Wide-eyed freshmen straining to seem a little older, straight-on rain hitting sideways bikes—when I hike to American University to use the library, I’m struck by how autumns on campuses all feel the same, how the mood falls and rises according to rhythms that no one can sense only two blocks away. Science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., AU class of 1959, certainly felt it; in November 1957, after nine months at American, Tiptree wrote to a friend:
The first semester is like an arctic trip; in the warm weather you sign up for the long plunge into the dark tunnel of winter, and you sail North with the weeks; the trek across the campus growing colder, the inside of the night bus hotter; darkness coming earlier, and finally closing in to the tough struggle of the exams, an inhuman time—and suddenly the lights and confusion, the camp of Christmas . . . And then the voyage home out of the darkness, back up the tunnel to the great blaze of Spring ahead….
“James Tiptree” was, of course, Alice Sheldon, who returned to college at 41 after serving in the Army and working for the CIA. According to Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, AU’s campus oddballs found Sheldon awfully compelling. In a letter to her mentor, Sheldon half-jokingly rued her status as a weirdness magnet: “It’s plain, now no more than ever, will I meet the normal sunshine people of this world.”
Flash forward a few years to find Alice Sheldon, graduate student, working toward a Ph.D in experimental psychology at GWU and teaching classes in statistics and psych at her alma mater. In a letter to a friend, she recalled making the mistake of estimating her hourly earnings, thus inspiring her own formulation of the adjunct’s lament:
Stupid kids come up and say I’ve been here three years and you’re the first faculty member that ever TALKED to me—and bang goes three hours. Or bright kids, and you find they went to some progressive so-called school and can’t read or write an English sentence, and want to. And piss goes ten hours. And they aren’t getting the material so you revamp your whole series. And you give real exams, essay exams, and READ them. Yeah. $.75 with your fucking Ph.D.
When I’m on the AU campus, I can’t imagine Sheldon there. For one thing, there’s no trace of either her real name or her pseudonym on the AU Web site; the school doesn’t claim her as one of its own. Maybe the circumstances of her death, a murder-suicide pact with her bedridden husband, made her alma mater disown her—or maybe they simply forgot. If any of Sheldon’s worshipful oddballs from the class of ’59 pause to recall her at Friday’s reunion, will any of them know she was also an acclaimed science-fiction author? That an award is named for her alter ego? Will anyone remember her at all?
In Sheldon’s sardonic 1973 story “The Women Men Don’t See,” a government librarian from D.C. tries to explain to her male traveling companion that women’s rights are insecure, so clever women must scramble to survive. “We live by ones and twos,” Ruth Parsons says, “in the chinks of your world machine.” When the clueless Don Fenton likens her comments to the manifesto of a guerrilla movement, Ruth counters with a more pathetic metaphor: “Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City?”
And Washington too. In a city that’s hopelessly, willfully normal, where even the artists are sleeping by ten, the Sheldon-Tiptrees pass unseen, less like opossums than aliens—not the dome-faced, squid-fingered monsters that float through Sheldon’s story, but lonely, troubled, rain-drenched blurs.
“It’s uncanny,” Sheldon wrote, “they come to me—the one just out of shock therapy, the one in love with an older woman, the one who drove a taxi for five years and only goes out at night, with big dark eyes.” Fifty years later, they seek out each other in library niches or clear across dimly lit classrooms, the oddballs, aliens, and opossums, astounded when somebody sees them.