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I've just finished "James Tiptree, Jr: the double life of Alice B Sheldon," by Julie Phillips. It's a terrific book, which tells a very sad story.

It's a biography, though, and aside from speculating the Alice suffered from a mild form of bipolar disorder (where the highs stop short of paranoid mania, but the lows as just as lethally low), the author avoids drawing conclusions about the social sources of Alli's emotional troubles and torments. So let's do that, shall we?

Alice Sheldon was an example of the tragic kind of person best described as an "intense artist": lots of "emo," lots of sturm und drang, plus setting impossibly high standards for oneself. She desperately wanted to paint, to write masterpieces... but every time she set brush to canvas or pen to paper, the result wasn't as good as the idea in her head, and fell far short of her exacting standards of accomplishment, so she gave up on painting, and gave up on writing, too, until late in life she found that she could write by pretending to herself that it was only SF, it wasn't serious, it wasn't Literature or Her Life's Work, and what's more, she wasn't writing it anyway, it was the work of her male alter ego, a mask she wore that enabled her to write without worrying about whether what she wrote was good enough.

She was also, by orientation, a stone butch lesbian, a woman who desired women but didn't feel comfortable being a woman herself. The sort of butch who, today, would at least consider taking testosterone and transitioning to male:

My god in so far as I am an artist I can wish for women beautiful women women women with soft asses (arses to you) and breasts goddamn I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy. [p. 85, from a note probably scribbled while drunk]

And here is the tragedy: she was born to wealthy parents who (when they weren't taking her with them on African safaris) brought her up as a high society girl in the 20's and 30's. High society, as in conspicuous consumption wedded to noblesse oblige; for a woman, it meant (and still means, for some) wearing silk gloves while handing out charity, total selflessness and self-sacrifice without ever dropping the mask of gentility and reserve.

And I think it was that total mismatch, between her reserved, genteel high society upbringing, and her "intense artist" personality, between the extremely restrictive role she had to play as a debutante and socialite, and her inner nature as a queer: this mismatch was, I think, what prevented her from ever claiming her writerly voice in her own person. Once she started writing as Tiptree, that same upbringing made it impossible for her to drop the facade and tell the truth. Tiptree could acknowlege his pain, his anger, and talk about them, at least a little, in correspondence; could access them, and incorporate them into stories. Alli Sheldon could not; she had to stay on her pedestal, keep her gloves on while giving herself to others until she had nothing left.

So I guess the tragedy of Alice Sheldon, from one side, is the tragedy of someone who imbibed the lessons of femininity too well. And from the other side, the tragedy of all women brought up in the culture of high society, of debutantes and evening gown charity balls.


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October 2017



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