James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
St. Martin's Press, 2006
469 pp., $27.95
Christina Bieber Lake
Another Stranger in a Strange Land
Tiptree's identity was discovered when readers were able to piece together the news of Sheldon's mother's death with biographical facts Tiptree had revealed about his own childhood. From there, her story is a sad one. Although Sheldon said that Tiptree's "death" made her face her "self-hate as a woman" and her "view of the world as structured by raw power," she never really faced these things. She continued to write, but without the same voice and authority. In her journal, she declared " 'I' am not a writer! 'I' am what is left over from J.T. Jr., a mindless human female who 'lives' from day to day, […] cleans up the garden, orders daffodil bulbs, repeatedly washes, clothes and reclothes my body, makes a visual presentation of self to world, worries about repairs to the roof." As Phillips describes it, "in the end, Alli never found a way in her fiction for a girl to grow up a whole woman."
Sheldon's struggles can and should be compared with those of other early pioneers of the second wave of feminism. Becoming Tiptree gave her more freedom to explore science and technology, sexual desire, and violence—typically the province of male writers—even while it gave her less freedom to be herself. But to careful readers, Sheldon's double life itself serves to illustrate why her fiction is not mere propaganda. Tiptree tapped into the fact that we are all strangers in a strange land. We all experience alienation; we all know what it means to feel lonely in a crowd of people, to long for deep and lasting connection with others, to long for home.
Sheldon, an atheist, usually drew upon primal instincts and evolutionary forces to explore these often violent longings. Her story "Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death" is written in the present tense from the perspective of what appears to be a fire ant. (An alien, perhaps? It is unclear.) The protagonist is Moggadeet, a creature of ambiguous gender who is tortured by the great love it feels for another who it fears it will also destroy. The story explores the intensity of instinctual forces in sexual desire, motherhood, and self-preservation. It combines the idea of "Nature red in tooth and claw" with Freud's theory of the link between eros and thanatos. The chiasmic structure of the title mirrors the way that desire is structured in the story. Moggadeet deeply desires to go against nature's Plan and to continue to love the other, but the Plan pulls it, inexorably, into Death: in the end it is Moggadeet who is killed by the other in much the same way as the male praying mantis is killed by its mate. The conclusion shows how easily desire can be intermingled with destruction:
Stupefied with delight, I gazed.
And your huge hunting-limb came out and seized me.
Great is the Plan. I felt only joy as your jaws took me.
As I feel it now.
And so we end, my Lilliloo, my redling, for your babies are swelling through your Mother-fur and your Moggadeet can speak no longer. I am nearly devoured.
The story begs readers to recognize how we humans often fare little better. We know that the ways of love are better than the ways of violence, but we persist in violence; we desire things with an aching energy, but they seem to turn to rot as quickly as we attain them; we long for connection with others, but in the end we are alone.
Sheldon struggled to find hope in all of this. In 1974, she drew up a plan to try to improve her life. Writing as if about another person she observed or a character she created, she diagnosed herself as full of a dread that had become "overpowering because of lack of central hope of any kind, and the presence of too many acts which to A. symbolize death rather than growth." Alice B. Sheldon did not succeed in finding a deeper hope. But for all her struggles, her stories reveal a writer consistently drawn to a vital force in the human spirit that can best be described by the Greek word for life, zoe: "Clearly 'human beings' have something to do with the luminous image you see in a bright child's eyes—the exploring, wondering, eagerly grasping, undestructive quest for life. I see that undescribed spirit as central to us all."
Christina Bieber Lake is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. She is the author of The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor (Mercer Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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