The Women You Didn’t See: A Letter to Alice Sheldon




DEAR ALICE SHELDON,

You were brilliant, I think, but consumed by the inevitability of the abattoir. In your fiction, all the gates are closed; characters are funneled down a chute to flashing knives. In your best fiction, the characters know what is happening, but the knowledge makes no difference; there’s no way out.

You didn’t believe in the possibility of escape. Assuming the nom de plume and persona of James Tiptree, Jr., meant at least you could step outside the chute and be the one wielding the knife. As Raccoona Sheldon, on the other hand, you were bound — as were we — inside the doomed and running cows; then you sometimes tantalized your victims with a vision of a better reality before tearing it to shreds before our eyes (“Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!”), and sometimes you focused unwaveringly on the stark machinery of death (“The Screwfly Solution”). But for you there was no way out.

¤

When you were little, you saw filth, death, deprivation, and suffering in India and Africa. So too, of course, did the hundreds of millions who lived there. Unlike many, you were not, as far as I know, physically brutalized. But you were alone: a pretty, pampered, privileged little girl plunged unprepared into violent contradiction — then exposed by your writer mother just before puberty to the hot breath of public scrutiny. You had no herd protection, no people just like you, nowhere to turn for comfort or shelter. Did it warp you in the chrysalis? Or were you exactly as you were born to be?

We’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter. But it is why, if I had to guess, you hid all your life. Why you picked up professions and dropped them as soon as you got good, and why, when you found writing as an adult, you took pseudonyms: the best way to stay safe was not to be known. You could rotate a facet of yourself before a curtain with a single slit. No one ever got to see the whole, not even you.

We never met in person. I didn’t smell your skin or feel the vibration of your voice. I can’t call up a memory of how you moved or the way you responded to particular sounds. But I heard your written voice, I read your fiction. Now that you’re beyond hurt, I admit: I did not admire your novels or most of your later short fiction. For this reader, you produced your best work when you were behind the curtain.

¤

One of the things we don’t know about that person, the one who hid, is whether choosing to write as a man meant you also wanted to be, or felt as though you were, a man.

You wrote a letter in response to Joanna Russ in which you said, “I too am a Lesbian.”[1] If this is true, you identified as a woman who loved women — or tried — rather than as a man in the wrong body. Weighed against this is the youthful (I think, and, according to your biographer, probably drunken) cri de coeur scribbled in a sketch pad. “[I long to] ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man … I love women I will never be happy …”[2] We don’t know, we can’t know. Given the (possible) youth and (probable) drinking, this might be a melodrama of immaturity. It could be a test, an exploration of the kind teenagers indulge in, donning and doffing identities and attitudes to see what suits the emerging self. You emerged many times, of course, most spectacularly in middle age.[3] I suspect that if wanting to be a man was a thing of the body rather than the spirit, if you wanted physically to have been born a man — as opposed to yearning to be treated with the respect usually reserved to men — being among women would not have made you feel free or proud. But that’s exactly how you felt when you joined the WAC: “[the] first time I ever felt free enough to be proud.”[4]

So I will take you at your word: you are a lesbian, a woman who loves women.

¤

There are two words — both with the same root in covert, the past participle of covrir, Old French for to cover — that I suspect you understood in your bones: covert and coverture. I have no doubt that working for the CIA you were deeply and consciously familiar with the denotation, connotations, and consequence of the former. The latter is a legal doctrine, probably introduced to English common law by the Normans, by which a wife’s legal identity is covered and subsumed by her husband’s. As Wikipedia puts it, in a marriage there is only one person, and that person is the husband. Some aspects of coverture survived into the second half of the 20th century — 50 years and more after you were born.

This doctrine influenced the relative status, behavior, and regard (including self-regard) of women and men. Men were real people, judged as such. Women were not. And it’s my belief that “James Tiptree, Jr.,” three words, gave you cover, a way to be free in the world without risking a particular scrutiny. A man, even a clearly pseudonymous one, is judged as a person, not for the myriad ways she is a not-quite-person. Given your experience, you believed Tiptree could be a writer. Alice Sheldon could only have been a female not-quite-person who wrote.

You became Tiptree because as a man you could write what you thought and how you felt, be respected and liked. You deserved to live in a place of respect, a place we all deserve, a place we all belong: recognized as real people without having constantly to fight to be a human being. Nobody knew who James Tiptree, Jr., was. You liked that.

So why did you — ex-CIA — let slip a vital piece of information about the death of your mother that led to your unmasking?[5] Did you want, on some level, to be revealed? Or did grief fuck with your head? Grief does that; it can make you crazy.

And so you were grieving far more than your mother when your first novel came out under the Tiptree byline, but was understood to be written by Alice Sheldon. You were mourning the cover and camouflage that kept you secret, kept you safe. You had lost the hidden place that felt like home. Once again, you were exposed to the world.

¤

I’m a woman. A dyke. Foreign (even in the United Kingdom, where now I’m often thought to be Canadian). A cripple. In today’s parlance, I suffer a lot of intersectional micro-aggression: the constant insult, mostly unintentional but damaging nonetheless, the unthinking words and attitudes scraping along my hull below the waterline. Most of us in oppressed groups tend to seek out our own kind as a matter of survival; people like us offer us a mirror, a place to belong and be understood. Shelter from the cold.

I’m the only expat lesbian cripple I know. It gets lonely.

Being out my whole life — even when I was four I knew I would not marry a man; actually falling in love with a woman when I was 15 was just a detail — meant I never had anywhere to hide. Queer was the only minority I knew without grants, government departments or liaisons, laws, schools, or families of origin who understood how hard it is, and whose mission was your encouragement and support. I felt isolated, alone. I’ve no doubt you did, too. Many of us do.

So I understand why you might not have wanted to be out in the early 20th century. Being out was hard. It cost a lot.

¤

Of your major works, “The Women Men Don’t See” is singular. Two women charter a plane and fly into the Mexican jungle with a man they meet and their pilot. It turns out they hope to be taken by aliens. They don’t know what they’re heading toward, exactly, don’t know whether they are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. They know only that they are burning and must get out. They do. The men are left, bewildered.

Two things about this story interest me particularly. First, we are left with hope for the women, that an alien world will be better for them. It’s only a sliver of hope, true, and sharp with irony, but it’s there. Second, neither of the women has — as far as we know — suffered physical violence. They are damaged, yes — as are all of us who, day in and day out, navigate cold and hostile waters, scraped and battered and weighed down by that ice — but not broken, not essentially breached. They will live. They are making a choice.

It’s a forced choice, but a choice. We are shown some of their circumstances but not all; we have to make assumptions. We can’t know for sure whether what they’re doing is a good idea.

Similarly, we can never know a writer’s reasons. We can make assumptions — about why, say, for one woman gender-neutral initials will be enough to provide cover to write; why another keeps an obviously female name but clears her path by hosing everything with rage, why yet a third takes a male name — but we can never know. They all grow in different microclimates, under different gravities.

Living under a higher gravity than those around us levies a weight penalty: we have to use more energy, more strength, more attention to run the same distance and hurdle the same obstacles.

¤

I listened the other day to a panel of women talk about diversity in fiction. They talked about how difficult it was to grow up as immigrants to another culture, how they were pressured by family to succeed in a profession — engineering, medicine, law — rather than art. Some of their experience resonated but in another way it did not. I could not imagine growing up in a world where my family and wider society assumed I was capable of a profession, where I would be welcome in a profession, where I could survive in a profession.

I can’t know anyone’s struggles. I do know that they and you and I labored under different burdens; our eras, places, classes, and cultures were different. But for the women on that panel access to a profession was a given. We may as well have been born on different planets.[6]

¤

Today, women and quiltbag folk still live under a greater gravity than others, but that is changing every day. Hopefully, by the time others read this, the gravity will have dropped a notch: same-sex marriage with be the law of the land. I’ve written elsewhere about how, in my opinion, this will change gender equality on a fundamental level.[7] It will take time, of course; it always does. But already, today, there are women growing up who will not labor under any weight penalty.

Girls losing their milk teeth today will become women who won’t have the faintest idea what coverture means unless they become historians. These women will be able to put their strength, attention, and brilliance into forging new paths, making new connections, dreaming of new possibilities rather than carrying extra weight or keeping themselves safe.

These are the women you didn’t see. They will own the world.

¤

[1] A letter Tiptree sent to Russ. “Oh, had 65 years been different! I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.” https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2006/eh0610.htm

[2] https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2006/eh0610.htm

[3] “How many times in one’s life does a door open to total escape, utter newness? I was so profoundly dispirited, alienated […]. And suddenly I was in the middle of a different light, a new me, first having a good joke of being someone else, and then as the stories went on and out, having started genuine friendships among delightful people whose native language — crude, childish, humorous — rational — was mine …”

http://jamestiptreejr.com/asawriter.htm

[4] “[…] in the rain, under the flag, the sound of the band, far-off, close, then away again; the immortal fanny of our guide, leading on the right, moved and moving to the music — the flag again — first time I ever felt free enough to be proud of it; the band, our band, playing reveille that morning, with me on KP since 0430 hours, coming to the mess-hall porch to see it pass in the cold streets, under that flaming middle-western dawn; KP itself, and the conviction that one is going to die; the wild ducks flying over that day going to PT after a fifteen-mile drill, and me so moved I saluted them […]” http://jamestiptreejr.com/army.htm

[5] James Tiptree, Jr., let his fans know that his mother had died, that her name was Mary Hastings Bradley. The obituaries made it clear — Bradley had only one child, a daughter, Alice Sheldon.

[6] This makes me glad — though every now and again my gladness is bittersweet. This is something anyone from any traditionally downtrodden minority understands: the new generation has no clue how hard it was. We are happy for that. Mostly.

[7] “Wife,” June 23, 2014, http://nicolagriffith.com/2014/06/23/wife/

¤

Nicola Griffith is an English novelist, essayist, teacher, and blogger living in Seattle.


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