Second year medical students have a particular problem known as intern’s syndrome, wherein they start to have symptoms of every new disease and malady they study. While there’s no fancy terminology for this issue for writers (unless it be imposter’s syndrome)—who see themselves or their work in the biographies of other writers—the struggle to not judge yourself by comparing your life or work to another is all too real. The best thing to do is, like the medical students, to acknowledge that you are under the influence of your imagination.
Thus, even though I knew some of the salient details of Alice Sheldon’s life, especially the manner of her death, I was interested in reading Julie Phillips biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, for it also spoke to my hopes and dreams as a writer who might, despite my dint of age, have the possibility of being able to write and publish and make a name for myself, as Sheldon did, for she didn’t begin to do so successfully until her 50s. But my life and experience hardly match Sheldon’s, for both good and bad, so it’s just another case of my imagination running away with me.
For instance, a writer is often the sum of their life experience, and Alice Sheldon led a most unusual life—from being a child of African explorers who took her with them when what that meant was still traipsing by foot through jungles, collecting wildlife trophies and trading for artifacts with native tribes. It meant living in the shadow of her mother, who kept the family afloat during the depression by selling stories to the Ladies’ Home Journal and Colliers, determining that maybe writing wasn’t for her, instead deciding to be an artist and achieving a modicum of success as such. It meant trying to live as an independent woman when such was hardly an option, from her failed attempts to escape her home by eloping only days after her debut to the contentious open marriage that ensued and the on-again, off-again education. From joining the Women’s Army Corps and rising through the ranks by first her ability to handle logistics to moving into the intelligence branch of photo analysis in order to identify bombing targets. It meant a five-year stint in a chicken-raising business, three years as a CIA analyst, and a very late-in-life return to university to finally obtain her Bachelor’s degree and follow that up with a Ph.D. in psychology. And then, only then, did she turn back to her love for writing and science fiction.
My imposter’s syndrome is only a faint echo of Sheldon’s life. My travels didn’t begin until my thirties, while I flunked out of college as she did initially, I managed an earlier return and stopped at the Master’s level, and thankfully I managed to avoid any war service or attempts at animal husbandry. And I, obviously, haven’t suffered for my gender. But where I most fail in comparison to Sheldon is in the intensity of her depressions, her constant prescription drug use, and her dismay for humanity, ultimately culminating in the murder-suicide that was reported on the front page of the Washington Post. For Sheldon was not a well-adjusted individual—while she could be incredibly charming and witty, she carried a dark cloud within her, a frustration with her past and future that continually threatened her ability to live. It is amazing that she was able to write at all, but it may be that her decision to adopt the persona of James Tiptree, Jr. was the perfect ticket to escape her darkness and live a life of her own making, rather than the one she had been born into.
Phillips’ biography does an amazing job at capturing the essence of Sheldon’s life, focusing at least two-thirds of it before the decision to become Tiptree, because understanding that past is key to unlocking Tiptree’s ability to seemingly arise magically onto the SF publishing scene. As I read the biography, I also read or re-read many of Tiptree’s stories, finding that Sheldon is indeed present in each, even when Tiptree wrote about aliens and time travel and other planets. For example, Tiptree’s first published story, “Birth of a Salesman,” is filled with the kind of small details from her Army WAC days of trying to move items from one location to another. “Mamma Comes Home” uses that CIA background to believably portray Washington, DC and the bureaucracy behind understanding crises and responding to them. And, in “The Only Neat Thing To Do,” Tiptree lays out both the hopes of life and the desire to end it before it threatens to become something worse. In fact, reading Tiptree is to face death (or at least final departures) over and over again, in stories like “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” and “The Screwfly Solution” (the death of humanity), “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Beam Us Home” (leaving Earth is better than staying in such a society), and “A Momentary Taste of Being” and “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (biology determines that death is inevitable despite or even because of our best efforts).
Phillips indicates that Tiptree died when he was revealed to be Alice Sheldon, and provides some evidence for that, although I think that a couple of stories post-reveal still had the same Tiptree magic, such as “The Only Neat Thing to Do” and “We Who Stole the Dream.” But Sheldon wasn’t the same after being outed and obviously missed the ability to escape into the world that Tiptree made. If she had still had that outlet, would she have written the suicide note in 1979 much less acted on it eight years later? Or had the death of Tiptree actually preceded the reveal of his being a her, that Tiptree died when he received those Nebula and Hugo awards, even though worthy, by putting a burden on future Tiptree stories to live up to the praise and admiration of her friends and readers, thus preventing Sheldon from simply writing as a lark or as a pressure outlet as she had in the past. That is, when the hobby became a chore, was the music over?
As a writer-hobbyist, I worry about that, then I recall that it’s likely just another case of imposter’s syndrome: may I live to have the success to discover if that’s so.