Full Context Interview

The following interview was conducted by Karen Reedstrom and appeared in the October 1992 issue of Full Context.

1992 Interview with Full Context

Barbara Branden was a close friend of Ayn Rand for nineteen years. She was co-author, with her then-husband Nathaniel Branden, of Who Is Ayn Rand? As business manager and lecturer of the Nathaniel Branden Institute she was a major figure in spreading Objectivism in the 1960s. In 1968 the Institute was dissolved when Ayn Rand, in a move that sent shock waves through the Objectivist movement, severed her association with both Nathaniel and Barbara. In 1986 Barbara published the controversial biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand.

Q: We have probably all read The Passion of Ayn Rand and know about you, Nathaniel, Ayn Rand and Frank O'Connor. I want to say that your book not only opened a can of worms that caused friendships to break up, but I think it was an important maturing process for a lot of us. So let's get off the beaten path and fill in some details such as your early life. What did your parents do? What did you personally aspire to as a future career?

Branden: I was born and brought up in Winnipeg, Canada, which was then a city of almost 200,000, but it had the feel of a small town then and still does in many ways. It is in the western prairies where it gets very cold in the winter. My family is Jewish. I did not have a religious education to speak of. I went to Sunday School and we went to Synagogue on the major Jewish holidays, but that was about it. I was not brought up an atheist; nor was I brought up paying much attention to religion.

However, I did run into a problem, and this is very relevant to my early years. I lived in an area of Winnipeg where, to my knowledge, I was the only Jewish kid around, and it was at that time a very anti-semitic area.

I remember vividly my first encounter with anti-semitism. My mother gave me the best advice that I ever got in my life, which will seem strange when I tell it. It was when I was just beginning school. I came home one day crying, and I told her that the kids had been calling me names, something to do with being Jewish. I don't think I knew what that referred to, and she had to explain what it all meant.

I said to her: "What do I do if it happens again?" You have to remember that this is a little six year old. She said: "You hit them as hard as you can". That made a lot of sense to me, and I proceeded to do just that. I fought my way all through school with my fists, but it caused me never to feel apologetic, never to feel there was anything wrong with me. The problem was theirs. And if they opened their mouths to me I would beat them up, if I could.

As long as I can remember I wanted to write. In the years when other girls wanted to be nurses or, rarely, doctors, or actresses or whatever, I only wanted to write.

Q: Did you write short stories and things?

Branden: Yes, I did. I started a novel when I was twelve, but I had to give it up when my heroine became eighteen: I realized I didn't understand enough about "adults" to continue. And I kept a journal of my "philosophical" thoughts as far back as I can remember. I stopped doing it when I was 16 or 17. Do you think I had exhausted the field of philosophy by then?

I remember the day and the moment that I decided to be a writer. I couldn't have been more than five. My brother, who was five years older than I, was reading the newspaper; and it occurred to me to ask him what was he doing, why he was looking at those odd tracks on paper and seemed interested. He explained to me what it consisted of.

I don't remember his words, but I remember the feeling when I grasped what reading was. I felt that I had encountered a miracle — that you could take what was locked up inside your head and you could put it out in the world and it would be real. I decided then that was what I wanted to do. And it has always seemed to me, ever since, the thing in the world most worth doing.

Q: I like that. What is your career now?

Branden: I'm working on a novel after a three and a half year writer's block that just about killed me. I finally broke through it with the help of a wonderful therapist friend. So I'm happily — no, ecstatically — writing away on my novel.

Q: What's your theory on writer's block? What do you think causes it?

Branden: It comes from various kinds of fears, probably differing according to the person. But I'm aware of something else in my case, something that was highly relevant. It was not the only issue involved, but I suspect it is an issue for a lot of blocked writers.

When I was writing Ayn Rand's biography, I lived at an emotional fever pitch for about four years non-stop. The intensity of emotion was enormous, the sense of a constant excitement. It isn't that I felt what the people in my book felt, but I experienced an emotional high all the time. When the book was finished I could not have dreamed of a better response than I got. From readers, from my publisher, from the critics, in every possible way I was very fortunate. I did a lot of touring, and gave a lot of talks. So for over a year I was still on a high.

It was enormous fun and I was enjoying myself mightily. Then it was over. Gradually I began to look around at the world and think: "I'm certainly not angry with anybody, but everything has gone flat." That emotional intensity had gone, and I didn't know how to get it back. Anything that the world had to offer me, and it offered me a great deal, could not give me the intensity that my own work gave me. And one cannot write from that emotional flatness: hence, the block.

Q: How did you get it back?

Branden: That was only one issue, perhaps the most important. But there were also a lot of fears involved. Second novel fears, they're called; a lot of nutty stuff that this wonderful therapist helped me identify and get rid of within the space of a two-hour session. But there are few things in this world worse than a writer's block, it's savagely miserable.

Q: I know what you mean, staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours.

Branden: And you're just as blank as that piece of paper both emotionally and intellectually. The thing one most needs in order to write authentically is to be in contact with one's deepest self; that's the ultimate source of the ideas and words. That's what I had lost contact with, and that's what I've got back.

Q: I've found with me it's more that I have gone in the wrong direction with a character, or I'm struggling with an unworkable idea, so something inside me shuts down until I can figure it out.

Branden: I hadn't gotten that far. I had all sorts of ideas in my head, but not even a wrong direction on paper.

Q: As a biographer, what was your aim in writing The Passion of Ayn Rand?

Branden: One thing above all. I had to do a lot of thinking to decide to write the book. Parts of those years with Ayn were very tough to live. I wasn't, at first, sure that I wanted to dive head first into them again. When I finally decided that I wanted to do it, the one absolute in my head was; if I am going to do it, I am going to tell the truth as well as I can — to identify, understand, and tell the truth. Whether I look good, bad, or indifferent, or anybody looks good, bad, or indifferent, it's going to be the truth. That was operating all the way through the work.

There were times when it wasn't such a ball to tell the truth. I would rather have made it a little prettier than it was, but I never did that. I had other goals as well. One of them was very crucial. I knew that a great many people had been damaged — I can't say by Objectivism; a philosophy can neither hurt nor help people by itself; it's what you do with it in your own head that matters.

But those of us who had led the movement, to a greater or lesser extent, helped create the whole "cult" atmosphere that began to develop. I felt tremendous regret and a very powerful sense of responsibility to the people who had been hurt by that and who were also hurt and utterly bewildered by the break. I knew they didn't understand the break; they had no way to understand. I had been sworn to secrecy, and for many years I felt that I could not say what the truth was. In my mind, I had made an almost holy vow of secrecy.

Q: You mean Ayn Rand made you swear?

Branden: No, there was no formal promise, but that was the understanding all four of us had. That it would be between the four of us.

Q: What changed you mind?

Branden: A lot of things. Rumors began to spread very early, some of them much worse than the facts. And Nathan was telling some people about it. Also, there were a few people I felt it necessary to tell because they were standing up for me, they were taking my side, and they had no exact idea what that side consisted.

Gradually, over the years, I began to feel that these issues were more important than the promise I had made especially since aspects of the truth were getting out anyhow. But what I most wanted to do was to address the people who had been hurt by the break, who had been hurt by the cultishness. I wanted to make them understand what had happened in both respects. I knew there still was a lot of pain in many people, a lot of confusion and bewilderment, even though the break and their day by day involvement with Objectivism was so long ago.

I felt a very strong personal responsibility to tell people: this is what happened with the break, and this is what we, myself included, did with Objectivism that got us and you into all sorts of painful problems. I was very happy with the results. I heard from a lot of people; I got a tremendous amount of mail from both former students and other people; I heard again and again that my book had put a lot of issues, finally to rest. That meant a great deal to me.

There were many reasons for my decision to write Ayn's biography. Another crucial one — really two reasons combined — was to rescue her from the need to be godlike. As I wrote, she was much more than that: she was a human being and a woman. It is only in that context that her achievements and her great virtues can fully be appreciated and her failings understood. And it is only in that context that Objectivism can be separated from its founder and its supporters and be seen as a philosophy which stands or falls by its own relationship to reality — not by the virtues or vices of those who espouse it.

Q: What was your favorite part of writing the book?

Branden: Gosh..., from the beginning to the end was my favorite part!

Q: What was the hardest?

Branden: The beginning chapter. Chapter Ones, as I'm sure you know, were put on earth to be written and then rewritten and then rewritten again, ad infinitum.

Actually something funny happened in relation to the beginning chapter. I had a wonderful editor. She left me alone during the writing and simply told me as I sent her completed chapters, "You're doing fine, keep going." Then at the end, when I had the first draft completed — it was really closer to a final draft — I spent five days with her in New York, and we went over the manuscript page by page.

She never insisted that I do anything. She would make suggestions to me, but she kept saying: "This is your book, Barbara. You decide." Most of her suggestions were very good.

There was only one thing she was very tough about. I had a very long first chapter, maybe a couple chapters, about Ayn's early years, and my editor thought it was much too long. She said something that absolutely convinced me she was right. She said: "No child ever born is that interesting." This was one lover of children talking to another lover of children. So I cut a hundred pages out of the childhood.

Q: Ohhhh.....!

Branden: But it was fine. I realized, as I was doing it, that it was highlighting and focusing what was really important in Ayn's childhood. I had so many minor events that the total was muddied; by leaving in only that which was crucial to her development, the picture of her was much sharper and more clear. And I ended up adding more than a hundred pages to other sections of the book, so the manuscript came out slightly longer than it had been.

Q: How many cassette tapes of Ayn Rand talking about her life do you have?

Branden: I have over forty hours of interviews. The most fascinating and revealing material imaginable. They were conversations more than formal interviews, and she spoke at length and with great candor.

Q: Some of this material, the tapes that you have, is there any move to transcribe them for future historians?

Branden: I don't want to make them public, in the sense of publishing them, but I do have a lot of important material. A friend of mine who is a historian, Bob Hessen, knows what should be done with such material, and we were just talking about it recently. I want it to be available to serious students. I very much regret that Leonard Peikoff has not established archives at some university or foundation for Ayn Rand's manuscripts and papers.

Q: I talked to the Library of Congress, and he is starting to give them material.

Branden: He is?

Q: I thought I would check up on that and he sent the first packet of stuff. They did want everything all at once because otherwise it holds them up, but there is supposed to be more coming.

Branden: Do you know if it's substantial? Ideally, one place should have everything.

Q: I called them to get the list.

Branden: There should be one central place for students to go, but Leonard unfortunately has sold a great deal of Ayn's material, and also published a great deal, that in my view should not be published, but should be available to scholars.

Q: Tape does disintegrate after a certain time.

Branden: The original tapes I used for my interviews with Ayn were reel to reel. They are in bad shape, but I have had them put on cassettes. The originals are reasonably protected, but they are not going to last much longer. They were splitting at times even while I was working on them. I had a wonderful splicer, so fortunately I didn't lose a word.

Q: Is there anything you would do differently in the book looking back at it today?

Branden: I've never thought of it in those terms. Nothing comes to mind at the moment. I have to say I'm pleased with my work. Maybe if I really thought about it I could come up with something, but at the moment, nothing. There are, of course, typos that people keep telling me about, and grammatical mistakes, those I would change.

Q: In today's current trend in biographies the biographer sort of acts like the subject's psychiatrist, and there have been a lot of criticisms of you 'psychologizing' Rand. Do you think this is justified? How would you say that you are qualified to discuss her in that way?

Branden: How does one write a biography without including material about the subject's psychology? No one would want a litany of uncommented-upon facts; it would be deadly dull, and give no illumination whatever about its subject. A biography is a presentation of a life, plus the writer's interpretation. That's why more than one biography — sometimes many — are written about famous people. Those that follow the first one are usually not primarily concerned with adding or correcting factual material — although that does happen — but with presenting different interpretations. And interpretation is psychology.

For example, what sense could a reader make of Ayn's relationship with Nathan if I had presented it simply as a series of facts? How could I write about Ayn leaving Russia without discussing her motivation? — or her marriage to Frank? — or her depression after the publication of Atlas Shrugged? It wouldn't add up to any coherent story that way. And what so fascinated me about her life was not just the drama of the events, although they are surely fascinating, but that her life was like her own powerful plots — a series of events all eventually coming together to form a climax, and then a denouement. And that was created by her psychology.

How was I qualified to discuss her psychology? By knowing her intimately for eighteen years, by studying her all those years, by questioning about 200 people who knew her at various times of her life. And by spending five years thinking about her life intensively. I don't know anyone in the world as well as I know Ayn. Can you imagine spending five years devoted to nothing but trying to understand a friend? By the end of it, surely you'd know a lot.

But ultimately, I leave the judgment of my qualifications to my reader. That's who must decide if I have given the evidence of knowing what I'm doing.

Q: Did she know that you were writing the book?

Branden: I told her, yes. I had seen her about six months before she died.

Q: Tell us about that, did she call you or what?

Branden: I called her. Expecting that she would probably hang up on me, in view of our breach. But she didn't and we had a wonderful conversation. I was in New York a few months later, and I spent a day with her. It was a very special and unforgettable day.

Q: Tell us about it.

Branden: I had always had the feeling that our story had not had its proper conclusion, because it had ended in a very miserable way in 1968. I always felt that that wasn't right, that it should have a better, more appropriate ending.

And this was a very beautiful ending. That was very important and very meaningful to me. There isn't too much to tell that I didn't tell in my book. When I called her I had just listened to a tape of an interview she had done, and on it she was asked about Frank who had died a year before.

The way she talked about him really moved me. I loved him very much, and she spoke about him with a great deal of pain and a great deal dignity. It really reached me emotionally, and I thought that I'd like to know how she was and how things were going for her. I had the feeling that if I stopped to think if I should phone or not, there would be all sorts of reasons against it. So I didn't stop and think about it. I simply got up and went to the phone, I still remembered her phone number, and I dialed it.

She was very surprised to hear from me but very welcoming. We talked for about half an hour, just about what our lives had been and how we were and so on. She really seemed pleased to hear from me, and I was certainly delighted to talk to her. I can't even say there was much tension; we were both aware that thirteen years had passed, and that it hadn't ended well between us, but not a lot of tension.

I told her why I had called, and she was touched by that. It was infinitely easier to talk with her than I would have predicted. I told her that I expected to be in New York in two or three months and could I visit her? There was no hesitation, she said she would be delighted and to let her know when it would be. I did so as soon as I knew.

I remember walking to her apartment and thinking "I don't know what decade this is!" It was so strange! She opened the door, and I stood in that familiar doorway in the building I had lived in for years. We grinned at each other, and it was very strange, for both of us, I believe.

We were two old friends who, it felt, had seen each other only yesterday, except that we hadn't seen each other for thirteen years. Then she reached out her hands, and I took her hands, and everything was fine. We spent the day talking like the old friends we were.

Q: You told me, when I talked with you at your apartment, that she sat down and told you what her theory was about what had happened, and that you didn't say anything. If she had asked you, what would you have told her about why she was wrong and what you thought?

Branden: You know, to this day I don't know what I would have done. I was really concerned about it. She was not a young woman anymore. She had been very ill. She had lost the husband she adored more than anyone on earth. I had thought, "The issue of the affair is going to come up. I don't want to start telling her what mistakes she made, what she did wrong, and why I was upset with her. I don't want to upset her or belabor her with recriminations, it would not accomplish anything, and what for?"

I had not solved the problem when I got there. I knew that if she really insisted that we talk about it I would have to tell her the truth, but I would try to do so with as little unpleasantness as I possibly could. But I didn't know how I was going to manage that, and I dreaded it. (I don't mean to say that I was innocent in the whole affair. As The Passion of Ayn Rand makes clear, I was not.)

Fortunately, it didn't come to that; she suddenly looked quite stern, and she said "Did you think we wouldn't have to talk about the past?" And I said, "Of course I know, we have to." She then began talking, and explained that the reason she was not angry with me was that she saw my former actions essentially as an act of loyalty to the man who had been my husband.

By Ayn's theories, one cannot come down too hard on such motivation, however wrong the man may be. If it's loyalty to a man one has loved, that's O.K., that can be understood.

That wasn't what was involved, but I wasn't about to say so. I just listened and nodded when appropriate, and left it at that. After about twenty minutes we went on to something else. I was delighted. Was I 100% honest with her? No, I wasn't, and I don't regret it. I would really regretted it if I had had to discuss it in depth.

Q: How was she handling Frank O'Connor's death, was she very depressed?

Branden: Not the day I saw her, no. Obviously it had been very bad and I had heard that from a lot from people. I knew even before it happened that when Frank died Ayn from then on would be waiting to die, that the world would have nothing more to offer her. She didn't say that to me the day I was there, but it amounted to that. She told me that she was trying to find something that would interest her, something that would keep her going, something in the outside world that would have some value to her.

She said that she had found it in the study of mathematics, with a private tutor. I cannot tell you how moved I was by this. At seventy-six years old, not well, having lost her husband, she had found something to do that was only for her own personal pleasure. She had found mathematics, and was working on its connection to metaphysics and epistemology.

Q: Oh, wow, I wonder if there are any writings on that?

Branden: I don't think so. It is conceivable there is something but I doubt it from the way she talked. I think it was at least 99% in her head, though I could be wrong.

Q: In one of her Ford Hall Forum Q & A's Ayn Rand said that she was working on a novel about unrequited love. Did she speak of this to you? If so what was the story line and how much had she written?

Branden: She had such a novel in mind, about a ballerina and how she dealt with her love for a man who did not love her (until the end of the story). Everything she said about the novel sounded very beautiful, and much more lyrical than her more recent work — in a sense, in the tradition of Anthem. She even got an advance for the book, which she later returned, because as the years went by she did not begin it and turned instead exclusively to non-fiction. How I would have loved to have read it. But Ayn's disillusionment with the world made writing fiction less and less possible to her; it was as if she could teach people in non-fiction, but not share with them the beauty and passion inside her.