“James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

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From Body Impolitic:

Tiptree (born in 1910) was, among many other things, a woman who made many of her choices and a lot of her self-definition out of her relationship with men for much of her life. A very traditionally beautiful women, she describes herself at one point as a vine twining around her husband’s sturdy tree. (She was also a debutante, a painter, a writer, a serious student of psychology, a minor employee of the CIA, and a housewife, to name a few things.)

When she started seriously writing fiction in her 50s, under a male pseudonym, her work shows a good deal of anger and sometimes hatred of men. Her flagship story,”The Women Men Don’t See,”is about two women who choose to go live in a completely unexplored alien culture, basically because it is likely to be more interesting, and highly unlikely to be worse, than living in a man’s world. Sheldon’s attitudes toward relationships between men and women were highly colored by the cruel knowledge about men that such male-focused women frequently have. The male side of that relationship is generally not a role that shows men at their best.

Here’s an excerpt of a review from Bookslut:

Born in 1915, Sheldon was about twenty years older than most New Wave SF writers. She started writing late in a life full of other intellectual pursuits. Nearly every chapter in the book packs as much as one would expect in a single writer’s life, from her travels in Africa as a child and teenager, to married life in ’30s Greenwich Village and Berkeley, and WWII adventures as a highly ranked WAC. Then she worked at CIA, got a PhD in experimental psychology, and of course, created James Tiptree Jr.

Phillips explains her name choice,”I have tried to call her Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, Ph.D., by the names she used at different times, and have mostly taken the liberty of using the name she liked best: Alli.”

Although Alli threw herself into caprice (she said to her first husband, feeling his feet go cold before their shotgun wedding,”I don’t like people that are frightened of life”), she evaded personal relationships, as well as sexual ones with the gender to which she was most attracted. Only as Tiptree, the kindly but cool gent, could she finally articulate her sexual feelings for women — and in brash weirdly erotic intergalactic storytelling.

Again, her sexual restraint was not out of custom (Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness in 1928), but shyness. Her willpower was as much an enabling force as it was an isolating factor. In journal entries about her failed attempts at pregnancy, she tells herself not to wallow in self-pity, and moves on, accepting the loss without any sense of regret. But that same strong voice prevented her from following through on her sexual and emotional desires.

Such an internal conflict usually stops a biographer in his tracks, but Phillips turns in a fantastically incisive study rivaling that of Nancy Milford. And she is careful not to let the sensational aspects of her subject overshadow Tiptree’s unforgetable writing — work that is now undeservingly out-of-print.

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