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).

9 Responses to “Brief Notes on a Double Life”

  1. Velcro City Tourist Board » Blog Archive » Links for 23-09-2006 Says:

    [...] 3 – 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.” Which means this lengthy post by Niall Harrison is anything but a review, then… (tags: feminism authors writing Jr Tiptree James Sheldon Alice biography history fiction science) [...]

  2. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    Nice one, I’d read Wolfe’s glowing praise for this little beauty a few Locii ago and it had completely slipped my mind. It has since been added to the pile of books needing to be read.

    All I can say is thank goodness for Sci-fi writers with mental health issues. If it wasn’t for them then the field of sci-fi biographies would be nowhere near as interesting. In fact, they’d probably wind up resembling Quine’s _The Time of my life_ which was almost too exciting as he lived such adventures as having pleasant dinners with other philosophers and going to Qatar where it’s very sandy.

    I don’t know if there’s a biography of Asimov but somehow I doubt it’s very much like Errol Flynn’s biography.

  3. Fran Says:

    That sounds really good–I must get my hands on a copy and also read Sheldon’s work.

    Whether you wanted to or not, I think you wound up writing a review–a good one too!

  4. Niall Says:

    Jonathan:

    All I can say is thank goodness for Sci-fi writers with mental health issues.

    Graham pointed me towards a study reported by Frederik Pohl in his essay in Hell’s Cartographers (1975 collection of autobiographical essays by sf writers) that seems relevant here:

    The psychologists, John E. Drevdahl and Raymond B. Cattell, sent out questionnaires to 356 individuals, divided into three categories: general writers, artists, and science fiction writers. From the questionnaires they developed psychological profiles for each subject, averaged them out and published the numbers for a variety of traits for each group.

    I’ll give you some of the numbers I should explain what the numbers mean. The average of all Americans is taken as 100% for each trait. The scores published give the departures from the average. If sf writers score 10% higher on something than the average, the score is given as +10%. If 6% lower, -6%. They scored in tendencies towards one or other of opposing pairs of traits (e.g. ‘intelligence vs defective ability’), and plus score indicates movement in the direction of the first trait — in this case, higher intelligence. A minus score, as you no doubt already have deduced, means the direction is towards the opposed one.

    So, for instance, on ‘intelligence vs defective ability’, general writers scored +10.9%, artists scored +8.4%, and sf writers scored +14.9% — not a massive variation. On ‘adventurous cyclothymia vs withdrawn’, general writers scored +5.7%, artists +4.7% … and sf writers, +25.4%.

    As for Asimov, I don’t think there’s a biography, but he wrote three volumes of autobiography: In Memory Still Green and In Joy Still Felt (for which I believe he wrote a poem specifically so he could use those lines as titles …) and, somewhat later, I, Asimov. The latter is by all accounts a bit more … uncensored. ([plug] Of course, this is part of the territory covered admirably well by Gary K. Wolfe in an upcoming essay in Vector. [/plug])

    Fran: thanks, and yes, you should absolutely read Sheldon’s fiction. The place to start (and indeed the only collection in print) is Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (my initial reaction, when I read it last year, is here). There are also several stories online at SCIFICTION: “The Women Men Don’t See” and “The Screwfly Solution” (which are in Smoke); and “Painwise” and “Beam Us Home” (which are not). Also of interest, when you’ve read “The Women Men Don’t See”, may be the Fowler story I mentioned: “What I Didn’t See.” Phew!

  5. kev Says:

    The Silverberg comment gets dragged out anytime Tiptree is discussed but what about this from harry harrison’s intro to 10 000 Light Years From Home (1973)

    ‘There is a temptation in an introduction … to be very biographical … I shall resist this because the fiction, the stories before you, are what really counts. The fact that the author enjoys observing bears in the wilds of Canada or skindiving deep in Mexico is not really relevant. Nor is the information that he spent a good part of World War II in a Pentagon sub-basement. These facts may clue you to the obviosity that James Tiptree jr is well travelled and well experienced in the facts, both sordid and otherwise, of our world. But internal evidence in the stories informs us of that just as easily.’

    Do you and I who did not read these stories as ‘James Tiptree jr stories’ but as ‘Alice Sheldon writing as james Tiptree jr stories’ miss something or see something different in there given that radical change in knowledge of Tiptree’s identity?

  6. Paul Kincaid Says:

    I started reading Tiptree’s stories just before the Alice Sheldon identity became known. I am pretty sure that Raccoona Sheldon was understood to be James Tiptree before the Sheldon revelation – but after so many years it all becomes a little fuzzy. I do know that I read ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ not long before I heard the news, and read it again after the news. My reaction was: ‘oh, of course’. But in fact it seemed a much bolder story when written by a man than when written by a woman.

    I think there must have been some difference in how we read Tiptree and in how we read Sheldon, but it probably wasn’t quite a radically as hindsight makes us imagine. And certainly not as radical a change as it was for the writer. The Tiptree stories that really make an impact are from those first three collections – 10,000 Light Years from Home, Warm Worlds and Otherwise and Star Songs of an Old Primate – they were the ones published when Tiptree was still Tiptree. After that, the quality of the stories certainly tailed off – though I’ve never been entirely sure whether this was because of the gender revelation or because she was being forced into writing lacklustre novels.

  7. The Color of Neanderthal Eyes « Torque Control Says:

    [...] It is, to put it mildly, a contrast to the initial romanticised descriptions of Kamir. It’s not really surprising that the one mention of “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” in Julie Phillips’ biography highlights this scene, putting it in a context of Alice Sheldon’s ongoing engagement with the concept of motherhood: “In it a mother dies happily in childbirth, knowing that her children will go on. This time Alli seemed almost wiling to accept instinct as an explanation” (390). And perhaps the scene is, in fact, the scene my hypothetical early Tiptree would have structured the story around, because it seems to me the sort of unflinching image we associate with Tiptree. But in the story as written it’s part of a larger whole, a more general exploration of the limits of biology, the in-built frameworks of weakness and strength that shape a culture. [...]

  8. Now All Tiptree Until The End « Torque Control Says:

    [...] Notes by Niall Harrison (here) [...]

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