The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics:
The Case Against the Brandens
by Wendy McElroy
the first time, I find it necessary to comment on a book's reviews-to-date before
offering my own critique of it. The
Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (Durban House Publishing, $27.95) by James
S. Valliant has been blasted by its own passionate critics in both formal reviews
and online discussions. The book's provocative subtitle, The Case Against the
Brandens (Nathaniel and Barbara Branden), almost guarantees that admirers
of those two popular writers will assume a defensive stance. But the response
has been more than defensive; it has verged on questioning the Valliant book's
right to exist.
Certainly, the subject matter is distasteful. Valliant's The Passion chronicles
three views of the same event and of its sad fallout: namely, Nathaniel Branden's
long-term affair (19541968) with Ayn Rand. The fall-out was nothing less
than the bitter cleaving in half of the Objectivist movement; it is a schism that
survives to this day.
The much-discussed affair was first explored in print from Barbara Branden's perspective
in her biography of Rand, The
Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), which became a Showtime movie of the same
title in 1999. Nathaniel Branden's point-of-view was aired in his memoir Judgment
Day: My Years With Ayn Rand (1989), which issued in revised form as My
Years With Ayn Rand in 1999. Rand, who died in 1982, never publicly offered
her viewpoint but rumors have circulated of personal journals that discussed "the
affair." Such discussion was absent, however, from the posthumously published
of Ayn Rand (1997).
Consequently, what was known of "the affair" emerged almost entirely from two
people Rand had ostracized, and whose involvement in "the affair" makes the very
possibility of their objectivity questionable. This is not an accusation of dishonesty
but a comment on human nature. It is natural to remember a complex, painful series
of events in a manner most favorable to yourself, especially in the face of being
denounced over that event. People have more sympathy toward their own motives
and suffering than toward that of others. Moreover, since the accounts occurred
after Rand's death, any first-person rebuttal was precluded.
Until now, that is, with Rand's voice emerging through never-before-published
excerpts from her personal journals.
Passion is divided into two parts: Valliant's defense of Rand or, as some
would phrase it, his attack on the Brandens; and, excerpts from Rand's personal
journals which are narrated by Valliant. Both parts have drawn sharp criticism.
I address the criticisms revolving around Rand's journal excerpts because they
are the most basic ones. Those criticisms call into question the right or propriety
of The Passion to exist.
Some of the voices questioning The Passion's propriety are not hostile.
For example, the renowned Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra voiced an understandable
embarrassment at reading Rand's most private thoughts, which he did not believe
she meant to become public. The crux of this objection: rather than constituting
a defense of Rand, the publication of her private journals is a violation of her
People may keep journals for intimately private reasons. For example, to vent
painful emotions and, so, ease them or to clarify confusion by expressing it.
But people do not preserve and bequeath journals to an executor in order to preserve
privacy. Rand may have intended to destroy the more personal journals and, somehow,
neglected to do so. But this explanation seems implausible. Rand was not careless,
especially regarding her writing or intellectual legacy. She was meticulous; Rand
once claimed that every word of Atlas
Shrugged was le mot juste a result of conscious and careful
selection. She then proceeded to defend the use of 'this' adjective rather than
'that' one in a sentence that had been randomly pointed out to her. Rand also
defended her intellectual legacy with fierce tenacity. Those who organized "Objectivist"
groups were expected to request permission before using that label. Nor could
Rand a best-selling author and nexus of controversy be unaware of
the posthumous interest that would surround her papers, especially ones dealing
with "the affair." If Rand preserved those intimate journal entries and assigned
all rights to her executor (Leonard Peikoff), then it is only reasonable to assume
that she wanted them published or, at least, she wanted that option to be available
at Peikoff's discretion.
The question now becomes: did Rand's estate exercise that option in an appropriate
manner? I believe it did, and my reasons are fourfold.
First: the breadth
and persistence of the rumors ensures that the subject will not disappear.
For over three decades, snicker-inspiring details of "the affair" have circulated
widely and without abatement. Critics of Rand typically turn any conversation
about her philosophy or achievements whether it occurs at a dinner table
or at an academic conference into an analysis of her allegedly "twisted"
psychology. Their demeaning comments are based in large measure on the information
and interpretation provided by the two Branden biographies. Through their eyes,
Rand becomes a pathetic and deluded older woman whose self-declared rationalism
cannot withstand being jilted by a much younger man. She becomes a callous, aging
wife who forces her devoted husband to tolerate an affair that may have driven
him to alcoholism.
In his Introduction to The Passion, Valliant pushes this phenomenon into
the forefront as an explanation of why he believes a defense of Rand and "the
affair" is necessary. He writes, "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." He continues, "The root of this trend can be traced to two
persons: Nathaniel and Barbara Branden."
In response to such personal attacks, Objectivists tend to distance themselves
from Rand "the woman" before discussing Rand "the philosopher."
Or they defensively explain that it is an ad hominem that is, a
logical fallacy to discredit the truth of a person's statements by reference
to that person's behavior. The statements or philosophy are true or false on their
merits. Both responses acknowledge the "truth" of the Branden's accounts,
So far the world has heard only one side of what was essentially a messy divorce
in both the personal and professional sense. But the uncontradicted account of
"the affair" and break up has assumed the stature of fact and the account has
severely damaged Rand's intellectual legacy. To me, the real question regarding
the appropriateness of releasing Rand's voice is "why did it take so long?"
Second: the truth is
important to those who admire Rand, especially to those who have been personally
transformed through her influence.
I am one of them. As such, I would like to understand an important event in my
At 15-years-old, I became an Objectivist through reading We the Living
and, then, everything I could find by Rand. Her impact on my life was profound
and benevolent. At 15-years-old, I needed a role model; I needed an ideal
at whom I could look up and toward whom I could climb. The one-dimensional John
Galt was a poor substitute for the flesh-and-blood woman who had created a philosophy
and movement out of nothing more than her passion for ideas.
I first heard of "the affair" in my early twenties from a second-hand rumor passed
on by a friend. Years before, someone he knew had been asked to house-sit Nathaniel
Branden's house while Branden was out of town. The house-sitter grabbed the opportunity
to go through Branden's personal papers and spread the details across Los Angeles,
eventually, reaching me. At that point, I had already developed significant political
disagreements with Rand; specifically, I was a Rothbardian and an individualist
anarchist. Rand had ceased to be a desperately needed ideal and, so, the impact
on me was dulled.
But I've wondered how the 15-year-old I used to be would have reacted. I think
the news would have been devastating. I also wonder how many other teenagers are
deprived of the chance to use Rand as a role model due to accounts of "the affair."
My point is not that Rand's personal life or character should be whitewashed
for the greater good; truth is the greatest good. But if the facts have been presented
incorrectly or in a manner that renders Rand pathetic, then I want the record
corrected so that other 15-year-olds regain the opportunity to admire Rand both
as a woman and as a philosopher.
the Objectivist movement is historically important; its record should be preserved
and presented accurately in a manner that provides perspective on its development.
The split up between Rand and the Brandens in particular between Rand and
Nathaniel Branden is a pivotal development in the history of the Objectivist
movement. The Nathaniel Branden Institute collapsed and left a void that has not
been filled. Objectivist groups across North America dissolved into bitter schisms.
For example, a friend was banned from a discussion group he had helped to form
because he refused to take Nathaniel Branden's book The
Psychology of Self-Esteem off his shelf. From one day to the next,
his circle of friends became a circle of condemners. Even today, the '80s schism
tends to define the Objectivist movement by splitting it into small "o" and capital
"O" Objectivists, the latter being viewed as Rand purists who revile the Brandens.
It is strange to hear Rand scholars and admirers suggest that her perspective
on such a key movement event might best be left unavailable. I am hard pressed
to think of similarly important material from other diaries or correspondence
that historians would advocate burying.
The reason offered for this suggestion: admirers wish to spare Rand embarrassment.
That reason is commendable but invalid on several grounds. Not to be crude, but
Rand is dead and incapable of being embarrassed. The only impact could be on her
legacy and that has been as badly damaged by the Brandens' books. Strangely, however,
I have not heard people object to how embarrassing it was for Rand to have both
those accounts available.
Moreover, I found her journal entries to be far from embarrassing. In fact, I
was relieved by both their content and their tone. Far from the rantings and ravings
of a scorned lover, I discovered the soul-searching of a confused woman who was
desperate to make sense of a relationship. Rand counsels Branden for months in
an attempt to help him (and one imagines herself) come to grips with what's happening.
Of course, the attempt is futile as Rand is missing the information that would
make sense of it all: Branden's other and ongoing affair.
Having argued that The Passion is an appropriate book, it is time to ask
if it is a well-written one. This brings us back to the first section of the book
in which Valliant presents a full defense of Rand.
The style of Valliant's defense has drawn as much fire as its content. For example,
Valliant has been accused of constant repetition, of giving the benefit of all
doubt to Rand and none to the Brandens, of exaggerating the Brandens' misdeeds
and motives, etc. In his review of The Passion, David M. Brown of Laissez-Faire
Books correctly observes of Valliant, "he's smart enough to know that this is
not all the fault of one party, however much he may have focused his mind on the
task of letting Rand utterly off the hook."
I agree. But such criticism misses the point.
Valliant's book is not a scholarly work that aims to provide a balanced view;
nor does it pretend to be. Valliant's book is not written in a "popular"
manner that seeks to entertain; nor does it pretend to be. The Passion
is best viewed as a legal brief, with all the strengths and weaknesses inherent
in that sort of document.
Valliant, a real-life district attorney, has taken on Rand as a client whom he
defends against the Brandens' accusations. And the best defense is an offense,
with the Brandens becoming "the accused." Like a good attorney, he does not credit
both sides; he does not give the opposition any benefit of the doubt. He advocates
for his client. In saying this, I do not suggest that Valliant has adopted the
attitude of "I stand by Rand, right or wrong." Rather, I believe he decided before
conceiving the book that Rand was overwhelmingly in the right and, then, adopted
a legalistic style of demonstrating his conclusion.
The legalistic presentation involves several stylistic tactics. Again, no benefit
of the doubt or softening of the indictment is offered to the accused. Valliant
is out to get a conviction on all counts from the jury: his readership.
Accordingly, he repeats the charges against the Brandens as every new piece of
important evidence is revealed. More than this, he reviews the arguments to date
in order to integrate each new piece of evidence into the overall argument. He
drives home to the jury the pattern of the Brandens' supposed turpitude, a pattern
he establishes by demonstrating how every alleged lie or deceit relates to every
other one presented. Matters both small and large become threads in the pattern.
For example, Valliant exposes in repetitive detail the minor and not-so-minor
discrepancies that exist between the Branden's two de facto Rand biographies
as well as the discrepancies between Nathaniel Branden's first and revised edition
Personally, I dislike The Passion's legalistic style. I do not enjoy curling
up with a legal brief or a court transcript, and the book reads like one. I also
think Valliant's legalistic approach damaged the credibility of his arguments
as much as it strengthened them in places.
Consider one of the criticisms leveled at Valliant's style: he gives the Brandens
no benefit of the doubt but, instead, consistently ascribes ill motives to their
actions. Thus, the discrepancies between the biographies become evidence of conscious
dishonesty. This approach weakens his argument. All of us know that there are
often natural discrepancies even important ones between two people
who remember an event from their unique perspectives. Perhaps each of the Brandens
does remember events in a self-serving manner; even this would not constitute
dishonesty. Human memory is flawed in the best of circumstances.
But this defense of the Brandens easily becomes an offense. Even if the many discrepancies
between the biographies are not due to dishonesty even if they constitute
tricks of memory, a differing interpretation of events, or simple carelessness
they still call the accuracy of their portrayal of Rand into question.
In short, the discrepancies introduce a reasonable doubt as to whether the biographies
present Rand accurately.
In its place, Valliant attempts to present a far warmer portrait of Rand as a
woman of humor, charm, compassion, and loyalty to friends.
But, again, I stumbled over an aspect of Valliant's approach. It was not the legalistic
style but the framework of Objectivist theories of psychology, with which I am
in significant disagreement. In short, I balked at much of the cognitive analysis
of psychological motives which was offered by The Passion. For example,
Valliant writes in analyzing Nathaniel Branden's underlying motives or psychology,
"'Rationalism,' as Rand used the term, is not to be found in the standard texts
being first identified by Objectivism and it is a relatively rare
phenomenon, most common among intellectuals. Hence, the 'rationalist-repressor'
is a relatively rare species of repressor."
In short, Valliant's attempt to psychoanalyze the Brandens was not convincing
and given how much of the book the attempt absorbed it constitutes
a major flaw.
Nevertheless, The Passion accomplishes one of the psychological goals Valliant
intended. To a significant degree the book restored to me and (I believe) others
a better opinion of "Rand the woman." For one thing, it was important
to me that NBI, a beacon of light in the cultural darkness, had not been shattered
by a pathetic aging woman who had taken a fancy to a younger man. Her actions
are now understandable and no longer inexplicably vicious. Also, as a result of
Valliant's arguments, I no longer accept certain previously assumed facts that
had lowered my opinion of "Rand the woman." For example, I find no reason
to believe Frank O'Connor was an alcoholic a condition to which many people
presumed "the affair" had driven him or made more chronic.
I am pleased to have read The Passion. I intend to re-read it. And I am
grateful to Valliant on several points while disagreeing with him on others.
McElroy [send her mail] is the editor
of ifeminists.com and a research fellow
for The Independent Institute in Oakland,
Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the
new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century
(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).
© 2005 Wendy McElroy