Letters reveal Alan Turing’s battle with his sexuality

Previously unpublished correspondence shows how wartime codebreaker longed for permanent relationship

More than 60 years after codebreaker Alan Turing’s death in an apparent suicide, his battle with his sexuality and longing for a permanent relationship have emerged in three previously unpublished letters.

The correspondence dates from the 1950s when, after being found guilty of gross indecency with a 19-year-old man, he had been sentenced to chemical castration.

The treatment was intended to suppress homosexual urges. But Turing confided to a friend: “I have had a dream indicating rather clearly that I am on the way to being hetero, though I don’t accept it with much enthusiasm either awake or in the dreams.”

He writes: “Mother has been staying here, and we seem to be getting on a good deal better. I have been subjecting her to a good deal of sexual enlightenment and she seems to have stood up to it very well. There was a rather absurd dream I had the other night in which I asked mother’s opinion about going to bed with some men and she said: ‘Oh very well, but don’t go walking about the place naked like you did before.’”

One of the letters written by Turing to a friend in the 1950s.
One of the letters written by Turing to a friend in the 1950s. Photograph: Handout

He wrote, too, of a planned holiday in a French-run camp in Corfu. “I expect to lie in the sun, talk French and modern Greek, and make love, though the sex and nationality… has yet to be decided: in fact it is quite possible that this item will be altogether omitted. I want a permanent relationship and I might feel inclined to reject anything which of its nature could not be permanent.”

The letters were sent to Nick Furbank, a literary scholar who died last year. Furbank had been executor of Turing’s estate. Turing’s nephew, Sir Dermot Turing, a lawyer, has included passages from them in his forthcoming book, Prof: Alan Turing Decoded.

He described his uncle’s letters as “very interesting” in offering insight into a man whose untimely death made him all the more difficult to decipher: “At the same time that he was having his psychotherapy, and… his hormones taken out… [the correspondence] indicates that he was in a good deal of a turmoil, which… has historically been what everyone had assumed, but now is confirmed.”

He added that the letters also cast light on Turing’s relationship with his mother: “There has been a tendency to ‘soppify’ this relationship, assuming that everything was tender and lovely whereas I am absolutely sure it was more complex and with some dark shades. This correspondence confirms that.”

Turing and fellow codebreakers at Bletchley Park featured in the recent film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was a visionary mathematician and computer scientist whose wartime codebreaking work saved thousands of lives. He is also regarded today as the father of modern computing. While his later life has been overshadowed by his conviction and his death from cyanide poisoning in 1954, aged 41, a posthumous pardon was granted by the Queen in 2013.

Contributor

Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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