Monday, January 22, 2007


Recently I finished reading James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, and it deserves all the plaudits it's received. I was enthralled by the story Phillips tells, which is doubly surprising, since I was never a big Tiptree fan and most literary biographies I've read have bored me. But I found Alice Sheldon's life more interesting than I've ever found Tiptree's stories. More than that, I found Alice Sheldon's voice, as seen in the letters, diary entries, and occasional writings Phillips quotes, more interesting than Tiptree's voice as seen in "his" stories and letters: partly, I suppose, because Tiptree presented "himself" as a "man's man," and that type has never appealed to me.

I do have a couple of bones to pick with Phillips, though. The first is that her portrayal of women's situation in the 1950s is too one-sided. However benighted that era seems to us today, and whatever the amount of misogynistic sentiment floating around, there were many women of Sheldon's generation who were able to make productive and fulfilling use of their talents outside the home, and such women could find support as well as disapproval in the media of the time. And from what Phillips says, it wasn't Sheldon's gender that stopped her from pursuing an academic career once she'd gotten her Ph. D.

The second is Phillips's seeming lack of interest in the fact that Sheldon killed her husband. Old, ill, and depressed, on May 19, 1987 she shot her husband in the head while he was sleeping and then killed herself. Sheldon, who loved her husband very much, had tried to persuade him to agree to a suicide pact, but it's not clear that he ever agreed to it; and Phillips thinks that her husband, who was blind but healthy, did not wish to die. In any case, Sheldon didn't give him a chance to choose. When you think about it, it's pretty extraordinary. Her depression can excuse the murder to a certain extent (and my intent here is not to condemn her), but it doesn't explain it: most people who commit suicide out of depression don't kill someone else first. But Phillips is a lot more interested in Sheldon's depression than in the causes of her decision to kill her husband. Granted that sources may be lacking, Phillips is willing to theorize in other places. And while one might argue that the killing came long after her best stories had been written, and so is irrelevant to a literary biography, the fact that she could make this decision surely says something about her earlier life.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of a novelette by Tiptree, "Backward, Turn Backward," one of the last stories Sheldon wrote (a year before her suicide). The stories from this period are in general considered far from Tiptree's best: Phillips doesn't even mention this one in her text. When I read it many years ago, I thought it was sentimental, melodramatic crap. Rereading it now, it's still a bad story, but it has are some curious and disturbing similarities to Alice Sheldon's life.

The protagonist, Diane Fortnum, is a high school senior at a ritzy boarding school in the fairly near future (though the year isn't specified). She's beautiful, rich, and intends to marry super-rich; she's also, in the words of the story's main Good Guy, a "self-centered, materialistic, greedy, rude little shit." A technology has been developed, essentially allowing you to switch places temporarily with your future self, though when you return to the present you forget everything you saw or experienced in the future. Nor can you bring back any physical objects. ("In that case, what's the point?" you may be wondering. Apparently, it's to give you older, future self one last experience of being young.) Diane's school offers this technology to its senior class as one of its perks.

Each student can pick how far ahead (s)he wants to jump, and Diane chooses fifty-five years. When she gets there, she's horrified to find that she's married to the class nerd (who, coincidentally, also chose to jump ahead fifty-five years). Worse yet, they're middle-class. Eventually, hidden in a drawer, she discovers a letter to her from her future self explaining how she ended up here, along with a handgun.

Shortly after she (the first Diane) returned to the present, a catastrophic depression hit, and her family was completely wiped out. With no money and no skills, she soon found herself unemployed. On her first evening of unemployment, she met a handsome older man named Nikko, who made love to her and "in a short time he had [her] hypnotized, totally sexualized." Nikko turned out to be a pimp, who made her into a prostitute and sold her to another pimp, who beat her. She spent three years working the streets, diseased and looking for a way to kill herself. Finally Don, the aforementioned class nerd and Good Guy, ran into her, took her home and cleaned her up. And after a while they fell in love and eventually got married.

Though Diane (the first one) hates the idea of being married to Don, they sleep in the same bed for some reason. One night they make love, and Don proves, improbably, to be an expert lover who makes her first time pleasurable. (She's been saving herself for her anticipated super-rich husband.) She falls in love with him; but despite this, and despite knowing that in the future they will be happily married, she still can't endure the prospect of a "second-rate life," as she thinks a middle-class existence is. She decides to kill herself with the handgun her future self left for her (which will cause her to be dead in her own time, too), but to do it while they are traveling back to their own time, so as not to hurt Don. But as they are traveling back, before she is able to kill herself, her former "cold shallow schoolgirl" personality comes back, and she loses her memory of loving Don, except to associate him with her future second-rateness. Instead of shooting herself, she shoots the sleeping Don. So Don is dead in the present as well, and everything happens as in the future Diane's letter, except Don is not there to save her from the streets. Instead, shortly after Don would have saved her, she is burned to death (and perhaps raped) by three kids.

Unfortunately, this doesn't improve in the execution. For example, Don is described as having eyes that are "almost too long-lashed, compassionate, sparkling for a man"; and the description of his and Diane's lovemaking wouldn't be out of place in a steamy romance novel. My interest in the story is exclusively in what it says about Sheldon. And though in its particulars Diane's life doesn't resemble Sheldon's, the shapes of the two lives (so to speak) have some disturbing similarities. Like Diane, Sheldon came from a wealthy family that lost much of its wealth in the Depression, although thanks to her mother the Sheldons retained a comfortable standard of living. Sheldon's first husband, like Diane's fiance (who drops her when her family is wiped out) was came from a much richer family than the Sheldons had ever been: his stepfather was a heir to the International Harvester fortune. Sheldon was never a prostitute, but her first marriage was an "open" one, and she once visited a brothel and "play[ed] whore." (One difference between Sheldon and Diane's lives was that, unlike Nikko and Don, both of Sheldon's husbands were lousy lovers.) And of course, there's the husband-killing thing. Note that Diane first decides to kill herself, but then kills her (future) husband, whereas Sheldon did both.

Of course, it could be that Sheldon simply drew on bits of her life to give her protagonist a background. It's even possible that she didn't notice the resemblance between herself and Diane. But for what it's worth, my impression was that something about the story was so personal for her that she couldn't get the distance needed to turn it into art. The most peculiar thing about the story is that Diane knows that she will spend most of her life by the side of the man she loves, and will be happy, but still wants to prevent this life from happening by killing herself. Sheldon doesn't make this convincing in Diane (the story makes clear that it is not the few years of hell before Don which Diane can't stand the thought of, but the many years with Don); but is it possible that she herself had come to feel that her life was "second-rate" and would have been better not lived? Obviously, this is pure speculation on my part. But passages like

"What stabs her in the gut is ... the absolute knowledge that she is excluded. That there are people she can never meet, let alone have as friends; places into which she can never enter. Excluded. Condemned to copies, to second-best. Not regarded as fully human. Not wanted, by people no better, in absolute terms, than herself. To be on the outside, absolutely, irrevocably, forever. That's what's intolerable."


"she begins to notice how the word 'pleasant' is coming to infest her thoughts.The home is pleasant, the life is pleasant. --Damn pleasantness! 'Pleasantness' is another word for mediocrity, she thinks savagely, and an old saying comes to her: The good is the enemy of the best."

seem too heartfelt to be pure invention.

Rereading these passages again, particularly the first, a thought strikes me: could it be the masculine world that Sheldon felt excluded from, an exclusion that caused her to see her life as a woman as mediocre? Certainly there's evidence to support this in Phillips' book.

Well, that's probably enough speculation for now. There are interesting comparisons to be made between this story and an earlier and much better story of Tiptree's, "Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket," but I haven't quite got a handle on them yet, so they'll have to wait for another post (if I ever get around to it).

[b][url=http://www.seekingbestbags.co.uk/]louis vuitton handbags[/url][/b] Your structural celine purses 2012 component applying this trunk in celine boston reproduction comparison toward your celine bag UGG 5816 common " booties " i celine outlet usually gown on your own in. Many ladies are attempting to find these Louis Vuitton Bags for the reason that it's trendy exquisite variations. Really, their competitors have terrific designs as well.

[b][url=http://www.louisvuittonpursesale.com/]louis vuitton outlet[/url][/b] Absolutely Rastafarianism reacts to this from the repudiation of the Caucasian Jesus. Ethiopia would be the Promised Land underneath this religion. It could be convincingly argued that this is Christianity that may be completely adjusted for the ambitions of Afro-Caribbean folks..

[b][url=http://www.louisvuittonvipstore.co.uk/]louis vuitton handbags[/url][/b] Envelopes in addition to a variety of other mailing elements are an important item along with any business enterprise. Working with likely to be the up envelopes can make an the highest decision feeling to perform with him company for extra details on consumers and they're also an absolute have to have together with the primary purpose regarding bringing mail internally within just it small business. The not a similar issue every kind to perform with envelope offered throughout the the marketplace include common envelopes throughout the lot of distinctive forms device envelopes, padded envelopes, padded bags, pre-printed envelopes,safety envelopes, interior envelopes and wage envelopes..

[b][url=http://www.lovelouisvuittonbags.co.uk/]louis vuittoun outlet[/url][/b] God enable me though, Versace is loud and tacky. That right- loud tacky.21. What's your preferred erogenous zone (My mind.22. Choose an excellent look at the knowledge you find and type it within the optimum to lowest proportion in each and every group. This can inform you which groups to concentrate on extra and which groups will need significantly less focus. It is really also an opportunity to re-evaluate who you would preferably want to provide with your organization..

[b][url=http://www.lovelouisvuittonbags.co.uk/]louis vuitton purses[/url][/b] Nevertheless they usually are not intended to generally be carried routinely. For apparent function of those valuable bags, each individual bag shall be embroidered Louis Vuitton Purses on sale signal to the tag. In the aspect of Outlook, every single bag can even be recorded along with the output code, which differ from a single to ten.

[b][url=http://www.louisvuittonstoreoutlet.co.uk/]louis vuitton handbags[/url][/b] It's got BEEN Warm AND DRY Higher 90'S. WE MOVED TO KENNEWICK WA. DON TRANSFERED With all the GOV'T And that i TRANSFERED Along with the Similar Task. You are able to even incorporate a video. Bear in mind, the greater content material you incorporate, the higher you could possibly be able to rank organically!When you simply click submit, Google will check with you if you want to verify the account by cellphone or by mail. In the event you click the choice, you may get a contact within a make a difference of seconds.

[b][url=http://www.louisvuittonsalesstore.com/]louis vuitton sale[/url][/b] Choose around the quantity of suitcases you will need. While type is paramount, your baggage need to do the job with your circumstance. Reviewing your journey wants, how generally would you journey and just how considerably you carry along with you on travels will assist you to ascertain the dimensions and scope with the suitcase and choose affordable reproduction artist luggage..

[b][url=http://www.louisvuittonhandbagsgo.com/]louis vuitton purses[/url][/b] The prospect is surfing the internet for facts and happen to bump into your income webpage. He's holding a packet of potatoes chip on just one hand as well as a can of Coke however. He is impatient and may skip or move on to another webpage in case your sales duplicate will not catches his notice to keep reading.

[b][url=http://www.louisvuittonbagsoutlettu.com/]louis vuitton bags[/url][/b] While you can see, leather-based boots will not have to be uninteresting or repetitive. Now over ever, designers are releasing some fabulous models, just waiting for being purchased. These increase spice to your character as well as the unique layouts present in funky t-shirts are absolute trendsetters which will make folks take into account you to be a vogue ent .

Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?