James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

Monday, 09 July 2007 13:54 Carole Ann Moleti
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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

Biographies of writers often illuminate the motivations for their work and their influences, and place both within the context of the time they lived.  The subject of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips is one of the most famous speculative fiction writers in recent memory, earning it a well deserved Hugo nomination for Best Related Book.

I assumed Alice Bradley Sheldon adopted the pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr., because the male dominated world in general, and the science fiction world in particular, wouldn’t have accepted her writing any other way. When one is a victim of discrimination, it’s easy to blame all your troubles on someone or something else. But after reading this definitive work, I must agree with Phillips’s conclusion that Sheldon went to an opposite extreme and turned the blame onto herself.

After ten years of research, Phillips crafted chapters into discrete time periods in Sheldon’s life. Because she and her mother, author Mary Hastings Bradley, took great pains to preserve their journals, story fragments, artwork, and personal correspondence, Phillips had access to material that allowed her to take on the persona of her subject. The effect is a biography that reads like a memoir (including photos of the woman most of the world never saw), with interpretations Sheldon herself might have been able to make, had she not run out of the strength to fight.

Phillips quotes many members of Sheldon’s inner circles: her ex-husband, friends, editors, and correspondents. The cast list (which fills almost a whole page in the acknowledgments), reads like a who’s who in literary and speculative fiction circles. Their candor and courage in disclosing troubling, intimate details about her lifestyle, as well as their own words and actions, are a tribute to them and Phillips, who put it all together with reverence, respect, and brilliant insight.

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Alice Bradley, born in 1915, was the sole surviving daughter of a wealthy Chicago family. Her mother was a literary success in her own right. Alice faced the realities of the pre-feminist world, but her mother’s connections and her own considerable talent should have enabled her to bypass many of the roadblocks.

Alli, as she liked to be called, suffered lifelong depression that began after the death of her sister and tragedies she witnessed as a child during travel to Africa, India, and East Asia. Letters and journals chronicle a life that included a brush with mother-daughter incest and a burgeoning awareness of her sexual attraction to women.

In a world where being a “good girl” meant everything, the stigma of being labeled homosexual was worse than being branded a communist. Just after her society debut, Alli eloped on a whim with novelist William Davey into a disastrous marriage.

Phillips uncovered letters and journal entries that described multiple affairs and a bizarre visit to a brothel during which the then Alice Bradley Davey may have impersonated a man. Even though a friend died after an illegal abortion, Alli had one, the complications of which rendered her infertile. Denied any of the pleasures of being female, she scrawled in a sketchbook:

“…my damned oh my damned body how can I escape it I play woman woman I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy thank god for liquor. [..] I am no damned woman wasteful god not to have made me a man.”
Journal entries by Mary Hastings Bradley express serious concern for her daughter’s welfare after several violent incidents. Alli had a comfort and familiarity with guns born during her childhood travels with big game hunters. After her divorce, Alli wrote about William Davey in a letter to Philip K. Dick:

“Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, despite his taste in literature.”
Alice Bradley Davey’s initial creative efforts were in art, but the sanitized work she presented failed to express her true vision. Erotic, disturbing images she hid away reflected gender confusion and contempt for the female body. Upstaged by her mother, she had only modest success as a writer of mainstream fiction and essays.

The seeds of concern about the fragile state of the Earth and its inhabitants, planted during her travel adventures, made her anxious to participate in a meaningful way to alter the sad course of events. During World War II, Alli enlisted as a WAC. Using her artistic talents in a novel way, she transferred to air force photo intelligence and rose to the rank of captain—the only female in the division.  There she met her second husband, Colonel Huntington Sheldon (Ting), and after the War, went to work with him in the CIA.  It was a great source of frustration to her that being female, she was unable to rise to the position Ting did, directly advising the Presidents as a member of the Central Intelligence Group.

After leaving the CIA, Alli and Ting, both reclusive in nature, spent some time as owners of a chicken hatchery in southern New Jersey.  Alice Sheldon, the scientist, eventually completed a doctorate in psychology, researching and writing about her theories of perception and negentropy—defined as everything that adds to information and organization—even as she struggled with those concepts in her own mind.

Soon after, she wrote several science fiction stories and, on a whim, sent them out under a name fabricated from a marmalade jar: James Tiptree, Jr. Finally able to express her angst and to “be” a man, the eight years (1967-1976), when she “was” the much sought after Tiptree were the most settled of her tumultuous life.

She and Ting spent large portions of time in remote vacation homes in Wisconsin and Mexico and even considered a move to New Zealand. Alli admitted that from the beginning, their sex life was a “disaster,” but she felt a tremendous bond with her husband, and they relied on each other and no one else.

Sheldon’s biggest obstacles were her own self-doubt, the demons of mental illness, and substance abuse. But had she been born fifty years later, she would have likely found the support to acknowledge her homosexuality and move on. Instead, she lived a lie, with the only true escape in taking on the persona of a man.

Though saddening to read, the book is not without its lighter moments, including this account by David Gerrold, who tried to track down the elusive Tiptree through a post office box address:

“..we did the really gross maneuver of dropping in unannounced.[…] We couldn’t find 6037 Ramshorn Place. Are you sure you live there? (We did find a 6037 Ramshorn Terrace but the lady there couldn’t help.) Harlan said you were mysterious, but this is ridiculous.”
And Tip’s warning about the manuscript of Her Smoke Rose up Forever, written in Mexico, almost prevented Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Barry Malzberg from reading it:

“PS, this paper has been stored on a roach infested coconut ranch. Don’t let it lie among your papers. If not sprayed or frozen, invisible eggs could hatch, they eat paper and book bindings and cloth and electric insulation, they grow to four inches and breed like they’re burning up.”
The most touching correspondence is between Ursula K. Le Guin, nicknamed “Starbear,” and “Tip.” The tone is feminine, chatty, and self-effacing, even as they discuss their award-winning works.

Excerpts of the letters show two women, whose work has had a major influence in science fiction, facing great challenges. Le Guin moved forward, with purpose and determination, and demonstrated that being a woman, wife, and mother didn’t mean she couldn’t make major contributions to culture and to literature. And Sheldon rocketed towards the brink, churning out autobiographical work such as “Painwise,” “Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death,” and “The Women Men Don’t See.”

After her secret was revealed in 1976, ending a run of nearly nine years, Tiptree wrote to Le Guin:

“Ursula, Ursula, I am petrified. All the friends, the sf world—will they take it as deception? […]Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put on? […] Well dear Starbear an old age is dead and time to begin a new one. But I think I’m finished. Tip says goodbye to a very dear friend and all this is hers.”
Le Guin responded:

“oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable—Wie geht’s, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! […]I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on.”
To Gardner Dozois, who encouraged her to continue writing, Tiptree wrote:

“Alli Sheldon is maybe a mad woman, maybe a good ex-researcher, but is not a science fiction writer or any other kind of writer. I am nothing…”
There was no truth to this; she sold several stories under her female pseudonym, and Raccoona Sheldon’s "The Screwfly Solution" won a Nebula Award. Editors continued to solicit work from her, but she couldn’t resurrect Tip’s voice. At one point, she threw all of her manuscripts in progress into a fireplace.

Fueled by the feminist movement, the barriers started to come down. Marta Randall, who would soon become president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, personally welcomed her. Joanna Russ wrote Sheldon, encouraging her to meet with a “youthful Lesbian feminist community.”

Sheldon’s friends reached out their hands to her, concerned about her obvious despair. But plagued by depression, having attempted suicide actively once and passively for many years, she didn’t take them.

Reclusive until the end, Alice Sheldon met few of her speculative fiction contemporaries and none of her female correspondents. Her suicide note was dated 1979, but it wasn’t until 1987, facing her own health problems, her husband blind and disabled, that she carried out a suicide pact, shooting him and then herself.

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon and Julie Phillips truly deserve the Hugo award nomination. It showcases the rich history of the genre in addition to the work of Alice Bradley Sheldon and a vast list of her contemporaries. The examination of parallel developments in the golden ages of science fiction and of feminism show the insidious effects of sexism and homophobia stripped of blame, hype, and propaganda.

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (Aug. 2006)
Price: $18.45
Hardcover: 469 pages
ISBN: 0-312-20385-3.

[Author’s notes: Portions of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Noneuclidean Café.

For additional reading:

Phillips, Julie, ed. “Dear Starbear: The Le Guin-Tiptree Letters.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 2006: 77-115.

Smith, Jeffrey D., ed. Meet Me At Infinity: The Uncollected Tiptree: Fiction and Nonfiction, New York. Tom Doherty Associates, June 2001.]