Julie Phillips's biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. has received many accolades. The reviews have been ecstatic, and they are very much deserved. Of these reviews, the most thorough in detailing the content of the book are by John Clute and Elizabeth Hand, and as I will be spending far less time on the content, if you haven't read them, please do. As with all of Clute and Hand's reviewing, their grasp of detail far outstrips mine, and I intend to build on it, not replicate it. I will also be assuming that if you are a regular reader of Strange Horizons that you probably already know who James Tiptree Jr., Alice Sheldon, and Raccoona Sheldon all were.
The Double Life of Alice Sheldon is eminently readable and conjures a Sheldon/Tiptree to admire, love, and remember with affection. And that's the rub, it conjures.
Biography is the most awkward of the historical arts. Biography of the recently deceased is perhaps the most laden with eggshells, while authorized biography strews in its own path the most delicate-hued, fragile of incubating ovoids. In The Double Life of Alice Sheldon Julie Phillips must contend both with Sheldon's image creation and the determined image creation of others, from her mother and the Chicago society pages through to the feminists who have claimed Tiptree. There are several ways to do this. Phillips might have opted for dissection, but chooses instead immaculate darning, seeking to reconcile these different figurations: mostly this is very effective, occasionally there are funny slips, and sometimes this reader found herself reading sequential comments and struggling to reconcile them in ways that were revealing not so much of what could be read between the lines, but of a specific and unexpected agenda.
Julie Phillips wants Alice Sheldon to be a woman.
In the end, Alli never found a way in her fiction for a girl to grow up a whole woman. (p.387).
Based entirely on the evidence presented by Phillips, I am unconvinced that Sheldon ever so wanted.
But to begin at the beginning: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon is, as I have already implied, beautifully written, it is a pleasure to read, and I, like many other people who have read it, will be purchasing several copies as gifts this winter. I also hope to see it nominated for a Hugo in the Best Related Book category. But it is at heart an extended celebrity piece, at times oddly unchallenging, and more than once baffling in what it lets through and what it fails to contextualise.
The opening chapters on Alice's mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, and on Alice's first fifteen years as closeted child, small genius, and explorer in Africa read like a Lives of the Saints: "the miracles the child Alice performed." This is not entirely Phillips's fault, as Mary Hastings Bradley constructed her daughter's life in precisely this way. Alice spent her first seven years predominantly in their penthouse apartment, with the penthouse garden as her private pleasure ground. This was a child who would be more familiar with Africa than with the streets of Chicago. Alice's contact with the human world would be almost entirely with adults, and specifically with men who admired her mother. From her early years she was both accessory and object. That Alice was talented—see the solitary example of her art that Phillips supplies—intensified the objectification, but where other parents have baby books, Mary Hastings Bradley was able to assemble public records of her phenomenon.
This was particularly the case with the famous trips to Africa, three of them, the first two conducted mostly on foot while Alice was still a small child, the last mostly by truck while she was fifteen. In this conjuration, Alice is the ambassador who opens the world of an African village for her parents: a small blonde child, she is an object of wonder, a position reinforced by the mis en scene of sketchbook, camera, and parental society talk. Alice becomes the saint walking untouched in the lion's den, her safety not consequent on the civilisation of others, but on her own miraculous powers. Phillips does a superb job in describing the manipulation of Alice, but in the first of my many uneasinesses, she simply accepts some of the contextual material or (with no irony at all) turns it into an enhanced spotlight for Alice-the-child-saint. For example, the term "cannibal" is used without challenge throughout this section although the latest research suggests it was both an imposition of white explorers and a joke by indigenous people to freak out said explorers; elsewhere, Alice's dispensing of inadequate medicine is seen as an abuse of Alice, not an abuse of the recipients. This unquestioning replication of found material permeates much of the next section, Alice's experiences at school and her emergence into adulthood and into "femininity."
Phillips's account of Alice's school experiences are of a bright young woman who had no self-discipline (having never been required to develop it), who was both fascinated by girls but didn't actually get along with them, and who felt "distanced." Once more, Phillips turns this into a tale of exceptionalism structured around the intersecting prisms of intelligence and gender deviance. The snag is that—to misprision Tolstoy—all tales of bright young girls, brought up mostly with adults and then sent to school, whether single sexed or mixed, are essentially the same. What Phillips seems to regard as uniquely Alice is to this reader far more clearly the fairly typical result of the adult-only milieu she had previously experienced; this is not a major issue here, except that it reinforces Phillips's unquestioning tendency to agree with Mary Hastings Bradley's own estimation of her daughter, as innately something else rather than contextually something other; this both underestimates the effect of a really superb and intense education and rather undermines Alice Sheldon herself. Much later in the book I was to reflect that while Phillips is anxious to argue that Sheldon's artistic genius failed due to lack of hard work, she has a tendency to write of Tiptree's writing as almost casual, even as she draws attention to that casualness as a pose. There is a double seduction going on here, and Phillips is all too often seduced by the child-saint construction worked on by Mary and Alice.
Where Phillips's determination on exceptionalism hits home is as she begins to tackle the issues of gender identity, and this was also where my difficulties with her levels of contextualisation really began.
Phillips writes of an Alice versus the world in which the world for women was one way, and the world for Alice was another. Phillips writes of a 1930s and 1940s in which there were no places women could meet peers, where women could not be successful, could not have careers, and places this as a solely gendered issue. It is not. The 1930s and 1940s actually saw an expansion of women's professional work: modern teaching, modern social work, and modern medicine, requiring as they do large, highly educated work forces willing to accept low wages, were built on the ambitions of middle-class women. Yet for Alice, class as much as gender was the problem: if we turn to look at class, through for example her own two husbands, Bill Davey and "Ting" Sheldon, we see very similar patterns of career aimlessness in a milieu in which work was not strictly necessary. Even her father, Herbert, did not actually work for a living: he was a landlord. I'm drifting here, but repeatedly, the material presented, brilliant though it is, is written in such a way as to make Alice Sheldon special. This is not untypical of celebrity biography, but in an odd way it undermines the subject: Alice becomes special because there is no place in the world. She is somehow not allowed to be special simply because she is talented and works very hard at her craft.
But I want to get back to these issues of gender, exceptionalism, context, and finally the "growing into a woman" because this, although a tiny element of the book, is also the aspect that is oddest. It is now accepted that Sheldon/Tiptree never came to terms with her sexuality. I'm not convinced that Julie Phillips has either, and I do not know whether this is because some eggshells are too fragile even to be brushed or whether she did not spot the clues. If the latter, then Phillips is not the only one, I have been surprised by how many reviewers have written of Sheldon's promiscuity with both men and women, when Sheldon made clear that women terrified her, and that she did not act out on her desire (or if, as her first husband alleged, she did, it was early in her life and relatively rarely).
Phillips, like Russ in the 1970s (and note the date, I don't know if Russ would make the same judgement now), argues that Sheldon/Tiptree was probably a lesbian. In terms of the terminology of the day, this was the only language available: but in the 1950s there was another term that seems more accurately to label what Phillips describes, and now there is another. Neither is used.
Consider: Phillips accepts without question Sheldon's assertion that she was large breasted, yet if you turn to the photographs you will see a tall, slender, Katherine Hepburn-boyish figure. Phillips mentions but does not explore the ramifications of Sheldon's longing to touch a female body, but repulsion at the idea that a woman might touch her back. Similarly, she mentions Tiptree's fantasy of "ramming" herself into a soft female body (an image later used in "And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side," 1971) an image which does not conjure images of lesbians. Phillips even discusses that Sheldon's general unhappiness with sex with men is not with their bodies, but with her response to her own body in sexual encounters. In the 1950s, these hints would have added up to a "stone butch," a woman so butch she would make love to a woman but would not allow herself to be made love to. Today we might use the term transgender. I find it very hard to believe that Sheldon was not made aware of this possibility while in the Women's Auxiliary Corps (the WACs).
Elizabeth Hand is the only other reviewer to even touch on this idea, yet it is not a minor matter. It refigures the outing of Sheldon as Tiptree because it alters how we view Sheldon's feeling that she had lost her own voice: if Tiptree is a woman who wants to be a lesbian and cannot be, then the outing into a welcoming feminist community might have saved Sheldon's life. That it did not may be because it was not the Sheldon who wanted to be a lesbian who was outed, but the Tiptree who really and truly wanted to be a man: far from being a persona, Tiptree was who Sheldon wanted to be. Of the other reviewers, it is John Clute's link to Baum's "Tip" that I think comes closest to articulating this. The "Tip" persona allowed Tiptree to flirt with women and be friends with men. As Sheldon, as a woman, Alice was forced to flirt with the men she liked, and her friendships with women became competitive. Note that Tiptree's letters to Russ are intensely flirtatious: this, as much as Russ's assumption that she was speaking to a man daring to speak for women, probably enraged Russ, who had her own issues to work out (one of which would be her hostility to the transgendered). Once more, with great irony, I think Tiptree had fallen in love with an unavailable woman, but this time unavailable because Sheldon did not want a relationship with Russ, but Tiptree might have done (the transgendered falling in love with people who would only be interested in them pre-op is one of the great difficulties of transitioning). The insistence that Tiptree should grow into a woman inadvertently transforms this ostensibly laudatory story into one of failure. Sheldon/Tiptree did not grow into a woman, she was never happy in her body, and she never slept with a woman as a lesbian.
A similar problem exists with Phillips's construction of Sheldon as artist/writer. Sheldon herself clearly saw her earlier attempts to establish careers as "failures," and Philips, while not wholly agreeing with this, does nothing to contradict the impression. But I am not convinced that we should accept Sheldon's self-assessment. Part of this is a gender argument: more than one feminist sociologist has now pointed out that the model of the singular career of genius appears to be one that is more common to men; women are more likely to experience multiple careers as interests and life-shape change. But we should also be wary of both Sheldon's and Phillips's acceptance of the romantic myth that there is one drive in life, one streak of genius, and that this streak must be followed. A career is written in retrospect; thus it is only the streak that is followed to the end and into "success" that can be the "true" shape of the career with its conclusion an inevitable waiting to be found. Is there a word that can equate this kind of career path as a form of monogamy? Alice Sheldon was monogamous neither in her sexual life nor her artistic life, and her inability (and her society's inability) to accept either of these may be where much of the trouble lay. Far from littering her past with unsuccessful careers, it might be far more enhancing to see Sheldon's progress as a wearing out of genre materials. On the evidence Phillips presents, Sheldon clearly worked a great deal harder at her art than she thought she did, but she is presented characteristically as a "done that, what's next?" kind of person. None of her careers, however interesting, lasted more than five years. In 1976, when Tiptree was outed, his career had lasted almost a decade: had Sheldon not become so engaged in Tiptree as self, Tiptree's career might well have ended at about the same time anyway.
Farah Mendlesohn is editor of Foundation and served as a Tiptree Award Judge in 2002. Her very first publication included an extended study of the work of James Tiptree, Jr. and can be found in Mendlesohn, "Women in SF: Six American SF Writers between 1960 and 1985" (Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 53, Autumn 1991. ISSN: 0306-4964258.pp. 53-69).