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Life of Alan Turing examined in a new graphic novel

BRETT HUMPHREYS reviews The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded by Jim Ottaviani (text) and Leland Purvis (illustrations) (Abrams ComicArts, 2016, hardback, 229mm x 165mm, 240 pages).

GRAPHIC novels seem to be in vogue. There are now three of them among the various books, plays, films, musical compositions and other works of fact, fiction and art to be produced over recent years about the life and work of Alan Turing.

The latest, written by Robert Deutsch and published in German in March 2017, is simply named Turing. In the winter issue of The Pink Humanist I reviewed The Case of Alan Turing, an English translation by David Homel of a French graphic novel by Éric Liberge and Arnaud Delalande. 

Here I review the only one of the three originally written in English – The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis.

The Imitation Game has no connection with the 2014 film of the same name, nor for that matter with the 2015 biography Prof: Alan Turing Decoded by Dermot Turing.

In conception it predates both by some years – according to Jim Ottaviani, he wrote the original script between 2007 and 2010. A free online version was published in June 2014 at, where it remains

The book is an enhancement of the online version, expanding the graphic story from 197 to 222 pages and adding an author’s note, a bibliography and a very useful set of notes linking elements of the story to source references in the bibliography. A somewhat strange mixture of British and American English spelling and grammar in the online version has been converted to a consistent American style and there are a number of other corrections and clarifications.

The notes highlight the book’s focus on historical accuracy in this telling of Alan Turing’s story. Sources include notably the 1959 biography Alan M. Turing by Sara Turing and the 1983 biography Alan Turing: the Enigma by Andrew Hodges, but also a range of other works. There are inevitably a few made-up scenes, but they are openly acknowledged as such in the notes.

The story is in the chronological sequence of a traditional biography, an exception being the opening scene in which we see Alan Turing playing “round-the-house chess”, a game he invented to combine two of his interests – running and chess. Running in particular is a recurrent theme throughout the story.

The book is not formally subdivided into chapters but may considered as comprising three parts covering the periods before, during and after the Second World War respectively. 

The parts are of roughly equal length, the middle one being rather longer than the other two. Some of the main characters in the story – people who knew Alan Turing well at various stages of his life – also act as narrators. Each narrator is introduced using monochrome panels, usually seated, as if being interviewed at some later time. Their explanation or interpretation of events is overlaid on subsequent panels using pink caption boxes, while the unseen interviewer’s occasional queries and prompts appear in yellow caption boxes.

Alan’s mother Sara Turing is the sole narrator for the pre-war years. His colleague and brief fiancée Joan Clarke and an unnamed Wren provide most of the narration for the Bletchley Park years. Other narrators include his mentor Max Newman, his colleagues Hugh Alexander, Don Bayley and Dilly Knox (who speaks posthumously!), his close friends Robin Gandy and David (“Champ”) Champernowne, his brief but calamitous boyfriend Arnold Murray, and his brother John Turing. Alan himself also acts as a narrator throughout, his words drawn in yellow caption boxes to distinguish them from the rest.

By contrast with the photorealistic images in The Case of Alan Turing, the style of illustration is more like a traditional comic strip. People and places are nonetheless realistically and recognisably depicted. Once again Alan’s house in Wilmslow, which features prominently in the post-war phase of the story, is a true representation of the actual house (unlike the stylised cottage of the opening “round-the-house chess” scene).

The book is not just the story of Alan Turing’s life, although replete with anecdotes both well known (like cycling in a gas mask or chaining his mug to a radiator) and not so well known (like playing the violin or attaching a motor to his bicycle with string). 

It is also an attempt to explain some of his key ideas in simple terms, often using words taken from his own writings or, in one case, broadcast – when he and his mother listen to a repeat of his 1951 wireless talk entitled “Can digital computers think?”, the words are excerpted from the original script (which fortunately survives, unlike the sound recording).

Was Alan Turing left-handed or right-handed? A regular biographer can avoid such questions – as Alan Turing’s biographers all do to the best of my knowledge – but that is not so easy for the graphic artist. It’s interesting, then, that the authors have chosen to show him as left-handed. Perhaps this is a subtle comment on the common tendency to assume that people conform to majority traits (right-handed, heterosexual, and so on) in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary.

Most accounts of Alan Turing’s life end up considering the mysterious manner of his death. There are essentially three theories: suicide, accident and murder. The idea of assassination by secret agents – hinted at in the title of the 2006 biography The Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt – appeals to conspiracy theorists but has little supporting evidence. 

Sara Turing’s firm belief that it was an accident gained a new lease of life when Jack Copeland presented a spirited case for it in his 2012 biography Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age. But the prevailing orthodoxy remains that suicide – the official inquest verdict – was indeed most probably Alan Turing’s final answer, even if we still can’t fathom the question.

Various myths have developed around the infamous apple, but the drawings in this story are true to the original specific description given by Police Sergeant Leonard Cottrell at the inquest: 

“On the small table at the side of the bed, on the right side, I noticed a half slice of apple. Several bites had been taken from the side of this piece of apple.” (What happened to the other half has never been explained.) In his author’s note, Jim Ottaviani acknowledges Jack Copeland’s arguments but still thinks suicide is the more likely scenario. Hence we see Alan Turing dipping his half-apple in the brew before carrying it carefully by the stalk to his bed.

Like Dermot Turing’s biography, this book is both readable and well researched. It has no pretensions whatever to originate anything but tells the story in a novel, interesting and accurate way. Another welcome addition to the literature.

More countries ban gay reparative therapies but in Australia Christian groups are now going underground


AT the beginning of January this year, a powerful new watchdog was introduced in Victoria, Australia, to crack down on dodgy health practitioners – including providers of gay conversion therapy. The previous Health Services Commissioner was replaced by a new Health Complaints Commissioner (HCC) who will have greater powers to investigate unregistered health practitioners and can receive a complaint from anyone, not just the person treated.

In February 2016, Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy, told parliament the that HCC can “investigate and crack down on anyone making dangerous and unproven claims that they can change the sexual orientation of gay people.”

But according to a BuzzFeed News report the increasingly underground nature of gay conversion therapy in Australia – also known as “ex-gay therapy” and “reparative therapy” – has led advocates to question whether any legislation could properly wipe out the practice.

Geoff Ahern3As a clinician within a specialised Victoria police unit for mental health emergencies, Geoff Ahern, left, 46, deals with people who are suicidal, acting erratically, or in a state of crisis.

But ten years ago, he was in a mental health crisis of his own. Years of gay conversion therapy, which began when Ahern was just 15, had left him in a state of inescapable self-loathing.

Convinced he could be straight if he tried – and prayed – hard enough, Ahern underwent numerous counselling sessions at a Sydney Christian Life Centre, part of a group of churches associated with today’s Pentecostal Australian Christian Churches.

In his early twenties, he married a woman, encouraged by the idea that if he settled down and got married, everything would be OK.

But it wasn’t, and Ahern crumbled into a “state of despair”.

He would get home from work and cry himself to sleep in a similar mental state to the people he had just spent hours helping.

“I became suicidal myself. I thought, this has got to stop. I can’t do this anymore,” Ahern told Buzz Feed News.

“If you can work so hard and ask God to change you and fix you and he doesn’t, there are two outcomes of that: one, he’s a cold-hearted bastard; or two, there’s actually nothing wrong with me.”

Timothy Jones, a researcher at La Trobe University in the final stages of a study into conversion therapy added he was surprised by how common the practice is in Australia.

“It is much more widespread than we thought it was, and much more pervasive than we would have expected,” he said.

While most formal conversion therapy groups – such as Exodus or Living Waters – have closed, Jones and co-researcher Liam Leonard found the practice of gay conversion therapy in Australia has continued, mostly in Protestant churches.

The study found a range of therapies, including pastoral counselling, sessions with professional psychologists, online counselling, and group activities. One study participant received electroshock therapy.

“What we actually found was that a lot of groups have reorganised themselves, renamed themselves, so looking at them from the outside you wouldn’t know they are doing conversion therapy,” Jones said.

“People growing up in the church, at some stage realise they are attracted to people of the same sex, or realise they identify with the gender they were not assigned and want to transition. They will seek advice from a pastor, and the pastor will know someone to refer them to.”

Counsellor Matt Glover, who specialises in treating LGBTI people from church backgrounds, said the underground nature of ex-gay ideology is particularly concerning when young people are involved.

“[A parent] might find out their son or daughter is gay, tell the pastor, sign them up for some counselling sessions, and the ex-gay philosophy is fed to the client,” he said. “It’s really hard to tell – it’s a confidential space, no one can go in and hear what is being said.”

Glover said Victoria’s expanded powers to tackle conversion therapy will “knock off some of the rougher edges”, but that the insidious nature of ex-gay therapy is tougher to tackle.

“It will help, but I don’t know that there’s any way to get into the core of religious communities that place their belief in ideas that are anti-gay,” he said.

Victoria’s crackdown on conversion therapy is unprecedented in Australia, and comes after calls in recent years to make the practice illegal.

Conversion therapy is opposed by the Australian Psychological Association, the Australian Medical Association, and the United Nations, among numerous other professional health and human rights bodies. It is deemed ineffective, unethical, and actively harmful.

A Columbia Law School project collating conversion therapy research found that among people who had undergone such treatment, there was a prevalence of depression, anxiety, social isolation, decreased capacity for intimacy, and suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

“There is powerful evidence that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful,” the researchers concluded.

Meanwhile, PinkNews reported in April that the Republican Governor of New Mexico, Susanna Martinez, signed a bill into law in April this year banning conversion therapy for minors. LGBT rights campaigner and senator, Jacob Candelaria, put the measure forward to the New Mexico state senate.

The Democrat, who represents Albuquerque, convinced politicians to pass the measure in a landmark vote of 32-6, earlier this year. It later went to the state House and passed.

Of the victory, Candelaria added: “Today’s historic action by Governor Martinez confirms that our shared commitment to protecting all children from abuse transcends party labels and ideological differences.

“In New Mexico, we value and celebrate every child for who they are.”

“This is an incredible victory for LGBTQ youth in New Mexico,” said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. “No child should be subjected to this dangerous practice that amounts to nothing more than child abuse. By signing this crucially important legislation into law, Governor Martinez is standing up for vulnerable youth who deserve to be loved and supported for who they are.”

“As a survivor of conversion therapy that happened right here in my home state of New Mexico, it’s a very special day to see this barbaric and dangerous practice banned in the place that I grew up and call home,” said Equality New Mexico Executive Director Amber Royster. “My hope is that parents and families everywhere will think twice before seeking to change their LGBTQ child or loved one, and now we have the legal mechanism to ensure it doesn’t happen at the hands of licensed practitioners in New Mexico.”

Malta, as reported in the winter issue of The Pink Humanist, became the first place in Europe to completely ban gay conversion therapy recently, despite not yet having marriage equality.

Conversion therapy has already been banned in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington DC.

Gay conversion therapy is not illegal in the UK, but any medical professional found practicing it would be struck off by their professional body

Sarah Warbelow, Legal Director with Human Rights Campaign, welcome the New Mexico vote: “No child should ever be subjected to the incredibly dangerous practice of so-called conversion therapy.

“This crucially important legislation will help protect LGBTQ youth in New Mexico from a pseudoscience denounced by every mainstream medical and mental health association.
“For the sake of some of the state’s most vulnerable youth, the New Mexico House of Representatives should quickly pass this legislation and help end this barbaric form of child abuse.”

Indonesia ramps up religious hatred towards gays and transgenders

A wave of intolance is sweeping Indonesia with officials, clerics and even government ministers regularly launching verbal assaults on the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, according to a recent report by Adam Harvey, writing for Australia’s ABC News.

Hardline Muslim cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab, above, of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) regularly attacks Indonesia’s waria, the word used for transgender people.

ABC News quoted the cleric as saying during one sermon: “If you see your son or grandson play with dolls, burn the dolls and give them fake machetes to play with, so they can grow up to be men and not trannies”.

ABC News attended another gathering of hardliners, attended by about 3,000 women, where speaker Ismah Cholil said transsexual people should be stoned to death or flogged to remove their sins.

On being transgender in Indonesia, Kiki, or Qie Nabh Tappiii, who became Miss Waria Indonesia, said: “Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy. The hard part is that we have to educate society that we are also human beings. We need to be appreciated just like people in general.”

Indonesia’s waria do not have many opportunities for work, said Wayan Lucky Diah Pithaloka, who runs several hair salons in Jakarta where she employs seven waria in her salons.

Older waria in Indonesia have it particularly tough, waria advocate Mami Yuli said.

Indonesia has no social security system, so the elderly rely on their families. Most waria cannot do that, she said.

“They left home when they were young, they ran away from home because their parents refused to accept them being transgender,” she added.

“Their families were embarrassed to have transgender children. So for tens of years, they have been running away and now they’re old, they have no parents to return to, and they’re facing big problems.”
Older waria must rely on the support of charities.

In outer Jakarta, a group of waria attend a special weekly church service – where they are fed and receive a medical check-up.

But there is a price to pay.

The church asks the waria not to wear women’s clothing, and, at the sermon attended by ABC News, the audience were asked to memorise the verse from Deuteronomy: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, and a man must not wear women’s clothes, because anyone who does this is an abomination to God.”

Having the ‘wrong’ voice can spark discrimination

MATTHEW KONG meets speech and language therapist Christella Antoni

IT is a staple skit in comedies where a transgender woman would appear to be the perfect woman, only to surprise everyone with a deep, brooding voice. Though a very funny scene in television and film, in reality, the situation can be quite different. If your voice does not sound or conform to the idea of your gender or appearance, it can lead to prejudice and discrimination. In the worst case scenario, not having a “correct” voice can lead to violence.

The voice can be trained but it is a long process and needs professional coaching. Not just to provide the insight to go about it but to prevent any lasting damage to your voice.

For someone undergoing gender reassignment, it is an area that affects their ability to smoothly transition. Though the exterior reflects their gender, the wrong voice can expose a transgender person to prejudice or violence.

A speech and language therapist who has worked with patients undergoing gender reassignment to modify their voices to suit their gender has developed an app to support their clients with vocal exercises between their next appointment.

christella antoniThe Christella VoiceUp App provides a structure of vocal exercises as well as accurate recordings so you are able to monitor and hear the progress you’ve made.

Christella Antoni, left, began working in this field where services and public understanding of the transgender community was limited. While both areas have grown in recent years, so has the number of people who have come forward. Christella hopes her app can relieve the stress on services and support clients with their voice modification. Talking to Christella about her work, I learned that she entered this field by taking up the torch of another therapist who worked with the transgender community for many years and was looking for someone carry on her work.

“I knew it’d be a difficult job but I did it. I just took on the challenge and from that one day job it grew to four days a week for the NHS. And then I reduced the sessions so I could train somebody else,” Christella said.

“Listeners tend to make judgements about voices, you know? Because, society is still quite binary, we tend to think in terms of male or female. On the whole, that’s what people still do.”
In recent years, she has seen both the NHS and private sector services improve the support for the transgender community. Not only has the services have changed but also the approach.

“When I started doing this around the late 1990s, there was really not much at all. So people had to go usually to just one clinic in the whole of the UK, travel long distances, the care was just so patchy, but now it’s just growing,” She says, reminiscing how different the care was when she first began. “I’ve had so many stories like this, where people went to their GP but the GP was clueless and just said: “Why don’t you go away and have a think about it.” And then the person lost all courage to go back,”

“So you can imagine, you’ve bottled this up your whole life and finally get to a specialist clinic and you get maybe a psychiatrist who’s a bit difficult, saying you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that.”

Since she began working with the transgender community, Christella found herself spending her time working with clients and training other voice therapists.

Despite her work bringing a new generation of voice therapists and growth in services, she still found herself seeing client’s just once a month with many travelling great distances for an appointment. This led Christella to look for an alternative solution to this issue and found developing an app was the way to go.

“It’s very much based on the method that I’ve used all these years which is to bring the voice forward into the face. Like the resonance, what they call the resonance. So you can have the chest resonance or face resonance. And then using a slightly raised pitch, lengthening, using the intonation differently,”

“We’ve got really good feedback from other therapists,” Christella said, surprised by how far her app has helped other therapists in her field.

“Even as far as Holland and other places where they said it just really helped. Even the therapists themselves follow it, they’ll get an understanding of the techniques involved.”

This is the app is not a replacement for a qualified therapist and those undergoing gender reassignment should use the services of a professional therapist. Nevertheless, Christella’s VoiceUp is a valuable resource for the transgender community.

• Matthew Kong is a Birmingham-based freelance journalist who has a passion for ice hockey and comedy.