Thursday, September 21, 2006

Another secret life

Kathy O'Beirne (see yesterday) seems to have invented a life for herself, and a deeply troubled one at that. But some writers invent a new and false personality for themselves. And it can also be deeply troubling to have the truth about that exposed.

James Tiptree Jr was a successful science-fiction writer in the 1970s and '80s. Most of the Tiptree books are collections of short stories, and Smoke Rose Up Forever is the reportedly the best selection; but there were also two novels: Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air.

James Tiptree, however, had a secret. In 1970 he wrote: 'I have what every child wants, a real secret life… not a bite-the-capsule-when-they-get-you secret, nobody else’s damn secret but mine.' And that secret was, James Tiptree was a woman.

The author's real name was Alice B. Sheldon, and now Julie Phillips has written a biography of her: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. It's been getting some rave reviews.

Alice was born in 1915. Her father was an explorer, who took her to Africa when she was six, and her mother was a writer. At 19, Alice married a poet, but he had a habit of shooting at her when drunk, so she dumped him.

Later, Alice served in the women's Army Corps during World War II, married a man called Huntington Sheldon, and worked for the CIA. She also got a PhD in psychology.

As for her own psychology, Alice declared: 'I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.' Her biographer tells us that Alice knew full well that she was a lesbian, but doubts that she ever had the nerve to have an affair.

Well, maybe so. But I like to think that a woman who had served in the armed forces and worked for the CIA probably had rather more nerve, and more secrets, than Julie Phillips thinks.

Certainly the revelation of the true identity of James Tiptree seems to have upset Alice B. Sheldon more than might reasonably be expected. She had to go on medication.

This story does not have a happy ending. Or maybe it does, depending on your temperament. Alice seems to have been deeply shaken by the revelation of her James Tiptree persona, and it is said that she never really recovered. And in 1987, when her she and her husband were both suffering from debilitating illness, she shot him and then herself.


Anonymous said...

It may have ended in some emotional difficulties, but Sheldon's original decision to use a male pseudonym is as understandable as the Brontë's. A respected editor of science fiction introduced this new writer's work to the world in these terms, in 1975:

'there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing... his work is analogous to that of Hemingway... that prevailing masculinity about both of them - that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests.'

No wonder she found it hard to cope with the revelation of her true identity two years later.

Anonymous said...

Tiptree's sounds like a touching and truly tragic story--it leaves me wanting to learn more about her. One can't help but feel some pain at the depression she must have suffered--one reference notes that her suicide note had been prepared some years before her death.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I've now read several reviews of the Tiptree biography. It's clear that Tiptree's husband didn't willingly enter into any mutual suicide pact.

Alice Sheldon was afraid of becoming debilitated and so decided at some point to kill herself before she lost the capacity.

She discussed this with her husband and he didn't want to.

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