The Women Men Don’t See*: James Tiptree Jr. aka, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

Self Portrait in Snow



“I’d peeled myself down to the empty core. But then it seemed as though there was a little more of me after all. I found another onion.” – Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

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

I had been lusting after James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon for awhile, and in ‘celebration’ of my decision to read more women’s biographies decided to finally grab a copy. I know, so counter-intuitive, you would think I would have done so after actually having read a few but I find all sorts of excuses to buy books….

So… onto this book in which all lavish adjectives of praise fall short. I picked it up the day it arrived to read “a page or two” and never put it down. From the very first page, Phillips successfully envelops one in Sheldon’s life. It was my “go-to” book until I had about 100 pages left. At that point I began rationing it every night “wanting to spend a little time with Alli.” A little nuts maybe, but this book is such a perfect synthesis of the words of Sheldon’s through letters and journals, the relationships she built with writers and fans of science fiction and Phillips’ narration of her life. Of particular interest are her exchanges with women sci-fi authors such as Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ (both of whom I want to know more about now) and reading their own efforts at navigating the genre as women.

The terrible thing is, when I get a letter (or a reaction) like that – from a man – I tend not to grow 10′ teeth but to start crying. Which makes me feel muddled, humiliated, grateful, humiliated that I feel grateful, and most of all – recognized.

Joanna Russ on the cachet that praise from men has, despite being fully aware of the power dynamic at play.

I feel like I “know” Sheldon, and what a beautiful, complex, flawed person. I felt utterly captivated and my heart ached for her as the book drew to a close. While one is aware throughout the book that she ends up committing suicide, I still couldn’t help but mourn, the breath knocked out of me as I read about it, feeling sick inside by the loss of someone I had just “met.”

Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

While there is the opportunity to think about gender and writing throughout much of the book, Phillips weaves in a pointed meditation about the subject in its final pages. It goes to show how one’s opinions of gender inform the way one reads or receives a work (I can call up a particularly long winded critique about this after seven years of working in the book world.) and to my ultimate chagrin, is a conversation that rarely seems to go beyond feminist circles. In addition, it truly saddens me that Sheldon had so much trouble acknowledging her incredible accomplishments as a woman. She seemed a vibrant, passionate and intensely curious person (Gardner Dozois: “one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’ve ever met, brilliant, theatrical, far-ranging, strikingly perceptive.”) and yet she believed she was nothing without the veneer of a male persona. While I am certainly not foolish enough to believe it would have vanquished all of her demons, I wonder how things would be different if she had been much younger when the feminist movement occurred. She was incredibly perceptive about the structure of society and the way things work and yet lacked the affirmation that while patriarchy does not deem it as such, HER activities carried just as much merit as a man’s. Two of the passages that were such striking examples of this are below:

Moreover I suspect that most of the organised world activities are male-structured (as well as male-dominated) so I can’t believe that simply filling in the personnel-slots with women means anything real. And I don’t think things would get much different unless women had a chance to build their own world… which ends up like Russ’ “When it changed” and not Beyond Equality at all (My note: Beyond Equality was a sci-fi anthology of stories imagining what the world would be like once equality between the sexes had been achieved that Tiptree and Russ had been asked to contribute to.). Everything else I try just ends up with Golda Meier running a space station, the Heinlein jocks-in-skirts thing. [...] I REFUSE to fancy some stereotype like Women-Have-ESP or Only-Women-can-understand-aliens etc. etc.

- James Tiptree Jr. in a letter to Vonda McIntyre.

The distasteful proof that my sexuality is bound up with masochistic fantasies of helplessness [...] depressed me profoundly. I am not a man, I am not the do-er, the penetrator. And Tiptree was “magical” manhood, his pen my prick. 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. Wanting to be done to. [...]

Tiptree’s “death” has made me face – what I never really went into with Bob [Harper] (my note: Sheldon’s therapist) – my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power. [...] I want power. I want to be listened to. [...] And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.

- Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

It frustrates me that she did not have the benefit of a therapist that could help her explore what it is to be a woman in patriarchy but rather a man who seemed to regard her as an oddity, completely uncomfortable with a woman expressing or being angry. There is also the question of her sexual orientation, and it couldn’t have helped to be at a loss as to what one was feeling in a society that was(is) simply intolerant and did not allow language for that expression. I also wonder truly if she suffered from agoraphobic anxiety. I feel like this brilliant woman was completely failed by the time she lived in, and it makes me so sad.

I hadn’t been interested in reading her work as James Tiptree Jr. before reading this book, but now I will be sure to pick it up. *The title of this entry is the name of one of Tiptree’s stories.