I dragged myself through the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. Author Andrew Hodges was so enamored with Turing that he practically doubled the necessary length of the book with all kinds of emblematic speculation. The result was a book that should have been about the life of a fascinating individual, but was instead a certifiable cure for insomnia. The writing was just too pedantic, not engaging, and full of weak attempts to find deeper meaning than necessary. Too much psychoanalysis, trying to paint Turing as a beautiful, brilliant, innocent human whose self-awareness of his homosexuality was more advanced than the world he lived in.
Turing’s acts during World War II were of course fascinating, but the writing just didn’t do a great job building excitement about it. The movie based on this book, The Imitation Game was essentially the opposite, as it deviated into 95% fiction once Turing arrived at Bletchley Park, but at least it was fun to watch.
The author must have typed 2 thousand “indeeds” which grew tiring. Additionally some of his insight was pretty silly (Alan Turing was “only” 18 minutes slower than the gold medalists in the Olympic 10,000 meters). I would have much preferred the style that the author of the Steve Jobs biography, where that author simply aimed to display as many facts as possible, letting the reader form their own judgments.
Yet the part that jumped off the page for me was the lack of insight on Turing’s death. The author stated unequivocally that Turing killed himself, even though that’s quite debatable. The arguments that the author offers to support his claim are:
- The police report said it was a suicide.
- Turing redid his will somewhat soon before his death.
- Turing was tired of not fitting into in to society (with little evidence to support this).
- Turing may have had a fortune teller tell him something (not a joke).
- The coroner didn’t show signs of a struggle (or did he? see below).
- Turing used cyanide in order to convince his mother that he did NOT kill himself, but to let everyone else know he DID! (what??)
Suffice to say, that’s not exactly a bulletproof set of arguments to unequivocally rule his death as suicide. I believe the author was so fixated to paint Turing as a martyr of gay prejudices, that he overlooked some obvious questions with his death. Turing was a victim of abhorrent laws against homosexuals, but those laws may not have killed him. Consider the evidence against a suicide that also comes from this book:
- Turing didn’t leave a note and was quite a thorough person.
- While he did update his will, he left a variable sum to his house keeper which would sensibly imply he did not have a timetable on when he would die.
- His sexual criminal conviction had passed and he was no longer taking the state-mandated medication. Thus his “castration” or his persecution from the state was no longer a current issue for him.
- Turing’s research affairs were very much in disarray. Turing seemed to like order and harmony, as he had left careful instructions of where some of his valuable items were hidden during WWII. Turing was also proud of his work and believed it to be important, so it seems doubtful he left his most recent life’s work scattered around his apartment.
- None of Turing’s friends indicated that they saw his suicide coming. Quite the opposite, they all expressed shock that he would do this to himself.
- Turing appeared in a “good mood” by the last people who saw him alive.
- Turing showed no signs of wanting to end his own life including to that of his psychologist who he was on a friendship level with.
- Turing, for the most part, enjoyed life, getting lost in the many wondrous mysterious of nature, mathematics and things that fascinated him.
- Even while under the castration medication, he had found “safe cities” to be gay in by way of the Netherlands and Paris. To think he felt alone and despair in the UK also doesn’t add up, especially given his financial options to go where he wanted.
In a different book about her son, Turing’s mother claims Alan accidentally killed himself. This is technically possible considering he was using cyanide for his experiments. Yet it seems unlikely that a genius man like himself could so carelessly do such a thing, especially when he had been working with chemicals for years.
Neither author considers a third darker option which was that he was murdered. Turing was essentially the liaison between the US intelligence and the UK during World War II. It’s certain he knew a thing or two more than the average citizen.
As the book details, homosexuals were considered a risk in the intelligence community because their sexual nature could be used to compromise them. Thus it is conceivable that someone on either the US or or British side, may have assessed that Turing knew too much on a subject and represented a national security risk. Indeed, (there it is again!) others have asked this question recently and are speculating that Turing may have known key developments on spying on the Russians. Perhaps adding the most credibility to this theory is that the coroner did document Turing’s death with, “Death due to violence,” which disproves the author’s notion that the coroner ruled unequivocally a death by suicide.
While I don’t have any more research beyond what I’m posting, the two theories of accidental death and suicide seem less likely than a government murder intended to either look like a suicide or accident. I actually had a drinking buddy in my 20’s end up being found dead in way that looked like a suicide, but many (including me) believe he was a victim of a government murder. So perhaps I’m too easy easy to convince about a government conspiracy.
Getting back to the book, considering how much the author speculated on every other excruciating detail in Turing’s life, it’s unfortunate he didn’t do a better job digging for answers about the details of Turing’s death.
I’m glad I read this but I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to. Wikipedia Article on Turing is a much shorter read with about 75% of all you need to know about the founder of modern computer science.