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The Smearing of Ayn Rand
Submitted by James S. Valliant on Thu, 2008-03-13 19:23
I had originally intended to post next Chapter Two of Part One of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, “Rand and Non-Rand, at the Same Time and in the Same Respect,” which reviews a number of disturbing contradictions within and between the biographical works of Barbara and Nathaniel Branden–but several comments on the already-posted chapter, from more than one reader, have prompted me to respond with the following. It is the introductory material from PARC, followed by the concluding chapter of Part One. Once again, the references have been omitted except in certain cases, and readers are directed to the book itself for the rest. I have, however, added a few relevant links.
Ayn Rand, the greatest iconoclast of the Twentieth Century, has herself become a cultural icon.
Half a century after their first appearance on “Best Seller” lists, Ayn Rand’s novels are still popular. The novel Atlas Shrugged, despite having been in continuous hard and paperback editions for forty-four years, sold more than 120,000 copies in the year 2001 alone. Total sales of her titles have reached half a million copies annually—more than a generation after the death of their author.
Equally noteworthy has been Ayn Rand’s steady ascension to that high shelf alongside the great philosophers of history. Recent years have seen a veritable Renaissance of scholarly interest in her philosophy, Objectivism.
Rand’s image has even been celebrated on a U.S. Postage Stamp.
If Rand has achieved an impressive influence, she has also been the most unfairly misunderstood thinker of the Twentieth Century. Rand was a lucid writer, and not even her critics have faulted her for a lack of clarity in presenting her ideas—quite the opposite, in fact. Yet, a diverse collection of famous writers, of every political stripe, have been taken to task for obviously—even willfully—getting those ideas wrong in each of their attempted critiques of her philosophy. Unfortunately, this trend dominated criticism of Rand’s ideas during her lifetime, following the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957. To some degree, it still persists.
Of greater concern is the more recent trend toward personal attack against Rand in order to dismiss her ideas—and how often the philosopher’s sex life is brought up in discussions of her epistemology or political theory.
As James Arnt Aune puts it in the pages of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Ayn Rand’s critics are “curious what Rand scholars think about... claims that Rand enthusiasts appear mired at an adolescent stage of psychological development, that her style is peculiarly authoritarian... and that the particulars of her private life call into question the validity of her moral philosophy.” ("Rhetorical Incorrectness?" The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, v.4, n.1, Fall 2002, pp.231-234.) While these comments are far less sophisticated than any of the harshest words Rand ever wielded, it is Rand who such critics routinely tar as uncivil and “peculiarly authoritarian.” Such crude ad hominem attacks by Rand’s critics are themselves never seen as “authoritarian” or anything less than civil discourse—even by the editors of professional journals of philosophy.
But Professor Aune is not the author of these allegations. The principal cause of this particular form of Rand-bashing, the root of this trend, can be traced to two persons: Nathaniel and Barbara Branden.
At first, the Brandens were Rand’s most ardent apologists and, ironically, the first to adopt a policy of blind sycophancy towards Rand. Following Rand’s famous break with the Brandens in 1968, their stated perspective on Rand changed radically. Later, in biography and memoir, each would promote a dark picture of an “authoritarian” Rand whose personal and psychological problems—and whose hypocrisy—they would now claim, made both the Brandens and Rand herself utterly miserable.
From scholarly journals to allegedly historical novels, to an episode of The Simpsons to cable-television movies, to cocktail party conversations to university lectures, both of the Brandens’ accounts set the agenda for most public discussions of Rand and her ideas today.
The truth of Rand’s philosophy is, of course, untouched by their allegations, one way or another. They are distracting and troublesome not simply because they are almost always irrelevant, but most importantly because they are historically inaccurate. To date, no detailed analysis of the Brandens’ accounts, one which addresses all of the major themes of their work, has appeared. Such an analysis is clearly overdue. Too much of the discussion of Rand and her ideas has been—and continues to be—based solely on the accounts of two sources whose very reputations hinge on how history will interpret their own roles in the events they purport to relate.
Part I of the present volume is an analysis of the Brandens’ main biographical works about Ayn Rand, The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden, and My Years With Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden (previously titled Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand).
Biography and philosophy are two distinct subjects. Logicians since Aristotle have been at pains to demonstrate that an attack on the person cannot suffice as an attack on that person’s beliefs. Whatever Sir Isaac Newton’s vices—or virtues—his science stands or falls on its own merits. To confuse the person with his position is to commit the logical fallacy ad hominem, which means, literally, “against the man,” as opposed to “against his argument.”
One obvious reason for this distinction is that a person can be right about one thing and still be obnoxiously wrong about others. Some famous composers of music have been unpleasant (even vicious) human beings.
Another reason to evaluate the person and his ideas separately is that a discoverer of new knowledge may not appreciate the import of his own work. He may leave his new ideas in books, and the ideas that govern his behavior may only be the traditional ideas he has inherited. He might even be a hypocrite.
However, the importance of biography cannot be overlooked. The practical effects of a man’s operative ideas can be seen playing out in his life, in triumph and disaster. Among writers, for example, the personal lives of Victor Hugo, Feodor Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway stand as important footnotes to their work.
Ayn Rand was an artist as much as she was a philosopher. She sought to give her vision reality in both her art and her life. Rand once characterized her own life as a “postscript” to her work consisting of the phrase, “And I mean it.” As Rand herself would have acknowledged, if she did not mean it—if her personal life contradicts this statement—it is worthy of interest to the biographer, and, perhaps, of at least passing interest to the philosopher.
A novel is an intimate experience. To create characters and situations that can engage the reader’s emotions, a good writer must bare his own soul and reveal the deepest workings of his heart and mind. The reader’s response is just as personal.
This is especially true of Ayn Rand’s major novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. They are philosophically comprehensive, and written with such obvious sincerity that the sensitive reader cannot help but learn a great deal about their author and her character.
But there is no substitute for personal, first hand knowledge. While the Brandens were associated with Rand for over eighteen years, I never met Rand. Although Rand had said that the Brandens were dishonest, for me to have known just from the pages of Atlas Shrugged that the portraits which they drew of its author must be entirely flawed would have taken an intelligence I did not possess.
Leonard Peikoff, the foremost authority on Rand’s thought, and many others who were closely associated with Rand, have declared the Brandens’ biographies to be nothing more than arbitrary assertions, and on that basis they have dismissed these books without further consideration. Peikoff defines an arbitrary claim as one for which there is no evidence, that is, “a brazen assertion, based neither on direct observation nor an attempted logical inference therefrom.” (Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p.164.) Because of Peikoff’s wholesale dismissal of these books—and a general disgust for the Brandens among Rand’s defenders—no comprehensive critical response to these books has yet appeared in print.
However, only an analysis of the biographies themselves makes possible the conclusion that they are largely arbitrary and often demonstrably false. For those of us who never met Rand, to dismiss entirely and without consideration those critics of Rand who knew her would be a mistake—no matter how much credibility Rand has earned from her readers.
Moreover, even if there is no truth to be gleaned from these works and they are wholly arbitrary, the necessary dirty work of exposing them remains, since they are published as historical records by primary sources, and future generations will not have the benefit of Rand’s contemporaries to dispute their specific allegations.
For myself, such an analysis was necessary, and I would not be stopped even by the sincere and prescient advice of Leonard Peikoff.
During my own 1995 interview of Peikoff for the television show Ideas in Action, he admitted that, while Rand was, indeed, the person she had to be in order to have written Atlas Shrugged, it is impossible “to project” all that Rand was “from just reading her work.”
Yet her work had made me want to know more of what she was, to glimpse more of the genius who had achieved such greatness in the very act of defending human greatness. I was curious to know more about Rand, for the sheer inspiration and fascination and delight of it, and my projection of what kind of soul she must have had gave me confidence that even her critics could not help but provide valuable observations of what must have been a remarkable and unique human being.
I had no illusions that Rand would be without fault or flaw. We will see that Rand herself admitted to being mistaken about something (or someone) on more than one occasion, and even her staunchest defenders have admitted that Rand’s anger could sometimes be unjust.
My mind was certainly open to what Rand’s critics had to say.
Nathaniel Branden was the first of Rand’s former associates with whom I became personally acquainted. In 1982, the year of Rand’s death, I was a teenager attending the University of California at San Diego. Because of my interests, a campus newspaper sent me to Beverly Hills to interview Nathaniel Branden at his home. While my focus was on his and Rand’s ideas, I was certainly aware of the negative things Rand had written about him.
The interview went well, and when I invited him to speak at the University he anxiously agreed, saying that “there was something” he had been “wanting to say about Rand...”
It was I who introduced him at the speech he delivered there for the first time, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.” Following the lecture, I asked the written questions submitted by the audience—a procedure Mr. Branden insisted upon, incidentally. I was to use my own judgment in screening the questions.
I did not ask the question we received inquiring whether he and Rand had had an affair. The question seemed unintellectual and rude.
After the event, walking back to his car, Branden asked if any questions had been screened out. When I told him what the question had been, a long, embarrassed silence followed. My own suspicions in this area therefore emerged before either of the Brandens’ biographies were published. These suspicions never distracted me from my interest in Rand’s work. I knew that I was in no position to judge a situation about which I knew next to nothing.
About a year later, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to Ms. Branden, taking me to her home in Hollywood. It was a brief meeting in which Ms. Branden inquired about the impact Rand’s books had had on my life and the lives of some of my friends. She indicated then that she was writing a book on Rand and was nearly finished.
When I continued my studies at New York University, I became acquainted with many who had known Rand, both Libertarians and Objectivists, including Murray Rothbard and Leonard Peikoff. The former only encouraged my skepticism regarding the Brandens, the latter almost never spoke of them.
But when I first opened the pages of the Brandens’ books, I was fully prepared to learn about the negative side of Rand’s ledger, and I presumed that the Brandens, so close to Rand for many years, would be the ones to reveal it.
What I found upon careful examination and comparison of both of these authors’ works, however, was that they had erected monuments of dishonesty on a scale so profound as to literally render them valueless as historical documents—and that Rand’s critics have been building on a foundation of historical sand in their widespread reliance on these works.
Despite the claims these biographers make that their memoirs are drawn from personal experience, it will be seen that their intense personal animosity towards Rand—which emanates from that experience—has scarred all aspects of their work.
We shall see that the level of willful deception, rhetorical trickery, clever insinuation, suppression of sources, uncorroborated and nakedly opportunistic memories, and epidemic internal contradictions, make even the positive things the Brandens have to say about Rand—which might be regarded as credible considering the authors’ obvious hostility toward her—essentially worthless as well. Any praise they offer seems, in the end, a mere acknowledgement of the observations of far more honest sources.
An earlier version of the present analysis was available on the Internet from March of 2002 until February of 2003 on the website of my friend, Casey Fahy, under the title “The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics,” and this, along with some additions, comprises Part I of the present volume. During the time that it was posted (and since) several additions and alterations were made to the text, in large measure, due to the critical e-mail response which it generated and the efforts of sensitive editors, for which I am most grateful. However, I had not consulted with Leonard Peikoff, the Estate of Ayn Rand, or the Ayn Rand Institute in any way about my essay.
The original analysis had urged the publication of the unpublished portions of Ayn Rand’s private journals if they should prove relevant to my subject.
In May of 2003, the Estate of Ayn Rand granted me unprecedented access to these same unpublished journals. At that time, only a small handful of people, and certainly not the Brandens, had even seen many of these journal entries, and their contents were the subject of considerable speculation.
Rand’s private journals turn out to shed enormous light on the events related in the Brandens’ works, and this again prompted several additions to the original essay, and these will be apparent. As with the previous modifications, I found that this material only strengthened the original analysis, exposing still more flaws in the Brandens’ accounts of the very kind already identified, and confirming several of the original theses. In particular, this material demonstrated the degree to which the Brandens have suppressed information vital to a fair assessment of their own behavior and Rand’s, and, far from revealing personal hypocrisy on Rand’s part, are testimony to Rand’s integrity and consistency.
Even more, these journals provide the fascinating account of how an extraordinary mind systematically unmasked the systematic deceit of a rather extraordinary deceiver, and they provide a tragic chronicle of how a romantic soul was cruelly manipulated by a man to whom she had given her highest trust and affection.
Most critically, these journals provide Rand’s only means of posthumous response to the Brandens’ allegations, the only window into her perspective on this issue. For this reason alone, Rand’s students and admirers must be grateful to the Estate of Ayn Rand for making them available—without fee or royalty of any kind—for this analysis.
In the process of attempting to understand Mr. Branden’s various psycho-pathologies, Rand has also left us many invaluable insights into human psychology that will no doubt be of more lasting value than the exposure of the Brandens’ deceptions.
Since nearly all of this private journal material is directly relevant to the Brandens’ accounts of Rand’s final break with Mr. Branden—and since none of this material has been previously available—the bulk of it has been reproduced, with extensive commentary, in Part II. The single longest of these entries, that of July 4, 1968, is the best summary of Rand’s diagnosis of Mr. Branden (we shall see that she was officially acting as his therapist at this point), and this entry has been reproduced almost in its entirety and without significant interruption.
The clarity of Rand’s mind—and the intensity of her anger—on the topic of Nathaniel Branden is bracingly apparent in these journal entries; frequently, and despite the pain this topic involved for Rand, they sparkle with a crystal clarity and radiate a ruthless honesty so familiar to Rand’s readers.
It must be remembered, however, that these private journals were written by Rand for herself in order to clarify her own thinking, and that Rand never intended that they be published. For that reason, they cannot be considered definitive statements of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Nevertheless, they provide important insight into Rand’s own perspective on the Brandens and her break with them—the very perspective which the Brandens uniformly ignore. Indeed, it is upon ignorance of this perspective that the Brandens’ theses critically depend.
For reasons that will be made clear, the inclusion of material from either of the Brandens’ biographies in no way implies that any of the events related actually took place, or, if it did, that the Brandens are believed to be credible sources regarding that event. My object is only to demonstrate why the picture the Brandens seek to draw of Ayn Rand should not be accepted as even partially trustworthy, as many today do simply for the fact that the Brandens' biographies have existed in a vacuum.
In the course of what follows, we will also find something else: the profound truth about Ayn Rand and the meaning of her life, the very truth in danger of being lost to the character of a legend invented by the Brandens.
Less Than Zero
Among the many troubling aspects of the biographical works of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, the “who's-less-objective-than-who” contest between Rand’s two leading critical biographers must be our first concern.
In the Introduction to The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden writes:
“Over the years, many people have suggested to me that it was time for me to write Ayn Rand's biography. But I had come to believe that I would never do so, that I could not again immerse myself in those days of wonder and pain and again struggle to emerge from them whole. For some time after the ending of our relationship, I doubted that I had achieved the necessary objectivity to write about a woman and a life that had so powerfully affected and altered my own life.” (PAR, p.xiii.)
But, Ms. Branden reports, the positive feelings finally won out, and the “necessary objectivity” must have been achieved, at least in the author’s mind, since she did write the book.
Nathaniel Branden in the 1989 version of his memoir, Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand, takes issue with Ms. Branden’s claim to objectivity:
“Contrary to what Barbara says in The Passion of Ayn Rand, where she suggests that not long after the break her feelings of anger at Ayn faded and her love reasserted itself, she and I remained at loggerheads over this issue for eleven years. On an evening in 1979, in the living room of my home, Barbara began to speak with great pain and anger—once again—about how Ayn had almost ruined her life. Losing patience, I said sharply, “Stop seeing yourself as a victim!’” (JD, p.416.)
Ms. Branden, suggesting that she is not alone in her continued feelings of persecution, writes that, “[r]egrettably, Nathaniel [Branden]’s anger against Ayn and against his former friends who rejected him appears not to have diminished but rather to have escalated during the years since 1968; too often, he has characterized and described them in terms that can only be called unjust.” (PAR, p.357-358.)
By “former friends” Ms. Branden cannot be referring to those among her own former friends whom she gives short shrift to, especially Leonard Peikoff, who is inadequately discussed in her biography, considering his important role in Rand’s life and the Objectivist movement, as Rand would designate Peikoff her heir. An outside observer of this intellectual history can hardly be satisfied by the few references given to Peikoff, who is also her first cousin, which is one notable example of Ms. Branden’s employing a dubious historical/memory selectivity of her own.
Perhaps sensing that this entire exchange paints both Brandens as biased reporters, the 1999 edition of Nathaniel Branden’s memoir, now less righteously titled My Years With Ayn Rand attempts to soften the scene depicted above, and Branden interestingly omits his own angry retort to Ms. Branden. These are not the only changes, and Branden, crediting the help of his former wife, has rewritten his previous position on some of his “former friends.” The portrait of Rand herself remains largely the same.
Branden admitted in a 1999 interview for Liberty magazine that a certain lingering “pain” had “showed up in the writing” of which he claims not even to have been consciously aware in 1989. So he rewrote the past, he says, “to make a book that would be... more positive and more kind.”
In the process, some of the memoirs’ original fire has been dimmed, but much remains—Allan Blumenthal, for example, is still a “eunuch,” for daring to suggest that Branden was a bit obsessed with sex.
This is the calm version, written after thoughtful reflection.
Nathaniel Branden’s revised edition also accuses Leonard Peikoff of a “display of imaginativeness that few people would have anticipated” in “converting the Rand legacy into personal cash” by publishing Rand’s private journals. (MYWAR, p.364.)
Despite Branden’s bizarre contention that “few would have anticipated” the publication of such material, the practice of publishing the notes of literary figures is quite common, and many generations of scholars to come will appreciate this fact, if Branden does not. Before the publication of the present volume, those portions of Rand’s journals which her estate had made public were almost entirely of a philosophic or literary nature. Finally, of course, Peikoff, as Rand’s heir, has the moral and legal right to do so, and in fact Rand’s permission.
Given the history of Mr. Branden’s own career and the subject of the book in which he makes this statement, one cannot help thinking that Branden doth protest too much about financial exploitation. (Readers of Part II will be able to identify many possible causes of Mr. Branden’s alarm at the possibility—now realized—of Rand’s private journals reaching publication.)
Among the most disturbing changes between the two versions of Branden’s memoir are the differing accounts of his own state of mind during episodes about which he writes. In 1989, Branden tells us that after Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, he felt as if the spotlight of history were upon him. In 1999, Branden tells us that he really felt foolish.
Attempting to explain the obvious contradiction, Branden says that it was the “surface arrogance” that he was projecting at the time to Rand and others which was still affecting his mind in the 1980s. He reports “almost going into an altered state to recapture the nuances of what I [really] felt...” ("Branden Speaks," Liberty, Sept., 1999, p.43.)
As necessary, our analysis will note where other important changes have been made from one edition to another. (See also, Bryan Register, "A Kinder, Gentler Judgment Day," Liberty, Aug., 1999.) Yet this example serves to illustrate a notable tendency in the Brandens’ recollections. Both of the Brandens’ works—in any edition—suffer from manic-bipolar swings in the authors’ attitudes. It is their very closeness to their subject—which they claim gives them such insight—which reveals fatal distortions of their objectivity.
And if this kind of closeness does not, in itself, render their judgments entirely dubious, the way they parted company from Rand (discussed at length in chapter four) should surely amplify our concerns about their objectivity.
The Brandens’ readers cannot help but notice that a large part of their motive in recounting events in which they played leading roles involves rescuing their own reputations. As they themselves make clear, despite the obvious spin they attempt to put on these facts, their behavior towards Rand—and others—in the course of these events was grotesquely dishonest and manipulative.
Dishonesty is apparent not merely from the Brandens’ general approach but from countless smaller issues. As a case in point, we are treated to an unnecessary fabrication concerning how Rand chose her name. While it is a minor point, it is an ominous foreshadowing of the dishonesty of the Brandens’ main theses.
Born Alice (or Alyssa) Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the novelist adopted the name “Ayn Rand” in order to protect her family still living in the Soviet Union. Rand’s first novel, We the Living, is a powerful critique of dictatorship based on Rand’s own experiences in Russia. It was published in America while Rand’s family lived under the shadow of Stalin's reign of terror.
A controversy has arisen regarding the origins of the name Rand selected. It is said that she once joked that criminals and writers should keep their original initials, and, hence, the “A.R.” Other suggestions have been largely speculation.
In her 1986 biography of Rand, Ms. Branden quotes Rand’s cousin, Fern Brown, as her source for the claim that Rand had been inspired by the name of her American typewriter—a Remington-Rand.
Ms. Branden also tells us: “Ayn never told her family in Russia her new name... they never knew she had become ‘Ayn Rand.’” (PAR, pp. 71-72.) Ms. Branden may be trying to insinuate that Rand was being neurotically secretive, perhaps even turning her back on her family. This is the sort of vague impression we will see the Brandens persistently attempt to create. Ms. Branden certainly claims that this was an important reason why Rand lost contact with her family shortly before World War II—they did not know her name.
However, this is demonstrably false. Anyone who has seen the biographical documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, has seen the letter from Rand's proud Russian family with the hand-drawn name “Ayn Rand” on a big marquee in neon lights. Given Ms. Branden's fictionalizing on this issue, could the rest of her name-story be false?
Nathaniel Branden goes so far as to quote Rand as telling an undetermined "us" that she had adopted the name from her typewriter. If so, it is curious that Ms. Branden did not report Rand's words—or Rand as her source—since she is the only other person likely to have been included in Mr. Branden’s “us” at that early stage in his story.
Ms. Branden and Ms. Brown both say that Rand chose her name when she was staying with Ms. Brown’s family in Chicago. Rand left for Hollywood near the end of August of 1926, since her contemporaneous private notes indicate that she saw a movie in Chicago on August 28 of that year. Professor Allan Gotthelf has observed, however, that the Rand Kardex Company (which never made typewriters) had not merged with the Remington Typewriter Company until 1927 and did not make typewriters labeled “Remington-Rand” for several more years after that. Since there was as yet no such thing as a “Remington-Rand.” Ms. Brown’s story must be entirely dismissed.
The evidence does demonstrate that Rand had adopted her name at some point before coming to work in Hollywood—for example, she kept a studio pass for the DeMille Studio which was stamped “September 4, 1926” and which had been issued to a person with the name of “Rand.” She simply cannot have been inspired by the name of any typewriter then being manufactured.
Moreover, it has come to light that there exist letters to Rand from her Russian family which use the name “Rand” but which also predate any previous communication from Rand in America. The origins of her name must go back to a very early stage in Rand’s career.
Michael Berliner and Richard Ralston, scholars at the Ayn Rand Institute, have also observed that in the Russian, or Cyrillic, alphabet letters which look similar to our letters R, a, n and d can be found in the Cyrillic version of “Alice Rosenbaum” and that letters similar to the three Roman letters a, y, n (or m) appear in similar sequence as the last three Cyrillic letters of Rosenbaum.
The new evidence appears to confirm what Rand told The New York Evening Post in 1936 and The Saturday Evening Post in the November 11, 1961, edition, namely, that “Ayn Rand” is an “abbreviation” of her Russian name.
It seems that both of the Brandens may have been sold a bill of goods from cousin Fern and then each did a bit of embellishing on their own. The new evidence also demonstrates that Mr. Branden has no compunction against putting statements into the mouth of Ayn Rand which are, in fact, products of his own imagination.
As we proceed, Mr. Branden will be seen to invent implausible, improbable, and impossible quotations for Rand—again and again. Ms. Branden will be seen to make bold assertions even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary—again and again. The Brandens’ books are themselves replete with evidence that this kind of dishonesty pervades all aspects of their “biographical” efforts.
School or Cult?
A philosopher’s biography is, of course, irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of that thinker’s ideas. Neither the Brandens’ efforts nor this analysis can have any bearing on one’s evaluation of Objectivism without committing the kind of ad hominem fallacy we previously observed in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.
It is clear, however, that Ayn Rand was a human being who made mistakes. She possessed a human psychology with all of the complexities which this implies. Certainly, in the course of her life, Rand suffered terrible pain. She could be angry and severe, no doubt. This much can be independently verified.
But the Brandens, as we have seen, must be entirely discounted as witnesses to the history they relate. They admit the truth only insofar as the existence of other evidence compels them. Their boldest assertions are unfailingly made where no corroboration is possible and often in contradiction to the available evidence, including their own direct observations. They have each demonstrated a level of dishonesty—both in the methodology and in the content of their works—which must be considered fatal to the reliability of anything they report. Their hostility to and joint cause against Rand is ineluctable.
Their dishonesty to their readers in 1962 and 1968 was subsequently revealed by their own writings years later, in which unverifiable claims against Rand strangely become more elaborate.
Ms. Branden’s “scoop,” the affair, could be expected to sell books, even if it revealed the deceptive nature of the Brandens’ 1968 response to Rand in which “an insuperable barrier” seems to have prevented any affair from occurring.
In turn, Mr. Branden revealed Ms. Branden’s own affairs and various other facts at variance with his former wife’s account, further revealing their mutual dishonesty.
Rand’s journals, as we will see in Part II, reveal that, for all of this “disclosure,” crucial information regarding the Brandens’ own conduct was systematically suppressed in their “histories” of these events.
Their books can only be seen as their final vengeance upon Rand—and each other. They continue their policy of financially exploiting their association with Rand while attempting to rehabilitate their own reputations, which, for obvious reasons, require it. In the process, they only further tarnish those reputations.
Ayn Rand’s critics have been spreading falsehoods and distortions about both Rand and her philosophy for many years. Their most consistent complaint accuses the Objectivist movement of being “a cult,” intentionally conjuring the image of an Eastern mystic stepping out of a limousine and being showered with garlands by chanting, brainwashed lemmings.
Predictably, Ms. Branden only gets around to considering the question of whether the Objectivist movement was a “cult” in her narrative of the events surrounding her own break with Rand. She writes that while it “had many of the trappings,” such as the alleged “aggrandizement” of Rand and “the incessant moralism,” the movement was not, strictly speaking, a cult.
As to those “trappings,” Ms. Branden does speak with some authority.
Even after all of Ms. Branden’s own confessed suppression of her “real self,” all of the deceptive fawning over and flattering of Rand, and “the too ready acceptance of [Rand’s] opinions on a host of subjects,” she concludes Objectivism was not a cult, no matter how quasi-cult-like her description of her own dishonest behavior.
But even such a comparison is slanderous insinuation.
Rand had never sought a following. She did not think of herself as a teacher or a “leader” by inclination or by disposition. She actively distrusted “organized” intellectual movements. Rand watched the hopes of Ms. Branden, and many others at the time, totally dashed, as she required the liquidation of NBI in 1968. Rand had no problem wiping out what she had been eager to keep her “distance” from in the first place. Indeed, everything Rand said merely confirms what was already clear from her behavior.
Consider what Rand taught: “Think. Think for yourself. Be selfish.”
The combined emphasis Rand placed in her writings on both reason and individualism is certainly unprecedented in the history of “cults”—and for obvious reasons. Thinking for one’s self—the fundamental ethical mandate of Objectivism—is cult-suicide. In fact, Objectivism teaches that “thinking for oneself” is a redundancy, that there is no other kind of thinking.
The image of Howard Roark standing alone against the whole world for his vision, is not the image to promote if one is seeking a blind following.
Ayn Rand, by the Brandens' own accounts, did her utmost not to cultivate a personal following of any kind. When it came to ideological alliances, time and again, Rand proved that she would rather be right than keep a friend. Her personality was, in many ways, simply inconsistent with managing an "organized" movement. And she knew it.
Yet, of course, Rand’s circle was a bunch of crazy cult-members, Alan Greenspan and the rest, all busy getting their graduate degrees and establishing their subversive professional careers. Right.
When Rand was done "alienating" many of these students, none of them, curiously, returned to more traditional philosophical or religious viewpoints. At most, like Branden, they attempted to “modify” at the margins the philosophy Rand had given them. Whatever their later hostility to the woman, the ideas they had learned from Rand—in some form—endured.
Rand cannot be held responsible for any of the alleged self-suppressing behavior of her legions of anonymous followers, any more than she can be held responsible for the deceptive self-suppressing behavior of the Brandens.
Remarkably, years after her death, Rand is still winning converts who have never joined any group or organization. They just read a couple of books.
Rand’s was a strange “cult,” indeed.
Into this context, using the very attack which for so long the Brandens resented as unfair even as they were perhaps the most cult-like followers Rand ever had, they now exploit this canard, and nearly all others of their former critics. The intensity of their current accusation of “authoritarianism” is matched only by the former intensity of the deceptive sycophancy in their relationship with Rand.
Winston Churchill is credited with a pithy rationalization for government disinformation: “Some truths are so important that they need to be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.” Leaving aside the ethical cynicism that this implies outside of the (limited and temporary) context of national security, such a policy is difficult to sustain over time. As every seasoned liar knows, for it to be believed, a lie must be surrounded by a bodyguard of truths.
Many of the claims made in the Brandens’ books are undoubtedly true. A good many of them are demonstrably false, misleading, one-sided and self-serving. Being unclear as to their sources—often overtly suppressing their sources—it is not generally possible to distinguish the true from the false, and therein lies the problem for the usefulness of these works to historians.
Again and again, the Brandens produce suspicious evidence from “private conversations” that contradicts the entire body of verifiable information, but which conveniently helps them grind their particular axes.
We have seen that the rest of their evidence against Rand consists of purely emotional assertion devoid of fact—precisely what Rand’s philosophy terms an “arbitrary” assertion. According to Objectivism, arbitrary claims are neither true nor false. They are, in this sense, “worse” than false, bearing no relation to reality whatever—even a negative one. It is error even to attempt to refute them.
On the surface, the Brandens’ biographical efforts consist of factual claims made by people who knew their subject well. Therefore, the identification of their works as being arbitrary can only be made after (at least some) careful analysis. As we have seen, such analysis readily demonstrates that a sweeping dismissal is, indeed, warranted.
Even if one day some of the Brandens’ assertions are verified by more credible sources and evidence, the Brandens will not have helped to establish their truth. Considerable independent research will be necessary to accomplish this. And it does not matter whether these discoveries cast Rand in a positive or negative light.
If one day, for example, it is somehow established, to the surprise of the author, that Rand’s callous indifference drove her husband to excessive drinking, the current analysis will still stand, and the Brandens’ credibility will not have been enhanced in any way. The basis of their inferences will be no more credible and no less arbitrary.
But the historical record can become clouded with the assumptions of a tradition that is largely legendary. It would be tragic if Rand's biography suffered the same fate at the hand of the Brandens’ viciously crafted legend.
A movie version of The Passion of Ayn Rand was produced for cable television with Ms. Branden’s approval. As that Emmy-winning movie depicts things, O’Connor was once found unconscious and drunk by Mr. Branden in a telephone booth in 1957. O’Connor also professes a complete ignorance of his wife’s work and its meaning. Ms. Branden’s own affairs, her disappointment at the rejection of her plans to run NBI, and her immediate switch following that disappointment are, of course, not shown. Rand herself is as humorless, joyless, etc., as the unsubstantiated half of Ms. Branden’s many contradictions might suggest. Ms. Branden’s lies to Rand on behalf of Mr. Branden are hardly mentioned. Mr. Branden’s intellectual and professional exploitation of Rand is not presented at all. The extensive and deceptive counseling sessions are not depicted. The Brandens’ published lies in the wake of the break go unnoticed. The philosophy of Objectivism is repeatedly misrepresented. Even Ms. Branden’s already fatuous dialogue is altered once again for “dramatic” ends. Whole characters are created from whole cloth.
These are just a few of the movie’s radical projections from Barbara Branden’s empty claims.
Needless to say, Ms. Branden loved the movie. In particular, the actor who played O’Connor “was Frank.”
Unfortunately, evidence is not the driving force behind the current dogma about Ayn Rand. Many are willing to believe whatever is claimed without requiring much evidence. In an effort to prove that they are tolerant, open-minded and, certainly, un-cult-like even many claiming to be sympathetic to Rand do so. Such are the credentials necessary for being taken seriously in some circles if one agrees with Rand’s ideas.
In their zeal to be free of any association with the “cult-mentality” of “true believers,” even many of those who admire Rand trip over their own feet to proclaim their recognition of Rand's feet of clay. They accuse Rand’s defenders of being “in denial,” but they have themselves adopted only dogma.
In the process, an uncritical nod has been given by an entire sub-culture to writers and books rife with lies and distortions. But the truth is just the opposite of what many are coming to accept as the real story.
One striking illustration of the contrast between the truth and the uncritically accepted dogma promulgated by the Brandens stands out as particularly eloquent.
Nathaniel Branden delights in describing Leonard Peikoff as having an “embarrassing” problem during the course of his studies at New York University. (With the famous Sidney Hook as his advisor, Peikoff earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1964.)
“If, for example, [Peikoff] was studying the philosophy of John Dewey he could very easily fall into Dewey’s perspective without noticing it, accept the premises of Dewey that he in fact knew to be mistaken, and then proceed to panic.” Rand would spend a good deal of time helping him with successive waves of confusion. This happened, it seems, with almost every philosopher Peikoff encountered, from Plato to Wittgenstein. Branden says that he was “mystified” by Peikoff’s conduct and even wondered why Rand tolerated it.
One might ask whether Peikoff originally “knew” those other ideas to have been “mistaken,” as Branden is claiming for him, since he had so easily lost it, but for Branden, it seems, belief needs no more than a first impression. Extensive study and a detailed comparison of Objectivism to previous philosophies, Branden seems to wonder—how could these disturb anyone’s “convictions?
Branden explains that Rand would become angry and impatient with Peikoff, and that he once even came near to what Branden calls “excommunication.” However, Peikoff always eventually found Rand’s arguments more sound even though he was determined, no matter what the effort involved, to understand them thoroughly before declaring his level of certainty to be what it was not.
Branden himself, of course, had never dared to risk Rand’s anger. He tells his readers quite explicitly that he chose years of deception over risking any of Rand’s “moralism.”
Why risk it anyway? He was already akin to Ayn Rand in the very structure of their souls—he had absorbed Objectivism as if by osmosis—he could glibly pronounce, in Rand’s own style, the fundamental ideas of her philosophy, and recite the very lines of her heroes' dialogue, verbatim.
Sure, he spoke to his readers of Rand’s revolutionary impact on psychology at a time when he did not really think the subject was her “strong point.” And, of course, he was “bothered” by a great many aspects of her thought. No, he never asked Rand to clear up those doubts, nor did he give Rand the chance to explain her answers to those doubts, as Peikoff did.
Why risk a position at the top of Rand’s esteem over a few niggling doubts?
Branden already had completely understood what Peikoff was still—can you believe it?—groping for.
Branden had sprung from the head of Rand fully armored with omniscience and Objectivism. Branden had practically memorized The Fountainhead, you see, while Peikoff came tentatively along, always vulnerable to whatever new ideas he was being taught at school.
Peikoff told the truth about what was going on in his head to Rand, to his teachers, to his chosen counselors. Peikoff gave every new philosophy he studied a fair hearing. He could still be persuaded, he was still open to new perspectives. Peikoff had to be convinced of each and every thing—every inch of the way and in competition with all other ideas—before fully adopting it.
But—Presto!—Branden’s magic works its sleight of hand and Peikoff is suddenly cast as “the Randroid,” the cult-leader, the intolerant “yes-man” of Objectivism, not Branden himself—in perfect form, again projecting his own identity onto his opponent.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that the essential feature of Branden’s history and character is dishonesty, while the essential feature of Rand’s is ruthless honesty. Her philosophy demands both a total honesty of belief to fact—and a total honesty of belief to action. Neither mindless conformity nor arbitrary contrariety, either with or against Objectivism itself, achieves the level of honesty that is a prerequisite for Objectivism.
Objectivism, the philosophy Rand articulated in her books, is, therefore, perhaps the first philosophy in history which can actually be practiced consistently on earth. Rand strove to practice it—often courageously and alone—in every aspect of her life. As we have seen, an analysis of the Brandens’ biographical works actually demonstrates that the Brandens’ central thesis—that Rand was a hypocrite who often did not live up to her stated ideals—is the precise opposite of the truth.
Indeed, it was Rand’s adherence to her philosophy which alienated some of her former friends—including the Brandens. Actually, Rand achieved a kind of integrity between high thought and the whole of one's life that had never before been thought possible. She was willing to defy over two millennia of philosophical thought and stand alone if necessary to defend her ideas, ideas she believed could—and must—be implemented without compromise.
This unprecedented aspect of Rand’s philosophy in itself suggests the importance of Rand’s biography as a topic of study—a topic which still awaits an objective biographer.
Few figures so deserve a complete, in-depth biography as Ayn Rand does. She survived the Russian Revolution, and worked in Hollywood during the Silent Era of the 1920s for men like Cecil B. DeMille. She struggled through the Depression, but during the 1940s she wrote the screenplays for popular films and a best-selling novel. In order to research her fiction, Rand worked in the office of a leading architect, inspected large steel mills and foundries, learned to operate the engine of a locomotive, and interviewed the inventors of the first nuclear weapon about their work. Rand testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) about life in the Soviet Union. Later, she attended the launch of Apollo 11 in person, as an invited VIP. Most of Rand’s non-fiction and cultural commentary spanned the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, just in time to dissect Woodstock, the New Left, and related cultural phenomena. In the 1970s, she attended the White House ceremonies for the swearing-in of her student, Alan Greenspan, as the President’s chief economic advisor.
Ayn Rand was an extraordinary witness to the Twentieth Century, and her writing reflects not only her powerful and original thought, but her remarkable and unique life. But she was also an artist and a philosopher of vision who saw beyond the conventional wisdom of her time to a future of endless possibilities.
Besides, and as Rand herself would have appreciated, her life makes one helluva story.
In the magnificent Ridley Scott film 1492:Conquest of Paradise, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus observes—in a moment of profound insight—that if he, a nobleman, is remembered by history it will only be because Columbus will be remembered—and only because he played a role in Columbus’s life.
The Brandens, too, know this of themselves. Unlike that nobleman, it is also clearly the Brandens’ design to shape the history of the Columbus whom they were privileged to know.
Their final act of vengeance against Ayn Rand is against honesty—and objectivity—itself.
[Interested readers are directed to the next chapter.]
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