James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
Reviewed by Lesley A. Hall
St Martin's Press, New York, 2006, 469pp, $27.95, h/b, ISBN 0-312-20385-3
Biography is a form in which perfection always lies beyond the possibility of achievement. However, Julie Phillips' biography of Alice Bradley Sheldon, the complex and troubled woman best known to science fiction readers as James Tiptree Jr (with a subsidiary fictive literary identity as Racoona Sheldon, reclusive former schoolteacher), is about as good as it gets. While it's always possible that more material may surface (at least one significant correspondence remains embargoed), this biography doesn't just rest on the magnificent job of research that Phillips has done, impressive though this is. There is copious delving into a range of archival sources beyond Sheldon's own papers, and interviews with those who knew her, seamlessly woven into a compelling narrative. As always there are points where particular readers might want more analysis, or a different emphasis, but there is a very powerful sense that this biography does what all biographies should do: justice to its subject. Perhaps its outstanding strength is its refusal to assume that it has all the answers. It is not one of those lives where the biographer appears to have the subject neatly labelled and tidied away in a box. Phillips is dealing with a character full of contradiction and ambivalence and does justice to these difficult characteristics, eschewing the temptation to go for pat answers and simplistic interpretations. She recognises the unknowable.
Without simplistic mother-blaming, Phillips reveals that Mary Hastings Bradley was a hard act for a daughter to follow: a famous writer, an influential socialite, an explorer, a big game hunter, a gifted public speaker and raconteur, yet always glamorous and feminine. Her life looked like a glittering success, but before the birth of Alice she had several miscarriages (Phillips suggests Rh factor incompatibility), while a second daughter died shortly after birth. Being the sole survivor of this series of obstetric tragedies left Alice the "dutiful recipient of all Mary's hope, possessiveness and love" (p. 12), in a family where emotions were not spoken about and stoical silence was prized. The inevitable comparisons ('if you're half the X your mother is...') were daunting. Alice's juvenile presence on the family's expeditions to Africa was exploited by her mother in two books, Alice in Jungleland (1927) and Alice in Elephantland (1929) (both with illustrations by Alice), in a way that, Phillips suggests, led her to feel the complexities and ambivalence of her own feelings obliterated and silenced under an acceptable public version .
As the story of a fascinating life ('Double' is probably an underestimate), this book will surely be of considerable interest beyond the constituency of science fiction readers. It is very much the life of a twentieth century North American woman, with both the constraints and opportunities that historical situation suggests, and the ones faced by Sheldon/Tiptree are a version of that famous conundrum: "On the way back from his father's funeral a man and his son are in a car accident, and are rushed to hospital. In the operating theatre the surgeon cries 'But that's my son'." The surgeon is, of course, a woman. Sheldon's experiences in life, up to the point at which she engendered Tiptree, were ones which, at that period, a woman might undergo (though few in quite this combination), such as serving in the armed forces, running a chicken-hatchery, being an intelligence analyst for the CIA, undertaking postgraduate research in psychology. But default assumptions about someone who had seen military service and been employed in government intelligence, who knew about guns and hunting and had personal knowledge of exploration in Africa, enabled her to masquerade as Tiptree without having to fabricate an entire new biography to sustain it.
Phillips does not neglect the specific personal psychological forces that shaped Sheldon/Tiptree, but locates her firmly within a particular historical and social context. This was a woman who was very much the product of a generation undergoing uneasy transition, moving through enormous upheaval and social change. Sheldon/Tiptree struggled all her life with the disjunction between what society still pervasively said that women should be, and her own sense that she herself was profoundly alien to that model. She found herself in a particularly tough time for the woman who did not conform to the prevalent feminine mystique, in which it was peculiarly hard to formulate any kind of riposte or contradiction to the demand that a "woman's heart must be of such a size and no larger... her happiness is to be made as cakes are, to a fixed receipt" (George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876). It was the heyday of reductionist pop-Freudian assumptions about woman's nature: women who did not happily slip into a subordinate position, prioritise marriage and motherhood, and have vaginal orgasms, were pathological, rather than simply different. Access to other voices advancing feminist critique was largely denied her until this tradition gradually began to be rediscovered and reclaimed in the 1970s. Thus she was endeavouring to address issues of misogyny, for example in her angry (and unpublished) essay 'The Women-Haters' of 1947, without any sense that she might not be unique and solitary in her visceral protest. Her analogy for the male setting of terms for debates on gender difference – the distorted viewpoint that might be produced by elephants writing on elephants – recalls Ruth Herschberger's witty contemporary deployment of the voice of a female laboratory chimpanzee in Adam's Rib (1948), while it also foreshadows her own later imaginative explorations of alien perspective.
By the time Phillips reaches the sudden outpouring of Tiptree's short stories, relatively late in her life, we can see why the writer was haunted by issues of alienness and alienation, of estrangement, loss and failure to communicate. Through the intricate process by which she detached them from the tormented specificity of her own life, through the use of science-fictional tropes rather than mimetic realism, through a voice that was and was not her own, Phillips vividly demonstrates that she found the means of articulating these themes about humanity, power, and difference in ways that had a broader and compelling resonance.
This article first appeared in Vector 249. Back issues of Vector are available from