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A review of James S. Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: The Case Against the Brandens

by Cass Hewitt

[Article Recovered from Hacked Autonomist]

Who would have thought that within the seemingly sedate and cerebral world of philosophy would be found a history to rival any Hollywood drama for intrigue, passion, seduction, lies, betrayal, black evil, and the ultimate triumph of the good—and which is also a fascinating detective story.

Among those who rose to heights of fame in the last half of the twentieth century none was as charismatic as the author-philosopher Ayn Rand. Her electrifying, radical novels depicting her fully integrated philosophy, which she named Objectivism, broke on popular consciousness like a storm and caught the enthusiasm of a generation seeking truth and values in the aridity of postmodernism. She was a sought after speaker, her public lectures filled to standing room only. She was interviewed on Prime Time television and for high circulation magazines. She taught a philosophy of individualism in the face of rising collectivism; an ethic of adherence to reality and honesty; of objective truth against the subjectivist antirealism of the Counter Enlightenment philosophies and presented the world with a blue-print for day to day living.

On the coat tails of her fame were two young students who sought her out, convinced her their passion for her ideas was genuine and became associated with her professionally, intellectually, and ultimately personally. They were Nathaniel Branden, now a noted "self-esteem" psychology guru, and his then wife, Barbara Branden. Not only did Branden, 25 years Rand's junior, become her favored student, he was so professionally close to her that he gave Objectivist lectures with her, edited and wrote for the Objectivist Newsletter, and formed a teaching venue, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, to teach details of her philosophy to the army of readers of her novels hungry for more. Rand dedicated her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged to him (along with her husband), and named Branden her intellectual heir.

Then suddenly, in 1968, Rand issued a statement which repudiated both the Brandens, totally divorcing them from herself and her philosophy. In "To whom it may Concern," [The Objectivist, May 1968] Rand gave her explanation for the break detailing Brandens departure from practice of the philosophy.

However, in 1989, 7 years after Rand's death, Nathaniel Branden published his book Judgment Day, a supposedly detailed biography of his famous philosopher-mentor. In it he painted a picture of a woman very different from that recognized by her army of admirers—a dark, "repressed", angry woman who tortured and pilloried anyone who remotely disagreed with her, with no patience for any views not exactly her own, with an almost pathological arrogance and dictatorial tyranny.

Barbara Branden had published her own "warts and all" version of her reminiscences earlier, in 1986. The Passion of Ayn Rand (later made into a movie) presented a similar picture of Rand. Both categorically stated that the reason for the break between Rand and the Brandens was because Nathaniel and Rand had been involved in an extra-marital sexual relationship while still married for a period of 14 years and that Nathaniel's refusal to continue the affair had reduced a tyrannical Rand to hysterics.

Rand is presented as a seriously psychologically disturbed individual whose very philosophy was not only flawed but dangerous. Both books and their authors have become accepted as the last and most reliable "word" on Ayn Rand, and most works describing Rand today mainly trace back to these two as sources.

However, in 2002 a prosecuting lawyer, James Valliant, published on the Internet the results of his examination of these two books. Studied with the critical eye of a dispassionate investigative mind he saw serious errors: major contradictions both within each book and between both. Apparent to him was that a major act of deliberate deception had been perpetrated by these two well known, highly respected adherents of Rand's philosophy.

For a considerable time before the final split the Brandens had been drifting away from the practice of Rands philosophy. However their behaviour was in even worse than this. They lied to her about themselves, the state of their marriage, their multiple sexual affairs, and Nathaniel Branden's secret four year love affair with another woman while he was supposedly carrying on a sexual liaison with Rand herself . Worst of all, was the reason for the deception. The lies enabled them to use her name to promote their own early publications and the considerable income they were deriving from the "spin-offs". Nathaniel Branden admits that he frequently "paced the floor" trying to work out how not to wreck the "life he had built up for himself" as Objectivism's authorized representative. At his wife's urging that he admit his secret affair to Rand he responded—not until after she writes the forward for my book.'

As the author states, "the persistent dishonesty of the Brandens about their own part in Rand?s life makes it impossible to rely on them as historians of events for which they are the only witnesses." He amply demonstrates, taking their own words from their critiques of Rand, to substantiate his conclusion that "they will recollect, suppress, revise, exaggerate and omit whenever convenient" [where] necessary they will pull out of their magical hats a very 'private' conversation that one of them 'once' had with Rand to prove what all the rest of the evidence denies."

Their criticisms of Rand are personal and "psychological,"—perfect examples of the psychologizing Rand denounced—attempting to demonstrate that Rand did not live up to her own philosophy. Barbara Branden makes total about face contradictions within a few pages; draws conclusions from nearly non-existent evidence such as a single old family photo and uses such alien to Objectivism concepts as "feminine instincts" and "subjective preferences" without the bother of defining these terms.

In her The Passion of Ayn Rand, Ms. Branden draws personal psychological conclusions without any evidence. Examples such as "Her Father's seeming indifference ..{had} ..to be a source of anguish.. as an adult, she always spoke as if [they] were simple facts of reality, of no emotional significance.. one can only conclude that a process of self-protective emotional repression [was deep rooted]" and further "In all my conversations with Ayn Rand about her years in Russia she never once mentioned to me [any] encounter ..with anti-Semitism. It is all but impossible that there were not such encounters.. One can only assume that ... the pain was blocked from her memory — perhaps because the memory would have carried with it an unacceptable feeling of humiliation" Assumptions, which Valliant says, prove nothing.

It is interesting to note that Ms. Branden was an ardent supporter of Rand until immediately after the break, when such wild accusations and psychologizing rationalizations cut from whole cloth began. Indeed, Ms. Branden can be read at public Internet forums doing the very same thing to this day.

Nathaniel Branden's writings were even more revealing of the true nature of the man. His own words not only carry the same blatant unreal contradictions as Ms. Branden's but he also reveals a twisted mentality capable of totally unethical acts which he then tries to portray as his victim?s faults. For example, he accuses Rand of being authoritarian and ?causing us to repress our true selves? and offers as evidence his own lying sycophancy, agreeing with Rand on issues he was later to claim he had always disagreed; praising Rand's insight in topics such as psychology in which field, he says, she had little experience. Considering that it was Rand's endorsement of him he was seeking, his behavior constitutes, as Valliant says, "spiritual embezzlement."

The complete lack of value in anything either of the Branden?s have to say about Ayn Rand is summed up with pithy succinctness by the author: "We have seen [they] will distort and exaggerate the evidence, and that they have repeatedly suppressed vital evidence and [employ] creativity in recollecting it. Both exhibit internal confusions and numerous self contradictions. The only consistencies are the passionate biases that emanate from their personal experiences. These factors all combine to render their biographical efforts useless to the serious historian."

James Valliant has done more than demonstrate the complete invalidity—including a vicious character assassination—of both the Brandens books. Using the clear logic and language of an experienced prosecuting lawyer, with only essential editing, he has presented and interpreted Rand's own private notes, made while she was acting as psychological counselor for Nathaniel Branden. These show her mind in action as she analyses the language of, and finally understands the bitter truth about, the man she had once loved.

Mr. Valliant not only demonstrates this is a tragic story of assault on innocence by a viciously duplicitous person, it is also an amazing detective story, and the detective is none other than Ayn Rand herself.

Over the four years of emotionally painful counseling Rand gave Branden for his supposed sexual dysfunction, we see a brilliant mind carefully dissecting the truths she unearthed. By applying her own philosophy to Branden's methods of thinking although still unaware of the worst of his deceptions, we see Rand slowly reaching her horrifying conclusion.

The picture of Rand which shines out through her notes is of a woman of amazing depths of compassion; who would not judge or condemn if she could not understand why a person thought and felt as they did; who would give all her time and energy to try to understand and help someone she believed was suffering and in need of guidance.

The facts indicate the sexual affair was apparently over 4 years before the final public split, though Mr. Valiant is careful to say he is only certain it had ended by the start of 1968 and that it was Rand, not Branden, who ended the relationship because she had finally understood his subjectivism, deceits (including financial misappropriation) and mental distortions.

From the flaws in their own works and from Rand's concurrent notes of the time it is clearly apparent that in her 1968 statement of repudiation, Rand told the truth about events and the Brandens lied. Throughout all of her years with them, Rand behaved with the integrity followers of her work would have expected. And, to quote Mr. Valliant, "The Brandens were dishonest with Rand about nearly everything a person can be" largely to maintain the good thing they had going at NBI. This dishonesty lasted for years. ..[They] not only lied to Rand, they lied to their readers .. [and] then they lied about their lies. Ever since they have continued to lie in memoirs and biographies about their lies, calling Rand's 1968 statement "libelous". This remarkable all-encompassing dishonesty is manifest from these biographies and all the more apparent now we have Rand's journal entries from the same period.

Her generous nature was unable to conceive the full truth about Nathaniel Branden. It is left to Valliant to finish the story, taking it to its full and final dreadful conclusion, showing exactly what it was Nathaniel Branden had deliberately done to this innocent, brilliant, compassionate woman, and what both the Brandens, whom Rand rejected as having any association at all with her philosophy, are still doing to this day—and why.

In the end, those who have used the Branden's lies to claim the philosophy of Objectivism "doesn't work, because it's author couldn't follow the precepts," are shown to be completely wrong. Rand used her philosophy and psycho-epistemology to discover the truth; her philosophy to guide her actions in dealing with it and finally to lift her above the heartbreak and pain it caused her.

There is something almost operatic in the telling: A great woman, a great mind, who conceived of a philosophy of love for and exalted worship of the best in the human mind, who defended with searing anger the right of all people to be free to discover happiness, being deceived by the one person she believed to be her equal, her lover and heir, who had lied to and manipulated her for his own gains while she was alive and vilified her name and distorted with calumny the image of her personality after her death.

Perhaps in nothing else is her greatness better shown, than that she was able to rise above the cataclysm and live and laugh again. She always said, "Evil is a negative.. It can do nothing unless we let it." In her life she lived that and proved it true.

Although, in summary, James Valliant has written a passionate and honest work bringing to the attention of the wider world the behaviour of the Brandens and the truth of Rands own character, there are some flaws in the presentation. The worst stem largely from the fact that Rand needs no one to interprete her work. The result has been unfortunate, giving rise to further pointless disputation over the accuracy of his interpretations.

It's hard to understand why the Estate of Ayn Rand has not simply reproduced and bound and made available to anyone the notes and extemporaneous writings of Rand, as is usual with all great writers. Why, one wonders, did they think she needed a California lawyer to tell everyone what she thought. It is not an action one can believe she would have wanted; always urging her readers and followers to "don't take my words, think for yourself," one cannot help but feel she would have preferred her works to have been treated with this courtesy, this adherence to her own premises. I'd rather read what she said and come to my own conclusions. I neither need nor want someone elses.