Thursday, December 28, 2006


I've been reading the new biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. and I'm finding it as good a read as everyone else is. It raises similar questions for me as if does for a lot of other people. It does something very valuable. It complicates things in ways that make them seem everyday life.

I knew the outlines. The doctorate in psychology, the sitting down and writing a story and selling it under the male pseudonym, sui generis so to speak. The outing. The murder/suicide. What I didn't know was the tortured complications, the equivocations, the false starts, the early writing, the years of thrashing about from art, to journalism, to intelligence, to a late college career. I thought she was this cool, competent, ex-CIA, woman of the world. And she was in many ways, but she was also not-so-competent, not-so-worldly, given to exaggeration, never able to figure out what to do with her college education, cushioned by a bit of privilege, normal messy human being. Who like so many of us in science fiction, thought she was an alien, and never figured out that almost everybody thinks they're an alien.

Was she a lesbian, or did she want to be a man? Sure. No. Yes. All of the above. I think she might have considered sex reassignment today. I don't know that she would have gone through with it. She might have been a lesbian today. She might have stayed bisexual. We're almost as screwed up with our absolutes (you're straight OR gay OR bi) as she was with her lack of choices.

Tappen King once said to me, while we were talking about pseudonyms, that he felt they could do harmful things to a person, and that he felt the Tiptree pseudonym contributed to Sheldon's eventual suicide. (This was twenty years ago and I may be doing violence to what he said.) Talking at World Fantasy to Beth Meacham, she pointed out to me that being Tiptree allowed Sheldon to write, and that once she was outed, she pretty much stopped writing.

I think that the pseudonym was a mixed blessing for Alli Sheldon. It allowed her a voice, but a voice she felt in many ways was not her real self. I think that Sheldon's suicide might have been averted had she had access to better medication for bipolar disorder. She said one time, describing how she felt during an acute depressive episode that she felt as if she was viewing events through the wrong end of the binoculars, that everything was so distant and unconnected. I felt a strange and nervous thrill because I've used exactly that analogy with my therapist. But I'm thinking is acute disassociation is a symptom of depression, wearing a persona can't help but have contributed to worsening depression.

The book has had the strange effect of knocking Alice Sheldon off her pedestal and making me think so much more of her. If you haven't read it, and you have any interest, I recommend it.


Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I've been so caught up with other books I'm reading that I haven't read the Tiptree biography yet, but I've had a great amount of excitement to read it building since it came out. Reading your thoughts on it might make me put down something else and go ahead and start it right now. From your description, I think I'm going to find some things in her story that resonate for me. That whole thing about thinking your an alien, it's a big question for me right now, and I'm trying to write about it actually in the novel I'm working on now. It actually gives me hope when you say that you think everyone goes through a period of feeling like they're an alien. I sometimes wonder if it's less than everyone, but perhaps part of the nature of that beast, feeling alien means feeling alone in the world too, unless you get to a point where you can recognize the alien in everyone, and where you can recognize someone else who feels this way keenly as well. Anyway, I'm blathering, but thanks for such a thoughtful entry on the book.

December 29, 2006 3:00 AM  
Blogger mary grimm said...

I read it about a month ago and found it fascinating. I didn't know as much as you ahead of time--only that James was a woman and that Alli wrote as a man.
I'm not sure I agree about the persona being harmful (although I have only the personal experience of a blog persona to back me up). I think a persona can spell freedom, allows you to be a spy in the house of humanity (eek: Anais Nin paraphrase!). Surely the bipolar was more devastating?
I tried not to find her mother a monster, but I kind of did.

December 29, 2006 11:11 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Christopher, the common wisdom is that every adolescent feels like an alien, but I think for a lot of people, the feeling goes through their whole lives. Every culture has a set of conventions for people--ours are on television and in books. But most people have experiences that don't conform with narratives, that feel formless, that they haven't been given meanings for and yet affect them strongly. Which is why every few years someone publishes a groundbreaking book or there is some groundbreaking television show or movie and everyone says, 'Now there's a description of me like there's never been before!'

Lucette, I think Alli's mother, Mary, was a narcissist and did that horrible thing of making her child into an audience. The feeling of having no center, the lying, in fact a lot of what Alli did are kind of classic child-of-narcissist behavior. Alli felt she had a kind of hole in her middle that she wasn't supposed to fill, but she couldn't help but try. And having a persona let her get some of what she needed without it being her.

I think that the Tiptree persona hurt her because in the end, she felt that the connections she made as Tip weren't hers. That the recognition, the emotional support of Tip's friends, even Tiptree's voice, weren't something she could use. And I think it would have helped her to have those things.

December 29, 2006 11:54 AM  
Blogger mary grimm said...

That really makes sense, and you're probably right. I think I'm reading my own feelings into it--I always long for another life. Maybe it's time for me to write that novel about amnesia (another form of the other-life fantasy).

December 31, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

I got this one for Christmas and started reading it last night. I went through a huge Tiptree phase 10 years or so back, although I don't think her influence is very obvious in my writing. But wow--two African safaris before she was old enough to drive? I'm feeling some serious inadequacy at this end already. :-)

January 04, 2007 5:15 PM  

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