Turing: Why Benedict Cumberbatch should stop talking about disability

(or at least read up on it. See disclaimer.)

Just before I went to see The Imitation Game, I read that Alan Turing had been retroactively diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m very wary about any Hollywood films featuring people with any disability at all, especially people who are on the Autistic spectrum. But I was willing to be convinced, and excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s big performance. I watched it not as a tragedy, or the story of a gay man in a homophobic world, but as the story of Alan Turing: brilliant, Autistic, gay, human.
And the film made me so happy.
I felt it was a beautiful tribute. Cumberbatch’s acting is versatile enough to capture Turing’s complex character; he gives us the sense of a brilliant mind working away beneath the facade. His performance is the focus of the film – I think it’s fantastic, possibly Oscar-worthy. And: at no point did I ever, ever doubt that he was playing an Autistic character. Actually, I forgot that he was acting at all.
But after all that, I was upset a few days later to see how Benedict Cumberbatch actually feels when he’s asked if his characters are Autistic. Rather than being delighted that so many fans identify many of his characters as being on the spectrum, (Sherlock, Turing, and even the pilot Martin Crieff in Cabin Pressure) Cumberbatch seems annoyed:

“People talk about me doing that quite a lot and that being a good thing for people who are on the spectrum, which is great. But… I’m very wary of that, because I’ve met people with those conditions. It’s a real struggle all the time. Then these people pop up in my work and they’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it.”

First off, what I don’t understand is how BC can honestly think that there is “no hope” for any Autistic people – an enormous range of people, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Autistic people are human. There is hope for every human being, no matter how “disabled” they appear to be, or how much help they require; and assuming someone automatically has less hope because of their neurology is enormously patronising.
There’s also the assumption that Autistic people can’t be “sort of brilliant”. Not only is it nonsensical, it invalidates that Turing was retroactively diagnosed in real life, and that many other intellectually brilliant people have been diagnosed as Autistic. And who knows how many more Autistic people – brilliant or not – have been institutionalised, ignored, or even killed, just because people can’t communicate with them or it is “too much work” to look after them? It’s truly heartbreaking.
And knowing how important positive representation is, it seems so irresponsible of Cumberbatch to write off and patronise a section of his fanbase. It contributes to a culture of ignorance and bigotry, whether he’s aware of that or not.

Secondly, it’s incredible that he can hold such narrow-minded views and yet play characters on the Autistic spectrum – Sherlock, Turing – so beautifully.
Tumblr is (or was) full of posts by Autistic fans who praise his acting for its precise physicality: every tic and finger stim appears completely natural. Sherlock and Turing would be easy to present as stereotypes, but his characterisation makes them into people. His characters’ movements echo their personalities: in Sherlock his graceful leaps, spins, and almost acrobatic movements showed a character who was always ten steps ahead of everyone else. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch’s facial expressions, his posture, his terse delivery, the way he delivers flashes of emotion and shows his character concentrating hard on being liked by others, builds up an image of an Autistic human being at work in the real world.
It’s doubly surprising because usually, creators’ prejudices inevitably show up somewhere in their work. It’s probably a stretch to say unpleasant creators make unpleasant work (Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic and classist, but I still enjoyed Matilda as a kid), and actors are collaborative by nature, mostly speaking words that aren’t their own. But it seems bizarre that someone who holds such ableist views can provide such sensitive, nuanced portrayals of Autistic people.
Mostly, I’m disappointed. So much more could be made of this situation. Instead Cumberbatch has left people upset, saddened, and wondering whether to watch his next film. Not impressive.

(Disclaimer: I have never been diagnosed as Autistic. I consider Autistic people my disability siblings, and wanted to do them justice in this post. There is so much ableist writing about Autism in the media that I wanted to contribute positively in some way.)

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Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

[this is the last in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.

Anxiety & Me, part 5: “Dad, I’m Scared About Aliens”

[this is the fifth in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

Over the course of my life, I’ve been told frequently that OCD and depression are a personal failure. Maybe I’m not reading enough, not writing enough, doing the wrong exercise, or eating unhealthy food. Maybe I’m just making a fuss – after all, everyone gets worried sometimes, yeah? Maybe I’m just a bit of a non-starter.
“People with mental health issues must be doing something wrong!” This message has seeped into every pore of our culture, and it’s often repeated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
No matter how much we explain that being unwell can actually prevent us from reading and writing – and drain the energy needed for exercise, cooking or work – it’s still assumed that the root cause of the problem is the ill person’s lifestyle and habits. We end up believing somehow that when we feel too ill to create art, it’s our own fault.
Anxiety in particular is often seen as a flaw, something you can get over if you try hard enough. As a child, I was told it wasn’t a real problem: “Twelve-year olds can’t be depressed! Just try and stop worrying!” I was vaguely aware one shouldn’t be constantly fretting, but assumed it was something I was doing wrong. Nobody around me talked about mental health, nobody I knew went to counselling; I was just “high strung”.
To me, mental illness meant being sectioned, like the vampy bipolar mother in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum. There seemed to be no fictional characters who just happened to have brain issues.
And in general, I got the impression that mental illness was a sort of scary, glamorous, soul-destroying malady that only happened to grown-ups. It seemed you couldn’t really have it unless you were sick enough to be in a hospital, and all being well you should just crack on with your day and stop worrying. If you couldn’t get over it, you weren’t trying hard enough. This wasn’t some distant faraway past either. It was inner-city Birmingham in the noughties.
These misconceptions are held by people everywhere, and I have no doubt that other young artists from vastly different backgrounds are being faced with the same prejudices. Even after I educated myself and learned that anxiety disorders and depression were not flaws or weaknesses, but illnesses, I still found myself wondering why I couldn’t just get over it.
Then I wondered why my mental illness wasn’t making me more creative: instead, it often just made me restless, irritable and unable to produce anything.
Since then, I have sometimes wondered if my imaginative wordy skills are related neurologically to mental illness. I don’t know for sure – but you know what? I don’t care, either. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to be well enough to work in the first place.
Poor mental health is not a personal failure, but neither is it some perverse superpower that drives people to create masterpieces. You make your work; your sickness doesn’t.

Anxiety & Me, part 4: Tragedy and Triumph

[this is the fourth in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part three]

Mainstream media has made great leaps in de-stigmatising mental health, with many prominent celebrities like Stephen Fry opening discussion. But somehow it often seems to be mentally healthy people who feel so very, very inspired by these stories, while those of us who are chronic, or not fully recovered, sometimes get a bit frustrated with what’s not being said. Sometimes we feel unrepresented by the people who claim to speak for us.

Success stories sell – as do stories about plucky people recovering from their Big Bad Mental Health Problem. The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a Times column about her anxiety, claiming that the problem was helped not by medication or counselling, but by telling the thoughts to be quiet; now her anxiety was “not totally over” but the “spell that kills [anxiety] is simply SHUT UP”. And her pal India Knight wrote a column, also in the Times, claiming that “everybody gets depressed…You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it. Which is, by the way, what normal people do”.

One problem with these folksy presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

Our culture is full of these stories. The real problem is that young, talented people with mental health problems absorb them and suddenly feel immensely pressured to recover, to be normal, or to be a success story (“if only I could just turn my depression into art…”)

Media shows us who we can be. Women artists with mental health problems – Amy Winehouse, Plath, Woolf – are often presented by media in a way that both glamorises their illness and minimises their humanity. For an example of the kind of media we’re surrounded by, look at Vice’s tasteless 2013 photo-shoot with models re-enacting the suicides of famous women artists.

It matters.

Because young female artists with mental health problems look to culture for role models, for arcs to follow, for ways forward.

And the narratives they see about people like themselves are often tragic, glamorous, but glitteringly triumphant – like the stories about Plath. Mentally ill women artists are culturally associated with glamour, genius and death. Imagine growing up with that pressure. Imagine growing up believing that all successful, happy, creative people are secretly sad, and that being an artist means dying young and unhappy.

So, there’s work to be done. Young artists need mentally ill role models. Young people need media representation of people with ongoing mental health issues leading normal and successful lives. It’s not enough to sit back, look at media representation and think “That’s enough! People are talking about it, problem solved!”
As ever, imagination and vision are key to creating new narratives for our lives.