The double life of Alice B. Sheldon


I recently read James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, for a book group (an LGBTQ book group, as it happens). I’ve been meaning to read it for years, ever since I read the reviews for it when it was published in 2004, so thank heaven for book groups that get us to read things, eh? As one of the many who became science fiction fans in their teens, and someone who has been wrestling with questions of gender roles and expectations since about the same time, I have a vested interest in the story of this, as it turns out, rather tortured life.

Like many literary biographies, it can be a dense and occasionally plodding read, but Phillips makes wondrous use of her access to her subject and the people who were close to her. The story is a fascinating one, and I have to agree with the reviewers and blurb writers who observe that Sheldon’s life makes for significant commentary on 20th century social history for women and for literature.

My heart goes out to Sheldon, who never seems to have found a way to accept herself in her own skin. She could never reconcile herself to being female in the roles she felt were available to her. Raised by adventurous socialites who took her as a child on dangerous explorations to Africa yet kept her sheltered (some might say smothered, and Sheldon certainly would have) at home in their Chicago penthouse, Sheldon never felt she could step out of her mother’s shadow. Her mother was a successful author of fiction as well as travelogs, who managed to walk the tightrope of building a career for herself as a woman yet remaining within the bounds of expected feminine behavior–a dazzling hostess and raconteur who charmed everyone around her, but burdened her daughter in private with repeated horror stories of the dangers and losses of life. Sheldon never felt she could live up to her mother’s performance socially, and rebelled against feeling she had to. Her upbringing of simultaneous privilege and restriction left her uncertain of what she could do well and unwilling to conform to anyone else’s conventions for success–not a happy combination.

After a stormy first marriage to a poet, Sheldon retreated into the war effort, where she became an interpreter of spy photographs–which led to a career with the CIA after the war. The army and later the CIA encouraged the use of dexedrine as a performance enhancer, a drug which would undermine Sheldon’s health both physically and mentally. A second marriage eventually settled into a sexless but devoted partnership–and then something interesting happened.

Alice B. Sheldon became James Tiptree, Jr.

She had discovered pulp science fiction magazines as a teen, and rediscovered the burgeoning genre as an adult in the late 1950’s, sometimes called science fiction’s Golden Age. She began to write her own stories, but wanted a pseudonym both to protect her career (she had left the CIA and was pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology) and her privacy. She hit on “Tiptree” on a whim in the grocery store, looking at a jar of preserves, and chose a male name to both protect her privacy further and give her writing more authority. As the 1960’s came to a close, James Tiptree, Jr. began to burn up the firmament of “new wave” science fiction with propulsive tales that challenged the reader’s every assumption and comfort regarding human identity and human behavior, especially when it came to men and women. As Tiptree, she also kept up voluminous correspondence with many writers and editors, charming everyone just as her mother had done–but never meeting any one in person.  Rumors circulated about Tiptree’s identity, including speculations that he worked for the government–and that he must be a woman, given his keen observations of the power dynamic between the genders that has a nasty tendency to crush the female. Those closest to Tiptree in correspondence vehemently denied the latter, saying that no woman could have produced those vigorous stories or write the letters that Tiptree did.

Sheldon’s secret was discovered when her mother died. In correspondence and interviews, she had given some actual facts about her background as part of Tiptree’s, and when Tiptree told friends that his mother had died in Chicago it did not take much effort for people to scan the obituaries for the death of a Chicago literary light who had been an African adventurer–and discover that her only survivor was a daughter, not a son.

Sheldon was terrified that she would lose her SF friends over the revelation, but they all rallied to her. Ursula LeGuin, a long time correspondent with whom Tiptree had enjoyed a very warm relationship, welcomed her as a sister, noting that she was still the same person she always had been. But Sheldon herself was not so sure. As herself, as Alice (or Allie, as she preferred to be called), she had never had close friendships with other women. She felt rather painfully that she did not know how to be a woman, and often felt she did not like women; being Tiptree had represented a kind of relief. She had had sexual feelings for women all her life, but had never pursued a relationship with a woman. At many points in her journal over the years she wrote of her frustrations at being female, rejecting her female body, hating what she saw as the weakness and short-sightedness of women, resenting the limitations that she felt were imposed upon her because everyone around her saw a woman.

It is possible that Allie Sheldon was, in fact, a transgender man, or that her gender identity would have found more comfortable expression somewhere closer to the masculine than the feminine end of the spectrum. The latter is, in fact, what she achieved as Tiptree. Then again, it is also possible that her upbringing, her temperament, and the early introduction of chemical dependence on stimulants, combined with the cultural standards for gender relations in her social and professional circles to leave her feeling she had no home, no way to be.

Tiptree’s stories can sometimes be hard to read. As Phillips points out, they stemmed from a dire sense that humans would not allow each other to survive, and that the things we want the most can be so far beyond our ken that we can die of them. The writing is brilliant, and very much of its times, and so remains a significant window on what speculative writers were thinking and feeling in those turbulent years at the beginning of the 1970’s. Phillips has done remarkable work illuminating this striking life.