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

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Gracie reviews the biography of Alice Bradley Sheldon, an amazing woman who wrote award winning science fiction under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. from 1967 to her death in 1987. (She also occasionally wrote under the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon from 197477.)

Tiptree was most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently "male" or "female." It wasn't until 1977 that folks discovered that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman.

But Gracie didn't know any of this when she grabbed the book. (She's weird like that.)

While Tiptree's works are important, what was most astounding to me was the life of Alice B. Sheldon ~ or Alli as she preferred to be called. It's the 'making of' Tiptree, the dual life and the ruckus when discovered that make for delicious reading. It's the story of a woman's voice strangled and struggling which makes this a heartbreaking read. And in this book, James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, you get all the goods...

Little Alice in Africa

Imagine a world where no one has yearly trips to the zoo to see the elephants, let alone ever seen an elephant, and you are one of the few who has seen them (and more). But you went when you were just 5 years old, so you were carried nearly everywhere and not allowed to walk and hunt and shoot like the others you were with, including your mom. You were not only newsworthy back home, but as a little white girl with golden curls you were a magical white elephant to those men who carried you. You were simultaneously a novelty in both worlds; an outsider.

As you grew up, you were always in the shadows. The shadows of death too. First the sheltered over-protective world of your parents who had lost your older baby sister. Then that alienating trip to Africa, where death was more than a fear. You returned home a famous novelty, and back to the life of your over-protective and much more famous parents. Then, at age 9 you went back to Africa again. As a girl, you knew your mom was the famous one. She was not only an amazingly accomplished world traveler and hunter, but not ostracized as she was the social entertainer of her set. And she was an extremely popular writer too.

Alice, age 9, with Parents For Second Trip to Africa

As a young woman you (like most of us do) loved your mother but feared her shadow as well. You also learned quickly that women did not have the same rights as men. Privileged enough to receive a college education, you were also in the shadow of men. It didn't help that you were attracted to women. You didn't understand it. It wasn't acceptable. And the few times you tried, more death and shadows. Eventually, you did more than just doubt your standing, but yourself. To the point where you were a writer, but unable to use your voice.

This is the world of Alice.

Given her upbringing, her experiences and her nature, the roaring 20's didn't mean the freedom we've all read it to be. The 30's only were worse. The 40's and 50's only meant more discrimination and recriminations for her gender. As time passed, the world moved on and marvels like Africa were no longer the marvels they once were. People saw elephants, gorillas, and lions; the Victorian ways and world view that Alli grew up with vanished as quickly as 'deepest darkest Africa' and Alli only felt more alone. Her magical world of childhood was gone, not merely outgrown. Where did she come from and where would she belong?

Despite the out-of-the-ordinary experiences and an uncommon role model, Alli was left with doom, depression and nearly bereft of a self-identity. She felt like a being without options and no way to fit in. She did more than question her survival.

Alice in WAC Uniform, 1945

Often viewed as headstrong, her wild actions were just knee-jerk reactions to the pain she felt. The bad first marriage, lesbian loves lost, these left Alli a lone solitary figure in the shadows. (Alli would later call herself bisexual: "I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.") With all her dreams seemingly unreachable mainly due to her gender, a gender she did not fully understand or identify with, more pain and alienation was added to her loneliness. She felt alone on the sidelines, in pain, and trying desperately to do something for 'humanity' even if she did not feel a part of it.

It is all these things, her feelings and experiences (even more than I can recount here) which formed this fascinating, intelligent and provocative woman. And it is she, at age 51, who created Tiptree (even if she would say otherwise); and Tiptree who gave her, in part, the ability to speak from the shadows, of the shadows.

While Tiptree was a shadowy figure himself, both in terms of the need to hide his true identity and in his own interior world (as alloted by Alli), he was a vehicle for Alli to speak. Cloaked in the powerful and legitimate 'voice' of a man, she feared less and allowed herself to speak. Tiptree also gave her a distance that she used to detach from her personal self. He was like the second teller in the oral story tradition, telling the good story with no attachment to 'success'; he was allowed to have fun and not sweat the small stuff. It worked. Alli was writing and getting paid. Tiptree became a very popular and respected author ~ and 'his' stories regarding gender, female characters etc. put him in the mix of women's lib talk and discussions on women's writing. It worked so well that Tiptree's popularity caused Alli to live a double life.

As Tiptree she wrote and had longterm correspondence with other authors and publishers. She was both fan and celebrity, but more amazingly, Alli formed friendships. Even if these were "Tiptree's friends" she felt a sense of belongingness in the world of sci-fi. But Alli was also a woman. A married woman.

Alice and Ting Sheldon

Now in her second, and last, marriage, Alli had found companionship. (But not fulfilling sex. Apparently she and husband Huntington 'Ting' Sheldon had tried but had no success with sex, so Alli gave up sex. That's no sex for decades. Though it seems clear that Alli did masturbate, I cannot imagine let alone commit myself to a sexless life. No wonder her voice was strangled.) Alli now had to juggle the life of a wife and her duties as 'a woman' with Tiptree's needs. While it's clear at times Alli found great happiness in her relationships with Tiptree's author and sci-fi friends, her identity as a male further aggravated her lot as a woman.

She invents another alter-ego, Raccoona Sheldon, but Raccoona struggles with her female voice. What can she say as a woman? Alli is stuck for she feels she is biologically female, but does not identify as one culturally. And Tiptree's success outshines Raccoona ~ even having 'him' write letters of recommendations to editors and publishers to open doors for 'her' must have chafed Alli.

What ensues is the tangle of lies being unraveled and this outing proved to be too much for Alli. Removed of her magical male power cloak Alli felt too bare to write. She worried about the judgments, she worried about hurting her friends who now knew her to be a woman; but more than anything Alli worried about what to write. That same pain, alienation, anxiety, and questioning of gender that made Tiptree's works so wonderful were the same things which prevented Alli from putting herself into her work. Being outted put her under the microscope ~ even if it was one of her own making.

Alice B. Sheldon

The formation of self, good, bad, intended or not, is a lifelong struggle. And at 62 Alli was not emotionally much further along than when she started.

There's so much to say about this remarkable woman, fierce quotes I could share, and more... but then the author has already done it. It's a fascinating story, filled with more required reading (and I do love that so with books!), and it's more than aptly told by author Julie Phillips.

The only flaw I can state about this book is that it starts a bit slow ~ if you know nothing about Tiptree other than what's on the jacket (which is, again, perhaps not the usual biographical selection method), it takes a bit to settle in. You are tempted to fall in love with Alli's mom, Mary, and feel a bit put off at being pulled into taking the fork that becomes 'about Alli' rather than to continue the 'all about Mary.' Your interest in Mary likely will not wane (and I certainly will look for more books about and by her), but once you get into Alli's path you're as fascinated as can be that this 'character' is not fictional.

I'd say it's "Larger than life," but then, this was a life. Amazing.

If you're interested in feminism, all it's definitions and incarnations prior to women's lib or any other such name, get this book.

If you're interested in history, not the date and event sort of history but what it was like to live 'then', and how the times defied and defined lives, you must get this book.

If you're a woman who struggles with your identity, a person wrestling with 'rights of self vs. humanity,' a writer trying to use her voice, or otherwise feel alienated, you need this book.

Of course, if you're a science fiction fan, you'll love it too.

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

The bottom line: Alli died in 1987, and though I never heard of her until 2007, I've put her on my list of heroes. Rest in peace, Alli. I love you.

Get this book.

Review by Gracie.

Title: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Author: Julie Phillips
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (August 8, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0312203853
ISBN-13: 978-0312203856

 

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