Sunday, 17 September 2006 08:05
Last Updated on Monday, 29 December 2008 23:51
Lisa Jain Thompson
James Tiptree, Jr., The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is the first major work on a person born transsexual coming to terms with her place in an unknowing society.
James Tiptree, Jr.,
The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.
By Julie Phillips.
Illustrated. 469 pp.
St. Martin’s Press. $27.95.
Fairfax, Virginia, USA. James Tiptree, Jr. (August 24, 1915 – May 19, 1987) was the pen name of American science fiction author Alice Bradley Sheldon used from 1987 until her death. Until 1977, no one knew that James Tiptree Jr. was a woman.
On May 19, 1987, at age 71, Sheldon took the life of her 84-year-old, nearly blind husband and then took her own, ending a life of great successes matched by greater personal torments.
Phillips’ biography shines a light on both the bright seductive surface of Tiptree’s short stories and the bleakness of Sheldon’s personal life that lies hidden in the stories’ undercurrents. Tiptree/Sheldon wrote powerful fiction that challenges readers' assumptions about sex and gender.
Most reviewers approach this biograghy as feminists, seeing the life of Tiptree/Sheldon as a parable of the the feminist movement. I too am a feminist but I also am a person born transsexual. Reading the pages of Phillips’ book I heard Alice’s own words strike deep inside me.
In a world without the words, in a culture where such thoughts were forbidden, Alice B. Sheldon own words sound loudly like a man trapped in a woman’s body trying to fit in. From the hidden personal pain
“I realize that my definition of being O.K. or normal was being able to conceal the pain I felt so as not to radiate it at other people, so as not to lay it on them because I assumed they already had all the pain they could take and were doing the same thing. […] I really assumed this was general in life. Everybody was like me and could just barely stand what they had inside, and it was just noblesse oblige not to load more on there.”
thru pain of wanting what you cannot have
“My god in so far as I am an artist I can wish for women beautiful 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. […]”
to the failed attempts to lead the expected life
“When we decided to get married I liked you and admired you. Now I really love you as a person. But it has become increasingly clear to me that I married you for what were essentially selfish reasons. I wanted to escape from a situation which was too difficult for me, and it seemed that by marrying you I could make everyone happy, and put myself in sort of Nirvana world with no pain and no joy where all I had to do was to work and carry out my duties toward you and control myself until I became a good person. That was an impossible delusion.”
the transsexual writer reveals herself. The guilt and pain that goes with being a trapped transsexual calls to all of us who have tried to play the hand we were dealt and failed.
“When I told your parents I could and would make you happy if staying by you and loving you would do it, I would. I meant it. I thought that all I had to do was go on and it would be done, twenty or thirty years of just going straight ahead. […] I do love you; but I don’t think I can make you happy. The staying by it is tougher than I thought.”
I have been there, done that, and failed like Alice.
We all try to be the sons and daughters our parents expected.
Pleasing our mothers and fathers is a basic human drive; conforming to peer group expectations is a ritual of childhood and adolescence. We go to school, make friends, graduate, get jobs, do all those things everyone else does and hide what is within from the world outside.
“What shall I do? Lie and deceive, put on a bold face and knock the bottom out of everything? Drift in this void and try to work? I cannot hold the beast that is me in check much longer. […] If I could dissolve myself into a single desire to work, all would be solved and life would proceed in a noble orchestration of work by me and decisions and desires by other people. Oh, but I can’t do this. […]”
And for all of her careful acting, for all her failed attempts at self-delusions, Sheldon’s true self continually forces itself to the surface. At the bottom line, Alice knows who she is and who she should have been.
“Instead of which [being born a boy], I was born a girl, and my life has been quite different.”
Sheldon was born in a society without an internet, raised in times where sexuality and gender were neither discussed nor questions.
How does a closeted transsexual survive and not die inside? For Alice, the solution was James Tiptree, Jr., the male pseudonym that freed the person inside to be himself.
All good things must end, however. The façade can only go on so long, especially if you start winning Hugo and Nebula awards and have thousands of science fiction fans trying to meet you. Within a decade Sheldon was confronted by the inevitable – how to reveal her true identity.
What to give up? How can she choose between the voice within and the woman the world sees?
“Even to live I must give something up. What shall it be? The garden? Writing stories under pseudonym A (the man)? Writing letters to the host of friends I have acquired under that name? Writing under name B (the woman)? The house? Travel? Something must go – but which? I can let none of them go, […]. When I try to stop anything, this terrible mourning comes over me. I cannot kill it. I cannot even let a tree die. So I am dying instead.”
Sheldon echoes a dilemma familiar to most transsexuals: we don’t want to risk loosing our families, our children, our friends, and even our church, but we cannot stop being transsexuals trapped inside the wrong body. If we stay the status quo, we die within, crazy within our own minds, or die without by our hand:
“The last time well-meaning friends tried to cheer me up I ended sitting around with my .38 in my mouth.”
If we come out to the world, how will our friends react? Will we even have any friends?
“Ursula, Ursula, I am petrified. All the friends, the sf world – will they take it as “deception”? Will I have any friends left? Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put-on?”
Beneath the feminist biography, beneath the story of the brilliant pseudonymous science fiction writer, lives the life of an archetypical transsexual trying to understand herself and break free. Transsexuals are everywhere, in every social stratus, in every job, in every nationality, and in every ethnic group. There are thousands of people born transsexual in the world in every walk of life. Alice Sheldon was but one, one who took her secret to the grave.
“How I loathe being a woman. […] I’m stuck with this perverse, second rate body; my life.”
Phillips has written an important biography, but not the one she thinks. James Tiptree, Jr., The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is the first major work on person born transsexual coming to terms with her place in an unknowing society.
Everyone who is transsexual, knows someone who is transsexual, or wants to learn more about an archetypical transsexual life owes it to themselves to read this book.