The Woman Men Didn't See
In the guise of a man, she became one of the top writers in her field.

Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster
Sunday, August 6, 2006


The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

By Julie Phillips

St. Martin's. 469 pp. $27.95

If you lived in McLean, Va., in the 1960s and '70s, you probably ran into Alice B. Sheldon. You might have seen her shopping for dresses at Lord & Taylor's or buying gardening supplies at Hechinger's. But you would not have known that under the pseudonym "James Tiptree Jr.," she wrote works that were at the vortex of gender wars that raged in the world of science fiction.

Sheldon (1915-87) was the most important sf writer ever to live in the Washington area. She also was, in her varied career, a psychologist, a CIA officer and a chicken farmer. Her biographer, Julie Phillips, combines diligent archival work with more than 40 interviews to successfully portray one of sf's most brilliant -- and tortured -- authors.

Sheldon was born Alice Bradley in Chicago. Her mother, Mary Bradley, was an accomplished popular novelist and lecturer. Her father, Herbert, was a real estate developer who made enough money to pursue his fantasy of exploring Africa.

The Bradleys made three trips to Africa from 1921 onward, taking their daughter with them each time. The expeditions did little to advance science but provided Mary Bradley with material for several bestsellers, some featuring Alice. But for a 6-year-old Alice, seeing animals routinely die in the wilderness was emotionally scarring.

Though intelligent, Alice soon ran into the barriers imposed on women of her generation. For the rest of her life, she rebelled against femininity -- cotillions, fashion, frills -- and the idea that men command and women obey.

"Being stuck in traditional roles was one of the great sources of Alice's anger," Phillips writes, but "often that anger was directed at other women. About girls and women, Alice was always ambivalent. She wanted to like them, but was regularly disappointed by their failure to take their future seriously, by their artificiality, later by their reluctance to think politically and their willingness to put up with the status quo."

In her twenties, Phillips argues, Alice concluded that "the only way to survive as an intelligent woman was to think of herself as a secret exception -- not really a woman at all." Such thinking led her to adopt a male pseudonym 30 years later.

Sheldon went to Sarah Lawrence and dabbled in painting and writing, but dropped out. After an unfortunate first marriage, she found some happiness in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. She became a skilled photo interpreter, able to pick out targets for Allied bombers. The Army rewarded her by shipping her to Germany, where she spent the last year of the war. The colonel commanding the intelligence unit where she worked was Huntington "Ting" Sheldon. They dated and married in 1945.

After a failed venture in chicken farming, Alice Sheldon spent three years interpreting photos for the CIA. (Ting remained a high-ranking CIA officer until his retirement.) She went back to college, getting her bachelor's degree and, in 1965, a doctorate in psychology from George Washington University. Not wanting to teach, Sheldon decided to try writing science fiction.

We know very little about why she liked sf. When she was a teenager, an uncle introduced her to pulp sf magazines. In the 1950s, she tried to sell a few stories; all were rejected, Like much else in her life, her development as an sf writer remains cloudy and obscure. But when she started writing again in her fifties, she had become a mature artist.

Sheldon thought her professional career as a psychologist would be ruined if her love for sf was found out, so she decided to write under a pseudonym. One day at the supermarket, she found a jar of Tiptree jam from England. Inspired, she became "James Tiptree Jr."

Science fiction at the time was in a war between the "Old Wave" that believed in scientific accuracy and a "New Wave" that made literary values paramount. Tiptree's work fell into both camps -- scientifically accurate but passionately concerned with gender and power. In the award-winning novella "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1974), Tiptree portrayed a world where male astronauts return to an Earth where an epidemic has wiped out all men, leaving an all-female society of clones who have eradicated war, hierarchy and violence. In "The Women Men Don't See" (1972), tough CIA operative Don Fenton hopes to save some women from an alien invasion, only to find that the women prefer the aliens to being ruled by men. "What women do is survive," one of the women tells Fenton. "We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine."

As Tiptree, Sheldon acquired a reputation in sf as the man who really understood women. While keeping her distance from the field and keeping her background mysterious, she wrote long, passionate letters to Ursula Le Guin full of news about Le Guin's family, gossip and discussions of favorite stories and poems. To other correspondents, Tiptree displayed rage and pain. (These emotions, Phillips writes, may well have been enhanced by Sheldon's excessive use of coffee, cigarettes and amphetamines.)

In 1973, editor Harry Harrison said he would be in Washington and invited Tiptree to come downtown and have a drink. Tiptree declined the invitation. "My life is a mixed up mess right now," she wrote. "I have personal problems like other people have termites. I'm barely viable . . . The last time well-meaning pals tried to cheer me up, I ended sitting around with my .38 in my mouth."

"The disparity between Alli's [Sheldon's] pretended gender and her real feelings was really confusing and bewildering," Le Guin said in an interview with Phillips. "It's kind of upsetting, that sort of insecurity in a man."

For several years in the 1970s, Sheldon had to deal with her aging, ailing mother. In 1976, Mary Bradley died at age 94. In letters, Tiptree had written about a mother who was an African explorer, and sf writers read the obituaries and made the connection between Sheldon and Tiptree.

After her male pseudonym was revealed, Sheldon wrote little for three years. Her later work lacked the passion and force of her "male" writing.

As critic John Clute notes, James Tiptree's major theme was death. "It is very rarely that a James Tiptree story," Clute writes, "does not directly deal with death and end in a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the body, or of the race."

"I've lived so deep under masks," Sheldon wrote interviewer Charles Platt in 1982, "my interior was built to satisfy me alone -- I have lived almost 60 years alone, mentally, and quite content to have it so."

For much of the 1980s, she told several of her correspondents that she would kill herself when Ting died. She had no close friends and was an atheist. So when Ting gradually went blind, Alice Sheldon decided that the only solution was to kill him and commit suicide, which she did in 1987. Her suicide note had been written eight years earlier.

In sf, Alice Sheldon's chief legacy is the James Tiptree Award, given annually for the best feminist sf. Her work blazed a trail that other women have followed. Julie Phillips does an excellent job in telling Sheldon's story. ยท

Martin Morse Wooster is a former editor of the Wilson Quarterly and the American Enterprise.

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