A Letter to a Not-Ghost

Dear Alli,

After your mother died, you wrote of her ghost that was not truly a ghost. You spoke to her. When I read your letters, though I am just as much an atheist as you, I feel a similar phantasm filling the chair beside me. You feel so damn real.

Perhaps when you’re visiting some time, you could tell me why you really left the Psychology field. Your writing career emerged around the same time you finished your dissertation, so that would be an understandable explanation… though you must have put considerable efforts into writing, drawing energy from the focus on Psychology. Why? Was teaching too much for you? You seem to have an all-or-nothing switch, which could make it impossible to take care of yourself while doing the job to your standards. Or maybe you didn’t feel support from the department at George Washington– as a woman, as an empathy researcher?

The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as

Illustration by Alice Sheldon, 1967 PhD Dissertation.

I like to think you chose the world of SF, rather than feeling forced to leave Psychology, that soft science. So much of your life feels familiar to me, I’m afraid I will make a similar misstep. Though I’m sure your writing would not have been the same without your knowledge of Psychology. In that sense, it wasn’t wrong at all, just moving forward.

What would you think of the world today, twenty-six years after you died? I hope there is room and acceptance for a woman like you. You took the whole world into you and asked for nothing in return; is this what broke you? Like you named your lost birds, I will name you osprey (those seahawks Ting watched near the Lodge). Despite your power, you were still subject to the flimsiness of your delicate bird body. But your words and your not-ghost are still very much alive.

With love,
Naomi Wright [a stranger and a friend]

Mother’s death: Box 10, File 30: 10/27/1976 Letter from Tiptree, James Jr., Joanna Russ Papers, Coll 261, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Or.

Elms, A. C. (March 01, 2004). The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as Alice B. Sheldon, PhD. Science Fiction Studies, 31, 1, 81-96.

Phillips, J. (2006). James Tiptree, Jr: The double life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sheldon, A. “Preference for Familiar Versus Novel Stimuli as a Function of the Familiarity of the Environment.” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 67.4  (1969): 516-21.

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One response to “A Letter to a Not-Ghost

  • cstabile

    That’s a lovely letter. I bet Tiptree’s letters can help answer this. Perhaps you’ll have the chance to ask Jeff Smith if he knows anything about this when he visits later this week.

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