Hiding in Plain Sight

Image from Liu Bolin's "Invisible Man" series.

Image from Liu Bolin’s “Invisible Man” series.

Alice Sheldon’s unwavering honesty in her letters to Joanna Russ continues to amaze me. Contrary to my initial impressions, she doesn’t assume a manly bravado. The Tiptree mask served as the thin veil that let her be fully open and to cultivate relationships, while keeping the distance she desperately needed.

Almost every letter praises Russ and her latest work, but also brims with Tiptree’s self-doubt: I’m a mediocre writer, I shouldn’t be wasting Russ’s time with silly letters. Was Sheldon ever able — as a woman — to be so fully honest about her insecurity? As a young girl in Africa, as a CIA agent, as a PhD candidate in research psychology– success demanded hardness. Donning the male persona gave her the safety net to discuss failure and fear.

Alice also speaks, at length, about the traumas she experienced as a child, her difficulty with relationships, habitual solitariness, and desire to flee from hardship rather than find a solution. Through openly displaying her vulnerabilities, she gains others’ acceptance. In hindsight, it’s easy to pinpoint the instances where the female view bleeds through, insights into the female experience that I can’t imagine a “real” man expressing. Yet, her correspondents never questioned her identity. Russ does ask Tiptree if he’s gay — Tip says he’s not, as far as he knows.

As I think on it now, it may be because of Tipree’s honesty that so many people were sucked into his world and so completely trusted the persona Alice Sheldon created.

Box 10, File 26, Correspondence with Tiptree, James Jr., Joanna Russ Papers, Coll 261, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Or.

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One response to “Hiding in Plain Sight

  • cstabile

    Thinking about the Tiptree persona as a way to explore failure is really smart. There’s research in academe about why (even though in many fields as many women are hired as men), women don’t get promoted to full professor. I recall reading research that suggested — quite provocatively — that men were willing to go up for tenure several times and to fail if need be, while women didn’t approach promotion that way. They believed that they had to have “slam-dunk” cases (that’s the language that’s used) in order to go up for promotion to full. Failure for women was understood to be devastating — men took more of a “practice-makes-perfect” approach.

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