Jean Tatlock is known by many as the woman who was involved in a romantic relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, but we believe that to identify her as only that would be disrespectful to the kind of success she was able to achieve in her life and the work she had done in a day and age where even the most progressive families confined their women to household chores. If somebody had to compromise on their career, then it had to be women, as society was always biased against them and didn’t consider them capable enough of being financially independent.
Some people did think Jean Tatlock was impetuous, maybe because of the choices she made in her life and how stubborn she was for living on her own terms. Society couldn’t see a woman breaching her confines and proving that she had as much potential as her male counterparts. Maybe that is why it was easier to comment on her lifestyle and look down at her in a condescending manner, questioning her choices and character, so that people could find something to bring down her credibility. It is weird how we have certain stereotypical views when it comes to people who adhere to left-wing ideologies. There is no truth to it, but still, there is a preconceived notion that is extremely flawed and, to some degree, even offensive.
We often see that people who were part of the Communist party or believed in the ideology of communism back in the day, and sadly even now, were looked upon as being promiscuous in nature, and it was used to question their character and morality. Jean Tatlock had to bear a lot of backlash, and though not a lot of people had the courage to talk to her face-to-face, she knew what went on behind her back. She was the embodiment of the values and principles that society wasn’t ready to accept, and people were too narrow-minded to give her a fair platform. Sadly, Nolan’s film also plays to those tropes and adheres to the stereotypes, mainly because of the way she has been portrayed.
If one hadn’t read about Tatlock after watching the film or didn’t know about her from before, they wouldn’t be able to see her for the person she was. In the film, we were made privy to a woman who was confused, indecisive, extremely temperamental, and hated it if someone brought flowers for her. We saw her falling in love with Robert Oppenheimer and then leaving him midway and not agreeing to marry him as she was not able to make up her mind as to what she wanted to do in life. Later, after Robert got married, he still stayed in touch with Jean Tatlock, and once made the trip to San Francisco because she wanted to meet him, and he wanted to spend some time with her. Robert did indulge in her even after marriage, and a lot of people who were part of Robert’s life considered Tatlock to be his one true love.
We saw that Robert was heartbroken when he got the news that Jean had committed suicide, as no one expected her to do something like that. She had her share of troubles, but she never seemed the kind of woman who would give up on life and take that kind of step. Jean was a psychiatrist, and she was a member of the communist party. She was the one who had asked Robert to contribute to the cause of the Spanish refugee, and then Robert sent money through the Communist party, as the chances of it being used for the cause and not going into the pockets of corrupt individuals were the highest. Jean Tatlock was not only highly educated, but she had very strong views and wanted to work for the cause of the downtrodden.
In her years, her activities and movements were being tracked by the FBI, and Borish Pash, the army intelligence officer, was on the lookout to find some evidence that could corroborate his claims that she was, in fact, a Soviet spy. Borish Pash and others in the intelligence agency believed that Jean met Oppenheimer solely because she wanted to know what was happening at the Los Alamos Laboratory and leak that information to the Soviet Union.
Questions were raised about her sexuality, too, as if being homosexual proved that one could indulge in all sorts of anti-national activities. Pash was never able to find anything conclusive about Jean being a spy and leaking information to the Soviet Union, but he had his doubts till the very end. Even Robert Oppenheimer going and meeting Jean became a huge issue for him personally, as years later, in the AEC meeting where his clearance was being discussed, questions were raised about his involvement with Jean and his leaking top-secret information to her. Jean Tatlock was suffering from depression, and she had probably lost her will to live. She did mention in her suicide note that she was disappointed with everything in her life and in the world. Probably she was not able to cope with the two-faced people in society, and she saw that the system was rigged and only favored the rich and powerful.
There were people who believed that Jean had not committed suicide but had been killed because everybody knew how the intelligence agencies sought to tap her phone and how they were so adamant about finding some incriminating evidence against her. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and it has the potential to change a person’s outlook. We believe that what Nolan’s film wanted to show us was that Robert Oppenheimer somewhere believed that not only was Jean Tatlock murdered but that it had been his fault. Now we are nowhere near presuming that what he believed was reality because he was something of an unreliable narrator, and we had seen how his perceptions were often marred by his prejudices in multiple scenes before.
Oppenheimer was distraught after he got the news of Jean’s suicide, and while he was telling Kitty about it, we saw a black gloved hand almost forcing Tatlock’s head into the water in the flashback. Additionally, Oppenheimer also said that Tatlock used to take barbiturates, but there was some other drug found in her blood report, signaling the possibility of someone else poisoning her. Though his assumptions were never backed by any concrete evidence, the physicist believed till the very end that it was because of him that Tatlock came under the radar of the intelligence agencies and ended up meeting her fateful end.
Also, the way she committed suicide was a bit odd. She knelt down on pillows and submerged her head in the bathtub, and though the coroner’s report mentioned suicide as the cause of death, we believe that one cannot say with surety that there was no involvement of the state authorities in it. People said that Pash was not around when she committed suicide, but the possibility of her being indirectly involved in the conspiracy could neither be proved nor denied. After witnessing the tragic story of Jean Tatlock, all one can say is that she deserved better, and that society could have greatly benefited from a woman of her intellect.