Alan C. Elms
The Woman We Didn’t See
Julie Phillips. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin’s, 2006. 470 pp. $27.95 hc.
Suppose you had started thinking, a dozen years ago, that you would like to write a book-length biography of some science-fiction writer. Suppose you wanted to write a biography that would draw the interest not only of the field’s scholars and serious fans, but of the broader reading public. Whom would you choose? Isaac Asimov, or Robert Heinlein, or Arthur C. Clarke, each of whom had already achieved substantial visibility and best-seller status in the culture at large? Ray Bradbury, whose Fahrenheit 451 (1953) remained on the reading lists of nearly every high school in the country? Perhaps Philip K. Dick, who was already attracting biographers but was odd and intriguing enough to provide fodder for more? Maybe even Ursula K. Le Guin, the field’s best-known woman writer—but surely not that death-obsessed friend of hers, James Tiptree, Jr.!
Julie Phillips did not make a careful choice of her biographical subject after reviewing the possibilities among prominent sf writers. Phillips was not a science-fiction fan. Though she had read it in high school, she had not kept up with the field. She was a journalist by trade, with an interest in feminism and gender issues among other topics. She came across a piece on the Tiptree Awards not long after they began and wrote an article about them for Ms. magazine. Then she read several stories by Tiptree and began to look for biographical information on the author. It was not so much the stories as the distinctive voice in Tiptree’s published letters that “hooked” her, Phillips later said (397). She wrote a brief but brilliant piece on Tiptree for the Village Voice Literary Supplement (Sept. 1996), and was so firmly hooked by then that she decided to undertake a whole biography.
At that point Phillips had no experience at writing a full-scale biography, nor indeed a book of any kind. At that point, too, Alice Bradley Sheldon had attained her greatest public prominence not as an sf writer named Tiptree, but as a woman who had shot her retired CIA husband and then killed herself. But two essentials were already in place for the creation of a major biography: a life history that had been full of drama and surprise from beginning to end, with significant achievements and remarkable twists along the way, and a biographer who possessed narrative talent, resourcefulness, and determination. But even with those essentials present at the beginning of Phillips’s project, total success would not have been possible without several other necessary though not sufficient conditions.
First, throughout most of her lifetime Alice Sheldon would have needed to write and retain revealing raw materials about both her external and her internal experiences, including journals, correspondence, autobiographical essays, and drafts of unpublished stories and articles. Next, Sheldon would have needed to leave a will that directed these materials toward a sympathetic recipient, one who was neither a family member nor a protector of the flame nor an ideologue; and that recipient would have needed to receive those materials with little or no intermediary pruning by the family or others. Indeed, nearly a decade before she died, Sheldon asked Jeff Smith, her closest friend in the fan community, to remove much of this material from her house and to store it in his own.
Jeff Smith, then, would have needed to keep those materials together after Sheldon’s death, rather than giving them away or selling them off, until the right biographer came along. Recognizing his own limitations as a writer and his biases as Sheldon’s friend, he also would have needed to refrain from trying to do the job himself. Further, Smith would have needed to be able to recognize the “right” biographer and to give her a free hand in the writing, with full access to all the Tiptree/Sheldon material in his possession. And the right biographer would have needed to come along at the right time—someone not only with enough insightfulness and writing skills to make good use of the Tiptree archives in Smith’s basement, but also with sufficient reportorial instincts and experience to find and interview people who could add context and further information on Sheldon’s life and work. The right biographer, in those ways and many others, turned out to be Julie Phillips.
For those interviews to pay off, Sheldon’s fans, friends, family, fellow writers, professional colleagues, and editors would need to be (mostly) willing to share their personal knowledge of her with a serious biographer. Julie Phillips also would need a sensitive and informed editor, one who knew the field but would not impose his own vision of the subject. She found him in Gordon Van Gelder. With all these factors falling into place, the biographer would need the time and energy and persistence to do the job without rushing. Phillips gave birth to two babies during the decade she worked on the project; as she observes gently, “they helped me miss my deadline” (398). But she kept returning to the job at hand. And finally, the biographer would need a publisher who would respect the importance of the subject and the potentially wide appeal of the book, without insisting on making it either too sensationalistic or too scholarly or too narrowly genre-focused. St. Martin’s Press filled that role well.
And voilà! All these conditions were met. The book that emerged is beautifully written, narratively gripping, thoughtful and subtle in exploring the complexities of Alice Sheldon’s life and work. It was reviewed enthusiastically on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and in the Times daily Arts section, as well as in the (London) Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. It got an A grade from Entertainment Weekly and was praised in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, and websites across the English-speaking world. The book has also brought renewed attention to Tiptree’s fiction, most of which passed out of print after Sheldon’s death. Perhaps it has even alerted some otherwise clueless readers to the possibility that genre science fiction can be more than stereotypical “sci-fi.”
What We Already Knew. The biographical essentials of Alice Sheldon’s life have been available for some time to anyone within the field who was interested in going beyond Tiptree’s fiction. Phillips’s biography keeps these essentials firmly in the picture, but extends and deepens our knowledge of them. They include:
1. Alice Bradley’s remarkable childhood, significant parts of it spent with her explorer parents in remote areas of Africa, India, and Asia, the rest in upper-class Midwestern social circles and exclusive schools.
2. Her early ambivalence about wanting to show off her beauty and talents, given her deep discomfort at public exposure.
3. Her early suicide attempts, involving razor blades and standing too close to oncoming trains.
4. Her first marriage, impulsively undertaken and quickly regretted.
5. Her erratic and abruptly terminated careers in art and art criticism, the Women’s Army Corps, the CIA, and experimental psychology.
6. The playful beginnings of her sf writing career, under the even more playfully adopted pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr.
7. Her unexpected success as the male writer Tiptree, accompanied by sustained ambivalence about that success.
8. The sudden public revelation that Tiptree was a woman, and the temporary disruption of her writing career that followed.
9. Sheldon’s gradual recovery from the revelation—but not, in the judgment of many readers (or of Julie Phillips), a full recovery.
10. Her final decline and violent death, taking her husband with her in what was popularly reported as a “suicide pact.”
What We Are Surprised to Learn. Most of the information listed above came originally from Alice Sheldon’s published autobiographical writings, in the form of letters and articles in fanzines, interviews for books about sf writers, and entries in biographical reference works. While the still-pseudonymous Tiptree often appeared to provide spontaneous revelations about rather private details of “his” life, it is evident in retrospect that Sheldon carefully chose which aspects of her complicated personal history to reveal as part of his persona. Further, she deliberately or unconsciously exaggerated certain aspects of that history, downplaying or omitting other aspects, to make Tiptree more firmly masculine. But she kept double books in a sense, writing and preserving various startlingly intimate records of her thoughts and behavior—diary entries about the many men and occasional women whose company she kept, a fifteen-page autobiographical statement for her psychotherapist’s information, drunken self-confessional notes of her lusts and rages. Julie Phillips has studied all these documents, as well as a profusion of private letters that Sheldon addressed to a remarkable variety of correspondents, exhibiting different aspects of her personality to each one.
Among the more significant aspects of What We Didn’t Know Before is the sexual history of Alice Sheldon. Some readers will object that we do not really need to know that anyway. But Sheldon herself hinted at a good deal of it in her letters as Tiptree, and the often bizarre sexual components of her stories are better understood with some knowledge of their author’s inclinations. Though Tiptree’s fond memories and fantasies of pulchritudinous female flesh can be seen as part of his efforts to emphasize his pseudonymous masculinity, Alice Sheldon’s subsequent confessions of similar yearnings to several female correspondents have occasioned considerable discussion about her apparently lesbian sexual orientation. Yet Phillips notes evidence of consummated heterosexual pairings with many different partners through the years of Alice Sheldon’s first marriage, in the several single years between marriages, and on into at least the early years of her second marriage. Sheldon repeatedly described strong sexual attraction toward other women, but she never quite attained actual lesbian fulfillment—even when Joanna Russ invited and welcomed such an encounter (370-71). Sheldon offered as explanation and excuse that she did not really know what to do in such an encounter, and did not feel physically attractive enough any more to appeal to another woman; but she certainly managed to overcome any such reservations in her numerous encounters with men. Though Phillips leaves the choice of sexual labels up to the reader, the combination of erotic desires and sexual behavior recorded here suggests that Sheldon was not only bipolar but bisexual. (Tiptree and Sheldon both claimed, as they got older, a status of sexual disinterest or celibacy; but they both continued to talk a good deal about sex, all the way into several of Tiptree’s highly erotic late stories.)
We also learn a good deal more about William Davey, Alice’s first husband, whom she memorably described to Charles Platt as “a beautiful but absolute idiot ... [who] was maintaining half the whores in Trenton and was an alcoholic” (Platt 262). Platt may have assumed that Bill Davey was dead by the time the interview was published, but in fact he was alive and reasonably well, and indeed outlived Alice by more than a decade. Her description of him may have been actionably slanderous, but he probably never saw it. He published a good deal of poetry over his lifetime, as well as several novels (one of which more or less describes his difficult marriage to Alice) and some “long stories.” He became the foreign language editor for the literary quarterly Long Story in his later years, and was fondly remembered in an obituary there. He had sometimes been violent toward Alice, according to her testimony, and it sounds from Phillips’s account (based partly on an interview with Davey) as though Alice also mistreated him. Neither we nor Phillips can reliably assess the she-said-he-said accuracy of either post-marital account, but the considerable and detailed discrepancies are one sort of evidence that leads Phillips to note “Alli’s tendency to embellish” (417). (Davey died in 1999; an official website for him is still maintained as of this date, at <http://www.williamdavey.com>.)
One particularly disturbing aspect of Alice’s published reminiscences about Davey involves her botched abortion, after which Davey drove her on a badly planned trip through the Mojave Desert that nearly resulted in her death from a raging infection (86). Sheldon later indicated to interviewers that she was unable to conceive again as a result, but she did not sound as though she felt that to be much of a deprivation. Phillips, however, provides plenty of evidence that Sheldon bitterly regretted her inability to become a mother and tried repeatedly to conceive again, well into her second marriage. She also wrote about the importance of women’s maternal urges in several unpublished nonfiction treatises. Phillips convincingly argues that Sheldon’s lamented failure to become a mother was expressed in a number of Tiptree stories as well. Alice’s relationships with her second husband’s children from a previous marriage were not notably maternal, but she did want them to think well of her. One of her final phone calls was to her stepson Peter, explaining herself to him.
What Alice was especially concerned about explaining to Peter Sheldon was why she had just shot his father to death, and why she was about to shoot herself. Phillips’s account of those events is among the most surprising and disturbing revisions of the picture of Alice Sheldon heretofore available to the sf world or to the general public. We had previously been led to believe that Alice killed her elderly husband in a compassionate act, agreed to by him and done only when he was totally blind and mentally far gone. Alice may have convinced herself of that picture at the end. But Phillips offers evidence, largely from the testimony of his son Peter and one of his lawyers, that Huntington Sheldon was still pretty much compos mentis when she shot him, that he had never agreed to a firm date for ending their lives, and that he was fearful in their last months that she would act without his consent. He had already hidden the guns in the house, principally to prevent Alice from killing herself, but probably also as an act of self-defense. Though he had thrown her favorite .38 pistol into a lake, Alice had no difficulty putting her hands on another one—and apparently little difficulty convincing the police, whom the family lawyer called to the house on the fatal night, that she meant her husband no harm. Once they had gone, she shot him twice before putting a single bullet into her own head.
What We Would Like More of. One topic that has intrigued Tiptree fans since before her “true identity” was revealed is her CIA service. What exactly did she do there, and was it at all James-Bondish? When her identity as Alice Sheldon became known, this question extended to her second husband: what did the much higher-level CIA officer “Ting” Sheldon do in the Agency? Phillips answers these questions in part. Alice initially did photographic reconnaissance interpretation, pretty much what she had done for the Army in World War II. At her request, she was reassigned to counterintelligence tasks, in which she never rooted out Agency moles or shot enemy agents, but prepared reports summarizing evidence of contacts between new African rulers and the Soviet Bloc. To do that job better, the Agency gave her basic training in “Operations” and enrolled her in a summer school course in African politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies. (Paul Linebarger was a senior faculty member at SAIS, but there is no record that Cordwainer Smith met the future James Tiptree, Jr., then or later.) Phillips never found evidence that Alice engaged in any actual operational activity. Alice herself intimated to interviewers that she dropped out of the CIA after three years partly because she anticipated being assigned to operational activities that would conflict with her ethical and political concerns. Phillips does not mention this reason for her abrupt resignation from the Agency, attributing it instead to exhaustion, unhappiness with her marriage (which was in a sense marriage to the Agency), and a desire to get back to writing a long-postponed book about perception and aesthetics. When Phillips tried to get more information about what exactly Alice had done in the CIA, Agency officials responded to her FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) application by saying they could “neither confirm nor deny” that Alice had ever worked for them (“Talking Too Much” 7).
Phillips got an effectively similar but more honest response to her FOIA application regarding Ting Sheldon. He was already on the public record as working for the Agency, but he was not in Operations; instead he was the Director of Current Intelligence, responsible for preparing daily intelligence reports on the state of the world. The Agency’s overall Director, at that time Allen Dulles, used these reports to brief the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; sometimes when Dulles was out of town, Ting Sheldon did the briefing himself. Phillips includes a bit of entertaining gossip about the strained relationship between the politically liberal Ting and the authoritarian Dulles. But when she asked for more information on Ting’s work at the CIA, she was told after a wait of several years, “Well, we can send you many, many boxes of paper with almost every line blacked out. But I don’t think you’ll get much out of it” (“Talking Too Much” 8). So much for an authoritative account of Ting’s activities there, or for any further explanation of the tensions that those activities might have created in his marriage to Alice.
Ting was a quietly capable man, a stable force amid Alice’s frequent emotional storms. Much the same could be said of Alice’s father, Herbert Bradley. Phillips, sometimes quoting Alice, sees significant similarities between the two. The book contains rather less about Alice’s father and his role in her life than about Alice’s mother, Mary Hastings Bradley—partly because Alice’s relationship with her mother was much more ambivalent and abrasive, but also because so much more is available about Mary in terms of her published writings and her personal papers. This situation reverses the common biographical pattern, in which relatively little is said about the male subject’s mother because she was rarely part of the public scene and left little in the public record. But just as biographers have learned to ask questions about these seemingly absent mothers (as Erik Erikson asked, for instance, about Martin Luther’s mother), we might wish for more information than appears here about Herbert Bradley’s impact on his daughter’s personality—and on her Tiptree persona.
Phillips makes clear how Alice responded to Mary Bradley, who was already a famous writer when Alice was born and who continued to publish prominently through much of Alice’s adult life: Alice competed with her by trying to be a successful writer as well, while often feeling that her own work did not measure up. Herbert Bradley’s influence was much less obvious; as Phillips puts it, he was “less overwhelming, less available, less there” (26). Sometimes he too made Alice feel inadequate, when she failed to carry off a stereotypically masculine enterprise and was left to worry that he had really wanted a son. But more often he provided a sense of firm support that Alice appreciated. When one interviewer asked whether Alice’s mother had influenced her to become a writer, Alice responded, “Oh my, yes! She influenced me. Negatively.” Then, after a good deal of further hostile commentary on her mother’s negative influence, Alice added without prodding an even longer statement on her father’s admirable qualities: “a quiet, gentle man ... a role model of cheer, sweetness, and courage despite pain or danger; of respect toward nature, and care for others, especially the weak,” etc., etc. (Meet Me at Infinity 356-57). Those latter qualities were often expressed in Tiptree’s fiction.
Herbert Bradley died at age 86; Alice was surprised at how devastated she felt. (Her mother lived for another fifteen years, until age 94; Alice’s response to her death got entangled with the public revelation of Tiptree’s identity that quickly followed.) In her guise as Tiptree, Alice sometimes referred to her father as “Tiptree Sr.,” leading Phillips to observe that writing as Tiptree “let Alice feel closer to her father” (202). Alice herself told one correspondent, “I keep the ‘Jr.’ kinda as a magic, like it makes him still alive” (202). When he died, as she later wrote in her private journal, “the idyll, the dream, was finally irrevocably shattered and lost. To admit his death is to close the door on all that was. And what was, was my first reality and compared to it, my later identities are as puffs of smoke” (351). A good deal of psychological research has been done on the positive role that admired fathers can play in shaping girls’ identities; it appears likely that Alice Sheldon’s own identity had been much more paternally based than the book explores.
Phillips often comments on aspects of Alice Sheldon’s psychological functioning. Though she is not a psychologist, many of her individual comments are remarkably insightful. But they do not add up to an overall picture of Sheldon’s personality structure, and they do not fully explicate the sources of Sheldon’s substantial psychological problems. Phillips notes that Sheldon in her sixties was diagnosed as cyclothymic, a condition that Phillips explains as “essentially manic-depression without the mania, but (at least in Alice’s case) with all the grim emotional depths” (48). But that is not an altogether accurate definition. Cyclothymia involves both depressive and manic tendencies, not as extreme as a full-fledged bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic-depressive psychosis), but in the same general directions at both ends of the cycle (PDM Task Force 113-15). Sheldon’s depressive tendencies were evident from adolescence if not earlier, continuing all the way to her last and successful attempt at suicide. But Phillips also records frequent behavioral episodes that a clinician would identify as at least hypomanic, if not fully manic. A good deal of Sheldon’s graduate school productivity and probably some of her sf stories emerged from such sudden energy-filled flurries of activity.
Where did her mood swings, her cyclothymic pattern, come from? At imes Phillips falls back onto what looks at first glance like an easy explanation: genetic factors. But neither of Sheldon’s parents was known for such mood swings, and Alice had no siblings or other close relatives whose behavior might suggest such an origin. At one time or another she was given prescription drugs to help with her depressions, and they did help—but inconsistently and not for long. We might speculate that she was just not getting the right drugs and that the now-popular serotonin boosters were what she really needed. But the kind of unevenly cyclothymic swings that Sheldon exhibited, with the depressive end much deeper and more frequent, suggests a strongly experiential component as well. Drugs do not really wipe out such powerful traces of one’s earlier life, unless they wipe out pretty much everything.
Sheldon herself repeatedly identified her early and recurrent life experiences as responsible for her fascination with death. Though she sometimes recalled her early childhood as idyllic or paradisal, she described it more often as involving real death all around her, at an age when she simply could not handle her fear: “Death in all its forms was everywhere ... with no place to recover except being my parents’ dear little yellow-haired darling with its head full of Death” (“A Short Autobiography of Alice Sheldon” 4). She developed ways to keep from thinking about death all the time, but her therapist suggested that such unconscious conflicts were exhausting her psychological energy (339). She was left with an acute sensitivity to death in all its guises.
Sheldon had other problems besides depression and the threat of being overwhelmed by death anxieties. Her several abrupt shifts in career orientation, as well as the pseudonymous nature of her most prolonged success in life, left her feeling strongly at times that she didn’t know who she really was:
My ‘real,’ daily-life self is a long-elaborated kind of animated puppet show, with its own validity, to be sure—it gets married and holds jobs and does things like that, and tells funny stories (possibly too many)—but those 8 years in sf was the first time I could be really real.... Now all that is gone, and I am back with the merry dumb-show as life, and it doesn’t much suit. (qtd. Platt 367; emphasis in original)
Phillips might have found Erik Erikson’s work on identity crises helpful here, or perhaps Daniel Levinson’s schematization of women’s life transitions, or Ravenna Helson’s research on the creative identities that some women (including certain fantasy and sf writers) have established at midlife. Sheldon’s perceptions of her episodic life, as well as many of her short stories, took a distinctive form: not a state of grim pessimism occasionally relieved by brief bursts of manic activity, but rather a heightened expectation of something wonderful about to happen (indeed something ideal or paradisal, as in one facet of her childhood memories), followed by a dramatic collapse of such expectations into abject misery. This pattern, encountered as often as Sheldon experienced it, can establish in an individual the sort of self-confirming emotional and behavioral pattern that Silvan Tomkins identified as a “nuclear script”: having learned that disaster or profound disappointment has regularly followed the happiest anticipations, the individual repeatedly goes through the motions that will guarantee similar outcomes in the future. I have suggested elsewhere (Elms 93) that such a nuclear script was pervasive if not always predominant in Sheldon’s life. Though Phillips does not apply Tomkins’s script theory or any other general psychological construct to Sheldon’s developmental history, this book offers far more evidence than was previously available that Sheldon often framed her emotional responses in such a pattern and nearly as often found her grim expectations confirmed.
Joanna Russ, who became one of Tiptree/Sheldon’s closest epistolary friends, has suggested that Sheldon suffered principally from Seasonal Affective Disorder (Russ 189). Without citing Russ, Phillips raises the same possibility, but her application of it to Sheldon appears self-contradictory: “Bipolar disorder tends to respond to the seasons. Mania and hypomania are strongest in the summer, depression in the winter, and in the northern hemisphere, May is the peak month for suicide. In May 1987, seventy-one-year-old Alli Sheldon ...” (391). The rest of that passage, of course, recounts the details of Sheldon’s suicide on May 18. But if her problem was mainly Seasonal Affective Disorder, May 18—in late spring, just a month away from the summer solstice—should have been one of the less likely dates for her to kill herself and Ting.
What We Hardly See. It may seem churlish of me to ask for yet more in a book that is already pushing 400 pages (plus notes and index)—especially since Julie Phillips had to trim 300 manuscript pages from her original draft. But a couple of things are missing from the book that would have made it even better—first in terms of its usefulness to the general reading public and second in terms of its value for science fiction readers and scholars.
The first thing largely missing is quotations from Tiptree’s fiction. The occasional brief quotations seldom run more than a line or two, except for three passages that display Tiptree’s erotic intensity, plus several paragraphs from her most famous story, “The Women Men Don’t See” (279-280). Otherwise the fiction is almost entirely paraphrased or summarized. The book does include many Tiptree quotations, but they come almost entirely from his correspondence. His letters are indeed a delight, and most readers will have ready access to them only through this book. But much of Tiptree’s fiction remains out of print at this time—and surely, if we wish to get a good sense of a writer’s work, we need a representative array of substantial quotations from the work itself.
Perhaps the publishers were concerned about copyright issues. But the copyright laws’ Fair Use provisions would have permitted quotation of many more passages from Tiptree’s published fiction than appear here. Perhaps, too, Phillips was much less interested in the fiction for its literary qualities than for its connections to Sheldon’s biography and to feminist issues. But we as readers still need to see frequent quotations from the work, if only to get a sense of whether we can trust both Phillips’s assessment of the work overall and her interpretations of individual stories. I am both intrigued and puzzled, for instance, by her conclusion that “‘The Women Men Don’t See’ ... says that to be a woman is so painful it’s not safe to take their side” (281). That is certainly different from most interpretations of the story that I have seen. Maybe Phillips is right—but it is hard to see, even from the comparatively generous number of lines she quotes, just where the story supports her interpretation. And when she proposes that the late Tiptree story titled “The Only Neat Thing to Do” (1985) is “another retelling of ‘The Cold Equations’—only in this version the girl is both pilot and stowaway, and to save the mission must sacrifice herself” (388), readers need more than the few lines quoted to determine whether the story may instead be a retelling of Sidney Carton’s fate in A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—or the similar death of Spock in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which came out two or three years before Tiptree wrote the story.
The second thing largely missing from the book is a serious treatment of sf as a valid literary genre and of Tiptree’s stories as part of the continuing conversation among writers in the field. Phillips’s mention of “The Only Neat Thing to Do” as a response to “The Cold Equations” (1954) is one of the few times she places a Tiptree story in such a literary context. She discusses another late story, “Yanqui Doodle” (1987), as apparently “influenced by the Latin American settings of the writer Lucius Shepard” (389); and much earlier in the book she notes a couple of stories as expressions of Sheldon’s interest in the original Star Trek tv series. She also discusses Tiptree’s interactions by letter with a diverse array of other writers, especially Le Guin and Russ, but she says little about any specific influence of their work on Tiptree’s fiction.
At several points Phillips herself expresses a rather jaundiced view of sf as a literary enterprise. She sees it, rather, as a useful genre for Tiptree’s and other women writers’ expression of their gender discontents: “with its metaphors for alienation and otherness, its unruly imagination, and its power to predict change, it is highly suited to talking about women’s experience” (5). Several times she quotes Alice Sheldon’s own dismissive comments about the field; but Sheldon made these comments to friends and colleagues whom she wanted to see her as a serious (though frustrated) scientist or as a respectable member of the intelligence community. When Sheldon/Tiptree was writing to her friends in the sf world, she displayed intense enthusiasm for the field and yearned to be regarded as in the same league as its master writers. Though Phillips quotes some of those statements too, she appears to place more weight on Sheldon’s negative comments. Sheldon was clearly quite knowledgeable about the field’s history and perceptive about what constitutes genuine quality among its writers. She tried as hard as any other successful writer in the field to ring creative changes on its familiar themes as well as to outdo her literary predecessors when possible. “Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death” (1973), for instance, is not just a story about the danger inherent in remaining “the slave of one’s animal nature,” as Phillips paraphrases Tiptree (259). It is also a science-fictional tour de force, one of the field’s most successful attempts to depict an alien consciousness with absolutely no reference to humans or to Earth.
One other thing the book has too few of to satisfy a hotshot book reviewer is errors. It is a long and complex book, and Phillips sometimes appears to forget in later chapters that she said something contradictory about the same point in an earlier one. But out-and-out errors of fact are rare and mostly minor. She describes Sheldon’s psychotherapist as a “behaviorist by inclination” (343)—but any therapist who asks for a patient’s autobiography, uses hypnosis as part of the treatment, and suggests that her problems are a matter of unconscious conflicts and guilt (339, 342) is far from being a behaviorist. Phillips describes “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” (1976) as “an evocative depiction of the trials of a graduate student” (322), but a major aspect of the story (and one of the frustrations in Sheldon’s own past history that it expressed) is how badly the protagonist’s department head treats him as a non-tenured faculty member. Phillips says about “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973) that “The story opens with a man emerging from the men’s room” (279), but that language is both too gendered and too polite. Here Phillips quickly corrects herself by quoting Tiptree and narrator as saying he came out of “the can”—more in character and also a more accurate term for a unisex toilet on a commercial airliner.
One minor choice of terms on Phillips’s part has been repeated by so many book reviewers that it threatens to lodge permanently in the legend of the Tiptree pseudonym. “Tiptree” presented itself to Sheldon as the right and proper name, Phillips says, when “a jar of Tiptree jam caught Alli’s eye” in a supermarket (5). True enough, Sheldon did sometimes later refer to the object of inspiration as a “jam pot.” But more often and more precisely she described it as a “can of marmalade” or a “marmalade jar” (e.g., in Meet Me at Infinity 313, 392). She even followed one such description of her marmalade-label epiphany by commenting that some editors thereafter “took a fancy to my marmalade,” i.e., to the fiction she wrote under the Tiptree label (“A Short Autobiography of Alice B. Sheldon” 4). Jam vs. marmalade may seem too minor a point to concern readers, book reviewers, or biographers. But it may not have been so minor to a woman named Alice, whose mother had made her the child heroine of two books titled Alice in Jungleland (1926) and Alice in Elephantland (1929). Sheldon was surely familiar with the original Alice in Wonderland (1865) and thus was sensitized to external reminders of the one item that the earlier Alice picked up from a shelf as she journeyed down the rabbit hole: a marmalade jar.
What Counts in the End. Enough carping. Even as I paused to make frequent marginal notes in this book for my own instruction as a working biographer, and as I listed an occasional question or criticism for possible use in my review, I continued from page to page to enjoy the delights of a wonderfully pleasurable read. Even as I saw already familiar Tiptree facts and quotations taking their proper place in Phillips’s narrative, I kept turning the pages in eager anticipation of yet another biographical revelation, yet another lovely turn of Phillips’s phrases, yet another unfamiliar and stunning quotation from Sheldon herself. Alice Bradley Sheldon’s voice registers powerfully throughout the book, whether as herself or—distinctively—as Tiptree. But Julie Phillips’s voice holds its own, as subtle and thoughtful and insightful as those of the best contemporary biographers. When I came to the final pages, I was already wondering to whom she might apply her remarkable talents next: Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany (another “Jr.”)? If we are lucky, she will at least remain within our field for her choice of subjects, learning still more about it as she goes and at the same time educating us further about the writers we thought we knew best.
Elms, Alan C. “The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as Alice B. Sheldon, PhD.” SFS 31.1 (March 2004): 81-96.
PDM Task Force. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. Silver Spring, MD: Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations, 2006.
Phillips, Julie. “Talking Too Much: About James Tiptree, Jr.” The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2. Ed. Karen Joy Fowler et al. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2006. 3-9.
Platt, Charles. Dream Makers, Volume 2. New York: Berkley, 1983.
Russ, Joanna. “‘Tiptree’ and History.” The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1. Ed. Karen Joy Fowler et al. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2005. 187-190.
Tiptree, James Jr. “A Short Autobiography of Alice Sheldon.” New York Review of Science Fiction 124 (December 1998): 1, 4.
─────. Meet Me at Infinity. New York: Tor, 2000.