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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Julie Phillips

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5102019,905 (4.36)79
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Title:James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Authors:Julie Phillips
Info:Picador (2007), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 560 pages
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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips (2006)

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It was tough at times. Her conflicts with gender in her youth were horrific, if you even part-identify, and she’s set on suicide in age. So, tough in the way her fiction is – alienated subject speeds to a bad ending – but I needn’t have been afraid to meet this writing-hero.

I liked her throughout – and mention it because not every reviewer has. My admiration has only escalated. It’s true I heard among the Tiptree rumours she was America’s first woman general, whereas she left the WAC a major. The WAAC/WAC was interesting – her hopes and disappointments in it. She managed to do useful work in photointelligence. But just what she thought and felt about women in uniform was eye-opening for me. Because Tiptree was a person wrecked by gender expectations. She felt herself wrecked – I quote this from an early age:

To grow up as a ‘girl’ is to be nearly fatally spoiled, deformed, confused and terrified; to be responded to by falsities, to be reacted to as nothing or as a thing – and nearly to become that thing.

She was a brain and a person without sufficient use. Always taken for ‘masculine’, though she kept up a repertoire of both. She was a (rarely-practising) lesbian who ended up in a great friendship-marriage. But even Ting failed at the equality experiment, and sex remained a murky issue for her.

Her letter-friendships with Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ were a highlight, as she found an almost-home in the sf community. Though as one sf guy said to her, it’s no use you coming along to the conventions for a sense of belonging, since you have so much more life experience than this group of nerds. And when she was outed she found hard to write again. James Tiptree Jr was a liberation. I’ve forgiven Robert Silverberg, who famously called Tiptree’s writing ‘ineluctably masculine’: turns out he was a nerd daunted by her he-man attainments (from real life), and he said afterwards he’d needed his head examined. But in her 60s she upset a feminist sf talk-fest, and made Samuel R. Delany hostile. I do not and never hope to understand the questions involved. But this book dives pretty deeply into them; I deduct a star because I wasn’t always happy with the commentary.

I want to mention her time as a rat psychologist. I’ll link to an article on it, though I think the article undervalues her written work and is weak on lit crit: http://starcraving.com/?p=555 It explains her mission to bring the social sciences to sf – ‘there are more sciences than physics.’

I can only wish she’d taken Joanna Russ up on her offer (sight-unseen, in a letter that began, “I like old women with a very special feeling and get all dreamy and erotic about them...”) and run away with her, but hey. You don’t get a happy ending in a James Tiptree Jr story. ( )
1 vote Jakujin | Jan 10, 2014 |
It's an insightful work, but there are times that I'd rather have less insight. I can remember the world's surprise when it was revealed that James Tiptree Jr was actually a woman. Any woman who had read "The Women that Men Don't See" simply nodded and said (to herself) of course, of course.

I'm very happy to have found this (my favorite book store has taken to putting books *about* SF authors next to the works of the author, which is where I found it. It's a remarkable work, and the extraordinary photographs in the book give shading to a person that was eminently private in life.

Now that I'm finished with the book even though I KNEW how it was going to end, I feel fragile as glass, and as raw and devastated as when I first heard of her suicide. The book was excellent. I would have preferred that the author put less supposition into someone that has been gone for (oh my god, has it been that long?) over twenty five years. It still hurts. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Nov 27, 2013 |
During the 20th century, a number of female writers chose to write under sexually ambiguous names. Harper Lee, Isak Dinesen, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and Andre Norton, among others, didn't actually pretend to be men, but if biased publishers and readers began reading their work under the wrong impression, where was the harm?

Alice Sheldon, however, chose to go whole hog. She saw the name Tiptree on a jar of jam and decided to write her science fiction stories under the name of James Tiptree Jr., keeping her true identity a secret from virtually everyone for a number of years. As biographer Julie Phillips tells in her book "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," she flirted with Ursula K. Le Guin and other women by mail, while pretending to be one of the boys with Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and other men in the science fiction community. She fooled them all.

Everyone knew Tiptree was a pseudonym, but interest in who the writer really was became all the greater because his stories were so original, like nothing science fiction fans had never read before. Because Tiptree had a post office box in McClean, Va., some speculated the writer might be a CIA agent. (Both Alli Sheldon and her husband had, in fact, once worked for the CIA.) Someone even thought James Tiptree Jr. might really be Henry Kissinger. A few thought the stories sounded a bit like the voice of a woman, but in other respects they were thoroughly manly.

The secret was revealed in the early 1970s when Tiptree let slip in letters that his mother had died, after previously disclosing she was a former African explorer living in Chicago. It was then a simple matter to check the obituaries in the Chicago papers, where it was found that author and world traveler Mary Hastings Bradley was survived by just one child, a daughter named Alice Sheldon.

Having lost the mask behind which she had written her startling stories, Sheldon's talent dried up, and she wrote only a few stories after that, most of them not very good.

Sheldon suffered from a manic-depressive personality, and she seemed to have conflicting identities within her throughout her life. Although happily married for a long time, she was sexually confused, never quite sure who or what she really was. She also also wrote science fiction as a woman under the name Racoona Sheldon, although these tales were not as well received as Tiptree's.

She had talked about suicide her entire life, and in 1987 she put a gun to her head after first killing her ailing husband.

The biography by Julie Phillips, published in 2006, is well worth reading whether or not one has ever read a James Tiptree Jr. short story. ( )
1 vote hardlyhardy | May 29, 2013 |
I found this book absolutely riveting. It's true I'm a fan of Tiptree. But even if you know nothing of her work, you can't help but be amazed by her life. The author does a wonderful job of opening up Sheldon's psyche, exploring her lesbian tendencies, her depression, her rushes of creativity. She makes good use of journal entries and letters, and Tiptree was a lavish and exuberant letter-writer.

This book has stayed with me, bringing up a lot of thoughts on the masks we wear, and our ability to encourage or suppress our creative impulses. I see Tiptree's life as an object lesson in some ways. I wish I could reach out to her, tell her she's beautiful, urge her to stick around a little longer. ( )
2 vote astrologerjenny | Apr 24, 2013 |
A fascinating biography of Alice Sheldon, better known as award-winning science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. Phillips gives us a great deal of detail but the narrative does not bog down; though most people picking up the book know that Tiptree's identity was eventually revealed, and of her life's distressing ending, I doubt most people knew that she went to Africa as a child, or that she was a talented artist who illustrated two of her mother's books and had an illustration published in The New Yorker. Phillips provides copious life details, tracing Sheldon's moves, careers, and relationships over time. Sheldon's correspondence with Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and others is a great delight to read. Phillips has chosen her excerpts judiciously.

Most interesting is Sheldon's psychological state, which seems rarely to have been good. I would have liked to know even more about this; at points this compelling information is presented in a flat, superficial way. This may reflect the fact that many of Phillips' informants are still living and may not have shared some information or given consent to publish. It is quite evident that Sheldon's use of a male pseudonym goes beyond convenience or privacy and has greater symbolic resonance in the context of her many issues and concerns related to sexual identity and gender.

Phillips occasionally speculates about Sheldon's psyche. As a psychologist, I can't diagnose from afar. However, I can wonder about a person's life narrative. Based on what Phillips has provided, I don't think the diagnosis of cyclothymia (given by a therapist at some point in Sheldon's life) is a sufficient description of her psychological and interpersonal difficulties. I'm also not sure whether it could be accurately diagnosed given her amphetamine abuse. Sheldon was quite terrified at a number of times during her family's African sojourns. Her mother was flirtatious and at at least one point made a sexual overture to her then-adolescent daughter (reminiscent of Anne Sexton's daughter's description of Anne's behavior toward her). Sheldon is severely depressed and often suicidal, anxious, self-doubting, reckless, conflicted about sexuality, and drawn to abusing substances. Though expressing discontent with it, she manages to spend much of her life in a sexless marriage. Her behavior and emotions often edge into the Borderline Personality Disorder spectrum. For these reasons, I wonder if something sexually traumatic happened to her as a child, either in Africa or within her family of origin. My non-diagnostic speculation is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a better fit than cyclothymia and would, if true, contribute to a more coherent understanding of Sheldon's pervasive discomfort and unhappiness. ( )
1 vote OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
In this excellent biography, Julie Phillips traces the threads of Alice Sheldon's remarkable life, braiding them together, teasing apart tangles.
added by lemontwist | editThe Women's Review of Books, Susanna J. Sturgis
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312203853, Hardcover)

James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hardedged, provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his famale character, he penned such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read?and The Women Men Don't See. For years he corresponded with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison,Ursula Le Guin. No one knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: A sixty-one-year old woman named Alice Sheldon. As a child, she explored Africa with her mother. Later, made into a debutante, she eloped with one of the guests at the party. She was an artist, a chicken farmer, aWorld War II intelligence officer, a CIA agent, an experimental psychologist. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. In 1987, her suicide shocked friends and fans. The James Tiptree, Jr.Award was created to honor science fiction or fantasy that explores our understanding of gender. This fascinating biography, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:02 -0400)

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"James Tiptree, Jr., burst onto the science fiction scene in the late 1960s with a string of hard-edged, provocative stories. He redefined the genre with such classics as "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "The Women Men Don't See." He was hailed as a brilliant writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters." "For nearly ten years he carried on intimate correspondences with other writers - Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few. None of them knew his true identity. He was so reclusive that he was widely believed to be a top-secret government agent. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: a mysterious sixty-one-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon." "A native of Chicago, Alice traveled the globe with her mother, the writer and hunter Mary Hastings Bradley. At nineteen, she eloped with the poet who had been seated on her left at her debut. She became an artist, a critic for the Chicago Sun, an army officer, a CIA analyst, and an expert on the psychology of perception. Beautiful, theatrical, and sophisticated, she developed close friendships with people she never met. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. An outspoken feminist, she took a male name as a joke - and found the voice to write her stories." "With ten years of work, Julie Phillips has written a biography of Alice Sheldon. Based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers, this is the definitive biography of a profoundly original writer and a woman far ahead of her time."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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