. Families are changing and I think he found strength in that.

I don’t feel there is a hole that needs to be filled, but obviously I have a sense of curiosity about the donor, the knowledge that there’s some guy back in Philadelphia who shares half my genetic traits, that I probably have genetic half siblings. There is always going to be that curiosity about what he looks like, what sort of person he is. The first year after I found out I would often find myself thinking: “He could be Brad Pitt!”

I don’t have recourse to find him as he would have been protected under confidentiality law in America, which is an important part of sperm donation. It’s a medical donation, a bit like giving blood in some ways. I’m curious about my medical history but everything else, I don’t really need to know.

My situation has made me very aware that parenthood is about being there, actively raising your child. That wasn’t my sperm donor’s job, parenthood is what my dad did. My kids will have a wonderful grandfather and that’s all that matters.

I write and perform poetry and as an artist, you do think very deeply about your life. That’s what I did with my poem, which I’ve performed many times over the years. Often someone will come up and talk to me afterwards, either someone who was conceived that way, or who has conceived their children using a sperm donor. They usually thank me for being open about it because it’s something people don’t talk about. It’s not a part of our cultural narrative. But with sperm donation now becoming more common, it’s something we should talk about more.

This situation has brought my dad and me closer together because I really appreciate what he did, how much he wanted to have a child with my mum and what he was prepared to do to make that happen. The biggest takeaway for me is that love is love – genetics isn’t the most important thing.

Katie Ailes moved to Scotland from the US three years ago and performs with Edinburgh-based poetry collective Loud Poets.

See and hear her poem here

Donald S Murray, Shetland

Father was a single parent in 1960s Lewis

There was one occasion in my young life when my father donned cloth-cap and cycle clips and pedalled off in the direction of our local primary school in Ness.

This all happened on an unusual day: one when I had been accused of something of which I was entirely innocent; one, too, when the village boys had come home with me to echo my outrage at the wrong that had been done. It may have been this self-righteous chorus that probably convinced him that he had no choice but to undertake this journey. It may, too, have been my bafflement at the injustice that had been done, one more in the long litany of hurts and wounds that had been inflicted on my brother and I in the year or so since my mother had left us.

Whatever his reason, it wasn’t long before we were standing and watching him as he brought his cycle out from the barn, wheeling it up the brae to the local hall and downhill to the school. It was a course of action that brought me one of life’s little satisfactions. Shortly afterwards, the headmaster did the unthinkable and confessed he had been wrong in his actions.

Yet looking back, it is the fact that my father actually stepped within the school grounds on that early evening which was the most remarkable aspect of that particular day. He only did this on one other occasion I can remember – when I enrolled at the secondary school in Stornoway, at the age of 12. At my interview there, he bowed, smiled and nodded his head at the rector’s wisdom – and said almost nothing.

A moment or two later and he stepped out of the building’s doors, relieved, probably, that he would never have to walk through them again.

And so, he never did. Not for parents’ evenings, school concerts, or even the few occasions when I managed to convince myself (and others) that I was likely to become the new Hebridean version of Sir Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton when I grew up.

My father was unusual in all of this in only one way. He was a single parent, occupying what was then a unique role in bringing up my brother and me from early childhood. Nobody was divorced in our parish in the late 1960s and early 70s. Everyone assumed a mother was an essential element in the rearing of a child. It was a supposition that even the State shared. Until the mid-1970s, single parents’ allowance was only paid to women. It was believed that if a wife ever died or “bolted” (in the language of the time), there was a simple, clear solution. The man could just go out and find another to provide care for his bereaved and grieving offspring.

While this might have been the answer for politicians and aristocrats, it was one with which my father felt deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps he felt that there had been enough disruption in our young lives before bringing another woman into the family home. Perhaps it was the stirrings of the religious faith that would come – over later years – to dominate his thinking that prevented him from talking

a new wife, the belief that no man should put asunder what God had put together in the past, that any second marriage would be wrong.

There is little doubt, however, that as someone who left school at the age of 14, his unease was at its greatest when dealing with our education.

At that time, it was mothers – sometimes admittedly with husbands attached – that attended parents evenings and dealt with any bother that might arise. They were certainly the ones who sat in the hall when their sons and daughters appeared on stage, whether to perform Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh impersonations or to receive the glittering prizes of academic life. No doubt his discomfort was increased, too, by his awareness of his own social background. He, after all, was a weaver; they possessed a university education. They drove cars; he only had a bike. These men lived with their wives. He had none.

In some ways, life is better for fathers in similar positions today. Divorce has become normalised. Dads are actively encouraged to take an interest in their childrens’ lives.

They are seen more and more often – sometimes even on their own – at parents evenings, enquiring about the progress of their child. Yet in other ways, things have actually travelled backwards. Visit most schools in Scotland and the bulk of the teaching staff are female.

They are also, unlike the 1960s and

early 70s, more likely to have come from a middle-class background. The educational qualifications achieved by individuals like me – the children of unskilled, working-class parents – had fallen dramatically over the last few years. Teaching as a profession has reflected this change.

And there are other changes too. Dad read, opening and closing his day by reading aloud the Bible, both in Gaelic and English. (In the latter case, it was the King James version, the ideal preparation for any would-be Benedict Cumberbatch or Judi Dench.) He read newspapers, both local and national, and was more literate than his counterparts today. He also encouraged us to read, particularly on Sunday, a day of the week when screens were left blank and minds encouraged to switch to other, different tasks.

No doubt there were negatives to this. I am aware that in my life I have sometimes been guilty of idealising women, forgetting that, just like men, they are, to use the words of Patrick Kavanagh, “creatures made of clay”. I am also conscious that I have, at times, lacked knowledge of how men and women interact with each other, particularly in their private lives. This has sometimes had an effect on me as an adult.

Yet this may, too, have brought me the gift of imagination. It was one generated not only by the languages that jostled in my head, but also by that sense of being an outsider and observer of normal life. I recall often wondering what it would be like to have a mother like those who looked after my friends, envying them on many occasions, but always being aware of one singular truth.

For all that he may have had his failings,

I had a good dad.

Donald S Murray’s book The Dark Stuff is published by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99