My Whole Expanse I Cannot See…

I formulate infinity stored deep inside of me…

May 30

Okay, I can’t let this go (Turing spoiler)

Category: Opinions

Okay, I don’t generally post spoilers, however, I feel like I have to make an exception. Alan M. Turing’s good memory is involved. See, I worry that The Imitation Game is going to be how pop-culture is going to remember him. I mean, it’s a fucking “biopic,” right? If you saw a critically acclaimed film about Alan Turing, that’s pretty much the same as reading his biography, isn’t it? No, it’s not. Not in this case. I figure, if at least one person who saw The Imitation Game and thought it was the last word on Alan M. Turing stumbles onto this post, I did one good thing in my stupid life.

Now, all that said, if you haven’t seen The Imitation Game and you want to be shocked by its shocking ending, okay, STOP READING RIGHT NOW. REALLY, NOW, RIGHT NOW. I’M NOT FUCKING KIDDING, STOP FUCKING READING FUCKING NOW. Also, if you’re going to read his biography, do stop reading.

Alan M. Turing was a genius… That’s pretty much the only aspect of The Imitation Game that’s 200% dead on accurate. Most of the film is fiction, mostly harmless. Mostly. The end is not harmless. The end is an astonishing disservice to his memory, so that’s where I’m going to focus.

Yes, Alan was gay, but aside from his WWII working life, he was openly gay. For the times, he was courageously, or perhaps naievely openly gay, but open nonetheless. This worked out okay during his Cambridge years, a pretty liberal place in the 1930s, 40s, and even 50s, but after Alan left Cambridge for life in “the real world,” 1950s Manchester, it caused problems. Being gay in the 50s was not easy, in fact, it was illegal. Being outted could mean prison, even hard labor… or worse. See, in the post-WWII world, people looked to science to solve society’s every ill, and science answered the call. Homosexuality was gaining favor as a mental illness, not just a moral weakness, something science felt especially equipped to solve. The lobotomy was proving to be an inelegant solution, and the physical castration that was popular in America didn’t actually guarantee an end to sexual activity, but the world of chemistry seemed to offer a world of solutions. One particularly promising solution was chemical castration, the injection of estrogen in males seemed to eliminate the sex drive so long as it was regularly administered. Awesome. Yay junk science!

So, in 1951, Alan, having gained self-confidence in his early 40s, picked up a fellow, and soon enough, took him to bed. The fellow told some friends Alan was a spectacular target for burglary, being fairly wealthy, and gay. Being gay made one very open to blackmail, as being gay was a crime. However, when Alan’s lover said, yeah, I told some people about us and they probably robbed you, Alan went straight to the police and reported the crime. He left out the affair, of course, but didn’t fear the law. Unlike in the film, Alan’s neighbors didn’t report the robbery, while Alan tried to get the police out of the house as quickly as possible. The police also figured out the other “crime” pretty easily, and Alan promptly confessed, writing a five page statement. Alan was an adamant believer in personal honesty. He kept state secrets, but never personal. Of course, his five page statement rendered his defense impossible. His friends stood up for him publicly, and he was ultimately offered a choice between one year in prison or one year of “organotherapy” (hormone therapy/chemical castration). Yes, he had friends. He definitely wasn’t a social-butterfly. He loathed social fakery, and would easily walk away from someone mid-sentence if he found them intellectually lacking. Nobody would ever say he wasn’t really eccentric, but he had several close-friends, he wasn’t the socially incapable, extreme Autism-spectrum loaner as he was in his “biopic.” At any rate, he chose the organotherapy.

See, this is the part of the film that really upsets me. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing in the midst of his hormone treatment is depicted as a doddering, weepy shut-in, delusionally building a computer named, Christopher, that he was teaching to be “so smart.” He had muscle spasms so severe he could barely hold a pen, and ultimately committed suicide because he just couldn’t stand the pain. The thing is, none of that happened! It’s such a shabby way to remember someone so brilliant. A tireless visionary, a kind and able friend.

Hormone injections had many possible side-effects, but Alan didn’t seem to suffer them. He joked in letters to friends that he grew breasts, but otherwise, he maintained his usual English stiff upper-lip. He survived the year apparently unscathed. He never stopped working, never stopped thinking.

Yes, his first true friend and unrequited-love was a school-mate named, Christopher, but he never built any such computer. Alan designed a theoretical computer, a “universal machine,” later coined the “Turing Machine,” that would ultimately be akin to the computers of today. He talked about computers being governed by “programs,” believed that it would be possible to create a machine that could approximate human behavior. He is the father of Computer Science, he envisioned things that we are only just starting to achieve today. He believed in “thinking machines,” but had no misconceptions about the computers of his day, he knew they weren’t yet capable of what he created on paper. Still, he pushed the technology of his time as far as it could go.

Yes, Alan committed suicide, in 1954, well after his organotherapy. The truth is, nobody knows why he did it. There are theories, but really, none seems more likely than another. I only know it didn’t happen as depicted in The Imitation Game.

Alan Turing was very much the Steve Jobs of his generation, he knew computers would change everything. His vision would eventually became reality. His story isn’t sad because of weakness, because society broke him. It didn’t. It isn’t sad because almost none of his accomplishments were recognized in his lifetime. He didn’t care about recognition, you don’t get into top-secret war work for the accolades. The sadness of Alan Turing’s life is that the Empire he helped save from annihilation treated him as “abhorrent,” labeled him as filth. It’s sad that he couldn’t love and be loved in every sense of the word, freely, without risk of punishment. It’s sad that, unlike Steve Jobs, technology was 50 years behind Alan’s ideas, not ready to explode around them.

Don’t remember Alan Turing weeping over some imaginary computer, think about him smiling from ear to ear knowing that his ideas would be the foundation for entirely new branches of study, knowing that I typed this on what could easily be called a Turing Machine. Maybe he can see such things from where he is, maybe, if he’s anywhere. I hope he is, he thought about such things too. Like I said, his mind was endlessly in motion.

3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Ed Pohl May 31st, 2015 4:55 pm

    Michael, I stopped reading this post when I came to your warning. I have the book on order, and I intend to watch the movie after I read the book. But I think it’s wonderful that you care so passionately about historical accuracy with regard to the life of a person who died 60 years ago.

    A new edition of “Alan Turing: The Enigma” was published in conjunction with the release of the movie. Checking my county public library system’s online catalog, I see that six (out of eight) libraries in Lancaster County have copies of the new book, and it’s sitting on the shelf (i.e. not checked out) at four of them. On the other hand, all eight libraries have DVDs of “The Imitation Game” and all eight DVDs are checked out. Seven people have their names on a reservation list for the movie at the library nearest my house. It’s sad how few people read books these days.

  2. michael May 31st, 2015 5:42 pm

    Ed: See, this is exactly what I worry about.

  3. Otávio Pacheco June 1st, 2015 11:15 am

    I don’t have problems with spoilers, I’m used to watch movies knowing the ending, so I’ve read it.
    It’s sad to realize what screenwriters and moviemakers sacrifice of the history to tell the story. I know that sometimes you need to adapt the story to put more drama, to put rithm, to keep the attention of the spectator, but there’s some ethic issues that should be attended when telling a story about someone. Doesn’t matter if he’s died for 60 years or 200 years.

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