Below is Roy A. Childs, Jr.'s review of The Passion of Ayn Randfor Laissez Faire Books.
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I won't keep you in suspense: It's superb! The Passion of Ayn Rand is at once intimate and objective, revealing and respectful, critical and adulatory. When I read the manuscript for the first time, I phoned Barbara Branden and told her that she had created one of the great fictional characters of our time. "But it's all true!" she insisted. Branden has interviewed more than two hundred people, including Ayn's sister Nora, an aunt she stayed with in Chicago, cousins, members of her husband's family, associates from her days in Hollywood, early conservative and libertarian friends, and many, many more besides.
The result is a stunning biography, rich in revelations that will add substance to a hidden life, and depth to an enigmatic genius who strode across the world's stage and had an explosive impact on our time. This is a book Barbara Branden was born to write.
Those who have awaited a negative book won't find it here, for The Passion of Ayn Rand is the most sympathetic and laudatory work on Ayn Rand that we will see. Yes, Ayn Rand's failings are here, but are discussed almost sympathetically, placed in the context of her dramatic and tumultuous life. Indeed, as Barbara Branden writes:
"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 than either goddess or sinner. She was a human being. She lived, she loved she fought her battles and knew triumph and defeat. The scale was epic; the principle is inherent in human existence."
Ayn Rand's life certainly was the stuff of fiction. Consider her saga: She was born in Czarist Russia, lived through the Bolshevik revolution, and vowed to go to America. Barely two years after graduating from university, she did so. In 1926 she arrived in New York City alone, with about $50 in her pocket. She spent some months with relatives in Chicago, and then made her way across the continent to Hollywood, where she worked at odd jobs stuffing envelopes, waitressing in a diner, and running a studio wardrobe department until she could make a financial success of her writing. That didn't happen until she sold The Fountainhead after it had been rejected by a dozen publishers. With that novel, and later, Atlas Shrugged, she became both wealthy and world-famous. Ayn Rand set out to achieve what she wanted in life, and did it. It was one hell of a life.
What we knew before about Rand's early life was sketchy. Now those early years are filled in with nearly eighty pages of absorbing detail. Barbara uses a very interesting literary touch here: the protagonist is not Ayn Rand, with all that name has come to symbolize, but rather a young girl, Alice Rosenbaum, growing up in Russia.
We become acquainted with her parents and sisters, her teachers and peers, see the events she witnessed as a child, and learn how she dealt with them. We follow the fortunes of her family, a prosperous Jewish family that endured Czarist rule, the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution and the tyranny of Communism. In The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara asks the probing questions we all want to see answered, questions about how Alice Rosenbaum evolved as a human being something Rand had denied ever happened.
Once we travel with young Alice to America, we reach more familiar ground. But here too are many, many things that came as a complete surprise to me. I don't want to spoil your pleasure by telling you what they are. Read the book.
Once the book reaches the 1950s, Barbara has to deal with what must be seen objectively as her biggest challenge: how to write about the affair that Ayn had with Barbara's then-husband, Nathaniel Branden. It is handled as well as can be imagined. The story is told with such painful honesty, such integrity and magnanimity that a lesser person would have utterly failed in the challenge. This is neither a whitewash nor an apology. This is the way it happened, with such a devastating effect on everyone involved (particularly Ayn's husband, Frank O'Connor), and such an explosive climax years later that to this day some people close to the events do not fully understand what happened. The 1968 split between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden left many lives deeply scarred. This is the full story of what happened, told for the first time. It is an agonizing tale, but a necessary one.
Ayn Rand had an enormous influence more than most of her admirers know. She had a particularly powerful impact on the contemporary libertarian movement, and I once wrote that trying to sort out that impact is rather like trying to sort out how Christianity transformed Western civilization. It is that complex.
It isn't really just a matter of her ideas, which were always brilliantly expressed; she affected libertarians through her style and approach not just in her fiction, but also through her life. We borrow her terminology, her vocabulary, her approach to issues, the perspective that we learned from those powerful novels. When we have insights, often they are guided by something that she said. And when we make mistakes, well, sometimes she is there as well. Some of us have learned intolerance from her, or moralizing, or worse.
Why are we so fascinated by her life? In part, because she was so enigmatic. Up until now, we have only known those things about her life that she wanted us to know, plus a few stories and rumors. Then there was the dramatic public persona, echoed in the afterword to Atlas Shrugged:
"My personal life is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: 'And I mean it.' I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters. The concretes differ, the abstractions are the same."
Ayn Rand was predominately a moralist; given the power of Atlas Shrugged, and the virtual perfection of her heroes, that is an astonishing claim, one that Ayn Rand never modified over the years that were to come.
And that is an appropriate remark upon which to hang this review, because that is an appropriate standard by which to judge Ayn Rand's life. Did she live according to her philosophy? If you expect me now to utter a charge of "hypocrisy," guess again. For the most part, I think that she did. And was her life a happy one? For the most part no. One of the questions I asked while reading The Passion of Ayn Rand was: to what extent were aspects of her philosophy responsible for her suffering? Was her philosophy wrong?
Some charge that she was hurt by the irrationality of others. But the facts point to a greater complexity. If you read Barbara Branden's book carefully, you will see what I mean. It will show you, for example, how often she managed to make the lives of those around her miserable, and how she ended her life with barely a friend in the world, because she had thrown nearly everyone out. You'll witness the sad decay of her marriage to Frank O'Connor. And you'll understand why her professional triumphs often left her cold, bitter and depressed. At the end of her life, she was indifferent to the achievements of her one-time associates, to the public acclaim awaiting her, to any sign that she had had an enormous impact, and she was contemptuous of her own followers.
Yes, she wrote about a "benevolent sense of life," but she was a tremendously bitter woman. She wrote about individualism and independence, yet she demanded conformity. In the end, if an associate had so much as an aesthetic response that she deemed "inappropriate," it could be taken as a sign of moral treason, and was reason enough to provoke an angry tirade, or even another break.
No, I don't mean to drag Ayn Rand through the mud. Neither does Barbara Branden. Nor do I want to expose "feet of clay." That would be cynical exploitation. But with all its rich details, The Passion of Ayn Rand should be the occasion to ask those questions that have bothered so many of us for so long.
I have for the most part refrained from giving away the details of this remarkable book because I want each of you to be able to read it as I did: with a great deal of curiosity, with questions, and with a freshness free from preconception. I would like you to come to this book with an open mind.
An open mind? About Ayn Rand? Yes and for many reasons. For one thing, her explosive temperament and personal foibles have led many readers to abandon her ideas even when those ideas are brilliant. Secondly, I think that Rand made some serious errors in developing her ideas, and that these led her to pain and to tragedy; she used them to rationalize away her own cruelty to others. The Passion of Ayn Rand can be useful in separating the moral wheat from the moralistic chaff. Rand's life can be seen as an experiment in applying her ideas to an actual life her own. But there is more here than that. Her life was a large one. and she did stride across the world's stage. Today, she is indeed damned and dismissed by some and worshipped by others. To give Ayn Rand back her humanity, which is what Barbara Branden has done, allows us to reevaluate and reassess her views without the "myth" of Ayn Rand getting in the way.
Whatever your views, read this book. Ayn Rand had a tremendous influence in helping to revive the ideals of reason, individualism, and the free society. She offended many people, who then felt entitled to dismiss her ideas. With The Passion of Ayn Rand, a door has been shut on one aspect of Objectivism and the life and achievements of Ayn Rand. Now is a chance for us to be free of the myths and to face reality. It is also our chance to reconsider the philosophy of Ayn Rand, to contemplate both its virtues and flaws, free at last from the spell that this remarkable woman held over so many. Her achievements remain towering, and her positive legacy remains unsurpassed.
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The Passion of Ayn Rand is available for purchase online from Amazon.com, as well as from your local bookstore.
You may also return to the introduction to The Passion of Ayn Rand or read what other critics had to say.