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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Review: James Tiptree Jr, The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon

I will confess something: even though his stories were widely acclaimed as I was growing up, and I'm positive I've read many of them, I do not remember any of James Tiptree's stories. Perhaps they were too difficult for an adolescent, or perhaps their themes just slipped by me --- I had then, as now, a preference for hard science fiction, not social science speculation.

But Alice Sheldon's life I found completely fascinating. Here was a woman both beautiful and intelligent (how many of her fans were both?), and a high achiever in many ways, yet never happy. Born to adventurous parents who were world travelers, writers, and successful socially, she perhaps felt too much pressure to live up to her mother's and her own expectation. But Julie Philips, in weaving Sheldon's life, tries too hard to turn all those advantages (wealth, upbringing, beauty, intelligence) into disadvantages:

Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty. If she hadn't been, she might have given up the popularity contest. She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought. She and the other awkward, bright girls might have been friends. Instead she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl.

Maybe that could be an excuse when you're 12, 14, 16, or even 25. But when you're in your 60s and still addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl, I think you have to start taking responsibility for your own life, and I think Philips was being too generous to her subject when she pontificates thus.

But perhaps Philips wasn't generous enough when she glosses over Sheldon's mental illness (she appears to have at least a mild case of manic-depression), addiction to drugs (amphetamines being the main one), and her tragic case of being gay but born in the wrong time, where coming out would not have been either trendy or bearable, especially to a woman with all the "advantages" she had.

Philips spends well over half the pages in this long book on the pre-Tiptree Sheldon, and it definitely takes that much time to understand the remarkable person Alice Sheldon was, independent of her eventual career as a much-celebrated science fiction author. She was in many ways, a woman pioneer who was perhaps not recognized for being one of the first women enlistees in the World War 2 army, early work with the CIA and photoanlysis, one of the first women to get a post-graduate degree of any sort, in short, an extremely gifted individual.

Her ability to write truly shone, however, only while she was using her pseudonym, for which she is most famous. Her biography certainly justified it: the time in the army, the facility with camping and the outdoors, her life in the CIA... It was no wonder she fooled so many other writers into believing that Tiptree existed and was indeed a man. Reading some of the flirtatious exchanges between Tiptree and Ursula Le Guin, for instance, makes me want to dig through all of Sheldon's correspondence. (You have to remember, this was someone who wrote a letter a week to several friends at a time when e-mail didn't exist!) What was surprising was that her writing suffered once she was outed, despite the honors bestowed her by science fiction fandom, a community proud of its tolerance and open-mindedness. A lot of this, ultimately, was laid by Philips on the door of her "advantageous upbringing", which I believe to be bollocks. It was clear by this time that Sheldon shied away from any activity where failure could blow her up, and hence needed the protection of a psuedonym to write with freedom. That her personality was constructed this way was perhaps the result of her mother's continuous achievements that led her to feel pressured to achieve, but perhaps also a result of the all-too-common female situation: most women seem to have so many choices in their lives that they have a hard time picking one thing to do really well (Sheldon's biography definitely demonstrates that), while most men I know (or have read biographies of), seem to pursue the one thing they love or are good at single-mindedly, to the cost of everything else. That difference might account for the failure to adapt to success that Sheldon had --- she always had the choice to retreat to herself and attempt different things, while a man in her situation probably would think he had no choice but to work even harder.

The ultimate tragic ending of her life is well known, though not the details. Philips, unfortunately shies away from the fact that ultimately, Sheldon murdered her husband before committing suicide. I was vaguely aware of it, but other narratives had led me to believe that this was a suicide pact, but the Philips' analysis, if correct shows this to be murder. Worse, pre-meditated murder. Philips comes up with all sorts of excuses for Sheldon, but ultimately, this story in the end is one of mental illness mixed amongst brilliance and hard work.

A fascinating life, worth reading even if you're not a feminist, and definitely worth paying paperback prices for if you can't get it out of your local library. (Note: the paperback will not be out for a year)


md said...

most women seem to have so many choices in their lives that they have a hard time picking one thing to do really well (Sheldon's biography definitely demonstrates that), while most men I know (or have read biographies of), seem to pursue the one thing they love or are good at single-mindedly, to the cost of everything else.

Wha!! --- Generalize much? "women seem to have so many choices in their lives"?? Yeah, I guess even now it's still "easier" or more acceptable for a woman to get married to a man and not take a paid job. Aside from that, I don't see any difference in the number of choices that men and women have, aside from the usual sexual stereotypes like men can't be nurses or women can't be engineers. Do women really have more choices? I guess that's why there are so few women senators. Gee, it's so hard to decide among all their many choices that they overlooked that obvious opportunity.

while most men I know (or have read biographies of), seem to pursue the one thing they love or are good at single-mindedly, to the cost of everything else.

Perhaps you are hanging out with a special crowd of people. In my life, I do not see that. Quite the contrary; in fact, most of the people that I know who did not go to grad school have no strong passion for anything in particular - they fall into some job by accident ("gee, accounting seems to pay well, I can't think of anything else I want to do...").

Many of my friends in grad school, male and female alike (myself included, at least for some period of time), were as you describe however. I think that's self-selection going on though.

Piaw Na said...


I seem to have touched a nerve with you. I made a provocative statement, and perhaps I should have clarified about the statement of choice. Obviously, I and my cohorts could have chosen different careers, or became other kinds of people, but I will note that while I and many of my male friends entered college already decided on a major, that was not true of the women computer science majors in our class. I would also note that for many of us, it was computer science or bust. In the evenings, the folks in the lab doing recreational programming (as opposed to programming for homework or work) were men. And for many of them, there truly was no choice. Many of them couldn't get dates for a Saturday night even if they wanted. The women didn't seem to have such trouble.

Ok, you can dismiss my observations as just another experience, but can you discount the observations from CMU's computer science faculty, in Unlocking the Clubhouse? In that book, they compare the success of the foreign born women against that of the American-born women. In many cases, the success the foreign-born women had was due to an incredible amount of work. When interviewed as to why they chose that work as opposed to abandoning the major, many of them said they felt that they had no choice. To abandon the computer science major was to incur loss of face, or shame to the family, something unbearable to these students. American-born women, having such a choice, abandoned the tough major without qualms.

And I will note that at least one computer scientist with a PhD warns that gaining a computer science degree might be a booby prize, so I am not at all saying that the men who chose to focus on computer science at the expense of everything else are being very smart. It's just that when you compare someone really at the right end of the curve at success, the men are better able to handle it because they spent so much time focused on whatever it is they were working on, so they believe that they deserve it. Alice Sheldon, by contrast, never did believe that she deserved all those awards.

md said...

perhaps I should have clarified about the statement of choice

Right; I took your statement in context. You wrote of Alice Sheldon, an American who was born in 1915 (before women had the right to vote!), and grew up in an era when women generally had very limited choices. You then said that she had so many choices, like "most women" (over all time? in the forties? now? in which countries?), that she couldn't decide what to do, and she was therefore not forced to stick with one thing (which I think we agree is not necessarily good or bad). Sort of as if she were flitting from career to career as a gentlewoman dilettante. I do not know if that was the case for Alice Sheldon - if so, I think she was a very exceptional and lucky woman compared to most women of that era.

If anything, it is because women have fewer choices that they do not feel compelled to stick to one thing. It is easier to give up on being an engineer when your culture has been telling you since childhood that you shouldn't be one - that it's a job for men only.

Perhaps, in fact, you are comparing the relative abundance of choice that Americans have in comparison to those in other countries. I agree with you that there are more choices available, and that American culture generally places less value on expertise and more value on adaptability. Therefore, it is much more acceptable and almost expected that people will switch careers in the US. This applies to both men and women.

Or perhaps you are saying that extremely intelligent people have more choices and talents and therefore sometimes decline to focus on one area of study. Yes, but this is not something special to women.

From what you describe, Alice Sheldon sounds like an exceptional person. I think it's an error to generalize her situation to any subset of the population.

In your clarification, it sounds like you are trying to say that you were generalizing to American women in computer science. That is, American women don't decide on/stay in computer science because they have so many other choices. I think it has more to do with the perception of people who work in computer science in the US - it is a male job, for one. I would like to say that it has something to do with perceived pay levels, but I suspect that most kids do not go into college thinking about their paycheck potential (I didn't think about it for a second, but maybe I was weird).

md said...

To abandon the computer science major was to incur loss of face, or shame to the family, something unbearable to these [female] students.

You probably know that something similar happens to some children in this country for fields like medicine and law. Their parents push them into a profession and make them feel ashamed if they don't become a doctor or lawyer, even if it is not what the kid wants.

I find it hard to imagine anyone in this country being pressured by their family into pursuing a computer science degree, though - that must happen very rarely! :-)

Piaw Na said...

My point is that men, who've always had lots of choices in what they want to be, and how they want to approach life, often focus themselves into one or two small areas to the detriment of everything else. This is the natural tendency of men (observe male sports fans, whose memory of statistics and numbers have probably bored a lot of women).

For whatever reason, even women in a relatively liberated culture, or in unusually privileged circumstances (like Alice Sheldon) do not or cannot choose to focus in such a fashion, which takes away some of the opportunities for success that men enjoy.

Though enjoy is a loose word. There's a lot of evidence that "genius" or obsession with work to the degree that top men do so does not lead to happiness, at least, not as most of us would define it.

md said...

men ... often focus themselves into one or two small areas to the detriment of everything else ... This is the natural tendency of men

I think we just have to agree to disagree, in particular your use of "often" here strikes me as odd. If this happened often, surely I would have noticed it by now.

As you may have noticed, I tend to dislike generalizations. It may be true that, e.g. 11% of men focus themselves, while only 5% of women do (to be clear these are made-up stats, since I haven't been able to find stats to support or refute your claim). Personally, I haven't observed this difference in the men and women that I know.

As I've stated, most of the men that I know personally do not fall into this category, and in fact are broadly interested in a number of things (as are the women that I know - but I know many more men than women). So in my experience, your generalization does not apply.

You also seem to be jumping around in what you mean by "focused" and by "success". For example, I think that anyone who becomes a medical doctor must be extremely focused, and would by most standards be considered a success. Given that ~ 50% of applicants to med school are women (2003), and each year more women graduate, I think this is an indication that women are as focused, competitive, and interested in success as men, and it is simply taking time for sexism to give way and their focus to have an outlet.

Again speaking personally, of the few males that I know who have been exceptionally focused, they were university professors. And they did not exclude all other things from their lives, but exhibited interest in areas like classical music and Chinese culture... not what I consider to be hyper-focused to the detriment of all else.

I don't think the sports fan point is valid. As a counterexample, I'm sure that I've been equally bored by women (and some men) reciting in excruciating detail the items that make up a recipe and how they are to be prepared. If this is an example of focus, then women are just as likely to exhibit focus as men.

which takes away some of the opportunities for success that men enjoy

You seem to be saying that a strong focus (like memorizing sports statistics?) is something that leads to success. In fact it is often true that someone with a broad focus, an ability to consider and understand a broad range of areas, can be extremely successful. Anyone in politics may be "focused" - that is, very intent on succeeding in their career. However, it is pretty clear that successful presidential candidates and their entourage have a wide range of interests and abilities. If they obsess over one subsection of macroeconomics, then they are never going to reach high office.

I have read that there are studies which show that there are a higher proportion of males in the tails of the IQ distribution - somewhat more males with very low IQs and ditto for very high. Maybe this is the kind of statistic that you are quoting (more men with extreme focus, but if you look at the overall population you find few examples of this in the aggregate).

But the average man and the average woman have an IQ of about 100. I would be surprised if this is not true for "focus" as well. I suspect that John Q. Public doesn't go home and obsess about some specialized topic. He goes home, opens a beer, and watches TV. Ditto for Jane Q. So I simply disagree with the statement that men are "often" more focused than women. It strikes me that you are generalizing from a very small portion of the population.

Piaw Na said...

You might dislike the generalization, but I observed it when grading exams for computer science classes at Berkeley. All the A+s and Fs were men, with the women clustered nicely around the B. You can draw conclusions from that however you like, and I'd certainly understand discounting 3 semesters of teaching at Berkeley as being an unusual experience.

md said...

I observed it when grading exams for computer science classes at Berkeley. All the A+s and Fs were men, with the women clustered nicely around the B

I find it remarkable that you bothered to measure this phenomenon. I have to admit that it never would have occurred to me to look for this when I was grading papers in physics.

Piaw Na said...

The data jumped out at me. It also helped that at the time I was in correspondence with Ellen Spertus, who would become a professor at Mills College. Ellen had just written a paper about women in Computer Science and we corresponded briefly about my observations (which were too late to include in the paper).

md said...

Just to stick a fork in this, of course there are other conclusions that one could draw from your anecdotal data. Perhaps you had a grading bias. Perhaps there's something special about computer science students at Berkeley, or computer science students in general. Generalizing from your experience in computer science classes (a very special subset of humans) to the total male population is a mistake.

The synopsis of Spertus' work says "A theme of the report is that women's underrepresentation is not primarily due to direct discrimination but to subconscious behavior that perpetuates the status quo." There is no mention of males being more focused than females. Although I can believe that people who are in an environment where they are denigrated, expected to perform poorly, sexually harassed or merely socially isolated might exhibit less focus on their studies than those who are part of the ingroup. I do not speak from personal experience on those issues; the comments of Pico Aves indicate that it does happen, if we are to believe those postings.

Further, since you are claiming all the males got F's or A's, then apparently males either focus very intensely or not at all. Further don't you agree that it's possible that the women in your computer science classes could have been focused very intensely elsewhere, just not on their computer science courses?

To come back to your original statement: the claim was that in general males are more focused than females - you did not say that this was true for the field of computer science alone, but implied it was true for the entire population. It should be clear that the general college population does not have females clustering around B's and males getting A's and F's. So it seems to me that you want to draw an incorrect general conclusion based on your small subset of anecdotal data.