Another Interzone review, from August 2006. The reviews editor at that time had the idea of asking Paul Kincaid and me to write a pair of linked reviews of Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree, Jr. Paul has kindly agreed to put up his review of the same book at his own blog, Through the Dark Labyrinth, and we’ve linked them, so you can read both parts of the diptych.
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips
St Martin’s Press, 480pp $27.95 hb
Even before she was a person, Alice Hastings Bradley was a fictional character. At the age of six, she featured in a children’s book, Alice in Jungleland, written by her mother, Mary, a well-known author and society hostess. Here, Bradley described how, during a sea voyage to Africa, the young Alice was dressed as a doll and placed in a wooden box, after which she was carried into a fancy-dress party. Much to everyone’s surprise, when the box was opened Alice remained perfectly still, ‘just like a real doll in a box’.
The sense of relief contained in that anecdote is almost palpable, as well it might be, for Mary Hastings Bradley had a great deal invested in her daughter’s good behaviour. The expedition which she had helped to fund was headed for the Congo, to film and shoot gorillas. Bradley had been publicly criticised over her decision to take her daughter with her and she knew that she would be permitted to take on the role of explorer only if she could also demonstrate that she was a competent mother at all times. Thus the young Alice Bradley became the unwilling centre of attention, required to appear immaculately dressed and well-behaved at all times, conforming to society’s demands in order to support her mother’s claim to a life beyond what society deemed proper. All the while young Alice was, as she later acknowledged, the baggage on the trip, denied the adventures her mother craved because she was too young
The irony of this was surely not lost on the adult Alice, whose lasting fame rests not on her work as a research psychologist, nor even on her career within the CIA, both carried out in her own name, but for her creation of another fictional character. James Tiptree, Jr. was the by-line who unexpectedly came to life, achieving a strong and vivid existence on the page, and providing Alice (Alli) Sheldon, his progenitor, with a voice for all those things she felt she couldn’t say as a woman. As it turned out, Tiptree’s existence was to prove as fragile as that of Alice in Jungleland. When Tip’s true identity was accidentally revealed in 1976, it effectively robbed Alli Sheldon of her voice, while young Alice proved not to be a beautiful doll, but a troubled little girl who struggled hard to come to terms with life as an adult.
The story of how James Tiptree, Jr was revealed to be Alice Sheldon, ‘nothing but an old lady in Virginia’, is now well known, but the territory between Alice in Jungleland and James Tiptree, Jr has so far been little explored. Julie Phillips’ ambitious, multi-layered biography now reveals that the life of Alice Sheldon was every bit as strange and exotic as the life she bestowed on Tip; and more to the point, that much of his life was indeed her own.
For much of her life Alli was tortured by the sense of not knowing who she really was. A confusing childhood left her with, on the one hand, a very well developed sense of her own artistic and intellectual abilities (among other things she was an accomplished artist and an excellent mathematician) but on the other, an inability to apply herself to her work in order to improve her skills. She wanted to make her own way, but was reluctant to give up the comforts of her parents’ house and money. Yet she was stifled by her adoring mother; and for many years Allie associated love with possession. More than once she described her mother as a ‘queen bee’, needing to always be the centre of attention, but it is clear that the bond between mother and daughter was very strong throughout their lives
Alli’s acquaintances – almost everyone interviewed for the biography seems to start by saying ‘I didn’t know her very well’ – clearly regarded her as a strong woman who conducted life on her own terms. However, her journals suggest that she was very uncertain about her gender identity and her sexual orientation. She could not come to terms with her wild crushes on women, none of which seem to have been entirely reciprocated, nor reconcile these with the fact that she preferred the company of men as friends, although all her sexual partners appear also to have been male. She could ride a horse, fire a gun, fish as well as anyone she knew; she puzzled over how a woman might reconcile such skills with motherhood and managing a home. In an unfinished essay, ‘Femininity and Society: A Discussion from the Standpoint of the Atypical Woman’, she wrestled with this dilemma, concluding that male and female were cultural categories, and that the sexes are really divided into men and mothers, and that the female reproductive system was a ‘vampire’, themes she would often return to in her stories. In the light of this, her eventual decision to more fully ‘inhabit’ her by-line is perhaps not so surprising, in that she was finally able to give voice to a part of herself that had remained suppressed for so many years.
One might wonder why Sheldon needed Tiptree as much as she seems to have done, considering the remarkable variety of things she tackled during her life. She had an impressive war-time career in the CIA, working on the interpretation of surveillance photographs. Later, she helped her second husband to run a chicken farm, work that turned out to be far more time-consuming than they initially supposed. Later still, she went back to university, finally becoming Dr Alice Sheldon, research psychologist. However, as Phillips shows, the work always came between Sheldon and her artistic side, rather as motherhood had got in the way of writing and exploration for Mary Bradley. Becoming James Tiptree gave Alli permission to write, providing her with a space as well as a voice. Whereas Woolf advocated that women should have rooms of their own in which to work, Alli Sheldon literally took this a step further, and created a persona in which to work. Having said this, I think that Phillips perhaps misses a trick in not considering that having attempted to present Alli as a feminist (I’m not always entirely persuaded of the argument in favour of this), she never really addresses the fact that Alli transforms herself into, effectively, a male version of her own mother, or even, the man her mother would have most liked to be.
In Tip, Alice Sheldon seemingly reached her apotheosis, brief as it turned out to be. Critics agree that the stories written after Tip’s identity was revealed were never as good as those before. It seemed that Alli could write only by distancing her creative ability from her physical self; once the distance was removed, her writing began to wither away. With that went her reason for being. Alice Sheldon had all her adult life suffered from depression. She was terrified of old age, and terrified of what it would do to her and her husband, Ting. They had made a suicide pact, but at the point when Alli decided the time had come for them to die, Ting’s only problem was failing eyesight. It seems likely that her depression had convinced her otherwise; consequently, on May 19, 1987, she shot Ting as he lay asleep and then, after ringing a lawyer and her step-son, she turned the gun on herself.
Tiptree’s legacy is well-documented. The discovery that he was in fact she has prompted much critical discussion on how to read masculinity and femininity in writing, and taught a couple of generations of readers to be more careful about making judgements based on the author’s name and supposed gender. The James Tiptree Award is now an institution, promoting work which pushes the boundaries of our understanding of gender portrayals in science fiction; it is supported by one of the most fiercely loyal communities within the sf world.
Alice Sheldon has become very much overshadowed by her own alter-ego, and this biography is therefore a very welcome redressing of the balance. It’s all too easy for us to be admiring of the carefree Tip, pounding out his stories, or to acclaim Alice Sheldon’s audacity in creating this vibrant persona for herself. It’s far too easy to represent the creation of James Tiptree, Jr. as a conscious feminist statement, a thumbing of the nose to the masculine sf establishment. To do so is, I believe, to overlook what it was that drove Alice Sheldon to transform herself as she did. Julie Phillips’ carefully researched account of the life of Alice Sheldon is a stark reminder of what has happened to too many women, not only to writers, who have tried to find a balance between their daily and creative lives. James Tiptree, Jr triumphed but it was Alice Sheldon who fought every inch of the way, and Julie Phillips who brought that remarkable story to our attention.