The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

By | Oct 07, 2011
2010 July-August, Culture
Baron Cohen

Other movies in the works are Radio Active starring Mickey Rourke and The Blind Bastard Club with Lenny Kravitz. Dark humor, social observation and themes of violence pervade Ash’s films. In American culture, he says, “there seems to be an unfulfilled craving and love for violence.” His 2002 documentary, Little Warriors, about 11-year-old children living with AIDS, won an award from the Discovery Channel, and he has recently completed a sequel, Little Warriors: Big Fists, about the same group at age 17.

Ash says he and his cousin Sacha are supportive of one another, though they’ve never worked together. “The only thing I can say is that we’ve both really watched out for each other,” he told Esquire. “We’ve both had situations where it’s been good to have the other guy there to call up. For years, we were each other’s only family here.”

Their films are very different. Much as Sacha has exposed shortcomings like racism and homophobia, Ash has focused on American gun violence—much rarer in Britain, he points out. In America, he says, “I feel a bit of an outsider; that’s the nature of an artist; looking…from the outside.”


Growing up as a Jew in Britain has given Simon Baron-Cohen a sense of what it means to be an outsider. “Being Jewish in North America you can be much more open with it; it’s more of a comfortable thing,” he tells me in his office at Trinity College, Cambridge. “I think here we haven’t gotten quite to that same point.”

Simon, Ash’s older brother, is a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, and directs its Autism Research Centre. (Unlike the other members of the family, his surname has a hyphen, thanks to a typographical error in his first professional article that he never corrected.) He has a gentle, almost diffident, manner of speaking, surprising in an academic who has waded into the provocative ground of sex differences, enraging some feminists with his theory that autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are extreme forms of what he calls the “male brain.” His 2003 book, The Essential Difference, cites studies finding that females tend to do better than males on tests of empathy, while males tend to do better on problems involving tasks such as reading maps or doing math.

He attributes his interest in people who lack social skills partly to his sister, Susannah. Despite being born with brain damage that impaired her intellectual capacity, Susannah was innately social, Simon noticed. That he would devote his life to exploring this subject stems from being part of a religious minority. “Being a member of a minority must make you see the world differently.”

Cambridge did not allow Jews to receive degrees until 1856, and it was not until 1871 that barriers to Jews holding paid teaching positions were removed. “I know academia is just one tiny slice of Britain but it gives a window into where Jews have fit in to the culture—or haven’t,” says Simon.

4 thoughts on “The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

  1. susan williams says:

    Clearly, I have come late to your article. I knew Judith and Vivian Baron Cohen for a brief time in Oxford in the early 2000s, the year Billy Bob Thornton’s “Slingblade” was shown at a Oxford cinema. I was wondering about them the other day and googled Vivian’s name and came across your article, which I have very much enjoyed reading. However, I am very sorry to learn that Judith died in 2008, but I am glad to know this because she will be more firmly set in my memory.
    Judith and Vivian were lovely hosts, and I most especially appreciated Vivian’s showing me the most understated plaque to the memory of Robert of Reading, who, after his conversion to Judaism, called himself Haggai of Oxford and was murdered for his faith. The time Vivian gave me has sparked my continuing interest in the Jewish history of Oxford, and I am a Roman Catholic. Indeed, since knowing of Haggai of Oxford and coming across several instances myself of antisemitism among the dreaming spires, whenever I think of Oxford I think of its continuing current of the antisemitism Judith found so worrying.
    I will always feel blessed that Judith spoke to me after that particular showing of “Slingblade” and began an acquaintance I wish could have been an enduring friendship. She and Vivian were wonderful to me.

  2. Graham says:

    I spoke with Vivian today. What a lovely man. He told me all about his new book – Joe and his magic snout.

    I will be purchasing this book from Amazon as all proceeds will go to cancer research.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Very good in depth story – even though I had trouble navigating it. I worked for Vivian, in his menswear store for many years. Very charming and generous man. I was young at the time and was mainly interested in dancing and of course boys. He, Vivian, did talk about his family -very proud of his wife of course and the children. Thank you for your work on this article. Kathleen

  4. Beth says:

    I just came across here when I’m Googling Mr. V Cohen . I also worked in his suit shop in Piccadilly years ago. I really have some fond memories while I’m working there and we even keep in touch afterwards but unfortunately…. I don’t know how he is now but yes! He’s a lovely man and so many stories that I’ve learned from him at that time…

    I just wish him well.

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