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The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics:The Case Against the Brandens

For 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 (1954–1968) 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 Journals 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.

The 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 privacy.

I disagree.

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, however.

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 life.

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.

Third: 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 his book.

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.

June 22, 2005