Between Two Worlds: On Visiting the Statue of Alan Turing

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I love him like I love the light that comes through the window. I have never touched him, but during certain times of the day he fills the room.

On my recent trip to England, I took the train to Manchester for the day to visit his statue. At the feet of the statue are these words: “Alan Mathison Turing, 1912-1954. Father of Computer Science, Mathematician, Logician, Wartime Codebreaker, Victim of Prejudice.”

When I was twenty-seven, I promised myself that I would write a novel about Turing. I knew that it would take many years. I’ve written passages: chains of numbers mixed with poems, lists of poisons, alchemy. Long passages about a man who was once a boy who made up beautiful, strange words. The sounds of seagulls fighting was “quockling.” This same boy grew up and danced with men in Norway in clubs not known to the public. I see him there under dim lights between bodies whose skin smells like fog over the sea. He carries himself across the dance floor like a ship with its mast on fire.

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I have read everything I can about him, but this was not close enough. And so I sat across from the statue for a long time, trying to read the shape of his face and memorize the width of shadows.

It was in England that I rediscovered a love of black and white photography. All of my photos are full of unabashed contrast between shadows and light.

When I was sitting there across from the statue, an old man who was passing through the park stopped and spoke to me. His name was Oliver. Oliver had the kindest eyes I have ever seen. His hair was the colour of the pavement in my photographs: sky grey, grey of memory. He stayed with me for about a half an hour. He told me about how he had known Turing many, many years before. It didn’t occur to me until much later how incredible it was that two people who loved the same man from a distance would meet by chance in a small park in the same hour more than fifty years after this man had died.

Both Oliver and Turing had been marathon runners. Both of them frequented what Oliver called the ‘notorious’ clubs of Manchester. This was his confession: the word notorious. From medieval Latin notorius, “commonly known.” A place where language has a slippage: these clubs were in fact delicate secrets. Places where shadows came together, unloosening their tight shirt collars.

The statue of Turing is in a park midway between Manchester University and Manchester’s gay district. One space was Turing’s public life, the other his private life. I don’t know if the same clubs Oliver once knew still existed. I don’t think anyone would call them notorious anymore. But Oliver’s stories were histories. He said that he and Turing were part of a species that was once dying, and he is one of very few left. I didn’t ask him what he meant. I was somewhere in my mind, contemplating lost places where bodies press against each other in black and white. But when I open my eyes, the buildings and sky have become vivid colours.

It occurred to me when Oliver walked on that I don’t know the colour of Turing’s eyes. I know about his first love: a boy named Christopher Morcom whose family once took young Turing to the seaside. And I know the colour of the smudges on his skin: Alan, sixteen years old, would get ink stains on his shirts and his skin at school. Other boys would laugh. I imagine small constellations of pores spread out amidst grey-black nebulas.

I know that, only about a year after Alan met Christopher, Alan looked out his window at the moon rising one night and saw the white light that split the sky as it rose like an old man parting the sea as he walks. Alan knew that the moon meant something, even though he did not know that Christopher had tuberculosis. Christopher left the world that night.

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The statue of Turing is cast bronze. Oliver told me it is a striking likeness, though some people have said the statue should be taller. Oliver believes it is only an illusion that Turing was tall. His runner’s body suggested height, but he wasn’t a tall man. Oliver knows men who have measured the inseam of the statue’s legs, the shadows of heavy watches and steady hands resting gently against Turing’s thighs. These men measured to be certain that every detail was correct. And these men were satisfied.

Turing’s statue sits with an apple held in one hand. The significance of the apple is this: Turing loved the story of Snow White. He was fascinated by the image of the apple: one side which is harmless, the other side, vivid green, poisoned. The girl with pale skin does not know.

During World War II, Turing worked at Bletchey Park, the Government Code and Cypher School, which was Britain’s codebreaking centre. There, he was seminal in devising a machine that could decode the ever-changing codes of the German Enigma Machine. This act is credited with helping to end the war and allow the Allies victory.

In 1952, Turing’s homosexuality led to a criminal conviction. At this point in time, homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. Rather than face prison time, Turing accepted chemical castration to “neutralize” his libido. The estrogen he was forced to take changed his body. He grew breasts: two apples growing from the branches of ribs.

On June 8 of 1954, he was found dead. An apple sat beside him, bitten. The accepted story is that Turing laced the apple with cyanide. His mother believed another story: that her son had been working with chemicals and forgotten to wash his hands. Some believe that Turing staged his death in this way to allow his mother to believe in the sweetness of an accident.

I have always known Turing in black and white. I know him from words written about him and words that he wrote himself. In one of his final letters, he wrote this syllogism: Turing believes machines think, Turing lies with men, Therefore machines do not think.

At the base of the statue of Turing there is a collection of coloured stones that form a rainbow. The green seems faded. The red is vivid. I am used to red fading. Red: the colour of apples, blood, and the ribbon Snow White wore in her hair. This is the image that I leave with as I walk back toward the train.

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Post written by Allison Smith.

“Asking for It”: some personal thoughts on conquest, discipline, and girls’ bodies following the Steubenville rape verdict

I have been thinking a lot about the recent Steubenville rape decision and its coverage in the media. The one phrase that has been stuck in my mind all day today is this one: “asking for it.”

I have spent much of my life playing with words, sometimes building them, sometimes dismantling them. To study language and to love writing: both involve no less than this. So when I think about words and phrases, I want to break them down and look at them. And with some phrases, I want to break them apart, to crumble them into small pieces of sand. I want to look at the pieces in my hand, then scatter them into the wind.

If you don’t know the extent that the sentiment of “asking for it” has been invoked following the Steubenville verdict, you can visit here. Countless twitter users, not to mention the mainstream media, have articulated sympathy for the Steubenville rapists while simultaneously chastising the victim. The chief basis for this victim blaming is that the victim was drunk when she was raped. The logic of victim blaming will tell you that this young woman should have been aware of her surroundings. It will tell you that she invited dehumanization and violence on her body. That she implicitly requested to be raped. That she asked for it.

But, as a phrase, what does “asking for it” really mean? What has it come to mean? Through use and repetition in media and subcultures, words and phrases take on particular, honed meanings and connotations beyond their literal structure and origin. At this point in time, “asking for it” does not actually mean to ask. It does not mean to vocalize consent. It does not signify an articulation of desire. When you think about it, it is actually not used to suggest that a young, unconscious woman literally or implicitly said, “Do this to me.”

Instead, what it says is that she deserved it.

“Asking for it” has come to be used in reference to perceived weakness and the perceived necessity of punishment. This is clear in uses of the phrase outside the context of sexual assault.

“Asking for it” is used by the tired parent whose child won’t stop yelling in the middle of a busy mall. The parent slaps or spanks the child. The child cries even more. But that’s okay, right? She, the child, was asking for it. Her misbehaviour, the parent believes, warrants such stern reprimand.

“Asking for it” is used in military strategy games when your opponent is distracted and lets down his guard for that crucial moment. His defences are down. So you take action, because you are playing a game and the purpose of this game is to win. As a consequence, you make major ground. Your opponent is upset at your success, of course. But he let it happen. He displayed his own weakness. He let his guard down. He was asking for it.

I could think of many more similar scenarios, but I think these two are enough to make my point. “Asking for it” is used when someone has acted in a way that reveals a weakness. It is used in situations when someone is seen to deserve violence in order to discipline them for bad behaviour.

It does not really mean to ask. And yet, strangely enough, it is conflated with the concept of consent, as if consent could be implicitly given by being drunk or unconscious.

All day, I have asked myself how it could be that so many people have expressed the sentiment that a young woman who was unconscious was “asking for it”? But as I think more about it, I think my two examples above are oddly appropriate. We live in a culture that so often sees young women as small children who need steering and discipline so as to protect them from themselves. And we also see young women as military-esque targets that are the objects of battles and conquests. We tell women not to wear certain clothes because we believe men cannot help themselves. We tell them men only want to conquer. We tell them don’t walk in certain areas. Watch your drink. Don’t wear that skirt. And if you don’t behave as we say, you are responsible for the punishment that others allot to you. You should have better guarded your fortress.

But, as a culture, we don’t tell men not to rape.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I have never been raped. I know so many people, all across the gender spectrum, who have been subject to sexual violence. I am humbled by their strength and their resilience in overcoming what they have been through and speaking out about it.

Statistically speaking, you know these people too, whether or not you have heard their stories. This kind of violence is all too common.

I haven’t been raped, but I have been beaten up. I think of the Steubenville victim, who was only sixteen when she was raped. When I was sixteen, one night I was at my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He and I were drinking wine. He picked a fight with me. I told him that I wanted to go home. It was after midnight, and I was tired of being called names. I told him I wanted to see my dad. I reached toward the doorknob of his room. This was the first time he hit me. It didn’t leave a visible bruise, but for a week after, I had a small red blot that seemed to hover just on the surface of my left eyeball. Like a tiny red planet in motionless orbit around my iris. No one else noticed.

When I started to be vocal about him hitting me, I was keenly aware of how many people within my group of friends (who were also his group of friends) started to change in how they acted toward me. I knew what was said behind my back. I knew that some people sympathized with me. But I knew that others expressed in so many words behind my back that I had asked for what had been happening to me, because I was a strange, awkward girl who wore particular clothes and flirted too much and should have been more sensible about where she went and who she spent time with.

I have no idea what it is like to be raped. I have no idea what it is like to know that there are images of your rape around the internet. I have no idea what it is like to be revictimized at trial and then once again in the trial of public opinion. But I do remember a little bit about what it is like to be a drunk sixteen year old girl, even though I’m almost twice that age now. And what I know about that is that no matter how drunk you were, you did not ask to be mistreated. More likely than not, you believed in the goodness of other people. You did not ask to be treated as a thing. You did not ask to be someone’s object of conquest. You did not ask to be punished, dehumanized, and humiliated. Your body did not ask for discipline.

I know that you were never asking for it.

Because asking for it, if you really, really take a moment and think about what that phrase should mean, would involve a girl opening her mouth and speaking consent. Or writing it down. Or making some kind of meaningful communication. It would involve an action: to ask. Not lying down limp and unconscious or saying nothing. We all deserve, and we must demand, a better world than the one that exists now. And part of demanding this better world is refusing to accept the idea that others have some kind of implicit right to articulate their rage on girls’ bodies.

No one ever asks for this.

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Post written by Allison Smith.