Monday, March 21, 2005

Was Ayn Rand evil?

Years ago I was involved in Objectivism, the movement that grew out of the writings of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. In an essay called "Shrugging Off Ayn Rand," I discussed how the philosophy didn't work for me and why I eventually moved on.

Lately, though, I've been looking at Ayn Rand from a different - and even more unflattering - perspective. I just read The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, a nonfiction book that argues that sociopaths of a predominantly nonviolent type are more prevalent than we realize. And, by coincidence (or is it synchronicity?), I happened to look up the out-of-print book Therapist by Ellen Plasil on . Therapist tells the story of an Objectivist psychotherapist, Lonnie Leonard, who was highly regarded by leaders of Rand's movement in the 1970s - but who was secretly mistreating his female patients, abusing them emotionally and sexually. One of the reader comments on the Amazon page was left by Scott Ryan, author of Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality. Ryan remarks:

And the fact that the morally corrupt Leonard was able to pass for so long as "one of them" says something crucially important about the movement's standards and purposes: namely, that it is awfully hard to tell a devout Objectivist from a narcissistic, manipulative sociopath. I wonder why. (Hint: it was hard to tell Rand from one too.)
Acerbic though this comment is, it got me thinking. Was Ayn Rand "a narcissistic, manipulative sociopath" - or at least a borderline case?

Well, consider the portrait of Rand drawn by two biographies - Nathaniel Branden's My Years with Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand - and by Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult. These are, admittedly, hostile sources, but in the absence of any biography by Rand's admirers, they are the only ones we have.

Anyone judging by these books would have to say that Rand was narcissistic in the extreme. She lacked empathy. She could be intensely charming (charm and charisma are common features of sociopathy) but was also prone to outbursts of rage and frustration.

She exploited young, emotionally vulnerable people and frequently sabotaged their self-image with her vindictive cruelty. She claimed to love her husband but carried on an affair with a younger man right in front of him, a situation that drove her husband to alcoholism.

She was a hypochondriac. She showed signs of paranoia. She had an addictive personality, smoked two packs of cigarettes daily, and gobbled handfuls of diet pills (amphetamines).

She despised "average" people, whom she regarded as ugly and stupid and irrational, while viewing herself in exalted terms as the greatest writer in history and the greatest philosopher since Aristotle.

She was concerned with no one's needs or wants or suffering except her own. She was able to claim in print that no one had ever helped her, when in fact she had benefited for years from the charity and goodwill of relatives and business associates and friends. She alienated nearly all her friends and allies by the end of her life, and died nearly alone.

She literally drove people crazy; ex-Objectivist Edith Efron once remarked that if you spent any time with Rand, you had to ask yourself if you were insane, or if she was (quoted in Walker). She was a megalomaniac. She was probably manic-depressive. She created heroic fictional characters who are deeply repressed, incapable of normal human interaction, and typically angry or disgusted with the world.

This is hardly a person who should be seen as the epitome of rationality and benevolence - yet this is how her followers do see her. In my Objectivist years I once hesitantly suggested to a fellow Objectivist that there might be a few character flaws to be found in Rand, only to be met with a blank stare and the appalled question, "Character flaws - in Ayn Rand?!" In Objectivist dogma it is always other people who were at fault in their dealings with "Miss Rand" (as they like to call her). Somehow it was always those irrational others who abused, deceived, and hurt Ayn Rand, and her rages and bitterness were entirely justified, entirely rational. How could they not be? Rand was the personification of reason, so by definition whatever she thought, felt, or did just had to be rational - Q.E.D.

When I look at the portrait of Ayn Rand drawn by a variety of people who knew her best, I see a person who is certainly larger and more theatrical than the run-of-the-mill sociopaths in Martha Stout's book, different from them in degree - but not very different in kind.

And I wonder how a movement founded by a woman with such serious disorders could ever have been seen as a way to personal happiness or to a better world.


Anonymous DH said...

Evil is a toughie. But she was certainly a cult leader. Even if she didn't know it. Sociopath? I don't know. Narcissist? I think so. The documentary "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" presents a more rounded view of her. Though I found "The Passion of Ayn Rand" to be a fairly unemotional bio which is a major compliment to the author who had a reasonable axe to grind.

Reading the trades recently I saw that "Atlas Shrugged" is being considered again for a film. The thought of "today's" Hollywood making this film is unbearable. The qualities I admire in Rand are anathama to Hollwood today. How will an industry so hostile towards capitalism and enamored with Communism and unions ever be faithful to "AS?" I shiver at the prospect.

If there is any quality in Rand worthy of admiration it was her refusal to compromise on the evil of Communism -- which, incidentally, killed more people (and probably more Jews) then Hitler ever could. The thought of Hollywood "Moral Relativizing" the evil of Communism (yet again) is one thing. To do it to "AS" is nauseating.

And of course they will do it. They're talking about a "Lord of the Rings" type trilogy. That's not "Passion of the Christ" money. That's industry money. And the industry loathes everything she stood for.

I'd rather they just didn't.

March 25, 2005 12:57 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

I would predict that there is zero chance of a movie version of Atlas Shrugged, at least as long as Leonard Peikoff, Rand's heir, is in charge of the estate. Many years ago I was briefly involved in an attempt to make a movie out of an Ayn Rand book, and I found Peikoff to be the most unpredictable, obstructionist, irrational person I ever dealt with in the movie business (and that's saying a lot). My opinion is that he will pull the plug on any movie production early in the development phase. Like most Objectivists, he is more concerned with avoiding failure (which is seen as a moral stigma) than with daring to achieve success. At least that's my take on it. But then I admit to a certain bias ... ; )

Atlas Shrugged would not, in my opinion, have the box office potential of LOTR. It's a dated novel involving the railroad industry (now all but defunct) with ultramodern technology called "Project X." Most of it would be dialogue of a philosophical (or pseudophilosophical) nature. I don't see it being a commercial hit. People have been trying to film it for years, without results.

I agree about the evil of Communism, and Lenin and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot were every bit as evil as Hitler. But Rand was not the only person to oppose Communism.

And yes, it is tough to call another person "evil." I am very reluctant to make such a claim with regard to any non-murderer or non-dictator. But I do think Rand has been unreasonably glorified by her acolytes and whitewashed by others. (See Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand cult for numerous examples.) The Rand documentary you mentioned seemed like a whitewash to me. Barbara Branden's book came across as evenhanded, but many other people who knew Rand personally call it a whitewash.

One thing is certain: She was always controversial and will remain so!

March 25, 2005 7:46 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

That's interesting you were involved in the AS movie project. It sounded like this producer owned the rights but there may be strings attached to Rand's people that I don't doubt would be difficult to deal with. The good news is that it might force Hollywood to honor her philospohy. I agree it's dated and would be a hard sell. I always liked the mini-series idea. That would be a perfect format and it could be updated. (Though the "Rat Patrol" guy's probably too old now).

And I know Rand wasn't the only one exposing the evil's of communism, but that position hurt her in the "intellectual" circles one needs to impress to get published. At least Branden's book indicated that. It's not easy taking an unqualified stand on the evil of Communism then or now. Especially among the "arty types."I dabble in Hollywood and can assure you I wouldn't dare say I voted for Bush or considered communism evil. I wouldn't expect to be black balled just in an irrationally angry conversation.

I was at a producers house election night. I won't name him but he got a personally signed Christmas card from Spielberg and you've seen his movies. He's the nicest guy I've met here. He was having a "Bush is Done" party mixed with work, which is why I was there. It was fly by night, based on those now-infamous exit polls and he didn't know my poltics. As Florida and Ohio rolled in, this great guy, whom I still like, turned into a raging, red-face, throwing stuff, wall punching lunatic. And that's how most do their politics out here.

Personally I think the rage comes from being so wrong so often about everything. But that's the snark in me.

When you say "Branden's book was considered a whitewash." Do you mean too-nice? Too forgiving? Just curious because if Rand was worse than she came across in those pages -- whoo.

March 26, 2005 1:20 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Just to clarify: I wasn't involved in an Atlas Shrugged movie project. The project involved another one of Rand's novels. This was back around 1984 - a long time ago.

It's true that taking a stand against Communism made Rand an outcast among intellectuals - although the fact that she referred openly to most of her fellow intellectuals as witch doctors and subhumans probably didn't help!

The "whitewash" comment is found in Jeff Walker's book The Ayn Rand Cult. Walker gathered together every unflattering thing ever said about Rand to produce a one-sided but eye-opening account. "Whitewash" may be too strong a term, but I do think Barbara Branden bent over backward to be kind to Rand and to excuse some of her faults on the grounds of "genius." (It is an article of faith among Objectivists that Rand was the greatest genius in at least the last 1,000 years.)

One excellent critique of the Rand movement is "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult," by Murray Rothbard, which can be read online at . Rothbard makes it clear that the movement was really based on the glorification of Ayn Rand as "the greatest human being who ever lived."

March 26, 2005 9:48 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

I owe you an apology. The opening and poorly constructed paragraph from my last comment made it sound like I was questioning your involvement in bringing a Rand novel to the screen.

When I wrote, "That's interesting you were involved in the AS movie project." I really meant it and considering your accomplishments as an author didn't give it another thought.

I should've then started a new paragraph when I mentioned the producer owning the rights because that was in response to your concern about the estate meddling, not skepticism at your involvement in such a thing.

Public schools.

I wonder if Branden might've bent over backward as well to give her bio a seriousness as opposed to a "Mommie Dearest" revenge-a-thon taint? Did you know her? I thought her bio was exceptional and I read a lot of bios. I'm just wondering what happened to her. If she found happiness. The bio is about 15 years old I think.

Rothbard's piece is fascinating. A moral obligation to smoke? Good grief. You'd think if one doesn't believe in a God they'd want to live as long as possible. Now, that's logical.

March 27, 2005 12:04 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

No apology needed. I took no offense. I just wanted to be clear that Atlas was not the project in question.

I never met Barbara Branden (or Nathaniel, either - or Ayn Rand). I did meet Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, Michael Berliner, and some of the other people who were well known in the movement. I myself was not any sort of major player in Objectivism.

I think Barbara Branden resists the idea that Objectivism is or ever was a cult, and that Ayn Rand was a bad person. Perhaps she doesn't want to alienate her audience; most people who buy a bio of Ayn Rand are not going to want to be called cultists. Or perhaps she doesn't want to come to terms with her own activities in the movement. People who knew her back then have said that she downplayed her own role in some of the more unsavory developments, such as the "trials" of dissident Objectivists that were held in Rand's apartment.

On the other hand, it may just be that Barbara still sincerely believes in most of the principles espoused by Rand, and sincerely believes that Rand was a great genius and a great benefactor of humanity. If so, it's not surprising she would cut Rand some slack.

March 27, 2005 1:31 PM  

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