101 Weird Writers #39 — James Tiptree, Jr.

The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Tiptree

Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915 – 1987), more commonly known by the pen name James Tiptree, Jr., was a prolific writer of science fiction and other speculative tales. Born in Chicago to a lawyer and author, her interests and occupations ranged wide, including exhibitions in the visual arts, work in the U.S. Army Air Forces and CIA, and doctoral studies in experimental psychology. Her dissertation at George Washington University concerned the responses of animals to stimuli in various environments. This experience certainly informs the story, “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats”, anthologized in The Weird. It was during her dissertation phase that Sheldon began publishing science fiction stories as James Tiptree, Jr., choosing the pseudonym in order to shield her academic reputation from potential criticism. Her body of work went on to include two novels and ten collections of fiction and essays.

During the course of her prolific career, Sheldon/Tiptree received numerous honors for her writing, including the Hugo (2x), Nebula (3x), World Fantasy, and Locus Awards (2x), and induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. Her choice of a male pseudonym is indicative of one of the most prominent themes in her work: complications of sex and gender. In honor of her contributions to speculative literature, authors Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler (whose own story, “The Dark”, also appears in The Weird) established The James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1991, which recognizes current authors exploring and deepening our understanding of these topics. Recipients of the award have included such writers as M. John Harrison, Matt Ruff, Raphael Carter, Caítlin R. Kiernan, Shelly Jackson, and many others.

– Christopher Burke

***

Female authors have often worked under male pseudonyms; that’s nothing unusual. But in the case of Alice Bradley Sheldon, “James Tiptree, Jr.” was more then a pen name — it was a persona. Inhabiting her alter-ego Tiptree, Sheldon achieved a clarity of vision and prowess in storytelling that transcended her other work. Tiptree allowed Sheldon to step outside herself, and in so doing, find a clearer voice, a purer authenticity.

In her outstanding biography of Tiptree, Julie Phillips writes,

… the male name turned out to have many uses. It made her feel taken seriously when she wrote about what she knew: guns, hunting, politics, war. It let her write the way she wanted to write, with an urgency that was hers. It gave her enough distance and control to speak honestly about herself.”

As an accomplished and eloquent letter-writer, Tiptree maintained an extensive literary correspondence with many other writers of the era, and through these interchanges his identity became fully-formed. (Although many of his stories were actually Sheldon’s; even before she became one of the hottest new sci-fi talents of the decade, she’d lived a remarkably varied and interesting life.)

So it comes as no surprise that the concept of identity represents a major thread underlying Tiptree’s work, and “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” is no exception. Interestingly, the story features yet another alter-ego for its author — because its protagonist, the eponymous psychologist Tilman Lipsitz (“Tilly”), bears a striking resemblance to Dr. Alice Sheldon, Ph.D. in research psychology.

In a fascinating and extensively researched article titled The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats, psychologist Alan C. Elms teases out many of the similarities between Tilman Lipsitz and Sheldon. For her doctoral dissertation, Sheldon studied “the reactions of rats to novel and familiar visual stimuli” – much like Tilly. There were further connections: the same rats (“the hooded strain”), the same basement laboratory, even a similarly named supervisor. And Sheldon also fretted about her lack of productivity and struggled against precarious funding.

Sheldon was a talented visual artist, with published work going back to her teens. Drawing on this talent, she accompanied her dissertation with illustrations. These same illustrations, only slightly modified, were published alongside “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” attributed to “Raccoona Sheldon” (another pseudonym of Sheldon’s). As Elms remarks, “If anyone familiar with her dissertation had seen this story when it first appeared, Tiptree’s true identity would have been obvious a year before it was publicly revealed.”

As alter-egos, Tiptree and Tilly were both a means for exploring masculinity. But unlike the manly, masculine men that populate many of Tiptree’s stories (and who Tiptree appeared to be himself), Tilly is sensitive and fragile, a foil for the toxic masculinity represented by his colleagues and embodied by his supervisor, Welch. The contrast represents an idea that underlies many of Tiptree’s stories: that humanity is fated to be cruel and violent; that we are, by nature, aggressors. Or perhaps not humanity, per se, but men. In a time when the word “Man” meant “Humankind,” it was even more difficult to tell the difference. But Tilly is an exception; in this world, his gentleness and empathy render him a kind of freak.

Sheldon was exposed to brutality early. As a child, her parents took her on two major safaris in Africa, long trips which took months and required an impressive African support staff. Her parents and their friends considered the trip part adventure, part research; the itinerary included big game hunting, and young Alice watched as the adults killed lions and gorillas. Along with the fierce gore of fallen creatures, there was also human suffering and human cruelty. Particularly on the second trip, as Alice began to understand how both the people and the landscape of the countries they visited suffered under the devastating effects of colonization. At an early age, Sheldon absorbed the grotesquery of cruelty, and it shook her to her core.

In “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” the imagery of violence is pushed to its limits. The story narrates in cold, casual language the unimaginable horrors inflicted on defenseless creatures in an underground torture chamber. The lighting is dim and shadowy in some places, glaring and punishing in others. The bare wire cages are coated with feces and “hanks of dead skin.” The animals rub themselves raw in an attempt to escape. There are rhesus monkeys “huddled on the steel with puffy pink bald heads studded with electrode jacks,” and paralyzed dogs “jerking with wire terrors” — when they’re not being flayed alive, dissected while conscious but unable to move. (“A ‘preparation’ is an animal spread-eagled on a rack for vivisection, dosed with reserpine so it cannot cry or struggle but merely endures for days or weeks of pain.”) And of course, there are the rats. Piles of baby rats, shivering. “Selectively shocked, starved, subjected to air blasts and plunged in ice water.” Finally, their heads cut off.

This research laboratory is more like a slaughterhouse. Or an interrogation room in an extrajudicial prison. Or a scene from Saw. It’s so extreme it feels fantastical, except it isn’t — because the real world is actually this cruel.

Perhaps that’s what makes weird fiction so powerful. Its proximity to the real, without actually being real, somehow makes reality easier to see. By looking closely at the real we can make it seem strange. By placing distance between us and the real we can see it for what it truly is.

In “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” our protagonist, Tilman Lipsitz, has found himself in this “charnel house” of a research facility, but unlike his colleagues, he is kind to every creature in the lab… even his impatient and unfeeling boss. He cannot help himself. Tilly is concerned for the rats and occasionally plies them with treats, handing out the treats equally so as not to confound his experimental results.

While his experimental subjects might appreciate Tilly’s kindness, his supervisor is less impressed. Tilly is called into his boss’ office to account for the untold hours he’s wasted. You see, Tilly prefers to quietly observe the rats, exploring “the capacity of animals to anticipate, to gain some knowledge of the wave-front of expectations that they must build up, even in the tiniest heads.” Instead, he is informed he must come up with a testable hypothesis, and soon, if he wants to hold onto his position; perhaps the “preparation” described above, vivisection under paralysis. They want him to

Take some good testable hypothesis from somebody in the department, preferably something that involves electronic counting of food pellets, bar presses, latencies, defecations. And crank it all into printed score sheets with a good Fortran program.”

This mechanization is key, and foreshadows more explicit references to Nazi atrocities that appear later in the story. Tilly’s is the era of mechanization, and research must follow the same mechanical march. In fact, even Tilly’s teaching duties are mechanized, as we learn when he sits down to grade 81 tests. The tests are multiple choice — badly written and poorly assembled — but Tilly is intended to ignore this, simply marking right and wrong. He is meant to grade using a test key, a “theatrically guarded manila template he can lay over the sheets with slots giving the correct response.” But his students, like his rats, have discovered that he is sensitive to their plight; they’ve realized that he’s listening, and have begun leaving him notes in the margins, questioning the test’s wording, the meaning of certain underlying assumptions. Once again, his sensitivity and kindness have gotten in the way of the world’s primary pursuit: efficiency.

The goal, with both the students and the rats, is to remove any excess information. Blinders on, eyes forward, only the experiment, only the subject, only the button that delivers the shocks.

It’s an astonishingly effective way of perpetrating cruelty.

But back to that conversation with Tilly’s boss. In a moment of obliviousness, Tilly begins expounding on the subjects he’s actually interested in studying: psychologists, namely why they’re driven to do such terrible things.

You’re not a member of the SPCA are you?” his boss asks, skeptically.

Tilly isn’t… although he did once give them ten dollars.

Chastened by this meeting, and by his apparent complete failure as a scientist, Tilly returns home. He grades those 81 tests — another trial hampered by his own compassion. He drowns his sorrows and frustrations in prodigious amounts of ale… followed by absinthe.

Fortified by these libations, he resolves to go kill all his rats, reasoning that if he could just start fresh, without those already-formed connections and accretions of affection and guilt, perhaps he could finally be the scientist his superiors want.

He returns to the lab, abandoned after-hours and even more eerie in the darkness. The animals are finally alone, finding a brief respite from their torturers.

Here, in Tilly’s thoughts, the unspoken analogy that’s been shadowing this story is finally made explicit:

All over the country, the world, the spotless knives are slicing, the trained minds devising casual torments in labs so bright and fair you could eat off their floors. Auschwitz, Belsen were neat. With flowers. Only the reek of pain going up to the sky, the empty sky. But people don’t think animals’ pain matters. They didn’t think my people’s pain mattered either, in the death camps a generation back. It’s all the same, endless agonies going up unheard from helpless things.”

And there it is, the dark ugly truth, the hideous nightmare, the unconscionable sin that has informed every line of this story, just as it’s informed every chapter of human history since: there are some things too horrific to be real, and yet they are.

Tilly fumbles with the rat-killings, euthanizing them one by one, a slow and time-consuming process. Failing at this, as everything. Then: he glimpses the rat-king.

At first it’s this monstrous thing, all tangled limbs and writhing tails, both vulnerable and grotesque. Then it becomes something else. Noble, elegant, a true King.

He follows it into the tunnel. Here, he encounters his vapid and unpleasant coworker, Sheila, or a shadow of her; the good, kind part, the part that’s already been excised to allow her to exist in this cruel, shallow world. Then, as often happens when one is drunk on absinthe, following a gold-spangled rat into a dark tunnel, the conversation turns to Descartes. Sheila quotes the philosopher, saying,

There is no error more powerful in leading feeble minds astray from the straight path of virtue than the supposition that the soul of brutes is of the same nature as our own.”

… ‘He started it all, didn’t he?’ Lipsitz says, or perhaps only thinks. ‘That they’re robots, you can do anything to them. Their pain doesn’t count. But we’re animals, too.’”

The delusion, of course, is not just Descartes’, the long dead philosopher. Even as late as the 1980s — well after the publication of this story — scientists and philosophers and yes, psychologists, were still arguing about whether animals feel pain. Some argued that to merely suppose that since humans experience pain, other mammals feel it too, was a presumption based on anthropocentrism, not scientific. Others argued that to suppose that humans, alone among animalkind, have somehow cornered the market on suffering, is not too scientific either.

And today, although our good scientists have come around to the understanding that animals are quite capable of suffering — and not just physical pain, but also more complex forms of pain such as loneliness, bereavement, grief — our society, our culture, and our typical meals do not quite reflect this understanding. As Michael Pollan put it in a 2002 article in The New York Times Magazine,

For at the same time many people seem eager to extend the circle of our moral consideration to animals, in our factory farms and laboratories we are inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time in history. … Yet most of the animals we kill lead lives organized very much in the spirit of Descartes, who famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling. There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to consider the miserable life of the pig – an animal easily as intelligent as a dog – that becomes the Christmas ham.”

And once again, excepting the vegans among us, we find ourselves looking with uncomfortable intimacy at a dark ugly truth: very few of us are Tilly. For the most part we are, all of us, Dr. Welch, ignoring the injustice that surrounds us – injustice we enable, often support – so that we can get by within the hideous brutality of a system we’ve helped create.

They follow King Rat: Tilly, Sheila, and a parade of “lost things,” accumulating in greater number as they venture deeper into the tunnel. “All the abused ones, the gentle ones, are leaving the world.” The rat leads them to “the final refuge,” “the place where lost things go.” As Sheila says, it’s very beautiful, “…only it isn’t real.”

Staggering after them through unreality,” Tilly longs desperately to follow.

 — And yes! For a last instant he has it. …And then he tries with all his force crazily to send himself after them, to burst from his skin, his life if need be – only to share again that gentleness.”

Then he wakes, in the cold sweat of an absinthe hangover, the dirt and filth of the lab floor.

For a moment, he wonders, “Did something of myself go too, fly to its selfish joy?”

He doesn’t know. But we know.

What’s left behind of this Tilly is just a husk, a shell. A soulless replica.

Perhaps he’s lucky. In this world, soullessness is exactly what’s needed to thrive. Tilly is suddenly a new man: powerful, pragmatic, vicious, the kind of man who buckles down and does what needs to be done, collateral damage be damned, the kind of man who believes you can smash things into submission and break them into being fixed.

He’s the kind of man that Tiptree profiled in story after story, a critique presented with dry cynicism, and often through the voice of a woman. As Mrs. Parsons says in “The Women Men Don’t See,”

‘Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world.’

…. ‘All the endless wars …’ Her voice is a whisper. ‘All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we’re just part of the battlefield. It’ll never change unless you change the whole world. I dream sometimes of — of going away — ’”

In Tilly’s case, what needs to be done is the pampered rats must die: he pours the whole mess of rats, cages, and carrots into a barrel, and smothers it all in burning ether. His thoughts turn again to his coworker Sheila, but this time in crude sexual terms (the word that comes to mind is “rapey”); toxic masculinity is all about domination, in every sense of the word.

As God commanded Adam: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Rats included, one supposes.

A baby rat has run away hiding behind his shoe. Mechanical mouse, a stupid automaton. He stamps on its back and kicks it neatly under Sheila’s hamster rack, wondering why Descartes has popped into his thoughts.”

Did Tilly die? It’s an interesting question.

Often the first thing that stands out about Tiptree’s larger oeuvre is an obsession with sex and death, and the two often linked. (One of Tiptree’s most famous stories, of course, puts it all upfront in the title: “Love Is The Plan, the Plan Is Death.”) Tiptree was fixated on that brief moment of transcendence that leads inexorably to obliteration.

For example, as in “On the Last Afternoon”:

He felt the wraith-wind of its going in his brain, the alien immensities opening to the imago… The longing rose in him, the terrified love toward what he could not imagine — …

—But he could not alone, no, and his useless death hung over him, the crashing was beating on his mortal ears.”

Or as in “Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death”:

Stupefied with delight, I gazed.
And your huge hunting-limb came out and seized me.
Great is the Plan. I felt only joy as your jaws took me.
As I feel it now.”

These are just two examples out of many.

As Tilly moves deeper into that tunnel, he too feels a sort of overwhelming, full-body contentment, surrendering to the path of the King:

…he has never known anything as wonderful as this communion, not sex or sunsets or even the magic hour on his first bike. It is as if everything is all right now, will be all right forever — griefs he did not even know he carried are falling from him, leaving him light as smoke.”

The first time you read this story, you might think it’s all turned out alright. Tilly, the real Tilly, Tilly the soul, is somewhere beautiful – even if it isn’t real. The Tilly on earth doesn’t know, doesn’t suffer, although he certainly causes suffering. You might think, it’s okay, Tilly, the real Tilly, he found transcendence.

But that would be wrong, I think.

The real ending is the devastating one: no one knows where souls go. The beautiful place, it isn’t real. Because the real world conspires to kill the souls of everyone, all but a few who escape by dying first. As Tilly thinks, in those last moments in the tunnel: “They have stood it as long as they can and now they are leaving. The pain has culminated in this, that they leave us — leave me, leave me behind in a clockwork Cartesian world in which nothing will mean anything forever.”

And Tilly lives.

Within Tiptree’s private mythology, I think this might be the worst outcome. Transcendence that ends in death – that’s a happy ending. But to glimpse it, to almost touch it, but then be forced to go on, with only the emptiness, nothing meaning anything – that’s horror, the darkest horror that Tiptree knew.

As most with an interest in Tiptree will already know, Alice Sheldon left the real world by her own hand in 1987. At age 71, she carried out a former suicide pact with her ill, elderly husband, shooting him as he slept, and then herself. It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision: her suicide note was penned eight years before her death. A life-long sufferer from depression, she’d anticipated this moment for years.

Like Tiptree’s Mrs. Parsons, Sheldon dreamed of going away. Who could blame her? To see with clarity, and live with empathy, is an agonizing task. Only a few make it out with souls intact.

One reply to “101 Weird Writers #39 — James Tiptree, Jr.

  1. Your weird author review is most excellent, and you found what is I think is the most perfect story I have ever read. It is simply an amazingly sad connection of humans to the spirit world of animals. Weird is that more people are not attuned to the beauty and strangeness of simply being alive in the face of the mysterious end.
    But of course I am biased. As a kid, my best friend and I would visit his father’s neuroanatomy animal labs at UCLA. The conditions and experiments should never have been viewed by compassionate children. Then at 13 in 1968 I took mescaline, and saw the holy animal spirits right in front of my dump truck.… Our collective dumb dump truck.