Brief Notes on a Double Life

  • When I sat down to read Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to write a review of it. And I’m not: it’s surely been one of the most widely-reviewed (and often, though not always, well-reviewed) books of the year, from the front page of the New York Times Book Review to Excessive Candour. But having read it, I can’t say nothing. It’s that kind of book. Normally, when I’m asked what books I’d recommend to people, I say that you have to know the taste of the person you’re recommending to. I can’t think of a reader I know who wouldn’t get something out of James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, however. If you have any interest in one or more of science fiction, fandom, men, women, feminism, twentieth century America, colonialism, psychology, identity, writers’ lives, or half-a-dozen other topics, you should read this book.
  • Major Alice Hastings Bradley Davey Sheldon, PhD., had a truly extraordinary life. We knew that. We knew that she had lived before she started writing. There’s a telling comment from Charles Platt, late in the book: “After her death, some people said, ‘Oh, if only she’d gone to more conventions, she would have found the community was willing to provide her the emotional support she lacked, and then she might have found there was more to life.’ But the fact is—how can I put this?—her taste and breadth of experience and knowledge of the world was so far beyond the average science fiction convention-goer, it’s just laughable that she could have derived very much from these embarrassing events of people dressing up in costumes and firing ray guns at each other.” Reading through the events of Sheldon’s life, rather than knowing them as a list on the page, makes the truth of Platt’s comment blindingly obvious—although the list is pretty impressive in itself. Before Tiptree’s first story was published, in 1968, when Sheldon was 53, she had, roughly in order: been on several extensive trips to Africa; come of age into Chicago society; eloped with and married a man on five days’ acquaintance; become a painter of some talent, and an art critic; divorced; served with distinction in the WAAC during World War II; remarried; joined the CIA as an intelligence analyst; run a chicken hatchery in New Jersey; and studied for and achieved a PhD in psychology. And she kept a brilliant journal all the while.
  • Given such source material, you have to suspect that it would have been hard to write this biography badly, but extremely easy to write it averagely well. Sheldon’s life is busy, and complex, and portraying the ways in which the world constrained her, and the ways in which she reacted to those constraints, demands nuance. Just occasionally, there is a sense that Phillips is trying a little too hard to (to coin a phrase) story Sheldon’s life. For instance, Sheldon once characterises Ursula Le Guin as the Martin Luther King of feminist sf, and Joanna Russ as the Malcolm X; Phillips perhaps plays up to this characterisation a little too much, with Sheldon neatly in the middle, having struggled to invent feminism for herself, almost from first principles. But for the most part the balance is perfect. And despite the obvious extraordinariness of Sheldon’s life, or perhaps because of it, there is a sense that it signifies: everything Sheldon does seems resonant. The story of the book is the story of someone being brought up hard against the inflexibility of the world.
  • Understanding the roots of James Tiptree Jr’s fiction, part I:

    At Lake Tanganyika, too, [Alice’s mother] Mary thought of Lake Michigan before the pioneers came, and foresaw factories, movie theaters, a whole dirty Chicago springing up along its idyllic shores. The scene she saw “was beauty itself, the perfect loveliness of beauty undespoiled. But it was beauty with a doom on its bright head, for already the white man had come. […] In ten years, twenty or fifty, civilization and its gauds would be enthroned. The old Africa would go.” Their very arrival on the frontier was the beginning of its end. Alice grew up, she once wrote, in a world “suffused with sadness; everywhere it was said, or seen, that great change was coming fast and much would be forever gone.”

    Part II:

    “I realize that my definition of being OK or normal was being able to conceal the pain I felt so as not to radiate it at other people, so as not to lay it on them because I assumed they already had all the pain they could take and were doing the same thing. And that there was sort of an unwritten convention that you didn’t load onto somebody else or didn’t break down or allow the pain to get out of control. […] I really assumed this was general in life. Everybody was just like me and could just barely stand what they had inside, and it was just noblesse oblige not to load more on there.”

    Part III:

    Almost everything Alice saw in India [at the age of 10] went into the category of “horror-recitals”. In Calcutta, she said later, “As we went for some morning sweet cake, we’d step over dying people with dying babies in their arms.” She saw “starving dwarf-children roving around racks of bones that were mothers trying to nurse more babies, toothless mouths and unbearable eyes turning on me from rag heaps that were people.” Again she saw frightening scenes she was told were normal, such as “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 recognisable skull and pry out the gold teeth.” She thought of her own grandmother, lying in a silk-lined casket in Chicago. She wondered if that was normal. She wondered if this was what it meant to be human.

    Part IV:

    Finally Alice got to be alone with Adele, on the couch in the ladies’ restroom at a party. They sat close together; Alice felt Adele’s hair brush her cheek and was “paralyzed with love.” But when Adele spoke, it was to ask her if she’d ever been with two men at once. Adele had, and it was wonderful. She would never make love to just one again. Alice had profoundly wanted to believe that the girl she admired was also a virgin, that within her beauty she, too, sheltered a shy, solitary intensity. Now Alice’s own crush felt tainted and perverse. Then, as Alice was still trying to take in her friend’s words, Adele became violently sick to her stomach. The vomiting went on and on, while Alice held her friend’s head, until “there were phone calls to people I didn’t know, and she went away, or was taken. a very short while later she was dead of septic abortion.”

  • The book, then, makes very clear the ways Sheldon’s experience informed her fiction. In fact, one satisfying thing about the book is the simple experience of seeing sf taken so seriously and represented so fairly (which does not always mean positively). Perhaps the coverage of the late stories is a little rushed, but that’s about all there is to complain about: Tiptree’s many correspondences are documented extensively, and many of his stories are discussed in some detail.
  • Of the cast of characters, I knew at least the outline of Sheldon’s life, and a reasonable amount about her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley (mostly as a result of the discussion surrounding Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See”—which I will have to reread in the near future). I knew next to nothing about Sheldon’s second husband, Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, except insofar as he figured in the background of the Tiptree story. I also didn’t know what Alice Sheldon looked like. This last is only remarkable because there is an unfortunate tendency for women artists to have their looks noted and catalogued, particularly if they’re beautiful, as if they meant something; and based on the photos in this book, Alice Sheldon was beautiful. I’m impressed that nobody’s mentioned it.
  • One way of looking at the story of Sheldon as a writer is that it tells us there is no such thing as a True Name. Phillips treats Tiptree (and Sheldon’s other pseudonym, Racoona) as, effectively, a character, who comes from Sheldon like any other literary creation (I’m following her convention of referring to Tiptree as “he”, for instance, though I can’t quite bring myself to be on first-name terms with Sheldon). But it’s clear that the relationship is more complex than that, and also that every relationship in Sheldon’s life was partial. We are always, to different people, slices of ourselves, personae; to live as a whole, single person is impossible, in many ways. And in Sheldon’s case, that’s more true than most. One reason she had such a varied life is that every so often, she would simply up and change things. Aside from Ting, she seems to have had few truly long-term friends.
  • Notwithstanding Platt’s comment above, it’s also clear that Sheldon’s epistolary relationships, as Tiptree, with so many and varied members of the sf community, meant an awful lot to her. At the same time, the gregarious inquisitiveness of the community took its toll, even through the filter of the pseudonym. If Phillips’ account of the near-hysteria at the Worldcon where “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” won a Hugo is anything like accurate, for instance, it is definitely a good thing that Sheldon wasn’t there. As it was, at one point, Phillips notes, writing letters almost took over from writing stories as Sheldon’s main occupation; and when, later on, friends would visit her in person, the amount of performance required drained her. When David Hartwell visited, Sheldon asked him if he’d like to stay for dinner. Ting took Hartwell for a walk in the garden, and asked him to decline, on the grounds that it would take Sheldon days to recover.
  • For all that the revelation of Tiptree’s identity left people with egg-on-face (famously Robert Silverberg, with his quote about Tiptree’s writing being “ineluctably masculine”, although it’s worth noting that Joanna Russ said equally absolutist things about Tiptree’s gender, despite also coming closest to seeing through the pseudonym), there is a sense that there are parts of this story that the sf community wants very strongly to be able to believe in. Namely, the almost-total acceptance on the revelation of Sheldon’s identity; but this story does seem to be true. Le Guin’s delight is palpable, Silverberg’s response is graceful (“you didn’t fool me; I fooled myself”), Gardner Dozois said more than once that he thought the best work was still to come, as Sheldon learned to write truly as herself. And so on.
  • So even as we can see the effect that the revelation of her identity was having on Tiptree—if it didn’t make Tiptree mute, it at least changed the fiction dramatically—we can also see the positive effects Sheldon and her work were having on other people, and on the community she had become a part of. Of course, the scales don’t balance, and eventually the story becomes fully tragic: in 1987, during a period of depression, Sheldon shot Ting, and then shot herself. What can you say to that? Not a lot. You can say she left behind a remarkable body of work, sure, but that doesn’t seem adequate. Having read Phillips’ book I think I’d say that what she left behind above all is a reminder of the importance of questions. Sheldon’s writing begs questions, about men’s writing, and women’s writing, and about sex and death and human nature; but Sheldon’s life as a writer begs more. It’s hardly adequate, either, but as a legacy, to keep us asking questions seems to me fitting, and meaningful.

Note: to anyone who got here following the link from Julie Phillips’ site, I did actually say what she says I said, but in a different post (down the bottom).