Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dissemblers Unmasked

I was attending lectures and other events at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in a sub-level of the Empire State Building in 1968 when the Rand-Branden matter "blew up.' Most regular attendees were left utterly ignorant of the reasons behind the conflict. I recall receiving the statements from both Ayn Rand and the Brandens about why it was all over, and of the two statements - even though the concrete particulars of Nathaniel Branden's offenses especially were unfathomable to me and would remain so for years - I gave Rand the benefit of the doubt and granted her statement sole veracity, simply on the basis of her literary and philosophical achievements. But, up until that day, there was no evidence of a conflict between the principals, no hint or suggestion that anything was terribly wrong. The closing of NBI was a surprise.

I have just finished reading James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: The Case Against the Brandens. I was astonished by two things: the scope of the deceit and dishonesty of the Brandens, and the meticulous and scrupulous examination to which Valliant subjected them.

Until Barbara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand appeared in 1986, I remained in the dark about the exact nature of the conflict and split. I had heard rumors of an affair between Rand and Nathaniel Branden, but couldn't credit them. Since they had left the field of serious philosophical engagement, what the Brandens did or were doing then was of no further concern to me. I had read that Patrecia, Nathaniel Branden's wife, who played a passive role in Branden's deception of Rand, was found dead in his California swimming pool, and that he had subsequently married someone named Devers. But this and other information about the Brandens I collected without any specific interest, in the haphazard way one notes odd things in the landscape as one speeds on a highway, observed one minute, forgotten a mile down the road.

At the time, I was writing book reviews for the Library Journal and other periodicals, and, out of curiosity, requested a review copy of Passion from the Journal. Also, I had recently been interviewed by Dr. Peikoff about writing a biography of Rand. After I read Barbara Branden's biography, I called him and urged him to respond publicly to it, to set the record straight - not about the affair, but about all the backstabbing allegations made in her book, which I characterized as a prolonged character assassination in an elaborately contrived guise of "homage."

Now that I see what was necessary to properly and thoroughly answer her and Nathaniel Branden's books, I not only understand why Dr. Peikoff did nothing about it for so long - the scope of research and depth of intellectual effort that Valliant must have expended are nothing less than marvelous - but understand better why I knew then that I could not write a review of them. A mere book review critical of just Barbara Branden's allegations would not have sufficed; it would have been an inappropriate and inadequate answer.

It is the difference between the Romans opening diplomatic talks with the aggressor, Carthage, to stop the third Punic War, and simply razing Carthage itself to ensure there would not be a fourth. The Estate of Ayn Rand permitted Valliant unconditional access to the journals that Rand kept while acting as Branden's psychotherapist during this period. With them, Valliant has razed Carthage.

When Nathaniel Branden's Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand appeared, on the basis of things I had read in libertarian publications and had heard on the Objectivist grapevine, I did not bother reading it. At the same time, I observed that the whole libertarian "establishment," from party politics to journalistic commentary to scholarly studies, was largely, in spirit and intent, a concerted effort to discredit Rand and to render Objectivism invalidated, "cultish," and an object of derision. In this campaign the libertarians were (and still are) in cahoots with both the collectivist left and the religious right. What an odd yet philosophically appropriate Triple Entente!

(A noteworthy observation: A few years after the dissolution of NBI, "libertarianism" enjoyed a revival. True to their anarchist heritage, libertarians of all stripes pounced on Objectivism like vultures to pick out features of the philosophy à la carte, all the while eschewing the necessity of a philosophical foundation for their politics. Without Ayn Rand, however, there would have been no libertarian revival. What political principles could they have appropriated and "package-dealt," other than the morally contextless arguments from the 19th century? I have always characterized libertarians as "ventriloquists" for liberty.)

I have written fifteen novels, every one of them with a villain, but all my fictional villains are amateurs compared to the Brandens. I could never have conceived of such evil for any of my villains, of the kind of monstrous deception to which the Brandens subjected Rand even while they knew she was attempting to comprehend their behavior and problems, and even trying to salvage their lives and careers. They are beyond redemption. Valliant's book is a long overdue work of justice, and anyone who values Objectivism and the truth should thank him for it. Ayn Rand is the bridge between Aristotle and our future. It would be tragic if her importance were diminished without challenge by backyard fence gossip and vile dissimulation.

Valliant cites one note of Rand's in her journal (on page 375, top), close to the point when she was beginning to understand how much of a complete and unconscionable dissembler Nathaniel Branden was, stuck out in my mind because it reminded me of the fundamental motive of environmentalists: "...he was willing to destroy the earth (its reality) in order not to discover that he was neither worthy nor able to live on it." I can only conclude, given the ample evidence present in Valliant's book, that the Brandens then, and subsequently over the years, shared that same motive.

Valliant himself concludes about Nathaniel Branden:

"While his behavior was not, technically, rape, Branden's was nothing less than the soul of a rapist."

Why?

"While Branden's behavior does not compare [with the actual action of a rapist] - his motive - like that of the "Power-seeking" social metaphysician - in his romantic conduct toward Rand was control and physical gain, not a sincere passion at all. Consent [to sexual relations] can be overcome by fraud as well as by force - Branden himself had written on the relationship between force and fraud as means of manipulation - and what his crime lacked in violence, it made up for in [Rand's] prolonged psychological torment and deception."

Overall, I would say instead that, barring her willingness to be deceived and exploited, Branden et al. wished to destroy Rand because they knew they were not worthy of her or of Objectivism, just as the environmentalists want to destroy man because they know they are not worthy of living on an earth they wish to remain "pure" in some autistic, unreal, anti-life universe of their own, of which they project themselves as the humble (and fundamentally homicidal), man-hating guardians. But, at bottom, they wish to perish, and to take with them anyone who can live successfully on earth.

In another sense, the whole saga of Nathaniel Branden's deception is an object lesson in the exponential nature and consequences of faking reality. Practicing such deceit and maintaining such a façade requires building a house of cards; one lie calling for two more to insulate it from rational scrutiny, then those two requiring four, and so on, until the whole fabrication replaces whatever "soul" the perpetrator might have called his own. And, as Valliant demonstrates, Branden practiced it for over a decade. Having a vested interest in maintaining a lie over valuing the truth, he destroyed himself, but blamed Rand.

After finishing Valliant's book, I wondered if there had been any reply to it by the Brandens or any of their allies. What could anyone possibly say against it, except in the form of more evasions, rationalizations, and lies? On the Internet (and that's as far as I plan to go) I found irrelevant criticisms about some typos in the book, and some inconsistencies in style (National Review vs. The National Review!), comments on the production value of the physical book, and the like. Some anonymous person took Valliant to task for citing Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult, charging him with basing some of his factual statements on material found in that book, when Valliant had otherwise dismissed it as a tract largely founded on Branden material, that "critic" forgetting that Valliant qualified himself in that respect in terms of corroboration with other sources.

I must commend Valliant on a feat of detective work that would have daunted any career detective novelist. I have written one series in which the detective solves what I call "moral paradoxes." It would have been beyond my abilities to imagine anything nearly as complex and insidious as the paradox Valliant explicates in his book. In my mind, Rand never needed exoneration for her actions, and his book more than vindicates my position. Now it all makes sense, that particular, real-life paradox is solved, and I am indebted to him for having undertaken and completed such a prodigious task.

8 comments:

Diana said...

Nathaniel and Barbara Branden have responded to PARC, sort of. (I blogged about it here.)

In response to a friendly inquiry about any response to the book, NB said: "No. What for? If a reader can't see what's insane about that book on his own, I doubt that help from me would accomplish much."

BB has said a bit more, e.g. on the "Objectivist Living" discussion board. In response to someone who said that "I never really cared about the Rand/Branden split issue" but that she regards the basic story as "Rand got pissed off and wrote Branden out of her life," she wrote:

"Teresa, it was a pleasure to read your post: 'Why don't I care about this?' I am in total agreement with you. I am bored silly by the whole controversy, and I can't understand why everyone else isn't, also. It never ceases to amaze me that people who weren't even born at the time of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden's break, are heatedly taking sides and hurling moral condemnations about an issue and people they know nothing about. Thanks for your sanity."

Both of those replies are, well... amazing.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised by BB's reply to Teresa's query:

"Teresa, it was a pleasure to read your post: 'Why don't I care about this?' I am in total agreement with you. I am bored silly by the whole controversy, and I can't understand why everyone else isn't, also. It never ceases to amaze me that people who weren't even born at the time of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden's break, are heatedly taking sides and hurling moral condemnations about an issue and people they know nothing about. Thanks for your sanity."

Well, I guess this would clear Saddam and Adolf and Mao. "Gee, why are you bringing up all those millions of deaths now? It's been 20 years! Besides, I think it's puerile to hurl accusations against us about an issue they know nothing about because they weren't there! YOU HAD TO BE THERE! It's a dead issue, and it's pointless to raise the dead....well, you know what I mean. And, it bores me know."

No, I'm not surprised by either BB's response or NB's response. Given Valliant's writing goal, would anyone have seriously expected the Brandens to agree to an interview -- so they could perjure themselves again?

Mike said...

This is a very good review. You should post it on Amazon, if you haven't already.

Bill Bucko said...

Further testimony to Branden's dishonesty:

I had advance notice of the "split" in 1968, a couple of weeks before it became generally known. That's because electical engineer and inventor Jim Davidson, informal leader of our Objectivist group at Purdue University, was friends with several employees at Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI).

Jim had a library of almost 200 reel-to-reel tapes, and he eventually told us the story behind it. According to Jim's account (which I have no reason to doubt), it was he who originated the idea of offering courses by tape transcription, sometime around 1960; after a great deal of arguing he persuaded Barbara Branden of the practicality of the idea, and she in turn convinced Nathaniel Branden. For the first several years Jim did all the copying and mailing of the reel-to-reel tapes. (After his death I saw the records he still kept in his card file.) Sometime in the middle 1960's, not long after Nathaniel Branden had signed a contract with Jim, Branden unilaterally broke the contract when he found a firm (G.E., if I remember correctly) that could duplicate the tapes somewhat more cheaply. Jim considered suing Branden but decided not to, since he was afraid that might harm the progress of Objectivism. He later remarked that if he had gone ahead and sued, possibly the "split" might have taken place several years earlier.

ARI has now acquired this tape archive from Jim's heir, Ken MacKenzie.

We had only Jim's word for most of what he said, but I must say that all of us who knew him found him the man of the highest character we have ever met; knowing him was an unforgettable experience, like knowing Howard Roark in person.

Turning, now, to the "split" in 1968:

According to what Jim passed on to us from his friends at NBI, Nathaniel Branden gathered his staff together and told them he had never been fully an Objectivist, but had merely been "playing a role," adding that he had "never taken Objectivism as seriously as some of them obviously had."

Jim's comment: NB was most likely rationalizing, to avoid the guilt of having betrayed his own values.

Reportedly, Branden was "definitely suicidal" at this time, and fled to Canada for several weeks. He later switched to alternate "explanations" of his behavior, changing his excuse to suit the occasion.

Jim was in a position to confirm some of Ayn Rand's lesser charges, e.g. that NB had not updated his lecture courses as he had promised. And that both Brandens, well aware that a break was coming, had copied "The Objectivist"'s mailing list ahead of time, which they had no right to do.

Another member of our group commented (I think correctly): "Nathaniel Branden is the Benedict Arnold of Objectivism."

I'm glad that Valiant's book has appeared, to embitter the declining years of those two villains: Barbara Branden (an aging Lilian Rearden) and Nathaniel Branden (an aging Robert Stadler).

Diana said...

This post got me thinking... and so I just posted an entry on NoodleFood on the connection between Ted Hggard and Nathaniel Branden.

Jim Valliant said...

Thanks for the kind – and insightful – words.

Rebellion said...

As much as I hate to admit it, I was also present at NBI during that period. I was devastated by the thought of the damage it would bring to Objectivism as well as confused by the cause of the rupture.

However, I had loved The Psychology of Self Esteem and so bought Branden's next book with great anticipation. Confusion became discombobulated bafflement.

Some years later, he was giving one of his "Intensives" in NY and I attended the solicitation pre-event pitch. Bafflement became rage and disbelief. When I got home I grapped my copy of The Psychology of Self Esteem and ripped it open, desperate to find out why I had so valued this work.

And there before my wondering eyes was the answer. Of course I had loved it. Rand had, if not written it, edited it to such a degree that she might as well have. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen that before. Did anyone else notice?

As to Cline's comments about libertarians. While it is true, especially in early years, that Libertarians were something of a mess philosophically, politically (and many of them physically), it is an amazing generalization and in more instances than not false to say that "... the libertarians were (and still are) in cahoots with both the collectivist left and the religious right." There are many libertarians, for example, working for and associated with the Cato Institute who are Objectivists and who are passionate and informed defenders of liberty and reason.

Neil Parille said...

Ed mentions my critique of Valliant's book. My final version may be found here --

http://www.scribd.com/doc/9421651/The-Passion-of-James-Valliants-Criticism