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Sunday, August 13th, 2006
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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

by Julie Phillips

Personality Crisis

A review by Anastasia Masurat

In her biography of writer Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips notes that "like all interesting people, Alli had many sides or selves." And throughout her life Sheldon had more than most: African explorer, high-society debutante, bohemian artist, chicken farmer, CIA agent, and research scientist. However, Sheldon's most notable self was the fictional one she created in 1967, at the age of 51: James Tiptree Jr., science-fiction writer.

What started as a joke (Sheldon found the name in the grocery store on a jar of Tiptree jam) became more than just a pseudonym. Sheldon used scraps of her own background -- fishing trips, military service, crushes on doomed rich girls -- to create a persona that seemed unquestionably male. Her vague references to government work provided a cover that was so successful, fans often wondered if Tiptree might actually be Henry Kissinger.

Over the course of nine years, Tiptree became a respected science-fiction writer known for his bleak, sexy, and adventurous stories. He also formed intense, long-distance friendships with writers like Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin. In short, he became tough for Sheldon to destroy. She contemplated giving Tiptree a fatal case of MS or coming clean, but she could never pull the plug.

In 1976, a curious editor uncovered Tiptree's true identity, and the truth shocked the science-fiction community. Phillips's account of Sheldon's evasion and ultimate unveiling provides an engrossing read. Even more interesting is Phillips's take on Sheldon's increasingly isolated life after the truth about Tiptree was revealed. Until her suicide in 1987, Sheldon continued to write under her own name. But Phillips suggests that, ironically, when Sheldon wrote as herself, she lost her distinctive voice. Sheldon was also convinced that fans preferred Tiptree: "I miss Tip terribly -- as a person," she wrote to a friend in the early '80s. "ABS is a poor substitute."

Such glimpses into Sheldon's psyche are the result of exhaustive research. Phillips spent a decade on the biography, sifting through Sheldon's vast collection of correspondence and personal papers. In addition to reconstructing the author's life and work, Phillips searches for answers to her own questions: Who was the woman behind the swaggering identity of James Tiptree, and why was the persona so important for an accomplished, talented woman like Sheldon?

Phillips finds that Sheldon's pessimism about womanhood and her professional insecurities persisted throughout her life. In a sketchbook from Sheldon's bohemian 20s, Phillips finds a scribbled note that presages Sheldon's decision to write as a man 30 years later:

Oh god pity me I am born damned they say it is ego in me I know it is a man all I want is a man's life. My damned oh my damned body how can I escape it. I play woman. I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy, thank god for liquor.

Despite insightful glimpses like this, at times Phillips's fastidious reconstruction of Sheldon's life plods along. She successfully recounts Sheldon's privileged childhood, wild young-adult years, and circumspect adulthood, but Sheldon's personality is often indistinct. This may be due in part to the fact that Sheldon, who struggled with depression and drug abuse, was notoriously guarded. A lifelong loner, she became increasingly isolated in middle age. It is telling that the best glimpses into her personality, sense of humor, and temperament are in Tiptree's correspondence with his many pen pals. From his letters, it's clear that Tiptree provided the self-assurance and community Sheldon had always sought.

Phillips suggests that some of Sheldon's struggles were the result of her historical context. She notes, "For women of Alli's generation, feminism did feel threatening," but elements of Sheldon's story seem remarkably timely. When reading about Tiptree's creation, his large circle of long-distance friends, and Sheldon's unveiling, it's hard not to be reminded of JT LeRoy, who made a splash as a teenage male hustler-turned-memoirist, but was discovered to be a 39-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

Like Albert, who thought her writing would be taken more seriously if it weren't attributed to a woman, Sheldon became convinced that gender played a huge role in the reception of art, even in the otherworldly realm of science fiction. In the draft of an unused confession letter, Sheldon explained: "Everything sounded so much more interesting coming from a man. (Didn't it? Didn't it, just a little? Be honest.)"

However, unlike the coverage of LeRoy, which has focused on Albert's deception, Phillips's biography provides a sensitive examination of the roots of Sheldon's double life. The portrait that emerges captures a complicated woman who circumscribed assumptions of gender while struggling with their constraints.

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