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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, St. Martin's Press, 2006, $27.95.
THIS IS THE saddest story I have ever heard, and one of the most frustrating—not in its telling, which is superb, but in its depiction of a woman tragically born a half-century too soon. Alice Sheldon was brilliant, accomplished, beautiful, affluent. Her 1920s childhood experiences in the African wilderness were the stuff of fever dreams; as a teen debutante in Chicago, she could have been played by Katharine Hepburn, though one thinks Frances Farmer might have brought more to the role. Sheldon's subsequent careers—as a WAC, as a member of CIA photointelligence, as a psychologist—were overshadowed by her mother's long and successful stint as a writer, as well as by bouts of mental illness and Alice's profound unease with her own sexual identity. For fifty years this volatile psychic amalgam simmered, with a few added ingredients tossed in—a violent early marriage; long-term amphetamine dependence; a bipolar mood disorder; binge drinking, unhappy love affairs with men, faltering attempts to become a serious painter and writer, even a turn as a chicken farmer in rural New Jersey—until, in 1967, Alice Sheldon finally achieved the creative alchemy she'd been striving for, and the writer James Tiptree Jr. was born.
One often reads of biographies that their subjects could be fictional characters. It's safe to say that the hero/ine of Julia Phillips's definitive James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon would defy even the most extravagant novelistic imagination. Artist, CIA operative, gender-bending literary seductress with a Hemingwayesque alter-ego, Sheldon insured there'd be no Hollywood ending when, in a suicide pact, she murdered her elderly husband, then shot herself in their suburban home. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up: Who would fall for it?
But a lot of people did fall for Sheldon's literary persona, most famously Robert Silverberg, who wrote in his 1975 introduction to Tiptree's collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise,
"It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing. I don't think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male."Well, few things are ineluctably masculine in our post-Brokeback Mountain age, and Silverberg certainly has nothing to be ashamed of—Tiptree fooled all of the writers and editors he corresponded with during the heady years he was writing his best work, from 1967 until November 1976, when Alli (the name Phillips uses to refer to the "real" Alice Sheldon) discovered this letter in Tiptree's P.O. Box.
"Dear Tip,It's a testament to Julia Phillips's powerful narrative that this revelation—which we've been anticipating from Page 1—can still shock and almost sicken the reader, much as surely it did Alli herself. For someone who had built and dismantled an often shaky professional and sexual identity untold times over the years, before finding success and acceptance among the community of science fiction writers, editors, and fans, this note (from Tiptree's friend and correspondent, Jeff Smith) must have echoed like a tocsin, a warning blare that the ineluctably masculine James Tiptree Jr. was in fact Mrs. Alice Hastings (Mrs. Huntington) Sheldon, a bridge-playing, sixty-something suburban matron who lived with her retired husband in McLean, Virginia.
Alice Hastings Bradley was born in 1915. Her father, Herbert Bradley, made his fortune in real estate. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was in her lifetime a well-known writer, author of books like The Innocent Adventuress and The Wine of Astonishment; "a socialite, an explorer, and a big game hunter [whose] earnings kept her daughter in mink coats and finishing schools." Alice and her parents lived in an expansive top-floor apartment near Lake Michigan; it included a penthouse and roof garden, as well as a cook, a chauffeur, and a series of governesses.
Alice's mother, Mary, comes across as the sort of writer whose career and ego depended, to some extent, on her family and friends acting as supporting players in the continuing drama of her life. In 1921, Mary took her show on the road: she enlisted herself, Herbert, and six-year-old Alice as safari companions to the naturalist and big game hunter Carl Akeley, whose glass-eyed trophies still gaze at viewers from dioramas in the Field Museum of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
Alice's adventures were later recounted by her mother in several cheerful children's travelogues, Alice in Jungleland, Alice in Elephantland, and Trailing the Tiger. Alice's own experience seems more problematic, if not downright traumatic. The group shot and slaughtered an elephant, which was eaten by villagers. The next day their African porters went off to hunt, returning with a prisoner they claimed had attacked them. Despite Akeley's demands that the prisoner be turned over to the white Belgian authorities,
"that night the Bradleys heard screams, and in the morning the man was gone…one of the 'boys' told them he had been killed and eaten…Alice lay awake and heard the whole thing."Among other adventures, Alice's mother jokingly offered her blonde daughter in trade for a chief's ivory bracelet, and Alice witnessed a group of Batwa pygmies dancing and wondered, "Am I a Batwa? I'm little." It's almost anticlimactic to add that her mother shot and killed a lion, or that the formaldehyde-soaked remains of a young gorilla speared by one of Akeley's guides were stored beneath Alice's cot. Throughout their journey, Alice was always surrounded by such wildly contradictory elements—the otherwordly beauty and strangeness of the African landscape and culture contrasted with the screams of human torment and the stink of dead things.
"It was early impressed on me that I was viable only within the sheltering adult group," the adult Alice wrote; "that the outside was dangerous and beyond my strengthThis is a long way from the child described by Mary as "dancing along at the head of the line [of porters], holding her Daddy's or Mummy's hand and waving a greeting to the native women in the fields."
The Bradleys returned to Chicago in 1922 but two years later went back to Africa, this time exploring the Ituri rain forest. Nine-year-old Alice, despite her pleas, was forbidden a gun, though she did have an "old-fashioned crinoline" for costume parties. As they traveled into the rain forest, they often found themselves the first white people the villagers had ever encountered, and, as Phillips observes, "experienced what for most science fiction writers is only a story or a metaphor: first contact." Alice entertained villagers by demonstrating how a door opened and closed, and showed them how her doll's blue-glass eyes would do the same. She saw lepers and heard of the ritual mutilation of girls' genitals, which "scared my immature soul sick." Most horrifying of all, she came upon the naked corpses of two men who had been "Stripped, tortured, tied to posts, and left to perish in the sun." There was no place for this event in any of Mary's published travelogues, but she and her husband took photographs, and there was no way their impressionable, sensitive daughter could have forgotten it:
"You think of a crucifixion as taking place on well-edged beams, straight from the wood polisher. No such thing."On their return, the Bradleys stopped in Calcutta, where, Alice wrote, "we'd step over dying people with dying babies in their arms…a man on the steps of the Ganges reverently—and quite inadequately—burning his mother's body, and then leaping into the water to fish up the still recognizable skull and pry out the gold teeth."
These were the events that shaped Alice Sheldon from early childhood, exposing the rift between the beloved, spoiled daughter of American upper-middle-class privilege and the world she was thrust into, where a child could stumble onto the rotting corpses of men who had been tortured to death, but it was considered inappropriate for a girl to carry a gun, even a toy weapon that might have given her some sense of control over the whirling chaos around her.
The Alice Sheldon who emerges from these pages often demonstrates the disassociativeness found in individuals with multiple personality disorders—"To grow up as a girl is…to be reacted to as nothing or as a thing—and nearly to become that thing"—as well as a grim sense of the worst that humanity can do—"Auschwitz—My Lai—etc. etc. etc. did not surprise me one bit, later on." As a teenager at private school she suffered the solitude, sometimes self-imposed, of the extremely gifted, and had migraines severe enough that she would bang her head against the walls of the girl's bathroom, "to try to 'break' whatever was hurting so inside." Later, at boarding school in Switzerland, she would stand too close to the rails as trains barreled past, and made at least one suicide attempt, when she slashed her wrists with a razor. She developed intense crushes on other girls, and had a few same-sex sexual interludes (kissing, fondling); but she was never able to integrate Desire into a romantic relationship with another woman.
"All forms of sex should be explored," she wrote at twenty-four, "and many games should be learned. Relations with other people should be violent and experimental, with the idea of developing a mask to prevent erosion of the personality by other personalities."
The developing of that mask took up much of Alice Sheldon's life. Phillips's biography presents a woman in extremis, but one who was very much her mother's daughter when it came to keeping a stiff upper lip, no matter the cost. As an adult (and eerily prefiguring the title of one of her best-known stories, "Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death") , Alli told her mother "You 'taught' me, without meaning to, that love is the prelude to appalling pain." A bizarre brush with mother-daughter incest when Alice was fourteen can only have added to her sense that lesbianism was something monstrous.
Yet pain must somehow be endured, and for decades Sheldon did so with grace and wit and what can only be described as valor. Nine days after her December 20 debut, at eighteen, she eloped with a boy she'd met at a Christmas Eve dance, a Princeton student and aspiring novelist named William Davey. The marriage lasted six years, and in terms of spectacular dysfunction (drinking, drugging, visiting brothels) seems second only to that of William Burroughs and his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer. As Alli put it, "Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature."
Bill Davey encouraged his beautiful wife to paint, but their sexual relationship was a disaster. She had affairs with men, all apparently unsatisfying. Years later she confided to Joanna Russ, "I am (was) notoriously fucked up about sex." She wrote with austere detachment that "to paint that which one wishes to be seized by, etc, is a sort of contradiction;" yet she also wrote —drunkenly, Phillips suggests—in an otherwise empty sketchbook her need to "ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man…I love women I will never be happy.…"
It's this manic, desperate voice that makes The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon so poignant, even as Alli herself soldiered on. She divorced Bill Davey in 1941, moved back in with her parents and got a job as an art critic for the Chicago Sun. Despite her continuing attraction toward women, she dated men, and in 1942 enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women's Army Corps). In her early days as a WAC in basic training, Alli experienced a near-ecstatic experience of living in a women's utopia—
"Women seen for the first time at ease, unselfconscious, swaggering or thoughtful, sizing everything up openly, businesslike, all personalities all unbending and unafraid."Her rapture faded quickly, ending in a bang-out fight with another, stronger, woman (a phys. ed. teacher) whom Alli nearly strangled, an event Alli later recalled as an experience when she "felt fully alive." Early in her biography, Phillips states that Alli was never able to access her rage, and it's tempting to see in this signal occurrence at Fort Des Moines the first mad glimmer of James Tiptree himself, wrestling with the demonic Female Other until pulled away by several intervening women officers.
When the war ended, Captain Alice Davey was stationed in London as a Pentagon photointerpreter. There she met Colonel Huntington "Ting" Sheldon, "a tall, graying, gracious senior officer, formerly of Yale and Wall Street." Alli "challenged Colonel Sheldon to a game of chess, played blindfolded, and won. He fell in love."
Alli summed up their sexual relationship thus: "Him and women: Had to get drunk—then of course impotent." Despite (or because of) this, they married, and returned to the U.S. early in 1946. Alli's relentless self-invention continued through the next two decades, as she became a housewife, chicken farmer, CIA analyst, and graduate student at George Washington University in D.C., eventually earning a doctorate in psychology by studying how rats react to novel stimuli and experiences. She also wrote, trying to follow up the success of her story that appeared in The New Yorker in 1946, but none of her ambitious projects came to fruition.
And she read—science fiction and fantasy, a love since childhood when she first encountered Weird Tales magazine and now a necessary escape valve from her observations of rats and her dissertation-writing binges, fueled by speed and alcohol and her own manic energy.
By now, her beloved childhood literature had changed: it was no longer wholly dependent on the bug-eyed monsters and rocket jockeys of pulp's Golden Age. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Phillip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin tackled gender, environmental and social issues that reflected the sweeping changes and excesses of the 1960s. Their prose style, often as overheated as that of their pulp forebears, drew on the burgeoning drug culture. So did the images of psychic and/or sexual disintegration that swirled around the works of Dick , Russ, and Delany in particular. For Alice Sheldon, reading their stories in the pages of Analog and Astounding and Galaxy, it must have seemed like a party she was fated to join.
"The stories started coming to her when she was writing up her dissertation, studying for her orals, skimping on sleep, and using as much Dexedrine as she dared…Sometime in the spring of 1967, Alice Sheldon, a fifty-one-year-old research psychologist, typed them up and sent them out to science fiction magazines.…"The pseudonym she chose was deliberately outrageous: James Tiptree, Jr. The surname was taken from a jar of jam on a supermarket shelf, though critic John Clute suggests the nickname "Tip" derived from Princess Ozma's androgynous counterpart, Tip, in L. Frank Baum's books, which Alice Sheldon had read. The first stories went out not long after she received her doctorate, in February 1967. What happened next is the stuff of literary legend, though in fact Tiptree collected several rejection letters, including one from John W. Campbell, who grumbled "One of the troubles with a majority of modern stories is that nowadays the idea of an heroic Hero is considered gauche or something."
But that fall Campbell bought one story for Analog, Harry Harrison took a second for Fantastic, and Frederik Pohl accepted a third (which Campbell had already rejected), for If. James Tiptree was in like Flynn.
His first sf story, "Birth of a Salesman," appeared in the March 1968 Analog. That same year Tiptree sold three more stories, but it was the appearance of "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" in Galaxy a year later that established the tone of Tiptree's best work, the literary equivalent of an ice shard to the heart: chilly, razor-sharp, and terrifying. Tiptree's grim, deliberate account of a doctor unleashing a deadly virus on humankind via air travel—appropriated years later by Terry Gilliam in his film 12 Monkeys—was only 2,500 words long. Yet her writing here showed the assassin's gifts she was to utilize in her best work: deadly grace and concision and a certain heartlessness, joined to a narrative that never pauses to take a breath. If one were to take a Freudian view of Sheldon's life and work, it's all here in the stories that followed. Sexual repression and self-restraint exploded into a maenad's frenzy of destruction, wreaked upon individuals and urges that control and despoil the world—men, scientists, the blind biological thrust toward sexual union; a clinically ruthless bio-determinism whose ultimate goal was extinction.
The stories, of course, are what really matter about Tiptree, and Phillips does a marvelous job of showing how they were born and, later, made their way about the world. Sheldon's greatest work—"Dr. Ain," "The Girl Who Was Plugged In, "The Women Men Don't See," "Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death," "The Scientist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats," and, especially, "The Screwfly Solution," one of the most frightening stories ever written, penned under Sheldon's other nom-du-plume, Raccoona Sheldon—stands among the best short fiction of the late twentieth century, and has never received its due from mainstream critics.
The latter portion of The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon reads like an sf version of Catch Me If You Can, with Sheldon's masculine alter-ego creating and maintaining a voluminous correspondence, a Real Guy among predominately Real Guy Writers. Phillips quotes generously from these exchanges. The list of correspondents is a roll call of those who were part of the incredible efflorescence that was American science fiction in the 1970s: Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Damon Knight, Phil Dick, Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, David Gerrold, Ted White, Charles Platt, Vonda McIntrye—you get the idea. Tiptree flirted with Russ and Le Guin, but he showed his manlier face to his male friends, coming off as a bluff guy's guy—but soft enough for a woman.
Too soft, maybe. As curiosity about Tiptree grew in the sf community, gossip spread about the secretive author. Tip was a spy, a spook; he was crazy; he was a woman. This last could still be a liability, as indicated in a letter from Harry Harrison demanding rewrites: "I think 'big shimmery' on page 26 too purple. Or girl-writer term or something." Tiptree's fear of being outed as a girl writer must have been acute. A 1972 letter to Harrison has the undeniable edge of hysteria.
"WILL YOU LAY OFF?…Harry, listen. You've been a great friend and I value it more than I can say. My life is a mixed-up mess right now. I have personal problems like other people have termites. I'm barely viable. You and my other friends in the sf world, and the writing, are all that's keeping me sane…"Phillips goes on to say that "Harrison recalled recoiling from this letter, thinking "This guy's on a twist." Later, after Alli's identity was revealed, he concluded that his friend had not been "nuts" but "a woman who was just being very female about it."
Phillips refrains from commenting on Harrison's observation, but I won't. Why is behavior that would be considered "nuts" for a man considered normal for a female? This is the crux of Alice Sheldon's often tormented life, the disconnect between her projected voice—her stories—and her everyday self. She sometimes seems like a prime candidate for gender-reassignment therapy; at other times, a lesbian so deeply closeted that one's instinct is to drag her into daylight and shout, "See? IT'S NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL."
But it was bad, after all. Today, with the Internet, Sheldon's cover would probably be blown in a matter of days or weeks. She certainly appears to have been courting disclosure with her adoption of a second, female, even more transparent pseudonym, the absurd Raccoona Sheldon, who in a dizzying coup-des-lettres carried on her own correspondence with various sf figures. As it was, Jeff Smith's letter to P.O. Box 315 arrived on November 23, 1976, and James Tiptree Jr.'s identity unraveled over the following months. So, tragically, did his writing career. Alice Sheldon continued to publish after the revelation that he was a she, but her best work was done. Gardner Dozois threw down the gauntlet by asking, "Where in your fiction are the equally convincing portraits of what it's like to be a girl growing up?…It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that 'Tiptree's' best work is yet to come." Sheldon responded,
"Alli Sheldon is maybe a mad woman, maybe an ex-good-researcher, but is not a science fiction or any other kind of writer. I am nothing."Two years later, in 1978, she threw all her new work—notes, novel, stories—in the woodstove, and told Ursula Le Guin, "I am trying to become nothing."
Sheldon's great tragedy was that she could not seize her power to write as herself. The masks that she spent a lifetime creating could not, in the end, hide what she really was and what she loved. When, post-Tiptree, Joanna Russ penned a love letter to Alli, Sheldon replied, "Oh, had 65 years been different! I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up."
Alli and Joanna Russ never met. This was not merely a failure of nerve on Sheldon's part. It was a failure of self. All her life she wrote of being atrracted to aliens, the other (she developed a passionate crush on Leonard Nimoy's Spock); but the truth was that the alien was unquestionably not other, but her own kind. Faced with the image of desire in the mirror, she felt compelled to shatter it. All of Phillips's reasoned discussion of Tiptree's work, all her psychological acuity in tracing Alice Sheldon's complicated inner life—none of it quite prepares you for Alice Sheldon's statement that "My 'illness' has taken the form of writing some more science-fiction stories…I am going to finish the series with one about a man who kills EVERYBODY, that will make me feel better."
Nor does it prepare a reader for what she will feel the first time she encounters "The Screwfly Solution" or "The Last Voyage of Dr. Ain" or "The Women Men Don't See"—the same emotion, perhaps, that gripped that physical education teacher in Fort Des Moines, or Alice Sheldon's husband when he realized, as Phillips suggests, that his wife was going to kill him: pure fear. In the end, Alice Sheldon really was the woman nobody saw.
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