by Shannon Haragan
Are you paying attention? Good.
These are the first words we hear in the newly released film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Morten Tyldum. Films are a powerful medium. They mirror and shape us, both as individuals and as a society. They can teach us about ourselves and others, stir up strong emotions, inspire us, and serve as a catalyst toward action. A remarkable film, The Imitation Game does all of this, and more.
On the surface, The Imitation Game tells the true and ultimately tragic story of Alan Turing, British mathematician and code-breaker during World War II (played brilliantly by Cumberbatch). Considered the father of computers, Turing’s pioneering work in the areas of computer science and artificial intelligence has had an immeasurable influence on our current world of technology. The film focuses on themes of what it means to be human versus a machine, what it means to be “normal,” and how other people can serve both to harm, as well as to heal us (the latter most touchingly illustrated through Turing’s friendship with Joan Clarke, the only woman who worked on the Enigma team, thus a fellow outlier).
Sometimes it is the people that no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.
Harboring his own deep secrets, Turing had all his life been considered somewhat of a misfit. From a young age, he displayed symptoms of Asperger Syndrome, and, though the label did not exist at the time, the film’s flashback scenes depict him as a socially inept, ostracized and bullied prodigy. Like many others on the autism spectrum, his social deficits were balanced with extraordinary gifts. Not only is Turing responsible for the development of what would later become the modern-day computer (the “Turing machine”), but his wartime codebreaking efforts are credited with cutting the war short by at least two years, and ultimately saving over 14 million lives.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen the film and are unfamiliar with Turing’s story, spoilers ahead!)
One of the bigger revelations of the film is that Turing was gay–at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. After successfully breaking the Nazi code, and, many would say, single-handedly leading the Allies to victory and saving millions of lives, Turing was arrested in 1952 and convicted of “gross indecency.” For his sentencing, the government gave him a choice: two years in prison, or chemical castration through weekly estrogen injections. Because it would allow him to continue working, he chose the latter. Two years later, at age 41, Turing was found dead in his home, an apparent suicide by cyanide poisoning.
It is difficult to imagine that only 50 years ago, homosexual acts were still criminal in the UK. In the US, homosexuality was categorized as a felony until 1962, punishable in some states with life in prison. In Texas, it wasn’t until 2003 that these “sodomy laws” were repealed by the Supreme Court. 2003. Certainly suicide is a mental health issue, but if we look at it only from that limited viewpoint, we will miss fundamental societal and institutionalized inequities that have been strongly correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality in marginalized populations.
According to the American Association of Suicidology, 80% of LGBT youth suffer from some level of social isolation; 45% of gay males and 20% of lesbians report incidents of physical and/or verbal harassment due to their sexual orientation; and gay men are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts; lesbians are two times more likely to attempt.
The Queen granted Turing a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. A welcome gesture, to be sure, but a controversial one: Many assert the only person in a position to do any pardoning is Turing himself, and he can no longer do so.
The film’s screenwriter, Graham Moore, has stated that this film is a celebration of Turing’s life and legacy, and that Joan’s words to Turing (taken from the most powerful and touching scene toward the end of the film) are his eulogy, “what we wish we had said to him.”:
This morning, I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work, a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now if you wish you could have been normal, I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.
If you or a loved one are struggling, please do not hesitate to contact us to make a counseling appointment. We offer both Aspergers counseling and LGBT counseling. If you are interested in more posts about movies that are related to mental health, you can check out Caregiver Burnout and The Theory of Everything, Reel Therapy: Mental Health in Movies, and What’s so Great about Gatsby?