Stranger than science fiction

Before JT Leroy there was James Tiptree Jr. -- the writer and alter ego of Alice Sheldon, a beautiful woman who struggled under the weight of her talent, depression and sexuality.

Topics: Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Books,

Stranger than science fiction

People are understandably fascinated by the lives of great artists. We scrutinize them for the formative experience or the light-bulb flare of inspiration — whatever it is that pushes a human being beyond the rim of the merely good and results in a work for the ages. But in a way, the lives of the near great are just as illuminating. They’re more like us in both their fears and their limitations, and they’re often better at showing us where the threshold is by not quite managing to cross it. With them, you can see the precise point when nerve failed, perseverance ran out, vision faltered.

Take the case of James Tiptree Jr., who for a few years during the heyday of science fiction’s “New Wave,” in the 1960s, wrote stories that combined, in the words of biographer Julie Phillips, “exhilarating speed with unsettling shifts of perspective and resonant moral and psychological depths.” The reclusive Tiptree carried on involved, intimate correspondences with at least a dozen other writers and editors. They knew that their friend had gone on safari in Africa at the age of 6, learned to fly a plane and shoot a gun, worked for military intelligence during World War II and for the CIA afterward, published a short story in the New Yorker and obtained a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. What they didn’t know was that he didn’t exist, or not exactly. The person writing under the name James Tiptree Jr. was actually Alice Sheldon, a woman in her 50s, living with her husband in suburban McLean, Va.

Phillips spent a decade working on this absorbing biography, so its publication on the heels of the revelation of a couple of notorious literary frauds is pure coincidence. Yet “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon” offers a rich exploration of the attractions and perils of writerly personas, and no doubt a more revealing one than we’ll ever get from JT Leroy and James Frey. Alice Sheldon, as Phillips portrays her, was a woman who struggled all her days to do justice to her own knotted and painful experience of life; she came closest in Tiptree’s fiction. But this biography conveys the pervasive sense of a gift thwarted on the verge of consummation, and Phillips’ meditations on why that happened make this book exceptional.

What’s particularly provocative about James Tiptree is that almost everything “he” told his epistolary friends about himself — down to several passionate but doomed infatuations with unavailable women — was essentially true. Sheldon lived an extraordinary life, and was a woman of immense charm, intelligence and talent. Yet somehow, she needed the mask, or rather the alter ego, of Tiptree to write her best fiction. When Tiptree’s real identity was discovered by some sleuthing fans, Sheldon was relieved, it’s true; the strain of maintaining a second self had been wearing her down, but the aftermath was mixed. As Phillips points out, nothing she wrote afterward “was ever as direct, honest and exciting as her work before she was exposed.”

The most difficult and preoccupying relationship in Sheldon’s life was with her mother, and it’s not hard to see why. Mary Bradley was a popular author (she supported the family with her writing when her husband’s business interests faltered during the Depression), a glamorous Chicago socialite and a fearless adventurer. With her stalwart, supportive husband and her angelic blond daughter, she traveled in the 1920s to parts of Africa so remote that the people there had never seen whites before. In one famous anecdote, Mary was posing for a photograph with the head of a lion she’d shot in her lap. When the animal, who was only stunned, roused itself and began to roar, she sprang up and shot it again.

One of Phillips’ great assets in writing this book is that Sheldon is an endlessly amusing, shrewd and reflective writer, even if her attempts at self-examination often failed to bring the insights she needed most. Phillips quotes her subject liberally, because usually no one else could put things better. In a letter, Sheldon described her mother as “a kind of explorer-heroine, highly literate (Oxford & Heidelberg), yet very feminine whatever that is. You help her through doors — and then find out she can hike 45 miles up a mountain carrying her rifle and yours. And repeat the next day. And joke. And dazzling looks … I am still approached by doddering old wrecks, extinguished Scandinavian savants and what have you who want to tell me about Mother as a young woman.”

That phrase, “feminine whatever that is,” is a revealing aside; as Phillips sees it, Sheldon would spend most of her 72 years trying to figure out how to be a woman. A chief obstacle was her own mother’s manifest success at doing whatever she wanted while remaining “feminine whatever that is.” Sheldon, who accomplished enough in her time to make the child of a more ordinary mom feel exceptional, wrote that her mother “didn’t provide a model for me, she provided an impossibility.” It’s not that Mary or her husband, Herbert, weren’t doting parents — they were, and Sheldon would at times paint her childhood as a lost paradise in which she felt “so beloved and understood. En rapport, such high morale in our little group, and the world a great treasure pot to be opened.” At other times, she felt smothered by her parents’ emotional demands; she also liked to describe Mary as a “cannibal” mother.

Sheldon and her mother were very much alike — but not exactly, and that difference seems to have been the source of her lifelong feeling of never quite coming into focus. As a little girl, she was the star of several children’s books her mother wrote about their travels in Africa and Asia, books that featured Alice’s own delightful illustrations. As a stylish debutante, she was photographed by admiring society journalists. Then she eloped with a bad-boy poet to live the boho life of a painter in 1930s California. Six stormy years of marriage ended in divorce, whereupon Sheldon joined the Army as one of the first WACs. She got into the burgeoning intelligence field known as photointerpretation (studying aerial reconnaissance photographs for enemy installations and activity). Stationed in Paris, she challenged an Army colonel to a game of chess, played blindfolded, beat him and shortly thereafter married him.

With her new husband, Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, Alice returned to the U.S. and the couple spent a few quiet years running (of all things) a chicken hatchery in New Jersey. In the 1950s, they moved to Washington to work for the CIA. Ting ranked high enough to sit in on National Security Council meetings with the president, but Alice soon got tired of photointerpretation and went back to school to study clinical psychology. She eventually earned her Ph.D., studying the effect of novelty on lab rats, and struck up a lifelong correspondence with the great psychologist Rudolf Arnheim.

Sheldon had loved pulp science fiction (as “pure escape … my form of self-indulgence”) from childhood, but didn’t make a concerted attempt to write it until she was past 50, when research psychology was turning out to be as hard to stick to as anything else she’d tried. She picked the name James Tiptree as a lark, inspired by a jar of Tiptree jam in a supermarket (Ting added the “Jr.”). “Tiptree wasn’t a deliberate plan,” Phillips writes, “yet he wasn’t a complete accident either.” As Phillips sees it, it was precisely the fact that Sheldon didn’t take Tiptree seriously that made the persona so liberating. He gave her “not just the authority to speak, but the courage to play games, to be bad at something, to stop trying to be polished and perfect but to be amateurish and silly and have fun. It was typical of Alli to take this step in a way that made sure she wasn’t quite admitting it even to herself.”

Once Tiptree hit his stride, he produced some of the most influential stories in a new movement dedicated to expanding science fiction beyond what fellow s.f. writer Damon Knight memorably described as the “robots, laser guns, girls in tinfoil brassieres, etc.” of earlier days. This new s.f., Phillips writes, aimed for “real characters, atmosphere, social criticism, style” at a time — the 1960s — when speculation about social change was in the air. Tiptree’s first important story, “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” coolly recounts a multistop international journey by a doctor who is in love with a mystical female vision of Earth. It gradually becomes clear that he’s intentionally spreading a lethal influenza virus as he goes, wiping out the human race to save the planet.

Other Tiptree stories seem so tightly wired into female experiences that it’s surprising more people didn’t suspect they were written by a woman. In one, a woman survivor of a plane crash opts to go off in a spaceship with an alien race rather than be “rescued” by the two-fisted male narrator of the story. He’s flabbergasted: “Ruth, they’re aliens!” “I’m used to it,” she replies. Another story, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” strikes even closer to home today: The “monstrously ugly” adolescent heroine agrees to spend her life locked in a cabinet so that she can animate the artificially grown body of “a ravishing, yellow-haired, elfin teenage movie star.” She gets to “be” the perfect girl, but she can’t feel it; the artificial body’s sexual feelings have been dispensed with by its designers as an unnecessary power drain.

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Tiptree’s stories fused themes of sex, death and alienation in ways that many of his readers hadn’t encountered before. “I read the first two sentences and felt like I’d fallen off a high tower,” one critic wrote. Tiptree’s fiction gained a following, and the persona blossomed as Sheldon began regularly exchanging letters with such innovative s.f. writers as Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison and firebrand feminist Joanna Russ. Sheldon was a charismatic correspondent. (Under her own name she wrote fan letters to mainstream writers like Tom Wolfe and Italo Calvino; Calvino was so impressed he wrote back asking to see her stories, but she never responded.) Those who exchanged letters with Tiptree felt they really knew him, and both Russ and Le Guin have confessed to being more than a little in love with him. “Tiptree was a man designed by a woman,” Phillips writes, “and that made him as appealing as any Darcy or Heathcliff.”

Yet this was also a woman who would write to a friend, “I have moments of believing I am transparent, something that did not jell. Everyone else seems to have so much density, self-organization. Personality.” During the nine years that the male disguise remained in place, Sheldon felt that “Tiptree kept taking on a stronger and stronger life of his own; if I were superstitious I’d say something was waiting for incarnation there in the Giant Foods import section.” By creating the persona as a depository for parts of herself that made her uneasy, Sheldon sapped her actual self of vitality. She saw a psychologist and typically never bothered to mention her literary alter ego, but she wrote that he told her that “some conflict or conflicts (unspecified — and better so) are blocking the natural access to energy, or that some psychic structure is in conflict with action.”

“‘I’ am not a writer,” Sheldon wrote in her journal. “‘I’ am what is left over from J.T. Jr., a mindless human female who ‘lives’ from day to day … ‘I’ haven’t a story in my head — all that went to J.T. Jr. And became, or was born, somewhat deformed or deracinated, by being his.” Yet when the truth about Tiptree was finally revealed, Sheldon didn’t feel liberated. Her writer and editor friends were overwhelmingly supportive and many were intrigued by Tiptree’s true gender. But despite freeing herself from a deception that had become unwieldy, creatively, Sheldon felt enervated and wary; she’d interpret the slightest friction in any interaction with editors and publishers as a sign of her demotion in status from male to female.

Sheldon wrote in her journal of Tiptree, “I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was — though an aging intellectual — of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman … Tiptree’s ‘death’ has made me face … my self-hate as a woman.” Phillips sees this as the key to the halting and incomplete realization of Sheldon’s gifts. “In the end,” she writes, “Alli never found a way in her fiction for a girl to grow up a whole woman.”

Sheldon’s distaste for her gender wasn’t consistent. She was an enthusiastic supporter of second-wave feminism who joined NOW and subscribed to Ms. Magazine from the outset. She started and abandoned several sympathetic treatises on the dilemma of women, especially those women with “atypical” ambitions and desires. As Tiptree, she even participated as one of the few men (the other being gay writer Samuel Delany) in a symposium on women in science fiction published in a professional journal. Russ, who came out of the closet as a lesbian during her epistolary friendship with Tiptree, received Sheldon’s confession of similar yearnings: “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.”

Still, Phillips believes that Sheldon never shook off the ill effects of a youth spent trying to live up to her parents’ expectations and her mother’s example. In school, Phillips writes, “Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty. If she hadn’t been, she might have given up the popularity contest. She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought … Instead, she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl.” The result was a woman of tremendous charm who felt exhausted by the company of other people, even those she liked. Every interaction was a life-sapping performance.

Phillips suggests that if Sheldon had been able to accept those parts of herself that defied her parents’ image of a good girl — homosexual desires, anger and grief — she might have been able to integrate Tiptree into Alice and sustain a brilliant career as an author without resorting to disguises. She also might have fared better in her lifelong struggle with depression. (She was diagnosed as a bipolar.) On the other hand, Phillips speculates, Sheldon might have found a place in the world as a scientist, in the old-fashioned Victorian polymath mode of Charles Darwin.

There’s truth in these theories, but Sheldon also suffered from some more commonplace creative problems. Throughout her life, she rushed into a profession — painting, the military, clinical psychology, writing — with idealistic, grandiose notions of how things ought to be done. Inevitably, she was stymied by the inglorious practicalities. She worshiped Mexican muralist José Orozco, only to be disappointed, upon meeting him in Mexico City, when she learned that he was painting a rich woman’s portrait for the money. Her hopes for finding a utopia of female empowerment in the WAC were dashed when the women insisted on behaving like the imperfect human beings they were. She refused to accommodate the realities of academic life — department budgets, grantsmanship — and thereby quashed her chances at a real career in science.

Sheldon’s struggles remind me of a famous conversation between the minor British writer Stephen Spender and the great poet T.S. Eliot. The young Spender told Eliot that he had always wanted to be a poet. Eliot’s reply was that he’d never understood this thing of wanting “to be a poet”; all he understood was having some poems you wanted to write. When what you really want is to write some poems, you don’t let the ultimately ancillary issues of how a poet should live or whether you’re an exceptional talent get in the way. Often, the difference between a minor writer and a great poet is a matter of insufficient — or, rather, misplaced — commitment.

With Sheldon, the nagging problem of her identity, who she wanted to be — a genius, an artist, a scientist, a writer — kept interfering with the things she wanted to do. By creating the persona of James Tiptree Jr., she was temporarily able to finesse the block. In time, though, the puzzle of identity intruded again, as this new imaginary self sucked up more and more of her time and energy. (Ellison, complaining that Tiptree wasn’t producing a promised novel, insisted that all that letter writing was the cause.) If she’d managed to solve her identity dilemma, she might have, as Phillips suggests, figured out how to write about a girl growing up into a “whole woman.” On the other hand, if she had cared more deeply, obsessively and passionately about any one of the half-dozen types of work she tried in her life, she might have looked up from it one day to find that the whole woman had arrived unbidden.

In the end, Sheldon was only able to seize control of her life in the most negative way. She talked her reluctant older husband (to whom, despite their mostly celibate marriage and her Sapphic yearnings, she was profoundly close and devoted) into a suicide pact. Before either of them descended into complete physical decay, she would shoot him and then herself. That’s exactly what she did at a still vital 72. Whether she had any stories left that she wanted to write, we’ll never know.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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