I read Alice Sheldon’s (pen name James Tiptree Jr) anthology of short stories Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home decades ago when I was a kid (all right, a young man) and recall thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve probably heard of the award named after her, but didn’t pay much attention until reading Mike Glyer’s pixel scroll this morning.
In this case, the award name may be changed due to a personal tragedy in Sheldon’s life. From Wikipedia:
Sheldon continued writing under the Tiptree pen name for another decade. The last years of her life were not happy ones, as her husband was a nearly blind invalid incapable of caring for himself, and she herself was suffering health issues caused by a lifetime of smoking. In 1976, then 60-year-old Sheldon wrote to a friend expressing her desire to end her own life while she was still able-bodied and active, but she was reluctant to act upon this intention, as Huntington would have no one to care for him, and she could not bring herself to kill him.
Eleven years later, on May 19, 1987, Sheldon finally carried through her plan—by shooting her husband in his sleep, followed by herself; she had telephoned her attorney after the first shooting to announce her actions. They were found dead, hand-in-hand in bed, in their Virginia home. According to biographer Julie Phillips, the suicide note Sheldon left was written years earlier and saved until needed. In an interview with Charles Platt in 1980, Sheldon spoke of her emotional problems and of her previous suicide attempts over the preceding 20 years.
The James Tiptree Jr. Award is given in her honor each year for a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. The award-winning science fiction authors Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy created the award in February 1991. Novels such as Half Life by Shelley Jackson and Light by M. John Harrison have received the award.
At least one person commenting on File 770 had compassion, but who knows how many other people judge without understanding what Sheldon may have been going through (I still read 770 but choose not to comment there because of how I was recently treated by some of its other readers).
For decades, ever since working at a Suicide Prevention Hotline in Berkeley in the 1970s, I’ve struggled with the idea of “rational suicide” or the concept that a person has a right to decide when to die. Both Judaism and Christianity believe that our lives come from God and that only He has the right to determine the number of days in our lives. And yet, people are afraid. We’re scared. Life hurts. Suicide is one way to take control of an out-of-control life.
On the other hand, Sheldon didn’t just commit suicide, she shot her husband to death while he was sleeping. I don’t know how to reconcile myself with that. I only know that what she and her husband were facing must have been horrifying to an insane extreme. There will always be people who wait for you to be at your weakest before tearing you down. Whatever Sheldon was going through, I, at least, will try to remember her through her writing. Another author on my reading list. It’s been decades. I’ll welcome her return into my life.