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Writer Alice B. Sheldon hid her identity from her sci-fi fans for decades. Photo by James Reber)
By Kathi Wolfe
SEP. 2, 2006
She blinded me with science fiction
New biography of sci-fi writer James Tiptree, Jr. explores the writer’s closeted life as a lesbian

‘James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon’
Julie Phillips
St. Martin’s Press

IN 1970, SCIENCE-FICTION writer James Tiptree, Jr. 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.”

Tiptree, whose witty, masculine style, yet keen understanding of women influenced sci-fi writers from Philip K. Dick to Ursula K. Le Guin, wasn’t being hyperbolic. The skeleton in his closet was that he didn’t exist.

Tiptree was actually a woman — reluctant lesbian Alice B. Sheldon. Sheldon, who lived in McLean, Va., got the name Tiptree from a marmalade jar. “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips is a page-turning biography of a life that is more spell-binding than most any fictional character’s would ever be.

Sheldon, who died in 1987, was born in 1915 to socialite parents Herbert and Mary Hastings Bradley in Chicago. Herbert, an explorer, and Mary, a writer, took her to Africa when she was six. At 19, she married a poet. The brief marriage ended in divorce.

“Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature,” she commented. In her 20’s, Sheldon was a painter.

She served in the Women’s Army Corp during World War II, married Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, worked for the CIA, raised chickens in Tom’s River, N.J., and earned her Ph.D. in psychology. All this before she began writing science fiction in the ‘60s under her nom de plume.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING that Tiptree engaged in gender bending in his writing. Though Sheldon and Ting were devoted to each other, their marriage of more than 30 years, likely became “sexless,” Phillips writes. From adolescence onward, Sheldon had crushes on women, Phillips says.

“I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up,” Sheldon said. Yet, Sheldon probably never had a “serious affair, with a woman,” Phillips writes, “most likely she didn’t dare.”

To Sheldon’s generation, it was acceptable to “dabble in bisexuality in the artistic milieus,” Phillips writes, “but a serious romantic and sexual relationship with another woman was not.” Sheldon was proud of her self-awareness, but didn’t act on it, Phillips says.

“Real gays were always throwing themselves at my once handsome feet, and I hadn’t a clue how to pick them up,” Sheldon said, looking back on her life.
Sheldon liked women; but hated being female, Phillips says. “To grow up as a ‘girl’ is to be nearly fatally spoiled, deformed, and terrified; … to be reacted to … as a thing … and nearly–to become that thing,” Sheldon said.

Through Tiptree, a man who told stories of other planets, Sheldon could say what she couldn’t speak of as a woman: her lust for girl aliens, sex, death, violence, feminism and her hopes and worries for the future.

IN 1976, SHELDON shattered when Tiptree’s secret was revealed. “Doctor is giving me first pink pills, then purple pills ... I dream about oblivion like other people dream of good sex,” Sheldon said.

Tiptree’s sci-fi writer friends accepted Sheldon seamlessly. “Do you know what: I don’t think I have ever been more surprised before ... It’s like a Christmas present!” Le Guin wrote to Sheldon, after Tiptree’s cover was blown. But Sheldon never recovered from this blow to her literary persona and killed herself in 1987.

Despite the sad ending to her life, Sheldon’s work lives on. “James Tiptree, Jr.” is a riveting account of Sheldon’s fascinating life. Queer readers will identify with Sheldon’s struggles with gender-bending, secrecy and creativity. But even Phillips’ fabulous bio can’t provide a thorough account of Sheldon’s talent. For that, checkout “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever,” whose author is still documented as James Tiptree, Jr.


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