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The Tragic Suicide of Alan Turing

Rob Tisinai

October 15th, 2010

Alan Turing was a brilliant English mathematician who helped the Allies win World War II.

Working as a cryptographer at the now famous Bletchley Park complex he used his incredible focus and intelligence to crack the seemingly impossible codes of the German Enigma Machine. By locking himself in his room for days at a time he managed to reverse engineer the Enigma Machine — a stroke of pure genius that allowed the British and their allies to anticipate attacks and other vital information, changing the course of the war.

He’s also known as the father of computer science. Time named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

[E]veryone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.

Alan Turing was gay. He killed himself on June 8, 1952, by eating a bite of an apple laced with cyanide. But why? We’ve seen a lot of theories from the right on why gay kids are killing themselves. Could any of them apply?

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association might say it’s because society was pushing too hard for people to be gay:

It must be pointed out that homosexual activists are not wholly innocent in these tragedies either. Homosexuals cannot reproduce so they must recruit. Part of the agenda of groups like GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is to urge students at younger and younger ages to come out and declare a disordered sexual preference. Sexually confused youth are pressured into locking into a sexual identity far before they are mature enough to do so.

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council might argue that society was too accepting of homosexuality:

Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., said the rash September suicides by gays might be linked to the students believing they were born gay. “That creates hopelessness,” he said. “It is more loving and compassionate to say you don’t have to be gay for the rest of your lives.”

His colleague Tony Perkins might back him up:

Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal–yet they have been told by the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment, that they are “born gay” and can never change. This–and not society’s disapproval–may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.

Could Turing have killed himself because homosexuality was illegal in Britain?

Could he have done it because police discovered his sexual orientation while investigating a burglary of his home, and he was convicted of gross indecency?

Could it have been because in order to avoid a prison term he submitted to chemical castration by the government via female hormones?

No, of course not. As Tony Perkins makes clear, society’s disapproval does not cause suicide. Alan Turing must have killed himself because Britain was just too damn accepting.

Comments

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Frijondi
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

Someone really should do a takedown of the notion of “sexual confusion,” a favorite of both the religious right and well-meaning but dumb quasi-supportive drips. Has anyone, in all of human history, ever been “confused” about who they were attracted to? Even those much-maligned bisexuals know that when they’re attracted to someone, they’re attracted to someone, and that that someone belongs to a particular sex. It’s pretty damned clear.

What may not always be so clear is how to live with the social penalties one pays for not being heterosexual. The coping mechanisms people adopt, like convincing oneself that a deep, platonic regard for a member of the opposite sex is really romantic love, are not the same thing as confusion.

It’s not that different from the way some people convince themselves to stay in other situations they hate (law school, for example). Deep down, they generally know exactly what kind of games they’re playing with themselves, but the alternative seems to come at too high a social price.

Emily K
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

unfortunately, I think that Turing was into having sex with a 19 year old boy (he was in his late 30’s or early 40s). Although I know this is “legal,” it really doesn’t thrill me when a gay man is outed because he is having sex with a kid. (yes, I consider 19-year olds to be kids, legal status or not, their brains are still gripped with the disease of adolescence we all face).

tim
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

@emily

I know many 19 year olds who are more mature than you are. They are perfectly capable of making decisions about their own lives.

And Turing killed himself not because of that encounter – it was because the state was making his life impossible to live.

Timothy Kincaid
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

Turing’s death was a loss to the world. What else could that brilliant mind have contributed had he not been tortured by the society that he rescued?

Last year, his nation apologized.

Akheloios
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

@Emily

I grew up near Manchester in the UK, in a park near the University there’s a statue of Alan Turing on his favourite Park Bench, the one he used to frequent when he was busy thinking.

The reason that he had trouble was that he’d gone to Scandinavia and met a young man, and started a relationship. The Intelligence Services found out about this relationship and were worried that this young man could have been a Soviet agent, or that the Soviets could have blackmailed him into giving them secrets.

Instead of doing the right thing and making an environment that made blackmail impossible and relationships much nearer to home possible. They decided that this man, who had done more than almost anyone to win WWII, needed to be prevented from having any relationships at all.

Eventually we came round in the UK and decriminalised homosexuality, but we’re still living with the stigma and possible blackmail threats to this day. We recently had a high level member of the government resign because he had made a fraudulent claim on his expenses to hide the fact he was living with his male partner.

To misquote Dan Savage, it’s gotten better, but it’s still not good enough. As for the young man being 19, what has that got to do with anything? The legal age of consent is 16 in the UK. Stigmatising a relationship between two people just because one is older than the other leads to exactly the same threat of blackmail that caused Alan Turing’s death.

Frijondi
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

Speaking as a someone born in the late sixties, I’ve noticed a huge shift over the last twenty years in the way US society views adulthood. It has far more to do with economics than with those studies that show the cortexes (cortices?) of people under 25 either lighting up, or failing to light up, in certain places. Until quite recently, people in their late teens routinely took on what we think of as adult responsibilities, and did just fine. Many still do, especially in other parts of the world.

But for some time now, it’s been difficult for anyone under thirty to achieve the same level of economic independence that was possible for even an eighteen-year-old high school graduate in the post-WWII period. The eighteen to thirty-somethings who move back in with the parental units aren’t perpetual adolescents, they’re young adults who have had to scale their lifestyles way back in order to live within their means. (And if some happen to be unemployed, and find solace in video games, who among you can cast the first stone?)

I have reservations about people who consistently seek out younger partners, because there are often economic and other differences that can create a difference in power. And there’s a certain type of manipulative creep who gets off on that. Common sense would also suggest that someone who’s had forty years to perfect being a manipulative creep will have an unfair advantage over someone who’s only had nineteen years of practice in recognizing people. If I knew a nineteen-year-old who was dating a forty-year-old, I’d wonder about a few things. I’d be concerned that the younger party might be missing some red flags due to limited dating experience. And I’d worry that if the older party turned out to be one of those manipulative creeps, (and sadly, there are a lot of them), the younger party might take it particularly hard, due to not having had time to develop a certain protective cynicism. But I’d wait and see. I would certainly not call that person an adolescent with a diseased brain.

Without knowing anything about the nature of Turing’s relationship with the young man, I wouldn’t assume it was exploitative. Simone de Beauvoir, on the other hand, seduced her seventeen-year-old student Bianca Lamblin, and then passed her off to Jean-Paul Sartre. And wrote about the affair in the most revolting, dehumanizing way possible. Now that, I have a problem with.

Frijondi
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

(In paragraph 3, it should read “recognizing such people.”)

Akheloios
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

There is certainly a difference between adolescent and post-adolescent brain function. The most up to date studies seem to show that the adolescent brain functions differently. It seems to be designed to see the world differently, to be more interested in new experiences, to learn quicker, and in the post-adolescent there is the creeping tendency towards conservatism (small c) that increases with age. As well as ability to exploit the experience of relationships that comes with age.

That said, the legal age limits are there for a very good reason, it stands as a marker to show when an individual ‘should’ be capable of making their own decisions without being easily swayed by a partner to do something they do not wish to do.

In most societies it is in the late teens, but there are societies where it’s simply puberty, which is simply a form of abuse as you cannot expect every child to able to exert their will and deny a more experienced and/or powerful partner.

But to push the age of consent into the twenties is simply an insult to nearly every young person. Of course there will be individuals that would still be incapable of exerting their will even well into their adult lives, but a line has to be drawn or else no-one would be able to engage in any form of sexual relationship, or any other form of relationship for that matter, whether it be employment, sexual or even friendship, without passing some kind of test; and there is copious evidence in history to show how tests can be manipulated to only give the result that that supports the existing status quo.

Emily K
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

I know many 19 year olds who are more mature than you are. They are perfectly capable of making decisions about their own lives.

NO, U
;-p –**thhpbppppphhh**

**

Actually, I’m in my 20s. So.. not TERRIBLY much older than my late teens.

Hm, I make one comment and suddenly people accuse me of wanting to raise the age of consent. Interesting how defensive people get. Suddenly paragraphs-long comments are being made about the virtues of the under-twenty set. Okay then.

Akheloios
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

I don’t think it was the thought of you arguing for a rise in the age of consent annoyed me. What did upset me was the line ‘it really doesn’t thrill me when a gay man is outed because he is having sex with a kid’.

As ‘kid’ is synonymous with ‘child’ in the UK. It did sound like you thought that Alan Turing was a paedophile, and that really hits home at the moment, especially since the right winger in the UK were arguing exactly that when they argued against the equalisation of the age of consent laws. They basically said that if man has sex with a 16 year old girl, that’s fine, but if a man has sex with a 16 year old boy, he’s a paedophile.

It’s the gay version of the Blood Libel. That we’re all paedophiles looking to seduce boys and girls who don’t know any better, to turn them to our ‘lifestyle’.

Alan Turing for whatever faults he may or may not have had was a great man, and a person no matter who they are having sex with a fully aware consenting adult of 19 is perfectly fine.

David
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

It’s a bit pathetic to see how quickly the lunatic religious right picks up on the words of people like Tony Perkins and starts parroting them as if they’re the gospel truth and beyond question.

In the days after Tyler Clementi killed himself, Perkins (showing how low class he is) said something to the effect that Clementi killed himself because he knew inherently that being gay was disordered and shameful. It couldn’t be that he felt an overwhelming invasion of privacy, or that he was a shy kid who reeled at the thought of his sex life being broadcast on the internet, or that he was bullied, or that he might have a disapproving and judgmental church and family, etc., etc.

With remarkable speed, comments nearly verbatim to those of Perkins started showing up on freerepublic.com and other right wing website as statements of absolute fact.

What a pathetic bunch.

a.mcewen
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

I read somewhere that he killed himself that way for possibly two reasons: his favorite story was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and so that his mother could plausibly say that he died accidentally so she wouldn’t feel that maybe she didn’t do something to prevent his suicide.

Tone
October 15th, 2010 | LINK

I’ve always thought Alan Turing’s story was one of the saddest and most tragic that I’ve ever known. A true genius, in the same league as Tesla, Fermi, and Einstein. The Turing Machine, took input, did processing and provided output, the classic definition of a computer.

Who knows what our world might look like today had he not been so tortured by a society that condemned him. And the very bigoted society that he saved and served, so intolerant of him that he took his life, would have been the beneficiary of his genius.
Le repassage est tragique

To learn more about the professional life of Alan Turing, and about the earliest history of computing machines, “Engines of the Mind” is an excellent read. Published in 1981 it precedes the popularization of the home computer.

darkmoonman
October 16th, 2010 | LINK

@Emily: just so ya know, many of us at 19 were looking for older men because we liked the mature outlook that our fellow teens lacked – just like when a 19 year old girl dates & marries an older man. Stop trying to make it into something dirty.

grantdale
October 16th, 2010 | LINK

I think some of you may have missed what Emily was trying to do.

In a post, well worthy of Timothy and detailing the destruction of a decent man to whom we all owe so much, we got some detailed examples of ‘dog whistle’ verbalising from starlets such as Bryan Fischer, Peter Sprigg and Tony Perkins.

Emily followed up that by supporting what Timothy has said, and offered a subtle post for us all to ponder.

As Emily has reminded us, even if a gay man contributes more than his share to society he’ll always nevertheless be connected to child abuse. Somehow, and we all know he must be.

You have to admit — deeming a worldly 19 year old young man, who sought on several occasions the contact with Turing (and then robbed Turning’s house with a criminal mate) as an innocent ‘boy’ and a ‘kid’ and an ‘adolescent’ is of the highest form of humour. I’m sorry if some of you didn’t quite see that way.

I’m sure if Turing was here today he’d be chuckling along with us, and thanking Emily for her wry sense of the ridiculous.

Personally… Turing is a hero for me. I have adapted his concept of discovery by contradictions (and thereby eliminating falsehoods) on too many occasions to mention. It works brilliantly with the so-called testimonies of so-called ex-gays, as but one example.

grantdale
October 16th, 2010 | LINK

Sorry Rob, it was your post; not Timothy’s. Forgive me, the correction was lost in the cut and pastes of the edit.

John
October 16th, 2010 | LINK

“Sexually confused youth are pressured into locking into a sexual identity far before they are mature enough to do so.”
per Bryan Fischer of the AFA.

Does this apply to heterosexuality as well?

William
October 16th, 2010 | LINK

Yes, it does apply to heterosexuality as well. At least, that’s the the way Bryan Fischer and those of similar mentality want it to be.

andrew
October 16th, 2010 | LINK

Hey Emily… I’m 14 year younger than my partner and I’m VERY happy, thanks very much.

It’s also been pointed out in studies that when relationships are examined in detail — gay and straight — the category that is the most stable are age-divergent homosexual relationships.

So bite me. ppthtththththth

:)

(I’m being playful)

Donnchadh
October 17th, 2010 | LINK

As bad as the abuse was, Turing might not have committed suicide. It might have been exposure to cyanide he kept in his house for chemical processes. (Read it in a letter in Scientific American, I don;t remember the details well.)
As to the statistic that andrew gives, it strikes me that the effect could come from the doubly taboo nature of such relationships – reluctance to start of admit such a relationship would mean that those who are open with being in one are the most secure in them, whilst others suffer from being all too typical.

MIhangel apYrs
October 18th, 2010 | LINK

Turing’s sexuality would have been known to the security services and a blind eye turned all through his war service. Only when he became expendable was he totally shafted by the Establishment and hung out to dry.

A bit like DADT discharges AFTER returning from combat assignments.

brahms
October 27th, 2010 | LINK

How convenient that family reasons for homosexuality were left out of your parody. Turing was basically abandoned by his parents at birth and lived with various people during his childhood. He was visited by his father rarely -who lived in India. Distant, critical, and unloving father anyone?

Priya Lynn
October 27th, 2010 | LINK

Brahms, there is no evidence that distant fathers cause gayness. There is however a lot of evidence that gayness is partly genetic and biological in origin.

Timothy Kincaid
October 27th, 2010 | LINK

Brahms confuses anecdote with evidence.

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