The Imitation Game is one of my favorite movies of 2014. I found it riveting from beginning to end. As many of you undoubtably know, the movie tells the story of Alan Turing whose work on cracking the Enigma code was responsible not just for ending World War II two years ahead of schedule and saving millions of lives but also for laying the groundwork for the world’s first computer. Turing was persecuted later in his life for his homosexuality and died of suicide several years after beginning a court-mandated chemical castration program.
One of the striking things about Turin, as played brilliantly in the movie by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, is how little empathy he has for others. He is a very sensitive individual but shows little fellow-feeling. When he fires two of his co-workers, for example, he seems not the least bit concerned about the impact on them. When he breaks up with his girlfriend, he says the most hurtful things, also without any empathy.
This character trait can be consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger Syndome (AS), a neurobiological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. In addition to their difficulty understanding the feelings of others and reading social cues appropriately, individuals with AS, while often very gifted intellectually, have a hard time fitting in. They don’t make social connections, have few friends and, as children, are often targets for bullying as they are perceived by peers as being odd. This certainly was the case for Turing…the movie shows his early torments at the hands of his fellow students in boarding school. As an adult, Turing has an equally hard time fitting in with the other members of the Enigma team and is nearly completely ostracized by them. While it is wrong to make definitive historical diagnoses, Turing does seem to fit many characterisics of AS.
Being married to someone with Asperger’s Disease is very challenging and the divorce rate is higher in these unions. I once worked with a couple in which the husband had Aspergers. The wife told me that she had recently cut herself in the hand and was bleeding yet her husband stood there without any effort to comfort her. Empathy, the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and express compassion, is a central part of secure attachment and its absence can be very distressing in committed partnerships. The lack of empathy in one’s interactions with others is also a common trait of those with Narcissistic and Anti-Social Personality Disorders.
Can empathy be learned? Yes…but it takes alot of commitment. One way I attempt to build empathy in clients who lack it is to ask them to observe people in social settings and ask themselves: “What might that person be feeling?” Noticing emotions in others is a first step in becoming more empathic. There are lots of opportunities to practice watching others…at the airport, at the grocery store or at any social gathering.
Another step to increase empathy involves actually imitating the facial expressions of people we want to empathize with. Research shows that such mimickry is likely to help an individual experience the associated emotion. Interestingly enough, this technique was mentioned by Edgar Allen Poe in his short story The Purloined Letter.
At the same time, individuals lacking empathy can benefit from keeping an emotion journal of their own feelings. It is best to start with the basic emotions: sad, mad, bad and glad…and go from there. Once low-empathy partners become better at identifying their own feelings and those of others, they can be asked to follow a script. When they begin to notice their mate is distressed, they can say something like “You look sad. Is there something I can do?” While this may feel awkward initially, over time it might become more natural. Low-empathy partners should solicit feedback from their mates about their level of empathy so as to increase awareness.
One relationship dynamic that Turing gets right is telling his platonic girlfriend, fellow Enigma code colleague as played by Keira Knightley, that he is gay before they pursue a possible marriage. I found this scene in the movie to be emotionally powerful and illuminating. In contrast to Turing’s self-awareness and honesty, some individuals hide their same-sex attraction from their opposite gender partners during courtship and early years of marriage. In my practice of relationship therapy, I may have to help couples separate and divorce with dignity when a spouse of many years informs his partner that he or she is gay and needs to leave the marriage. The heterosexual partner always feels some level of betrayal and wishes this information had been shared before the decision was made to marry. Of course, the partner who is coming out may not have been fully aware of the strength of their same-sex attraction when they married. Careful, respectful counseling can usually help the couple move forward with their lives.
I have also heard many wives suspect, often erroneously, that their husbands are gay because they are effiminant or get turned on by same-sex fantasies. Joe Kort, a psychotherapist who specializes in human sexuality and practices gay positive therapy, makes some very important distinctions in this regard. Kort asserts that being gay is more than just feeling physically attracted to others of the same gender. Albert Kinsey’s groundbreaking research in the 50s confirms Kort’s assertion; Kinsey’s painstaking qualitative research indicated that many individuals who self-identify as heterosexual have or have had same-sex attraction/experience and that many who who self-identify as homosexual have or have had heterosexual attraction/experience. When it comes to sexuality, we are more like rainbows with multiple shades of color than we are black and white (with even more variations than 50 shades of gray)!
Most individuals who self identify as exclusively gay have had strong same-sex attraction since they were little. This was certainly the case with Alan Turing as the movie demonstrates. Kort explains that being gay involves more than just being physically attracted to those of the same gender; being gay involves strong emotional, mental and spiritual energies directed toward those of the same gender. The dreams of these individuals often involve same sex-situations and if they pass a heterosexual couple on the street, they are drawn repeatedly to the person of their own gender. I recommend that couples struggling with these issues see an experienced couple or sex therapist and/or read any of of Joe Kort’s books on the topic such as Is My Husband Gay, Straight or Bi? A Guide for Women Concerned About Their Man published by Rowman and Littlefield.
My reflections on this wonderful movie only cover a part of the film’s compelling narrative. If you haven’t seen it, go to the movies or rent it on DVD…you won’t reget it. Alan Turing is one of the great unsung heros of the 20th century and this film does his life story justice!