Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On "Being One's Self": a Review of James Valliant's "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics"

"The discovery of actual evil in a specific person is a painful experience in a moral person." (The Voice of Reason, "The Psychology of Psychologizing," p. 25)
(Books are abbreviated as follows: The Passion of Ayn Rand--PAR; Judgment Day--JD; My Years with Ayn Rand—MYWAR; The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics--PARC.)

I've been a student of Objectivism for nearly 4 years now, and I've only recently dove into the issues surrounding Rand's personal life and her affair with Nathaniel Branden. Almost since I learned that there was such a philosophy, I stumbled upon personal attack after personal attack on the internet in regards to Ayn Rand's character, the events of her life, and her faked adherence to her own philosophy in light of her life-choices. Without an intimate knowledge of her history, such as provided by a biography, I couldn't make any judgments regarding them, effectively giving Rand the moral benefit of the doubt. I thought that I should work to understand the philosophy first: the issues under dispute were charges of immorality, and I had little understanding of Objectivism's view on morality. Nonetheless, the issues kept rearing up their heads over these years: Rand the repressor? Rand the intolerant authoritarian? Rand the moralizer? Rand the self-centered narcissist, oblivious to the personal context and needs of others, including her friends? Frank O' Connor, the alcoholic whose marriage with Rand was largely a fraud? (Among many other issues, to be discussed in the foregoing.) Was any of it true?

I finally decided to find out, and I found the prime sources for the majority of these criticisms to be none other than Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, two of Rand's former associates, friends, and key members of the early Objectivist movement. Upon discovering this a few years ago, earlier this year I purchased Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand and James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. (I was planning on buying Nathaniel Branden's memoir Judgment Day, and his revised My Years with Ayn Rand, but the internet is choke-full of quotes from those works, along with interviews of N. Branden which correspond to my understanding of his account of Rand and Objectivism.)

Finishing the books left me with feelings of anger and sadness I've rarely felt. My anger was reserved for the Brandens; my sadness was for Ayn Rand.

The Brandens would meet Rand and Frank O' Connor in 1950, both couples becoming mutually impressed with each other, personally and intellectually. As they learned about the mind and the philosophy of this woman that they admired, they simultaneously began to suppress their true selves, in order to fit something that Rand would better accept and support. They became the greatest of friends, helping Rand in the process of finishing Atlas Shrugged, and becoming part of the reason why Rand pursued non-fiction writing outside of her novels, forming the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) as a result. It would even lead to a romantic affair between Nathaniel Branden and Rand that was agreed upon by everyone involved, Frank and Barbara included. But they weren't being true to themselves, or to Rand and Frank and to other students of Objectivism; they tried to live a life of lies, to fake and wipe out reality—instead, reality wiped out the wipers, destroying the romantic, personal, intellectual, and financial relationships that they worked hard, if dishonestly, to build. What followed was "the Break" of 1968, with Rand's "To Whom It May Concern," outlining her reasons for banishing N. and B. Branden from all aspects of her life, the end of their status as eminent Objectivists, and the end of the NBI. Both of the Brandens responded with their "In Answer to Ayn Rand, Part 1 and 2," basically accusing Rand of lying or distorting the truth in all of her accusations regarding them. This line of argument would continue in both of their biographies/memoirs, published years after Rand's death, presenting her as a highly intelligent and a great, if enormously flawed, woman.

As Valliant shows in PARC, both of the Brandens deceived Rand and other Objectivists since the beginning of their nearly 20 year relationship with her, all the while feigning an advocacy for Objectivism. (I'll note that both of the Brandens partially admit to their explicit dishonesty in their biographies.) By considering the claims of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden in their memoirs/books, and comparing them with other evidence, Valliant seeks to expose the Brandens for the liars that they really were, and still are. Part 1 of PARC presents practically all of the claims made by the Brandens about Rand--those regarding her psychology, her adherence to her own philosophy, and her relationship to the Brandens themselves, and others—and shows them to be either contradictory, fabricated, or insufficiently proven. Part 2 presents a synopsis of Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden, criticizing both of the Branden biographies and offering Rand's private journal entries which chronicle her romantic relationship with Nathaniel Branden, and its slow disintegration due to psychological sessions he requested her to administer. This part culminates with Rand the detective summarizing her romantic relationship with Nathaniel, unraveling his psychology, and realizing that he's holding some dark, important secret that is the real cause of his (alleged) celibacy-inducing "sex problem" and of his distancing from Rand and the philosophy. (The secret was his 4-year affair with Patrecia Gullison (Scott, and then Branden), meaning that he had no "sex problem" in reality, and that the psychology sessions were designed to distract Rand from learning about all of this.)

In Barbara's PAR, and Nathaniel's JD and MYWAR, they present a definite psychological description of Rand, and like any good rationalist, they use this portrait to deduce all sorts of actions she must have taken, motivations she must have possessed, and the kind of character she must have created within herself. (A rationalist in Objectivist terminology is a person who relies and focuses on abstract reasoning and concepts and stresses deduction, considering conceptual interrelationships, but failing to relate them to concrete reality. The result is a person's whose thinking is "floating," not integrated with facts, and non-objective.) They present her as an alienated person, from the needs and contexts of other people, from the practical aspects of the world, and from physical reality itself. A repressed person who was pained by the negative events in her life, she thus becomes in need of "control," an authoritarian who creates a culture of conformity with her views. This need to dominate explains why she chooses Frank O' Connor, a passive man, and why she demanded complete agreement, especially philosophical agreement, with those whom she befriended. Her snap moral condemnations stifled independent thought and the expression of her students' true selves. She practically made repression a requirement of those around her, and such repression is implicit in her philosophy's view of reason and emotion. And her narcissism was reflected in her inability to accept any "breaks" with Nathaniel Branden romantically for any reason, including their age difference, that this would have to lead to a complete break, personally and professionally.

From this portrait, the Brandens give examples, alleged quotes, and sources detailing Rand's actions and events of her life which fit to this psychological profile. Valliant examines an extensive amount of their claims and evidence, several dozen by my count, and either shows evidence to demonstrate the falsehood of their claim or the lack of evidence needed to reach a decision either way.

To get an idea of what I mean, let's consider some of the things Valliant proves in PARC:

(1) The origin of Rand's American name. Both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden claim that Rand (originally Alice/Alyssa Rosenbaum) changed her name to that of her Remington-Rand typewriter which she brought with her from Russia, with Rand's cousin Fern Brown as Barbara's source. Barbara even claims that Rand never told her family her new name, suggesting a kind of callousness and betrayal of a family who had cared for her enough to help her get out of Russia—fitting perfectly with their portrayal of Rand as manipulative. But these are all lies. As Valliant demonstrates, the Rand Kardex company didn't merge with the Remington company (i.e. the one which manufactured typewriters of the two) until 1927, a year after Rand arrived in America with her typewriter; in fact, Remington-Rand typewriters weren't even made in the 1920's, according to the Remington-Rand company itself. In a letter to a fan, Rand states that her first name is an American version of a Finnish name, and in a New York Evening Post interview she states that her last name is an abbreviation of her Russian surname. (Evidence of this is provided at the ARI site.) In any event, there's no proof that she took her name from a typewriter that didn't even exist at the time she had actually invented the name "Ayn Rand," (sometime around 1925), besides the claims of the Brandens. Furthermore, there are letters from Rand's family in 1926 that explicitly call her "Rand," which were sent before she communicated with them in America, meaning she told them her new name before leaving, contrary to Barbara's claims. A small point, but that the Brandens felt the need to lie about this, and to even suggest that Rand was unfair to her family and left them in the dark about her life in America, is unforgivable and revolting. (PARC, p. 12-14; "How do you pronounce "Ayn?" and "What is the origin of "Rand?"; the "Objectivism Reference Center" speculates that Rand herself may have spread the story of the typewriter, if N. Branden's story is correct. His dishonesty generally, and her accounts of her name being an abbreviation of her Russian name to both the Evening Post and The Saturday Evening Post, however, suggest another instance of Branden simply lying.)

(2) Rand's ignorance of psychology. During his association with Rand, Nathaniel Branden praised Rand for her fictional characters and philosophy, as both provided valuable information about, and the philosophical underpinning towards, a new science of psychology, particularly in the areas of self-esteem, and the relationship between reason and emotion. (See, for instance, Who is Ayn Rand?) In the years after his break, Branden repeatedly claimed that Rand, in fact, had little to no insights into psychology, and that this was a problem as far as practicing Objectivism is concerned. (One of Branden's criticisms of Objectivism, reflective of this ignorance of psychology, is that the philosophy encourages repression and thus is detrimental to psychological health.) This is a gross misrepresentation. According to Branden himself, Rand discussed psychology with him countless times, and they had identified, in some terms, what I view as the Objectivist equivalent of a "philosophy of psychology," discussing the role of the conscious and subconscious mind, the importance of reason, volition, and emotions regarding psychological health, and the need of "psychological visibility" (mutual understanding of one another's self) between romantic partners. (Though this did not apply exclusively to romance, as friends and business partners, to name a couple of examples, would need such visibility as well.) And in her fiction and non-fiction, we're given evidence of Rand's impressive understanding of mental functioning, identifying the nature of rationalization, of evasion, of different kinds of motivations for action, of one's view on sex being an expression of one's highest values, and of acting on one's whims (on emotions that one doesn't understand, and doesn't care to understand), to name a few. (See the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on "Psychology" in the Conceptual Index.)

But none of this prepares the reader of PARC for the revelation that Branden uses Rand as a psychotherapist for years right up until the end of their relationship (Part 2 of PARC), something that Branden (for decades, on up to the present) never discusses when he is dismissing Rand's understanding of psychology. In fact, her private journal entries reveal her to be very good at psychological analysis, tying together statements and actions of Branden's over the years in order to discover the cause and solution for his admitted "sex problem" and repression (a task that he asked her to undertake under ulterior motives)—instead of a solution finding in Branden bad epistemological standards, a "Kantian"-duty approach to his beliefs in Objectivism which opposed the interests of his "true self," an indifference to the needs and context of the women in his life, and finally, covert dishonesty and breaches of morality.

(3) Rand as authoritarian/Mullah Rand. Another long-standing accusation of the Brandens is that Rand demanded total agreement from those around her. Nathaniel Branden even goes so far as to say that the implicit beliefs of the NBI (which were conveyed to the students) were that a "good Objectivist" is one who admires and condemns exactly what Rand admires and condemns, and that she was the arbiter of what is moral, rational, and appropriate to man's life in reality. By claiming that these beliefs were "implicit," Branden has to mean that no one ever stated this, including Rand. Mary Ann and Charles Sures, Barbara Branden, and Leonard Peikoff (among others) have offered discussions with Rand that show her ability to analyze issues, clarifying the aspects involved. When Rand thought that her friend was mistaken about something, she would draw out the person's thinking, reaching definite conclusions. But no one ever quotes Rand as saying that she demanded that they agree with her reasoning, that her's was the only rational argument. In fact, Peikoff says quite the opposite: "She never suggested that I accept what she said on her say-so; on the contrary, she was working diligently to get me to see the truth with my own eyes and mind..." (The Voice of Reason, p. 335) "Unquestioning agreement is precisely what Ayn Rand did not want," Mary Ann Sures informs us regarding Rand. (Facets of Ayn Rand) As the Brandens themselves admit, they repressed their true values and emotions in order to fit what they, not Rand, thought Objectivism requires, and later blame Rand for it. It's interesting that other close friends of Rand's were not complaining of repressing their true selves to be "good Objectivists" but were learning how the philosophy applies to their contexts.

Peikoff's thirty years with Ayn Rand is an instructive example against the claims of the Brandens. Peikoff's early years with Rand were spent unraveling all of his confusions and bad mental methods, particularly rationalistic thinking. (Peikoff states in one of his podcasts that he had written various essays on the phenomenon of rationalism and ways to combat it.) She didn't want Peikoff's blind obedience, or the agreement of a second-hander, she wanted him to learn the right method of thinking. He didn't distort or repress what he knew: if he had a disagreement or counter-point or confusion, he let Rand know up front, and thus was a paragon of intellectual honesty. When Nathaniel and Barbara Branden had confusions or criticisms of Objectivism, they never told Rand about them, but repressed their ideas and feigned agreement; for years, this meant that every meeting with Rand was filled with role-playing and deception. Rand's psychological counseling notes prove that once she had discovered Branden's self-admitted repression in his sex life, she constantly tried to help him find ways to derepress, to identify and experience his emotions and values, all the while reassuring him that he hasn't betrayed his values. (So much for the Branden charge that Rand and Objectivism encourages repression, as N. Branden alleged (and still does). Of course, unbeknownst to her for years, betraying his values was exactly what he did, at least regarding his professed intellectual values in the presence of Rand and as intellectual heir of Objectivism.)

Other issues raised were Frank O'Connor's (non-existent) alcoholism, Rand's intolerance towards those who disagreed with her, her moralism, her view on intelligence and moral virtue, and her alleged literal attempt to destroy N. Branden after the break. In all these cases and more, we witness the lies, the omissions, and the selective memories of the two individuals closest to Rand besides her husband, the ones who had the most to lose when their personal and professional relationships came to an end.

The most important of all issues confronted was the issue of the affair between Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand. The Brandens lie about nearly everything concerning the affair. Frank secretly resenting Rand and N. Branden for initiating it; Nathaniel's claim that it was Rand who wanted the affair and that she kept reinvigorating it; that Rand would instantly break with Nathaniel in all areas if he revealed the "age" issue (the 25-year age gap between them, which Rand knew very well of, offering Nathaniel many “outs” in their affair on that basis alone); Nathaniel's claim that Rand was "obsessed" about him after the break; that their relationship before the break hadn't been nothing but "psycho-therapy"; that Rand would never accept a "Miss X" (another woman in addition to herself and Barbara). Rand's journal entries reveal all of these to be self-serving lies. These entries show a concerned and generous Rand, a Rand understanding of another's context, exactly the kind of person that would be impossible in the Brandens' portrait of her.

In PARC, we learn that near the end of her relationship with Nathaniel, she would learn of the deceptions regarding their romance, their psychology sessions, and even the values of the man himself (and she even got an inkling of the deeper truth concerning Nathaniel's cheating on her with Patrecia). She realized that Nathaniel Branden became "the deadly enemy I had been fighting all of my life: not those who do not see the good, but those who see it and don't want it (because they lack the courage for it, and the self-confidence)." (Valliant, PARC, p. 374, July 12, 1968 entry). To her, Branden was a person who admired her ideas, but who tries his best to pretend that she isn't real, that she isn't a real person that should be dealt with honestly or that she should remain “invisible” (an ignorance of another's self); in this vein, she calls him the real enemy of Atlas Shrugged, "the man who wanted Rearden Metal without Rearden, in the deepest, metaphysical meaning of that concept, much deeper than I could ever have imagined possible." (ibid.) She repeatedly discusses the psychological torture Branden was putting her (and Barbara) through in those years. In light of what their relationship evolved into, and of how Nathaniel Branden portrays things to this day, one can certainly understand Rand's assessment that in regard to him she feels "the strongest contempt I have ever felt—and I regard him as the worst traitor and the most immoral person I have ever met." (PARC, p. 349, July 4th, 1968)

Besides demonstrating the truth about Rand's character and the Affair, PARC also discusses some nuances of Objectivism in its applications to one's life. Learning about terms like "meta-selfishness," "stylized universe," and of two technical meanings of "being oneself" was totally unexpected, and a real treat for me. A "stylized universe" results from the actions of a "stylized person," which Rand describes as a "person who lives in reality according to his highest values, who takes nothing less, accepts no substitutes, and struggles to translate his values into reality, no matter what the difficulties.” Since Objectivism advocates pursuing ones values and furthering one's life as a moral endeavor and as morally right, an obvious extension of that fundamental view would be a principle counseling one to work to live in reality according to one's values. "Meta-selfishness" is an extension of the Objectivist idea of a “hierarchy of values”—of an interrelation of higher, more important values and of lesser values: when you're choosing a particular value, like a car or job or a girlfriend, the actual propriety or prudence of that choice depends on the end-goal of acquiring that value—on what's really in it for you, as Valliant clarifies. Lastly, "being oneself" has two different meanings, depending on the perspective being personal or social. In the social realm, being "oneself" means being "psychologically visible" to someone else, someone who is understood and appreciated for one's character and values; in other words, we allow a person to “be himself” when we understand a person for who and what that person is, and thus he doesn't have to engage in conscious actions to give us evidence of who he really is. In the personal realm, being "oneself" means a person insofar as he relies on the automatized processes of his mind, on his present knowledge subconsciously held, including his sense of life perspective.

Knowing what I know now from PARC, I wouldn't identify their dishonesty as the fundamental cause of their destruction of their relationship with Rand, though it was a significant factor. By their own admission, they were never really Objectivists: within months of meeting Rand, they were suppressing their "true selves," they weren't relying on their subconscious processes, and thus weren't being "themselves" around Rand or Frank, or even among the students of Objectivism they would later teach. They weren't identifying or pursuing their "meta-selfishness," merely parroting the values and views of Rand in order to keep their appearances as good Objectivists. As a result, they didn't have a "stylized universe," they didn't work for their true values, but instead lived with a kind of mind-body split—their professed "Objectivist" values and views experienced in the public, outside world, and their repressed "true selves" and true values which they refused to experience and kept in their own consciousness. Despite Nathaniel being once Rand's intellectual heir, and Barbara having a technical knowledge of the philosophy as well one would presume (18 years spent with Rand, one must remember), the point must be made that they never understood Objectivism in the most important sense—in how it applies to one's own life. Later, they would blame their repression and betrayal of their real values on Rand and on the philosophy, including their dishonesty (which they never reveal to its full extent)--when the real cause always was their erroneous approach to the whole philosophy. And now I can fully understand why that approach led to the events in their lives that it did, thanks to PARC and Rand's journal entries.

All in all, I wish such a book had not been necessary. I wish Barbara Branden hadn't felt the need to "break the presumed link between the validity of Objectivism and the perfection of Ayn Rand," as she says in an essay defending her book from 2005. I wish the Brandens' hadn't felt the need to present Rand's imperfections, if that meant resorting to the kind of dishonesty we're now in the position to appreciate. The facts, however, are the facts. To know the validity of Objectivism, one must consult the works, and judge it for oneself. But to understand that Rand had achieved moral perfection as Objectivism understands it in her own life and person, PARC is certainly without substitute. I whole-heartedly recommend it.


  1. Mr. Fitts,

    I'm surprised you didn't mention the two new bios of Rand published at the end of the last year. They are generally quite favorable to the conclusions drawn in Barbara Branden's biography. For example, both Burns and Heller think that Rand told the typewriter story to others and that Frank O'Connor consumed alcohol to excess.

    -Neil Parille

  2. I plan on reading both biographies, all in due time. I'm through with merely learning about Objectivism; I've become very interested in "Rand, the person."

    I wonder what evidence they've amassed for the typewriter story, since Barbara recently changed her source for that from merely Fern Brown to her *and* Rand, *after* talking to Nathaniel Branden about it, whom claimed in his memoir that he heard it from Rand. And how do they explain the non-existence of such typewriters around the time that Rand picked that last name, or her public statements on the origin of her name which have nothing to do with a typewriter?

    And I've already thrown out the claim of Frank's alcoholism. If Barbara didn't have hard evidence for the claim, then she should have never made it. For instance, she claims that her source for Frank's alcoholism in the 50's was Don Ventura, but Heller states that he didn't meet Frank or Rand until 1962.

    I'm *already* suspicious of Heller's claims about Frank's drinking, due exclusively to Michael Moeller's investigations into her sources:

    I'll state that I've read a lot of forum posts over these 4 years, including yours, on all the Objectivist forums in existence. I'm not impressed with you: according to Lindsay Perigo, you admitted that you were a "humanity-diminisher," and judging by your posts on SOLO and elsewhere, I would have made the same judgment, regardless. The same goes for Barbara Branden. You're not an Objectivist (and neither is Barbara, in my view if not in her own), but Barbara and yourself certainly represent an element of the "movement" that I'm very wary of--the element that wants Rand's philosophy without Rand, or her so discredited and denounced that it's better if she was treated as non-existent.

    That's all I'll have to say for now.