In recent weeks I’ve seen a discussion taking place around the names of literary awards, with many arguing that awards should not be named after people. One of those awards is the Tiptree.
I haven’t wanted to say much about this, mainly because I’m in the middle of revisions for the book that ate my life and my last two brain cells can barely get together to tie my shoelaces. But I’ve been tagged a few times on social media and I feel like I owe you a response.
A number of people are reading the manner of Alli and Ting’s Sheldon’s death as an instance of caregiver murder, in which a person with a disability is killed by a person responsible for caring for them. There is a pattern of murders like this being downplayed or dismissed as “understandable” because the caregiver “must have been under such strain.” This is extremely upsetting and hurtful to people living with disabilities. You can read more about this here and here. (Content warnings: suicide; Americans’ appalling lack of access to heath care.)
Mostly I’ve been asked for factual answers: Did it happen? Did it not happen? It may be that a name that calls up painful associations should be changed in any case. But I believe it matters to talk about what we know and don’t know, and here are some thoughts about Ting’s and Alli’s choices.
It’s evident that the narrative of caregiver murder plays a role in how the Sheldons’ death has been discussed. Accounts of their death often exaggerate Ting’s disability. When I first started researching Alli’s life, the entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction said that Ting had Alzheimer’s Disease. Last week, before I went in and fixed it,* Wikipedia said that Ting was ”a nearly blind invalid incapable of caring for himself.” Neither is true. But there’s a tendency to alter the story—originally to try to excuse Alli’s actions—by portraying Ting as severely disabled and Alli as his long-term carer.
Yes, I’m sure the Sheldons had a suicide pact. No, I can’t say there was nothing dark there, that she didn’t coerce him into it. I can’t give Ting’s side of the story. But to picture their relationship as one of his dependence and her betrayal of his trust is an oversimplification of a complicated situation that maybe I can say more about.
In the 1970s, Alli Sheldon started to develop severe depression, which made her reliant on Ting’s emotional and physical care. She began abusing prescription drugs, and Ting did not act to stop her.
In the subsequent years, until her death in 1987, Alli often contemplated suicide but refused to kill herself while Ting was still alive. There were times when she talked about wishing to take him with her. There were times when she was terrified of his death. I see faint clues that she resented her own dependence on Ting, and that her own dependence may have pushed her toward a suicide pact. But I also see her warning herself not to end their lives before the agreed moment. Jeff Smith told me Ting, who was smart about people, may have consented to a suicide pact to make Alli promise to stay alive: yes, but it’s not time yet; later, not now.
When Alli first started talking about suicide, Ting was in good mental and physical health except that he suffered from progressive blindness, which was diagnosed in about 1976. By 1977 he had lost much of the sight in his right eye, but he could care for himself and Alli until (as far as I can tell) the mid-1980s, when he lost the ability to drive and read. I know that at the end of his life he was no longer able to take care of Alli, and that was apparently a blow to him, and I think to her too. Even then he was still active, seeing friends, doing the grocery shopping, by no means helpless or bedridden.
Unfortunately I can’t restore to Ting the subjectivity he deserves. For some versions of events I only have one source, and without confirmation I don’t like to rely completely on that information. By the time of his death Ting’s health was failing overall, which suggests a narrative of assisted suicide. I’m not sure the facts fit that interpretation, either, but I don’t want to deny Ting the possibility of agency and choice.
What I do see is that the Sheldons’ relationship was very close in ways that were not entirely healthy, and within that mutual dependence the idea of suicide evolved over a long time, between two people of whom one, Ting, did not leave a statement of consent. This is a place of shadows, and I can understand that some experience it as a place of hurt and anger. Where I don’t have answers, though, I resist imposing a false narrative of absolutes, either to excuse Alli or to condemn her.
“Murder” is a heavy charge to put on someone without proof. I can’t accept it.
I couldn’t have written the book I wrote without being open to contradiction. I’m troubled by some aspects of Alli’s death, and I’d like to acknowledge those who are distressed and angry. I also love her for her life, her writing, her struggle to exist and speak honestly in a hostile world. I’d like to acknowledge those who value her insight, courage, ingenuity, and integrity. If that’s a contradiction, I hope you can let it stand.
Concerning the name of the award, I’d like to leave that discussion to others. For myself, I can say that I first encountered Alice Sheldon through the name attached to the award, and that if the award hadn’t been called the Tiptree I might never have written the biography. But I have great faith in the wisdom of the Motherboard, and also I have a book to finish. The rest I leave to you, the community, hoping for a productive dialogue and trusting in your good judgment.
*Other than this, none of what’s on the James Tiptree, Jr., Wikipedia page is by me. It’s not my baby.