Alice Sheldon and the name of the Tiptree Award

Further update: Wednesday September 11, 2019.

We said we would be listening and we have. We’ve read your thoughtful and pain-filled emails, tweets, and Facebook posts. We are sorry for the harm that’s been done, especially to some of the most marginalized members of our community.

We recognize that the award is necessary to the community, but can’t go on under its existing name. Now we need to figure out what to do next and how to do it. We’re working on it. And we’ll say more within a month.

Update: Wednesday September 4, 2019.

We’ve seen some people discussing this statement and saying we’re refusing to rename the award. Of course it’s easy to read what we’ve written in that way; our apologies. While this post focuses on the reasons why we have not immediately undertaken to rename the award, our thinking is ongoing and tentative, and we are listening carefully to the feedback we are receiving. We are open to possibilities and suggestions from members of our community as we discuss how best to move forward. You can contact us at feedback@tiptree.org.

Content notes for discussion of suicide, mental illness, caregiver murder

In recent days, we’ve seen questions raised on social media about whether the name of the Tiptree Award should be reconsidered. The Award was named after James Tiptree, Jr., the persona under which Alice Sheldon published. The questions relate to Alice Sheldon’s actions at the end of her life. On May 19, 1987, she shot first her husband, Huntington Sheldon, and then herself.

The Tiptree Motherboard, the seven volunteers who administer the award, has been deep in intense reflection and conversation. While we are far from finished with our discussions, we wish to share some important information and some of our thoughts.

For reasons we share in this post, the Motherboard does not believe that a change to the name of the Tiptree Award is warranted now. But we believe that this is a very important discussion, and we do not think it is over. The community that has grown up around this award since its founding in 1991 deserves to have its voice heard in any conversation as significant as renaming.

Alice and Huntington Sheldon’s story

We on the Motherboard, those who remember Alice Sheldon and those who do not, have long known the story of how she and her husband, Huntington Sheldon (known as Ting), died.

Friends and family — and the science fiction community at the time — viewed this tragedy as resulting from a suicide pact: the desperate and tragic result of a combination of physical and mental illness and the Sheldons’ desire to die on their own terms. He was 84 years old; she was 71.

However, some who have read accounts of the Sheldon’s deaths more recently have pointed out a different interpretation. The story can also be seen as an act of caregiver murder: where a disabled person is killed by the person, usually a close family member, who is responsible for their support.

Both narratives fit the story. We see how much of the discussion of the Sheldons’ deaths, including our own, reflects the rhetorical tendencies identified in David Perry’s report, specifically the centering of those who kill over those who are killed. In the world outside of science fiction, Huntington Denton “Ting” Sheldon would be considered the more significant member of the couple. “Ting” Sheldon was Director of the Office of Current Intelligence of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy and is credited with building that office of the CIA.

In her 2006 biography of Tiptree, Julie Phillips quoted some sources who suggested that Ting may not have been ready to die. Since the conversation about the Sheldons’ deaths has become public, however, Phillips has shared further details from her research, reporting that Ting’s friends and family understood his death and Alice’s as the fulfilment of an agreement between the two of them. On Twitter, Phillips writes:

The question has come up whether Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr) and her husband Ting died by suicide or murder-suicide. I regret not saying clearly in the bio that those closest to the Sheldons all told me that they had a pact and that Ting’s health was failing.

Ting’s son Peter Sheldon also said there was a pact, and that Ting was declining. Alli probably wanted to die more than Ting did. But the pact didn’t have to do with his blindness or disability. He was going, and they chose to go out together.

In an email to the Tiptree Motherboard, quoted with permission, Phillips writes:

Ting didn’t leave a statement, but all Ting’s friends that I talked to plus his son Peter were unanimous that it was a pact, and that Ting’s health was failing when it happened. The only one who cast doubt on that was the lawyer who talked to her on the last night, James Boylan. He didn’t know either Ting or Alli very well, and I have doubts about how well he understood what was happening. I’m planning to write up what I know, because I left too much room for doubt when I wrote the book.

Putting Alice Sheldon’s death in the context of her life, Jeff Smith, Alice’s friend and literary executor and a longtime Tiptree Motherboard member, shares his recollection of it this way:

I knew Tiptree through correspondence, and Alli through phone calls and visits. She was very open about the suicidal tendencies that had plagued her throughout her life. She also told me that neither she nor her husband, Ting, wanted to outlive the other. (Whenever I talked to Ting, the subject never came up.) There were times when Alli said she had her gun out (including at least once when I was talking to her on the phone), but that “Ting isn’t ready yet.”

Ting’s health began to steadily decline. I hadn’t spoken to Alli in the weeks leading up to that final night, so I don’t know exactly what she was going through at that time. I know she wrote notes that she left around the house, with instructions and information that the responders and her lawyers might need. She took the unfinished manuscript of her last novella (a love story) out of her office and placed it in the living room. She called her lawyer and told him what she intended to do. He called the police, who got to the house while she was still making preparations. She convinced them the lawyer had misunderstood her. They checked in on Ting, and then they went away. Alli completed her task.

We her friends knew it was coming, but that knowledge didn’t make it less distressing. Could anyone have stopped it? Probably not: This was 1987, and the actual suicide note left out with all the new instructions was dated 1979.

We ultimately do not know what happened on May 19, 1987. We can’t know with certainty and we don’t see how anyone can know except the ones who cannot tell us. But we are as convinced as we can be, given the unknowability of the facts, by the evidence that Alice and Huntington Sheldon chose to die together.

We respect that not everyone who reads this will have the same interpretation. We recognize that the unconscionable murder of disabled people by their caregivers happens daily, driven both by the devaluation of disabled life and by the lack of available care and support. Therefore we do not seek to defend or exonerate Alice Sheldon, but to make sure the context of her actions remains part of any conversation about them. We are grateful to our community for raising these important issues and bringing them to our attention.

The “Tiptree” Award

Perhaps competing narratives about what happened in an unknowable, devastating moment more than 30 years ago are beside the point. We are in the midst of a movement away from naming awards after people, of putting intense weight on influential historical figures who inevitably disappoint when held up to scrutiny, especially at historical distance. If we want our award to continue into the future, we must be willing to re-examine the individuals, stories, and assumptions that have shaped it so far.

We think it is important to understand how the Tiptree got its name. In 1991, founding mothers Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler made a conscious choice to name the award not after Alice Sheldon herself but after the assumed persona –– more than a pseudonym –– under which Sheldon published fiction and participated in fandom. In its conception, the James Tiptree Jr Literary Award hoped to acknowledge and celebrate Sheldon/Tiptree’s dual gender identity, the boundary-crossing work published under Tiptree’s name, and the havoc the revelation of Tiptree’s gender wreaked on the male-dominated science fiction world of the 1970s.

Sheldon was a complicated individual, aspects of whose personal story have long been woven tightly into and through the idea and spirit of the Award. Yet the Award was not intended to reference a figure whose approval winners might imagine gaining or toward whose example they might aspire, in the way that other awards named for iconic individuals – most notably the former Campbell – appear to do. Jeanette Ng’s speech reminded us that science fiction has long since eclipsed the bounds by which Campbell, whose racist and fascist sympathies are a matter of public record, hoped to define it. In renaming the Astounding Award, Dell Publishing moved the focus from creator to creation, honoring the publication (Astounding Science Fiction magazine) that he edited and whose reach and influence far exceeded his grasp. The Tiptree Award is already named after Alice Sheldon’s creation.

In the years since 1991, “Tiptree” has come to hold significant meaning in the SFF world, its reach perhaps even exceeding Sheldon’s own. “Tiptree” gets used as an adjective for stories that do something particularly interesting with gender; we often meet people who know of the Award through its winners and have not heard of Sheldon’s work or life. We are very wary of losing that history and recognition, which has opened significant doors for our honorees, and has helped us to sustain and expand the award over the last 27 years.

Discussions about the naming of the award relate to broader issues that the Motherboard has been contemplating for some time. When we return to the stories Alice Sheldon wrote as Tiptree, we often find a pessimistic tendency that can seem, at times, like a horrible foreshadowing (though this is far from the only way to read them). Tiptree’s work describes the contours of gender oppression acutely and rarely, if ever, sees a way out. We have been reflecting this week on how many of our feminist icons were also women who could not see a way out. Tiptree’s stories, then and now, provide scope for multiple and complex politics. If we look at the work of our honorees, winners, and fellows, among their greatest commonalities are broad, deep, and diverse commitments to finding, or creating, ways out.

We have been, before this current conversation, asking ourselves some questions. What would an Award look like, Tiptree or otherwise, that honored what we want to honor now, the complex and overlapping intersections through which gender is lived? That’s a question we can’t answer in one single burst of sustained self-reflection. We believe it is far more important to make the right decisions than to make decisions quickly.

And so: we do not think that an immediate renaming is called for at this moment. But we do not know what the future might hold, and we recognize that this Award belongs to the community that has supported and sustained it, at least as much as it does to us. Going forward, we will be reaching out to members of the Tiptree community to seek out their thoughts. Your voices are a necessary part of our reflections.

We will begin writing individually to members of our Tiptree community this week, as quickly as our schedules allow (which is rarely as quickly as we would like). If you would like to reach us in the meantime, please email feedback@tiptree.org.

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