ALICE SHELDON spent 50 years searching for a medium in which she could express her deepest, most suspect feelings, but it wasn’t until she began sending out stories under a name she somewhat flippantly took from a jam jar, Tiptree, that she found her voice.
James Tiptree Jr. is a well-known name in science fiction, with collections like “Ten Thousand Light Years From Home” considered modern classics of the genre. The writing is tough, forceful and filled with a deep, hurt knowledge of humanity. Tiptree was Sheldon’s most successful creation, and she kept her pseudonym secret from all but her family. The secret lasted from the late 1960s to 1976, when determined science-fiction fans finally deduced Sheldon’s identity.
Julie Phillips’ “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” is an engrossing and detailed study of Sheldon’s long struggle with writing and self-expression, sexuality and gender, depression and drug use. Born in Chicago in 1915, Alice Hastings Bradley was the only child of society darlings. Her childhood years make for absorbing reading. When her parents traveled to Africa twice to collect and film mountain gorillas, they took their 6-year-old daughter along. Sheldon’s mother later supported the family with novels and other writing. All her life, Sheldon struggled to find space for herself in her accomplished mother’s shadow. After her first marriage ended in divorce in 1941, she made a serious attempt at writing and became an art critic for the Chicago Sun.
Even though Sheldon had a story published in the New Yorker in 1946, she thought her work was insipid. Phillips describes the multiple careers Sheldon pursued as she developed her writer’s voice. In the late 1960s, working on a doctorate in research psychology, Sheldon found a creative outlet in dreaming up sci-fi stories and simultaneously invented the persona of Tiptree to submit them to science-fiction magazines. As Tiptree, Sheldon reached out to Philip K. Dick with ardent fan letters (“How does an author reply to such compliments?” Dick wrote back. “Do you really mean them?”) and developed epistolary friendships with Ursula K. Le Guin and others.
In the next 10 years, as Tiptree, Sheldon earned many awards and acquired many loyal correspondents. In 1987, however, Sheldon carried out a long-agreed murder-suicide pact with her second husband, Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, a retired Army colonel. Sheldon too found herself increasingly depressed. In the early hours of a May morning, she shot him and then contacted Ting’s son Peter to explain the pact before shooting herself. “I ... think she honestly felt that if she didn’t go then, they might not be able to meet in the afterlife,” Ting’s son said. “I don’t think her belief in an afterlife was necessarily religious. I think it was just the idea that something of their relationship ... would persevere beyond this life.”
Nearly 20 years after that last, desperate act, Phillips’ book fills in the blanks behind the broad strokes of the story. Following Sheldon’s tumultuous life, her suicide, although horrifying and heartbreaking, may come as no surprise.
The surprise is that Sheldon was lucky to find a way to reach out to so many writers and readers about her deepest, darkest thoughts. Phillips, in so richly illustrating Sheldon’s life, has replicated the deed. *