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"to be a man"

I've spent parts of today re-reading Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (I'm up to the 1950s so far, pre-Tiptree). It remains an incredibly interesting read, but also a very discomfiting one, because Phillips is very committed to the idea of Sheldon as a "woman writer". Compare this line of Phillips' narration in Chapter 9:

"Yet her life does have a pattern, the pattern of a woman writer."



to Sheldon's own words, written in a sketchbook, quoted in Chapter 10 as "probably drunken" in Phillips' assessment:

"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."

"they say it is ego in me I know it is man all I want is man's life. [...] my damned oh my damned body how can I escape it I play woman woman I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy, thank god for liquor."

"I am no damned woman wasteful god not to have made me a man."



It's an absurd contrast. How can you read Sheldon's words and not consider that Sheldon might not have been a woman? Sheldon certainly experienced a lot of life as a woman, sought (and struggled to find) solidarity with women, including in women-only spaces, struggled with the tension of achieving success in a sexist culture by acting in "male" ways, struggled with sexuality and what to do about desire for women (and desire for men). It is a complex set of factors in a complex life -- not an easy narrative, not an easy conclusion, especially as the sense I get from Sheldon's very varied writing about women and being a woman is that Sheldon was conflicted, confused, unsure. The closest Phillips gets to addressing this (so far) is later, in Chapter 17:

"She never explicitly identifies with men, but she doesn't feel like a woman either. She often seems to be trying to get free of gender entirely, as if her 'scientific' inquiry is a way of climbing out of her own skin."



Pages earlier, in the same chapter, Phillips writes:

"...when she wrote objectively about 'women' she was always also writing about herself."



Phillips writes about the alienation Sheldon felt, but seems to root it in Sheldon being a woman -- which isn't to say that Sheldon didn't identify with female identity (going by the writing quoted in this book, I think Sheldon did), but that a person who is assigned female at birth and is not female may feel alienation both from sexism and because they are not actually female. I think it's very telling that Phillips opens the book with two epigraphs, one of female alienation in Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See", the other of Joanna Russ writing to Tiptree, saying, "To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man." The possibility that Sheldon may have been a real man is not the narrative Phillips seems to be telling. It is a narrative of female oppression -- a fine and important narrative, and one of relevance to Sheldon's life, but not the whole truth.

I'm not the first person to notice this. In 2006, Farah Mendlesohn reviewed the book at Strange Horizons and flagged up the problem, saying: "Julie Phillips wants Alice Sheldon to be a woman. ... Based entirely on the evidence presented by Phillips, I am unconvinced that Sheldon ever so wanted." I know friends of mine (including trans friends) have wondered about this too. Mendlesohn makes a useful point in saying:

"None of her careers, however interesting, lasted more than five years. In 1976, when Tiptree was outed, his career had lasted almost a decade: had Sheldon not become so engaged in Tiptree as self, Tiptree's career might well have ended at about the same time anyway."



Taking a man's name, being perceived male, is no more a universal experience than any other. I cannot say that it means x or y about Sheldon's gender, nor that a life of brief careers can never have a longer career without it being super, specially important, but I can say that a person dedicating a lengthy part of their life to living (partly) as a man -- a person who earlier wrote of longing to be a man, a person who had breast reduction and expressed bodily discomfort -- is a person whose female gender ought to be considered an uncertainty. There is a neutrality in being male, in a male-dominated culture. There's also maleness in being male. If Sheldon wanted to escape gender entirely, it may have meant a significant confusion. If Sheldon found it easier to write as a man, it may have been because of significant cultural sexism and because Sheldon's own gender was masculine-leaning.

I'm uncomfortable declaring that, yes, Alli Sheldon was a man. (Only Sheldon could have said that, and -- it seems -- didn't in as many words, although "to be a man" and "I play woman" is more than suggestive!) I'm equally uncomfortable saying Alli Sheldon was a woman. I'm profoundly uncomfortable with prioritising the difficulties of a "woman writer" over the consideration of possible trans/queer gender.

Comments

My students and I debated a similar issue with regard to Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness. While I use feminine pronouns for Stephen, following the novel's lead, there is no question in my mind that this is a book about a trans man, rather than a lesbian--I can see how the conflation was made, historically, but textually...I just don't see any other possible interpretation.
That is a book on my to-read list this summer.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Yeah, I had that sense strongly while reading the book too, that Tiptree's own words point to significant dysphoria. Which, I appreciate that Phillips quotes enough of Tiptree's words for us to get that, even though Phillips doesn't interpret it the way I do-- this is why I consider Phillips a good biographer; good biographers, like good translators, allow their subject matter to be read against their intentions if the reader so desires-- but I do strongly wish that Phillips hadn't had an interpretation at all, had simply presented Tiptree's words and left it there. Or, failing that, had pointed out the multiplicity of interpretations available.
Yes, very much agreed re: Phillips' strengths as a biographer, and the wish that Phillips had been less fixed in interpretation. Some of Sheldon's writings are very dysphoric, to me, yet while Phillips writes about other forms of alienation and not-belonging in Sheldon's life, the possibility of Sheldon being trans just... isn't mentioned.
I'm profoundly uncomfortable with prioritising the difficulties of a "woman writer" over the consideration of possible trans/queer gender.

I have not read Phillips' biography, but it was lent me by a trans friend because we were talking about Sheldon/Tiptree as not a cis woman. Based specifically on some of the writings Phillips cites. (Then my life fell apart and I had to put all my books in boxes and it was only recently unpacked. It's on a shelf in my office. I should read it.) So, yes.

Edited at 2014-06-16 07:08 pm (UTC)
It's a very compelling and interesting book, despite its frustrations. It quotes extensively. I think you'll find it very worthwhile.
Thank you: excellent thoughtful writing.
vomiting foxes

October 2014

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