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The Passion of Ayn Rand: A Biographyby Barbara Branden
The life of Ayn Rand was the material of fiction. But if one attempted to write it as a novel, the result would be preposterously unbelievable. Everything about her life and her person was of an epic scale. Her seventy-seven years encompassed the outer limits of triumph and defeat, of exaltation and tragedy, of passionate love and intransigent hatred, of dedicated effort and despairing passivity. Her person encompassed the grandeur of the heroes of her novels, their iron determination, their vast powers of intellect and imagination, their impassioned pursuit of their goals, their worship of achievement, their courage, their pride, and their love of life--as well as the terrors, the self-doubts, the lack of emotional balance, the private agonies that are so alien to an Ayn Rand hero. Her virtues were larger than life--and so were her shortcomings.
Few figures in this century have been so admired and so savagely attacked. She is viewed as goddess and as malefactor, as a seminal genius and an ominously dangerous corrupter of the young, as the mightiest of voices for reason and the destroyer of traditional values, as the espouser of joy and the exponent of mindless greed, as the great defender of freedom and the introducer of malevolent values into the mainstream of American thought. It is all but impossible to find a neutral voice among the millions who have read her works; each reader takes an unequivocal stand for or against that which she represents. When her name is mentioned in any gathering, it is met with explosions of grateful, loving admiration or enraged disapproval. In the course of conducting more than two hundred interviews with people whose lives were touched by her or by her work, I have yet to encounter a single person who spoke of her with indifference.
Yet despite the furor her ideas have generated--despite the fact that they fill the pages of thirteen books, which, as of this writing, have sold more than twenty million copies--despite the fact that her philosophy has had a powerful and still-accelerating influence on the culture in which we live--little is known about the human being who was Ayn Rand. Still less is known about the woman who was Ayn Rand. Her public and professional activities took place on a lighted stage; her private life was lived backstage, curtained from view.
I first met Ayn Rand in 1950. At the age of forty-five, she had already achieved a singular renown as the author of The Fountainhead, and was writing her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged--the work that was to skyrocket her to international fame and place her in the center of a hurricane of controversy. I was attending UCLA with my friend and later my husband, Nathaniel Branden. I was majoring in philosophy, he in psychology. We had both read The Fountainhead--and then We the Living and Anthem, Ayn Rand's two earlier novels--and we deeply admired and were influenced by her work. Learning that she was living in Southern California, Nathaniel wrote her a letter, asking philosophical questions about The Fountainhead and We the Living. Impressed with his questions, she arranged to meet with him; a week later, I joined them for a second meeting.
It was the beginning of an intimate friendship with Ayn and her husband, Frank O'Connor, lasting across nineteen years, during which we met with Ayn or spoke with her by telephone almost every day; for a number of years, we lived in the same New York apartment building. I was engaged in the passions and pains of Ayn's life, first as her student and later as teacher of her philosophy. We became privy to each other's personal and professional lives, to each other's joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats. It was the beginning of the endless captivation of observing at close hand the unfolding of a great and growing literary and philosophical talent, of a mind of towering intellectual power, of a tormented, passionate, searching spirit. It was the beginning of years filled with wonder, with excitement, with exaltation--and with suffering and tragedy and heartbreak.
I shall not forget my first sight of Ayn Rand. When the door to her home opened that spring evening in 1950, I found myself facing the most astonishing human being I had ever encountered. It was the eyes. The eyes were dark, too large for the face, fringed with dark lashes, alive with an intensity of intelligence I had never imagined human eyes could hold. They seemed the eyes of a human being who was composed of the power of sight.
As the years passed, I was to observe all the many changes of expression of those incredible eyes. I saw them ferocious with concentration on a new idea or question that had not occurred to her before, on a difficult passage in Atlas Shrugged, with a single-minded intensity that seemed as if it might set fire to the person or page she was addressing. I saw them cold, so icily, inhumanly cold that they froze one's heart and mind. I saw them radiant with the uninhibited delight of a child--I saw them menacing with anger at any hint of what she considered the irrational in human action--I saw them helpless and womanly when she gazed at her husband--I saw them bitter, resentful, and full of pain--I saw them glow with the special, earnest charm that was uniquely hers, and that no one who met her was immune to--I saw them pulled tight with loathing, wild with uncontrollable rage--I saw them kind, touchingly kind, tender with the desire to help and to protect--I saw the merciless, accusing eyes of the moralist, judging, condemning, unforgiving, the power of her reason becoming a whip to scourge the heretic--I saw them shyly solemn like a young girl when a boy, my husband, took her hand. But I never saw those eyes without the light of a vast, consuming intelligence, the light of a ruthless intellect that was at once cold and passionate; this was the core of her life, the motor of her soul.
There was something I never saw in Ayn Rand's eyes. They never held an inward look--a look of turning inside to learn one's own spirit and consciousness. They gazed only and always outward. It was many years before I was to understand the absence of that inward look, and what it revealed. It was to require all the knowledge of all the years to understand it.
To this day, when I think of Ayn Rand, I see her eyes. They haunted me through nineteen years. Perhaps they haunt me still.
Nathaniel and I were twenty-five years younger than Ayn. But it was not unusual for her, then or later, to seek friends among men and women considerably younger than herself. It was in young people that she found the eager, actively questioning minds that she deeply cherished, minds like her own, which constantly sought new perspectives, new ideas, new ways of dealing with the world. Her contemporaries, she said, were too often closed to ideas they had not heard before, they did not care to be shaken from whatever uneasy mix of concepts had come to form their philosophy of life. And young people, still in the process of being formed and of selecting the values and concepts that would guide their lives, offered her something more, which she did not name and probably did not recognize. Ayn Rand was a woman with a powerful need for control--control of her own life, of her own destiny, and of the belief system of those she chose as her friends. The passionate admiration she elicited from the young, their vulnerability and need for intellectual guidance, made possible an intellectual and moral dominance less likely to occur with accomplished men and women of her own age.
As I look back on my friendship with Ayn Rand, it seems almost as if the whole of that period were my preparation for the writing of this biography. From the beginning of our relationship, I was fascinated by her personality; my fascination led me to study her, to struggle to understand her character and motivation, in precisely the form in which a biographer studies and struggles to understand his or her subject. The years of my association with Ayn Rand, the years of her work on Atlas Shrugged and of the dramatic consequences of its publication, were filled for her with titanic effort, with explosive conflict, with the growth of her moral and philosophical influence which can today be found in the highest reaches of academia, in the halls of government, in the conference rooms of giant corporations, in popular television series, and in quiet living rooms all over the world. They were the years in which her personal life was filled with a similarly explosive conflict, a conflict which led, ultimately, to haunting and destructive tragedy.
In the early sixties, I was given an opportunity to learn still more about her, to examine and study her life with a depth and scope that few biographers are fortunate enough to attain.
Not long after the publication of Atlas ShruggedWho Is Ayn Rand? It consisted of four essays; in three of them, Nathaniel analyzed the moral theories presented in Atlas Shrugged, the view of human psychology it embodied, and Ayn's literary method; my own contribution was a short biographical sketch of Ayn. Who Is Ayn Rand? was published by Random House in I962.
In preparation for the biographical sketch, Ayn agreed that I might interview her and tape our conversations. We met nineteen times, on each occasion for a minimum of two hours, while she spoke of her past life--her childhood and early womanhood in Russia, the nightmare of the Communist revolution and its consequences, her early years in America, her passionate professional struggle to succeed in a new world and with a new language, her meeting with Frank O'Connor and their courtship and marriage, her friends, her loves, her enemies, her disappointments, and her successes. She spoke not only of the events of her life, but also of the personal meaning of those events, how she felt and judged and what she learned and failed to learn from the days of her life. And when I had turned off the tape recorder and our formal interview was at an end, we often spent many hours in informal, less structured conversations about the material on the tapes. Had she had in mind only the sketch which I wrote for Who Is Ayn Rand?, the interviews would have been much fewer in number and shorter in length. But, as Ayn made clear on one or two of the tapes, she thought that I might one day wish to write a full biography, and she spoke with a view to that possibility.
It was an intriguing and exciting experience--particularly so because Ayn rarely reminisced; she was always more interested in the future than in the past. And still more rarely, if she did speak of past events, would she speak of her emotional reaction to those events. Most especially, she did not speak of her years in Russia. In all my interviews with those who had known her, some intimately, I found not a single person with whom she had spoken at any length about the days of her childhood and young womanhood in Russia. Her memories of that period were associated in her mind with an excruciating and, to her, a humiliating pain; for Ayn Rand, pain was humiliation, it was not something to be discussed in casual conversation; the meaning of a human life was the joy one achieved, and suffering was only an irrelevant accident. There was a second, equally important cause of her silence about her early years: her commitment to the idea that human beings are in no sense inevitably the creatures of their environments; we do not have to be influenced or formed by the people and events around us, she believed; we are free to make choices, to evaluate, to come to our own conclusions. "Man," she wrote, "is a being of self-made soul." It would have seemed to her pointless to talk about her childhood with the implication that its events had something to do with the woman she became; parents, friends, the experiences of youth, all were irrelevant to the being whose spirit and values she had molded.
After 1968, when our relationship ended, I saw Ayn only once more before her death. But a number of close friends of mine remained her intimate friends, and, along with more casual acquaintances of Ayn, they were of invaluable assistance in filling in the gaps in my knowledge of those years, in giving me the sense that I was present even then, that I was continuing to observe the unfolding of her life as I had observed it for so long.
Over the years, many people have suggested that it was time for me to write Ayn Rand's biography. But I had come to believe that I would never do so, that I could not again immerse myself in those days of wonder and pain and again struggle to emerge from them whole. For some time after the ending of our relationship, I doubted that I had achieved the necessary objectivity to write about a woman and a life that had so powerfully affected and altered my own life.
But by 1981, I knew that I had made my peace with Ayn Rand and our years together. The pain had lost its keenness; the wonder had endured. And I was left with the awareness that a life and a work as remarkable as hers should be committed to paper, that whatever understanding of her I had gained should not end with me. Her story should be told; it, and the woman who lived it, was unique and important.
The writing of Ayn Rand's biography has been a matchless experience; it has been a four-year-long journey into the life and spirit of one of the most remarkable and complex individuals of our time. And because she affected me so deeply, because, for so long, my life was tied to hers, it has been, as well, a journey in self-discovery. Both journeys have enriched my life. For this, as for so many other things, I am grateful to Ayn Rand.
Those who worship Ayn Rand and those who damn her do her the same disservice: they make her unreal and they deny her humanity. I hope to show in her story that she was something infinitely more fascinating and infinitely more valuable than either goddess or sinner. She was a human being. She lived, she loved, she fought her battles, and she knew triumph and defeat. The scale was epic; the principle is inherent in human existence.
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