Tiptree Award Motherboard Decides to Keep Name

The administrators of the Tiptree Award are retaining the name after discussing the challenges to the name and requests for change raised in social media. Their decision is explained in-depth in “Alice Sheldon and the name of the Tiptree Award”.

They reviewed the author’s history which is behind the controversy.

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.

Alice Sheldon

After quoting from Tiptree biographer Julie Phillips and Sheldon’s friend and literary executor Jeffrey Smith, the Motherboard sums up:

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.

Then they review why the award is named for Tiptree:

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.

The rationale for keeping the Tiptree Award name includes consideration of the meaning of her work:

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. 

See the post for the full discussion, which is about twice as long as these excerpts.

[Thanks to Pat Murphy and Jeffrey Smith for the story.]

60 thoughts on “Tiptree Award Motherboard Decides to Keep Name

  1. @jayn: from a conversation I had around then, mere loss of memory was not the only issue with ECT; an MD who favored it let slip a remark suggesting that it cost mental acuity.

  2. @jayn
    AFAIK lithium is used mostly for bipolar. There wasn’t much that worked on depression before SSRIs, though. (Most-senior-aunt was bipolar, and met a lot of different treatments in the 50s, including ECT. She occasionally needed dosage adjustments, and when she developed RA, late in life, they had to treat it with infusions because the oral drugs didn’t play well with the bipolar drugs.)

  3. @bill–

    @jayn – If you are saying that there is /was no cure for depression, and treatments had side effects / problems as well, I agree.

    But I was responding to Peace’s comment “I do not condemn Alice Sheldon for not getting help for depression in an era when such was essentially unavailable.” Help was available. Further, Ting was a retired Federal employee with access to very good health insurance, so the Sheldons had fewer barriers to access than most people would.

    The “treatments” available for depression at the time didn’t just “have side effects/problems.” They had side effects and problems that could be, and often worse, than the depression alone.

    Dismissing those problems as not important or relevant to someone struggling with depression during that period, and the choices they made and the choices they could see as available to them, is just an admission that you are more comfortable judging them than really thinking about their experience.

  4. In any case, not everyone responds to antidepressant medication, whether SSRIs, other reuptake inhibitors, or the older Tricyclics . I don’t.

    It was also less socially acceptable then to admit to mental illness.

    None of which makes what Alli did right. It just means that we might have compassion for them both.

  5. I think I should add that my most-senior-aunt had a long and productive life (she was an artist and a college professor), dying at 102…three years ago. There’s an interview with her at 100 on youtube:

  6. My goodness, what a lot of speculation! Sorry I didn’t pick up on this and step in sooner.

    Alli was under a doctor’s care. They tried every drug that was available, and experimented with dosages. They would find a combination that worked, and Alli would feel good for a while. Then, perhaps because of tolerance issues, the drugs would become ineffective. There would be another round of experimentation, another period of relief, and on and on. I called her once when things were really bad, and she was so distraught. She knew every drug and in which dosage she had taken for the previous week or two (and recited the list, though to me it was meaningless), but was hoping the doctor could find something new. Something worked, because the next time I talked to her she sounded fine. It was an ongoing struggle.

    I actually don’t know how long this period went on. In my memory it seems like quite a while, but these details aren’t reflected in the Julie Phillips book, so maybe there wasn’t much of a paper trail. At any rate, that was part of the story.

  7. @Lis Carey

    Dismissing those problems as not important or relevant to someone struggling with depression during that period, and the choices they made and the choices they could see as available to them, is just an admission that you are more comfortable judging them than really thinking about their experience.

    I haven’t dismissed any problems or side effects. Like I said, I was simply responding to the statement that help was not available. It most definitely was available, and contemporaries are saying that she availed herself of it.

    And I have been pretty consistent, I think, in not judging Alice, but in judging only one choice she made — the choice to take the life of her husband. That was wrong. I say this with sympathy and compassion for the situation she was in, but she was wrong.

  8. @PJ Evans
    Lithium does have some straight antidepressant effects, which IIRC were only fairly recently known (so Sheldon’s MD might not have known about them). But it’s a medication that needs great care. It can cause neurological and renal damage with too high a dose. If you have impaired renal function, you can’t take it at all – and most people who take it for a long time DO end up with impaired renal function and have to stop. If a doctor has a severely depressed patient, they probably wouldn’t want to even START lithium unless they had the patient in a hospital where they could be sure the patient couldn’t OD on their home supply if they got suicidal. Its use has more limits than most meds do.

    @ Lenore Jones: Absolutely, antidepressants at best only work on around 50% of patients – and it only gets as high as 50% after trying one and another till one is found that works. And it’s true that sometimes none work. And it’s true that an antidepressant can be effective for awhile and stop working.

    @ bill: And that even though lithium and ECT are more effective than antidepressants, there ARE a significant number of cases where NOTHING works. And in cases of really severe depression, it becomes dubious to judge confidently that anyone made “the choice” with the same amount of understanding and responsibility that a person without depression made it. Depression can warp one’s thought and perception to an absolutely delusional extent. And as Jeff points out, we have limited information to base such a judgement on.

    @ Jeff Smith: Sorry if I was speculating ahead of the facts.

  9. PJ—

    What a great video! Thanks for sharing. We just celebrated my mother-in-law’s 99th birthday: she still lives on her own, voluntarily gave up her car just a couple years ago, bowls twice a week, does water aerobics. Your aunt seemed at least as impressive, maybe more. It was great to see.

  10. Pingback: Tiptree Name Will Be Removed from Award | File 770

Comments are closed.