Yesterday we found that Leonard Nimoy died. His character gave us the belief that it would be possible to live rationally, and even though many people loved Spock, it is probably true that it was never possible to live totally rationally.
The Imitation Game is a powerful and sensitive movie and achieves something that is difficult to do in cinema. This movie encourages us to believe that we can know what it may have been like for Alan Turing, a mathematician from Cambridge who was the principal player in helping the UK to break the German Enigma codes during World War II, and immediately after the war in building the first computer, and what it felt like to be gay and to find a resolution for that in a culture that called same-sex sex “gross indecency.”
The movie is based on a biography of Turing written thirty years ago by Andrew Hodges (Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1983. 714 pages in the print edition). It is a graceful book, carefully put together, in which the author weaves in material on mathematical theory, on cryptography, on computer theory, and on the place of homosexuals in the UK in the nineteen-forties and -fifties into the dramatic story of Alan Turing’s life. This is a wonderful book, and my only difficulty in reading it was knowing that it was going to end in the tragedy that it does end in. What I missed was more extensive examination of the principal sources of stress in Turing’s life. The “imitation game” that Turing played must have caused him high stress all his life, but we don’t learn enough about that from Hodges or from The Imitation Game.
We wouldn’t have in any case. It was not a time when people—particularly men—talked about the stress which resulted from the culture’s condemnation of homosexuals. What we now call gender-presentation would keep a man from talking about it. He left no documents on which a biographer could build an understanding.
Hodges makes clear that it was in the early nineteen-fifties when both the US and the UK turned to a savage rejection from government service of all men known to be queer. What he can’t tell us is what Alan Turning thought about this or how he responded. What might happen if he told the wrong person.
When Turing was older, he sometimes asked the question, “Who is that lovely boy?” He told people, many people, that he was a “homosexual,” and he indicated in many places that he felt himself above society’s attitudes about his sexuality, but we don’t know anything about Turing’s feelings about living in a culture in which his deepest feelings were judged to be “gross indecency.” Because the culture was against it, and his gender was against it, and because government and the court system was savagely against it, we don’t know much about how a mathematician at King’s College, Cambridge, felt about being queer and how he felt when the government said he was guilty of gross indecency. Turing kept these matters to himself.
I can surmise how that would make a man feel. I can guess why a man would throw himself into his profession as a way of escaping this problem. I know how hatred and self-hatred bubble just below the surface all the time for a man growing up in a culture like Turing’s. And if suicide is not ever confronted seriously and fully, the idea of it is always there and it wouldn’t take much to make it come to the surface and pop, fully formed.
What would be the effect on a man who had always maintained that he was above the stupid absurdities and cruelties of his culture, who discovered that he must after all bear the brunt of those absurdities and cruelties, and that there was no escape?