You Don’t Live Right Alice B. Sheldon and James Tiptree, Jr.

Here’s a typical scenario from the stories of  James Tiptree Jr., the pen-name of Alice B. Sheldon: a man stranded on a remote beach with two women finds that they are being approached by extraterrestrials.  When it becomes clear that the creatues have come for the women, he tries to defend them, they explain that this is a rescue, not an abduction: having tried in vain to make a place for themselves in a world run by and for men, they have decided to take their chances somewhere else.  Baffled, the man objects “But they’re aliens!”  To which the women respond, “We’re used to it.”

This story (“The Women Men Don’t See”) and others that question whether women can find fulfillment or can even survive in a world of masculine domination and violence must have seemed pretty radical in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it is no surprise that some readers suspected a woman behind the pseudonym (everybody knew ‘Tiptree’ was a pen-name).  More remarkably, some of Tiptree’s most supportive colleagues scoffed at this idea because the stories were so obviously masculine.  Robert Silverberg, in introducting a selection of Tiptree’s work, said:

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

And likening Tiptree’s “lean, muscular” stories to Hemingway’s, he notes a “prevailing masculinity about both of them, that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests…”  Whenevery a writer uses a word like “ineluctably,” you can expect bullshit to follow, and Silverberg certainly doesn’t disappoint.

He wasn’t alone, either.  Pioneering feminist SF writer Joanna Russ wrote to Tip (as he like to be called) that someone at a party had “asked me If you were a woman. (!) By which I gather that he can’t recognize a female point of view if it bites him.”  She later told Tip he had “ideas no woman could think, or understand, let alone assent to.”

The arrogance is simply breathtaking—Russ apparently thought that she knew the point of view and intellectual limitations of every woman who existed or could exist.   I don’t think there’s any excuse for Russ’s naïve essentialism, but it is true that certain styles are more typical of masculine or feminine discourse in a particular time, place, culture and class.  Even in those terms, I don’t think modern readers would find anything very masculine about Tiptree’s fiction, but we can perhaps forgive Silverberg and Russ for being fooled by Tip’s personal correspondence, where Alice/Tip put on a kind of boys-at-the-club style,  even running letters by her (his?) husband to make sure they sounded ‘guy’ enough.  They were encouraged to construct a kind of he-man image by hints of Tip’s adventurous life, including hiking through the depths of the Congo, serving in WWII and doing some sort of high-tech investigation in the ruins of the Reich, doing secret work for the CIA or some similar organization, hunting, fishing, lusting after girls…you get the idea.

The funny thing, as readers of Julie Phillips’s James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon learn, is that Alice was not making that stuff up.  As a little girl, she made several long trips to Cental Africa, where her parents shot elephants and lions and gorillas: a newspaper showed a photo of 6-year-old Alice Bradley with the caption “Youngest Explorer of Darkest Africa.”  As a 9-year-old, she was irate at not being given a gun of her own, and years later, when she sold one of her paintings (a nude self-portrait that had been in an exhibition next to an Edward Hopper) she celebrated by buying a shotgun.

She certainly did fall in love with girls, though she never seemed to know what to do with them (once she went ot a brothel to ‘play the boy’ but just ended up having to pay extra for biting a woman’s breast).  She was also sometimes attracted to men, though she seemed to feel that she was not quite suited to either sex—some of her stories involve sex and/or romance with aliens.  (The first SF mag she read had a cover showing an alien taking the bra off a young woman—I’m not sure which of them Alice identified with.)

She did indeed serve in the Army: one day in 1942, she put on her 3-inch heels and her fox-fur jacket and marched down to the recruiting station, where they laughed at her.  By 1945, she was Capt. A.B. Davy (the surname from a short and turbulent marriage) of Army Intelligence, expert author of the manual on the interpretation of aerial photographsof enemy industry and researcher in captured German archives.  Alice’s time as a WAC gave her a chance to see women “walking around like they owned the place” and to meet other kinds of women then those she would have met in Chicago high society (her elopement with the witty but violent Mr. Davy made the front page of the Tribune) or the artistic bohemians she and Mr. Davy hung out with.  It also exposed her to new levels of sexist hostility from many of the GIs, sometimes verging on outright violence.  Without these experiences, I don’t think Alice would have become the writer she was.

Oh, and she was a CIA agent too, in the ‘50s, along with husband #2 (H.D. “Ting” Sheldon).  She was in intelligence-gathering and was horrified by the CIA’s descent into nasty covert ops.  And did I mention the PhD in experimental psychology?  The stint as art critic for the Chicago Sun-Time?  The chicken hatchery (she and Ting prepared for that career by studying poultry management at Rutgers; when she got the highest marks, the newspaper ran the headline “Poultry Honors to Wife”).

So, you see, “double life” is really quite inadequate.  Nothing about Alice Bradley, child exploerer/Alice Bradley, statuesque blonde debutante/Alice Davy, bohemian painter arrested for kicking a Berkeley cop in the crotch/Maj. Sheldon (retroactive promotion)/Dr. A.B. Shedon/Tip/Raccoona Sheldon (another nome de plume) was merely double.  And that’s a big reason why her work is so much more interesting than, say, Russ’s.  She could see the evil of perceiving women’s bodies as glamorous status objects or slimy monsters, but she also could find those modes of perception in herself.  The impulse toward violence and aggression is usually located in her male characters, sometimes in male characters who are themselves horrified by them, but her journals show that she shared both the impulse and the horror.

Well, sometimes she shared the horror, and sometimes she just turned the flamethrower of her anger and outrage to Maximum Roast and let fly, with the result that a fair number of  her stories end with the extermination of the male gender or the whole human race (in one, an environmentalist decides to save the planet by killing all the humans).  This white-hot rage is scary, and is not as admirable as Ursula K LeGuin’s sad wisdom, but it is always a genuine response to real suffering and injustice.

Here’s one more flake of Alice’s life, as related by Phillips:

One night, at 2:00 in the morning, Alice was in the art department [at Sarah Lawrence, in 1934] trying to master photography under artificial light.  She had on black velvet overalls and spike-heeled lizard pumps, and she was taking pictures of the departmant’s anatomy skeleton, which she had arranged so that it was reclining on the floor, reading the Sunday comics, and drinking a can of tomato juice through a straw.  As she adjusted the lights, she was interrupted by ‘a plump little girl in a pink wool skirt…and curls’ who looked at the photo session, looked at Alice, and said: “You don’t live right.”

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10 Responses to You Don’t Live Right Alice B. Sheldon and James Tiptree, Jr.

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    Wow. And what do we know about Mr. Sheldon?

    • Roy says:

      What do you want to know about him? Old New England family, a jock at Yale (?), worked on Wall St., rather successful in Army intelligence, rather unsuccessful as a chicken farmer, then career CIA. Liked to fish, did not (according to Alice) have much interest in sex with women. Into orchids.
      Did not read his wife’s work, but didn’t mind supporting it, and didn’t get mad when she beat him at chess, blindfolded.

      • Ann Foxen says:

        did not (according to Alice) have much interest in sex with women.

        See, that’s the part I was wondering about. He stayed married to her much longer than he did to his first two wives, so that was obviously a kind of compatibility for them.

        didn’t get mad when she beat him at chess, blindfolded.

        So she could tell by the Doppler effect just where he was moving his piece? Or he would call his move, and she could remember the entire field without looking? I take back my wow; it’s entirely inadequate.

      • Roy says:

        Well, Ting was certainly an improvement over husband #1, of whom Alice said that someone who tries to shoot you with a real gun while drunk and angry is just not husband material, no matter how excellent his taste in literature.

        Ting and Alice shared a certain tendency to cut off people who got too close, a fondness for secrecy and for the clean getaway, which probably would have made it very unpleasant for most people to be married to them. Phillips says she was also diagnosed as bipolar–certainly she was prone to fierce depressions.

        Oh, and did I mention that she shot him and herself, in what was supposedly a suicide pact?

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    Ah, do you have doubts about whether it was a suicide pact?

    • Roy says:

      I was just being non-committal, since I haven’t reached that part of the bio yet. Alice did sometimes contemplate murder-suicide.

      • Roy says:

        OK, having read that part of Phillips’s book now, it sounds like murder-suicide to me. Ting may have agreed, in principle, to commit suicide, but I don’t think he left a note saying he had agreed to it at this particular time, and she shot him in his sleep.
        She may well have thought she was doing him a favor, but that’s another matter.

  3. JaneRandolph says:

    I agree. “Wow” just doesn’t do it justice. This person/woman is mind blowing. And I’ve never heard of her.

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