THE IMITATION GAME: Why Turing’s Anxiety Made Him Keep Peas And Carrots Apart

Peas versus carrots: thinking versus feeling. Which is the winner? Alan Turing’s mathematical thinking, as The Imitation Game shows, cracked Nazi Germany’s Enigma code during WWII and saved millions. Yet, the same man’s brilliant thinking couldn’t save him. Crippled by terrible psychological fears (far worsened by Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality), his crafty “imitation game” was meant to help him. But, did it? Or did it instead become the one code he couldn’t crack?

I’m a psychoanalyst. Solving psychological enigmas is what I do. It’s not uncommon for people to hide feelings or parts of themselves they’re convinced will be rejected. The reasons for this hiding are complicated, many times not conscious, which makes the secrecy codes harder, but not impossible, to crack.

Alan Turing’s need to keep the peas and the carrots apart, and why he had to, is no simple matter. The way to solve this riddle is to go back to his early life. We don’t have family data, though – only that his mom called him an “odd duck.” We do have important clues in flashback scenes to school – a boy alone, different, and misunderstood. He’s tortured. Bullied. Locked under the floor in a coffin-like space.

It would be reasonable to expect anger at such treatment. Yet, the young Alan is outwardly unresponsive. His single-minded focus on keeping the peas away from the carrots, alone at dinner, is part of this control. So is the deeply etched line he draws between thinking and feeling, a line he won’t cross if he can help it.

Thinking gives Turing a one up on his enemies. At school, he won’t give the bullies what they want. “Humans love satisfaction”, he says. “Remove the satisfaction and the violence is gone.” Sophisticated thinking for a young boy – but hard to master when it comes to his own feelings. Especially when feelings are mistaken for enemies. What he’s really trying to overpower is rage and fear. The internal logic might go something like this: become a thinking machine and the feelings are gone.

Rage doesn’t disappear.  Nor does fear.  They only get buried, entombed alive, as the boys did to him. How effectively buried – is the question. The feelings erupt in the form of panic when a bully tips his plate and the peas are mixed with the carrots. He’ll win the war against the Nazis. But, in the end, he won’t win his battle against the rage he tries to secret away.

Love isn’t so easy, either, for someone bullied, humiliated, and afraid of emotional contact.  Human connection isn’t to be trusted. The only bright light at school is Christopher Morcom’s friendship. When Christopher dies and is suddenly gone, the young Alan battles against his feelings of love. The thinking machine inside him tightens its grip.

He’s capable of deep love. But, loss is a devastating thing. When Joan, a second Christopher, comes along he can’t quite open up. They understand each other – both “odd ducks.” Yet, when Joan offers a life of love and companionship in spite of his sexuality, he rejects her. Maybe it’s to set her free. But, more importantly, it actually serves a different purpose. In a twist not uncommon in those terrified of loss, he says he never cared and hurts Joan instead – before she can hurt him.

The monster Joan accuses him of being? His withdrawal into a machine-like imitation of someone with no human need at all. In one of the film’s final scenes, he begs Joan not to let them take Christopher, his beloved machine. What he can’t bear is his anti-feeling existence breaking down.

Feelings can be scary and help is essential. When someone is alone with rage, fear, and loss – self-protective mechanisms like imitation games are necessarily constructed. Using his Imitation Game (“Guess who I really am, a man or a woman, a traitor, a war hero, a machine”), Alan Turing, at least the one we see in Cumberbach’s portrayal, disguises his feelings well. He plays an agnostic to violence. Yet, in his suicide, his rage sadly takes him out. Those he hated he spared. Himself, he could not.

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