January 27, 2015

Alan Turing's Arrest and Mine: Reflections on "The Imagination Game"

The 2012 Olympic Torch is passed in front of Turing's statue in Manchester, England.

I don't get to the movies as often as I'd like. Every year, I try to catch some of the films that earned Academy Award or Golden Globes nominations.

This year, I started with The Imagination Game, the true story of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who led the team that eventually cracked the supposedly unbreakable codes of Germany's World War II Enigma Machine. Historians have suggested that Turing's amazing success may have shortened the war in Europe by several years and saved thousands of lives.

The movie also depicts the subsequent arrest and conviction of Turing on charges of "gross indecency" for acknowledging a homosexual relationship. He was given probation rather than a jail sentence only after he agreed to undergo the equivalent of chemical castration. As a gay man who had been arrested for homosexual conduct at about the same time, I found myself in tears by the end of the film.

Later, I began to feel upbeat, recognizing the 
dramatic turnaround in the general public's views about homosexuality in the 60 years since Turing died. I'm not sure we've ever seen such a rapid change in any other variety of deep-seated bigotry through the centuries.

After the movie, I researched Turing's life and arrest. When I compared them to mine, I recognized again the key role that serendipity has played in my own life story.

Turing's Arrest and the Aftermath
In December 1951, Turing, then 39, began a relationship with Arnold Murray, a 19-year-old unemployed man. Turing met Murray just before Christmas outside a movie house in Manchester, England, and invited him to lunch. Murray met Turing at his home several times over the next weeks, and spent at least one night there.

In January 1952, Turing's house was burgled. Murray told Turing that the burglar was an acquaintance of his, and Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation, he acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray.

Homosexual acts were criminal offenses in the United Kingdom at that time. Both men were charged with gross indecency. On the advice of his brother and his solicitor, Turing entered a guilty plea. When he was convicted in March 1952, Turing declined the prison option and instead chose probation, which would include hormonal treatment designed to reduce his libido.

That treatment involved weekly injections of a synthetic estrogen. For the year they continued, the 
injections rendered Turing impotent, and transformed him into a bloated monster.

In the late 1940s, Turing had run a marathon in 2 hours and 46 minutes at a time when the world record was 2 hours and 25 minutes. He would have run the marathon for Britain at the 1948 London Olympics if he hadn't sustained an injury.

In the 1950s, Britain was in the grip of homophobia. Some of Britain's and America's most prized scientists and diplomats -- including Klaus Fuchs, Guy Burgess, and Donald MacLean -- were exposed as traitors and homosexuals.

There had been no suggestions that Turing was a spy, but authorities were suspicious nevertheless. Shortly after his conviction, his security clearance was revoked, and he was denied access to the lab where his work had saved thousands of lives by shortening the war. He was barred from his cryptographic consultancy for the British Signals Intelligence Agency, but allowed to continue his academic career at the University of Manchester.

He also was denied entry into the United States, where he had spent two years (1936-1938) at Princeton University to receive his PhD.

On June 8, 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, Turing's housekeeper found him dead from cyanide poisoning, an apparent suicide. A half-eaten apple was found by his bedside. Although the apple was not tested, many suspected Turing had used it as a delivery device for the deadly cyanide.

Turing's biographers Andrew Hodges and David Leavitt have suggested that Turing was reenacting a scene from the 1937 Walt Disney film Snow White. It was apparently Turing's favorite fairy tale, and the authors said Turing especially enjoyed the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in a poisonous brew.

Turing pleaded guilty to the charges because he thought he had nothing to hide. He could have denied the charges, but chose instead to acknowledge what had happened, show no remorse, and accept his punishment.

Turing's brave public acknowledgement of being homosexual -- knowing the consequences of such an admission -- explain his exalted standing in the gay community. More generally, he's an honored citizen today because of his extraordinary, life-saving achievements during his short life.

My Arrests and the Aftermath
My story has no similar themes of nobility or unjust punishment. I deserved the arrests (yes, plural) and the punishments that followed. But unlike Turing's situation, my arrests created two hugely positive changes in my life.

During the 1950s when I was in my 20s, I was arrested and jailed a half dozen times. Several arrests involved drunk driving, but most were for homosexual conduct. Half of the arrests occurred when I was living at home in Ithaca, NY, attending Cornell University as a day student. Later arrests happened after I moved to Washington, DC.

Ithaca arrests: Two of my arrests occurred in March of my second and third years at Cornell Law School. Both arrests involved criminal conduct that resulted from the interplay between my alcoholism and my repressed homosexuality. In both cases, I was in an alcoholic blackout and hence have no recollection of what actually happened. I was told that both incidents involved my conduct after breaking into a men's dorm.

The first arrest resulted in my being put on probation at Cornell and being ordered to work with the campus shrink. I dissembled (i.e., lied) in my therapy sessions about my awareness of what was going on. The second arrest for virtually identical conduct a year later resulted in my expulsion from law school two months before graduation. At the time, I was managing editor of the Cornell Law Review and fifth in my class. I had a job lined up as a teaching assistant at the University of Washington Law School.

I do not believe I was treated unfairly or that homophobia was involved. I deserved what I got.

Of course it's easy to forgo resentment and recrimination when the aftermath of the expulsion was my getting a job a month later with the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), a Washington-based publishing house that was 100 percent employee owned. BNA covered government regulation of business and had a significant number of publications dealing with regulation of labor relations. I started as a legal editor and stayed with BNA for 40 years, retiring as vice president for human resources. My BNA career was highly enjoyable and financially rewarding.

DC arrest: You might think 
I'd have learned my lesson after the Ithaca arrests. Not so for this alcoholic sex addict. Within a year of coming to Washington, I was arrested in an almost identical situation. Just substitute DC's Lafayette Park for Cornell's men's dorm.

This time, I was sentenced to a year working with a therapist who specialized in reorienting homosexuals to heterosexuals. But this time, I decided to try working with the therapist. Our sessions coincided with a budding relationship with a female co-worker at BNA. I became convinced I was "cured" of my homosexuality. I clung to this belief for a few years after our January 1957 marriage, but eventually realized my innate sexual orientation couldn't be changed. It took another 20 years for me to be as open and honest about my sexuality as Turing had been at the outset.

Today I am blessed with a terrific family: a son and daughter, three grandchildren, and four (at last count) great-grandchildren.

My conduct warranted my arrests. The punishment I received was fair. The aftermath of the arrests couldn't have been better for me personally.

Turing's arrest was not justified. His punishment was cruel and inhumane. The aftermath was tragic.

Life is not fair.

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Tomorrow, we'll look at an example of the incredible turnaround in the acceptance of gays over the past 60 years. It also involves an apple.

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