Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Psychology of Sheldon

I think that The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as Alice B. Sheldon is an interesting place to start this week. This article does a great job laying out the timelines and various paths her life took: she started her education at Berkeley in the fall of 1935. There she took an important basic level psychology class by Edward Chace Tolman--the experience would become important to her work as a psychologist and as a Science Fiction writer. Next, she suddenly dropped out and pursued work at the CIA. 20 years later, she decided that the work she was doing was ethically troubling and wanted to return to her education so that she could pursue psychology. Specifically, she " Wanted to, "understand everything that could be known about visual perception and value, and to devise some experimental benchmarks in the murk."" (3) So, at 43 she finished her undergraduate work at American University and began the PHD program at GW. Then, after some significant successes in the field, she became disappointed and moved on to writing Science Fiction.
What I have described above was the basic trajectory of her life, but the article goes into a great deal more depth on her motivations--looking to her life to try and find explanations for the choppy nature of this indisputably brilliant woman's life.
One section that I found to be particularly compelling was the discussion of
her formative years and how that shaped her entire life. She was such a young girl, paraded around by her mother in foreign lands--put on display, and the article, I think, correctly identifies this as a major force in her life. It was a force that caused her to pull back into a basement laboratory, hide behind a persona with her writing. Further the discussion of the oppression of women and other minorities all over the world undoubtedly contributed to the construction of her own identity and contributed thematically to the Science Fiction she wrote.
Another part of this essay that fascinated me was the relatively brief discussion of Nuclear Script: " a nuclear script is a recurrent emotional and behavioral pattern in which an individual is strongly drawn to a situation that promises great joy, high emotional rewards. The individual invests much hope and effort in the situation; when it falls apart, he or she struggles to recreate its joys but fails, leaving things even worse than before." It goes on to say that an expectation of failure whenever anything good happens can be a result of this. I think it is remarkable how high functioning she was, even while enacting this nuclear script over and over again. She got into Berkeley, she worked in the CIA, she had some tangible success in psychology, and she was an iconic Science Fiction writer. In class I think it would be very interesting to look at this idea of a nuclear script she was enacting and applying it to her fiction, but also where she was in the nuclear script cycle in her own life while writing each story. In other words...was she in the enthusiastic phase of her writing career or the demoralized end of her career in psychological research?


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