Tuesday, August 29, 2006

(In)Visible (Wo)Man

A few weeks ago, Julie Phillips published James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

Last week I spotted Richard Ellmann scouting the MLA conference for penniless, amoral grad students who might be willing to swap a hit for a really good letter of recommendation.

Just kidding: he’s been dead for almost 20 years. Nevertheless, the premiere literary biographer of our day has a serious rival. His specialty was bringing difficult figures to luminous life on the page. Julie Phillips has done the same for a character who seems too far-fetched to be real: the blonde Chicago debutante who became a chicken farmer, the first white child to trek through the Congo who grew up to be a suicidally depressed devotee of Dexedrine, the Army major and CIA analyst who was also a gifted artist, the battered teenage bride who earned a PhD in psychology, the reclusive male SF writer who turned out to be a middle-aged housewife in McLean, VA.

It would be easy for a biographer to get lost among the many masks of Alice B. Sheldon, or to be dazzled into idolatry by her flashing surfaces. Or, most likely, to choose one mask, one surface, as the Real or True or Important one, relegating the others to obscurity. Phillips never makes this mistake: she deals fairly with all the faces she mentions, and she examines the interplay of masks, emotions, gender identity, sexuality, and behavior with genuine insight.

Alice Bradley’s parents were characters straight out of a 1920s film: dashing socialites who were also daring explorers. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a superb raconteuse, expert markswoman, noted beauty, and very successful writer of both popular fiction and travel/adventure books. (I wonder if this book will bring her writing back into fashion.) Alice’s father was a prosperous lawyer and a naturalist.

Their expeditions took them through Africa and India, mostly on foot, and they brought their small daughter Alice along. Generally 6-year-old Alice was carried in a litter; she learned early to say, “Put me down!” in a number of local languages. Less excusably, Mary used her daughter as a central figure in two books about their safaris. (Alice in Jungleland and Alice in Elephantland, which young Alice herself illustrated.)

Alice’s experience of those early travels included helplessness in the face of constant danger (she alone of the party had no gun) and unspeakable terror at the death she saw all around her. In contrast, she was treated with wonder by the Africans, who had never seen a white child before, much less an adorable blonde Shirley Temple, and with patronizing affection by the various white dignitaries who entertained the explorers whenever they reached a city. (Yes, they packed plenty of evening clothes for these festivities. This was before the days of excess baggage charges.)

That disconnect between how Alice experienced the world and how others saw her role would have been difficult enough, but her parents subscribed to the Victorian ideal of presenting a tough and cheerful front in any adversity. Alice could not share or show her feelings, and it apparently never occurred to her parents that she might be frightened or disturbed.

Back in Chicago, Alice grew up to be a debutante so impatient with the process that she eloped five days after her presentation to society. She and her husband (an aspiring novelist) moved to Berkeley, where she worked seriously at painting until the marriage crashed and burned. After World War II started; she joined the WAACs, traveled, used her administrative talents, and became one of the first photointelligence analysts. She also met Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, a divorced father of three a dozen years older than herself, whom she married.

The couple spent four years raising chickens, then joined the CIA. Alice, now called Alli, was still restless. She became increasingly fascinated by visual psychology and after several years went back to school, earning a PhD with her research into the psychological appeal of novelty and familiarity. But teaching drained her, and research funds were hard to get. She’d hit another dead end.

Then she turned into a man.

James Tiptree, Jr., was born of a jar of Tiptree’s jam and Alli’s obsessive need for camouflage. Already a published writer (she’d had a story in the New Yorker, no less), now Alli was writing something light and playful: science fiction. She didn’t have to take it seriously, and she had a male identity that would allow her to simultaneously mask and reveal her real self.

Becoming Tip allowed her to say things women were not permitted to say—everything from potty humor to bleak, despairing visions of death. It gave her authority and camaraderie and respect, all in short supply for women in the 1960s. And it allowed her to express her long-burning, long-frustrated desire for women.

The masquerade went well beyond just publishing stories; she kept up lengthy and intimate correspondence with other SF writers and fans, all the while speaking as a man. Yet she told the truth in almost every other way—drew on her own biography, for example, to create Tiptree's life and interests. For most of ten years she managed to maintain the illusion.

Tiptree wrote a series of blistering short stories that won SF’s highest awards. He was lauded as a rare male feminist. But eventually the disguise became a burden. After creating a female alter ego (Raccoona Sheldon, a pleasantly dotty retired schoolteacher to whom she assigned a family-fettered life in Wisconsin), Alli was still dissatisfied.

Then her seriously ailing mother, now well into her nineties, died in Chicago. The obituaries made it easy to link the reclusive SF writer whose mother had been a writer/explorer with the lone listed survivor. Tip’s secret, Alli’s secret was out.

After that, writing became more and more difficult for Alli, although the weight of awards and being taken seriously had dragged at her for a while. As she and Ting grew older, frailer, her depressions continued. He had agreed to a suicide pact when they couldn’t go on. One night in May 1987 Alli decided it was time for them to go: he was blind, she was despairing, and the suicide note had been waiting for almost eight years.

She called friends to let them know her plans, but the police arrived before she could do anything. She must have been a hell of an actress, because she persuaded them to leave. Ting (apparently) went to sleep. She shot him in the head.

Then she called his son to tell him the news.

As the police scrambled to return, Alli wrapped a towel around her own head (she’d been bothered by the messiness of Ting’s death), lay down next to her husband, took his hand, and shot herself dead.

In the face of the rage, pain, and glory of her life, questions seem inadequate. The biography does an impressive job discussing the larger issues of gender and persona. Over the next few weeks, I’ll probably tackle some of the issues that strike me personally: the multiple pseudonyms, the writing issues, the fascination with pain, and the idea of suicide.

Alli Sheldon was the only other person I’ve heard of who kept suicide in mind as a guarantee against helplessness. If I am always free to kill myself, life’s suffering is consensual, optional. I can never be trapped. I may need to rethink that strategy, lest I end up eating a shotgun in 25 or 30 years.

Everyone should read this book. I don’t mean “all SF fans” or “all readers” or “all people who think about gender.” Everybody. This biography is that good.

1 comment:

David said...

Thank you so much for making that post and recommendation. I did not know the biog existed, now I've ordered. again, thank you so much for sharing.