Beautifully written by author Sonya Dorman, who is best known as a poet, "When I Was Miss Dow" was originally published in Galaxy Magazine’s June 1966 issue. It remains Dorman’s most famous short story and a classic of science fiction literature.
In "When I Was Miss Dow," an exploratory space expedition from Earth has landed on a world inhabited by shape-shifting, sexless aliens who think of humans as being “mother-haunted.” The alien narrator is tasked with assuming a female identity and working for the humans as a way to investigate them. Transformed into a female lab assistant with a two-lobed human brain (as opposed to the usual one-lobed brain of “her” species), the narrator becomes the thirty-something Martha Dow, who then falls in love with her much older male supervisor, Dr. Arnold Proctor. But her own alien “overseer” has directed her to exploit the humans for money and information. So who is Miss Dow really working for, and what does she want? Miss Dow herself is not certain, a condition that is further complicated by the alien’s unexpected reaction to having emotions that she has never before experienced: attraction, loss, sadness.
The Protean aliens in their natural form are not very interesting as individuals, which the narrator discovers once she becomes Miss Dow. Now understanding what it is to be an individual unseen or ignored by others, and defined in “her” femininity by the expectations of Dr. Proctor, Miss Dow eventually abandons her human form as being too emotionally demanding, realizing that to be defined by others is to lose even more of one’s own essential identity.
"When I Was Miss Dow" can be read as a simple science fiction tale in which an unsuspecting human has a romantic relationship with an alien masquerading as another human, but the story is much more. It elegantly explores complex ideas about the nature of truth and appearances, and what it ultimately means to be a human.