Does his psychology reveal whether Alan Turing killed himself?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Turing used advanced mathematics to break the Enigma code, revealing the positions of German U-boats during World War II. This ensured the country’s survival; Eisenhower is even quoted as declaring that Turing’s personal contribution shortened the War by two years.
Following his prosecution for homosexuality and forced chemical castration treatment, controversy dogged his apparent suicide. Did he kill himself, or was he in fact murdered by the secret service? Such agencies are notorious for assassinations disguised as suicides. Turing might have been considered a threat or a security risk, some argue. But even today, homosexual men are found to have significantly higher suicide rates than heterosexual males.
For example in a study of 1,382 Austrian adults, published in ‘Archives of Sexual Behaviour’, entitled ‘The relation between sexual orientation and suicide attempts in Austria’, suicide attempts were more frequently reported by those with homosexual or bisexual fantasies, partner preference, behaviour, and self-identification, compared to their heterosexually classified counterparts.
Another recent study, published in the ‘Journal of Affective Disorders’, and entitled ‘Suicidal ideation among young French adults: Association with occupation, family, sexual activity, personal background and drug use’, found in a sample of 4075 French adults, that among men, homosexual intercourse was more strongly linked with suicidal thinking than living alone or being unemployed.
Michael Ferguson, in reviewing two recent biographies of Alan Turing’s life, concludes that to answer the enigma at the heart of Alan Turing’s death, you have to get inside the complex head of the great mathematician.
His book review entitled ”The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer’, by David Leavitt and ‘Alan Turing, the Enigma’, by Alan Hodges”, recently published in the, ‘Journal of Homosexuality’, considers the circumstances of Turing’s death on June 7, 1954.
An apple was found near Turing’s deathbed, out of which several bites had been taken. Froth around his mouth was consistent with cyanide poisoning, but according to sources cited by Michael Ferguson, the apple was never analysed. It has therefore never been definitively confirmed that it had been laced with poison, although there was both potassium cyanide and cyanide solution in Alan Turing’s house.
Turing did discuss the advantages of various methods of committing suicide on a number of occasions with associates, yet Ferguson believes one of the most telling arguments for suicide was Turing’s fascination with the Snow White story. Turing saw the Disney film version and was apparently particularly taken with the scene where the Wicked Witch dangled an apple into a boiling brew of poison as she repeated to herself, “Dip the apple in the brew/Let the Sleeping Death seep through.”
Turing reportedly liked to chant the couplet over and over again. This personal signature to the act, Ferguson contends, makes it unlikely to have been accidental, contrary to what his mother long maintained.
Crucial pieces of evidence also derive from his psychoanalytic treatment with Franz Greenbaum; Turing kept three dream notebooks. Greenbaum destroyed them after Turing’s death, but allowed Turing’s brother, John, to look at them first. Hodges’ biography indicates that John Turing apparently read through two of the dream books, where it is said he found various disturbing revelations.
Ferguson also points out that Hodges’ biography also relates an intriguing incident – a few weeks before he died he went on a Sunday outing with his psychoanalyst, Franz Greenbaum and his family. They walked along a seaside tourist area and came upon a gypsy fortune teller. Alan Turing went in while the Greenbaum family waited for him outside. When Turing emerged, half an hour later, they reported that he was “white as a sheet, and would not speak another word as they went back to Manchester on the bus”—an interesting superstitious volte face, Ferguson suggests, for a genius with such an advanced understanding of mathematical logic and computer science.
People often go to a fortune teller or clairvoyant when they are troubled about something.
Alan Turing’s tendency to be severely logical – beyond the point of social survival – may in the end be what killed him. This can appear as a symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome – a form of autism claimed to be associated with mathematicians and computer scientists. Henry O’Connell and Michael Fitzgerald suggest this might be the diagnosis warranted for Turing, in a paper published in the ‘Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine’.
The investigation entitled ‘Did Alan Turing have Asperger’s syndrome?’ includes various criteria for Asperger’s which Turing met – one being ‘Impositions of routines and interests’ including the fact he always ate an apple before bed.
Turing was in fact initially arrested when he reported one of his lovers to the police for breaking into his house and burgling it. The police in turn found out about the sexual affair, and instead of prosecuting the thief, arrested Turing for gross indecency with another male.
Turing played his violin for the detectives and served them wine. His statement left no doubt about his guilt.
He eventually pleaded guilty to “gross indecency” and was placed on probation on condition that he undergo medical treatment. His enforced hormone treatments lasted one year, and caused him to grow breasts. The prosecutor remarked on his unrepentant attitude.
Ferguson doesn’t agree with the assessment that these various life events conspired to ensure Turing became overly psychiatrically disturbed towards the end of his life. Ferguson argues Turing’s death occurred two years after his trial, and one year after his hormone treatments had ended.
Ferguson points out that as early as 1937, Turing had written a letter to a friend that spoke of feeling depressed and even considering a suicide method involving an apple.
Of course Ferguson agrees that, had Turing not been outed as a homosexual and subjected to public humiliation and the loss of credibility within the country that he was largely responsible for saving, he might not have killed himself.
Ferguson concludes Alan Turing is a compelling example of the high cost of persecuting those who are a bit different, not only to those individuals who suffer its brunt, but also to the society that loses a genius with the creativity and originality of an Alan Turing.
Ironically he saved Britain from an enemy regime which was intolerant of homosexuality and other individual differences, only for Turing himself to suffer at the hands of the bigoted nearer home.
That homosexuality remains linked with higher suicide rates 59 years after Alan Turing’s death is an indictment of our society which no Royal Pardon can excuse.