by Neil Parille
In The Passion of James Valliant's Criticism, Parts 1 and 2, I demonstrated that James Valliant consistently misrepresents Nathaniel Branden's memoirs and Barbara Branden's biography. I also pointed out his double standards, failure to name sources, and failure to acknowledge evidence that undermines his case. Since the publication of these essays, I have continued my research into The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics ("PARC") and here discuss some additional problems as well as Valliant's attempt to defend the book.
Barbara Branden's Meeting With Ayn Rand In 1981
In The Passion of Ayn Rand ("PAR"), Barbara Branden writes that she met Rand in 1981 and wrote Rand a letter thereafter. (PAR, pp. 397-400.) In PARC, Valliant says that Rand never saw Barbara Branden again after their split, implying that she made this meeting up. (PARC, p. 94.) I contacted the Archives of the Ayn Rand Institute ("ARI") in February 2008 and they confirmed that there is evidence that this meeting took place. Specifically, although the letter mentioned by Branden was not found, Cynthia Peikoff (who was Rand's secretary in 1981) refers to the letter and the meeting in the forthcoming 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, by Scott McConnell.(1) When I informed Valliant that the archives confirmed that the meeting occurred, he conceded that "no one ever told me that there was no meeting,"(2) apparently admitting that he made no efforts to verify PARC's insinuation that Branden fabricated the meeting.(3)
Valliant contends that this is a minor mistake. However, Rand's meeting with Barbara Branden in 1981 puts into perspective her concealment of Nathaniel Branden's affair with Patrecia Scott. Although Rand denounced Barbara Branden in 1968 for alleged dishonesty in other matters, her willingness to meet with Branden years later is evidence of how Rand saw her and Nathaniel Branden's respective roles in the split. After all, it was Barbara Branden who told Rand about the affair. (PAR, p. 345.) It further undercuts Valliant's constant reference to "the Brandens" as if they were one person. As we shall see below, it also raises substantial questions about Valliant's diligence as a researcher.
Another Mistake: The Surprise Party From Hell
In PARC, James Valliant says that the surprise party to celebrate the publication of Atlas Shrugged was thrown by Random House (the novel's publisher). I pointed out that this contradicts the Brandens' accounts, which say they or the Collective threw the party. When I wrote my critique of PARC, I did not have the Sures recollections of Rand published in 2001 as Facets of Ayn Rand. The ARI recently made the book available on the web. The Sures confirm that the Collective threw the party. When I questioned Valliant on this mistake in 2007, he claimed he based his account on "various sources." Yet PARC does not mention any sources (anonymous or otherwise) concerning this party. Given the agreement of the Brandens and the Sures on this event, we may confidently conclude that the Collective threw the party. Valliant's "sources" are in error, or perhaps he didn't have any sources and simply misread the books.
Valliant is apparently unable to read his own book as well. On November 3, 2007, he said on RichardDawkins.net that, "[o]f course, PARC attributes no such malevolence to them [the Brandens] for throwing a party." Yet he says in PARC that:
He says later in PARC that "[w]hether it was a little deceptionólike the surprise partyóor a big one--like Branden's intellectual fraudóthe Brandens insist on their right to manipulate Rand with their lies." (PARC, p. 109.)
Rand was not seeking to "control" anyone's context here but her own. It was the Brandens who were part of the effort to "control" Rand's context through deceptionóRand was merely objecting to the deception. (We shall see that this will not be the last time they will attempt to do this, merely one of the less important times.) (PARC, p. 50.)
Yet Another Mistake: The Change To Penthouse Legend
In Part 2 of this essay, I noted that Valliant claims that in 1973 Philip and Kay Nolte Smith "changed the dialogue in their production of Penthouse Legend without authorization from Rand." He describes the Smiths' conduct as a "systematic and personal betrayal." (PARC, p. 75.) Valliant's only source for this is Jeff Walker's book The Ayn Rand Cult ("TARC"). However, Walker quotes Kay Smith as saying that she made "unauthorized changes to a few lines of dialogue for a public performance." (TARC, p. 35.) This obvious discrepancy was first brought to Valliant's attention by Dr. Chris Sciabarra in July 2005. Valliant responded on Sciabarra's blog:
As I pointed out, Philip Smith and Dr. George Reisman (an Orthodox Objectivist no longer affiliated with the ARI) confirmed post-PARC that the change was a minor change to one or two lines of the play's last (or one of its last) performances. According to Philip Smith, Kay Smith told Rand that she made the change. Yet Valliant tells us that the changes were made before the play's opening and implies that there was something underhanded about the way the Smiths (allegedly) made and concealed these changes. In spite of my repeated requests, Valliant refused to disclose what his sources told him. When pushed, Valliant responded that, "(i)t WAS a minor change as far as I am concerned . . . ." How this squares with what he said on Sciabarra's blog is anyone's guess. Even more strange, Valliant recently contended that the public sources (specifically George Reisman(4)) confirm that the changes were made prior to the play's opening.
In the few instances where I rely on Walker, such as Hospers' report on Rand's difficult youth and the "break" with Kay Nolte Smith, I do have other, corroborative sources, providing independent, if anonymous, verification. Unlike Ms. Branden, I do not rely on anonymous sources as my only source for something, but I will allow multiple, credible sources to remain unnamed where they serve as mere corroboration. Walker is cited because he is the only published source for them. Hospers has confirmed this testimony, if not in published sources, and the reported account of the Smith break, involving changes to the dialogue of a play by Rand they were producing, has been in circulation for many years, indeed. I should have, perhaps, included the fact that the changes made to Rand's play were removed before its opening (although ~ how ~ Rand discovered these changes in the production remains the essence of the charge), but my own anonymous sources here are credible contemporaries to the event and their reports to me long pre-date Walker's book. (Emphasis added.)
James Valliant's Sources
These three examples constitute mistakes by Valliant. Post-PARC he told his critics that he had independent sources for two of these events, the surprise party and the changes to Penthouse Legend (although none are mentioned in his book). I think we can conclude that Valliant has misread his published source and that his anonymous sources (to the extent they exist) are not credible. In light of his mistake concerning the 1981 meeting, readers are entitled to ask what efforts he made to verify his claims, notwithstanding his occasional (and non-specific) statements that former associates of Rand have told him that the Brandens' description of Rand is erroneous.
Are The Brandens' Books "Useless"?
Valliant's professed evaluation of the Brandens' works is quite negative. The books are "useless to the serious historian." (PARC, pp. 85-86.) "Where the Brandens are our only source, the topic must be marked with a giant asterisk and an attached footnote reading, 'Highly dubious.'" (PARC, p. 128.)
Valliant, however, honors this more in the breach than in the observance. Let me give three examples, taken almost at random:
1. "O'Connor had been the first to recognize Mr. Branden's true character, as well, it seems. Ms. Branden reports that in 1968, just before Rand was to learn the truth, O'Connor ' . . . said . . . [t]hat man [Nathaniel Branden] is no damn good . . . . ' Ironic that it took Frank O'Connor to point out that Rand was projecting imaginary virtue--on Branden!" (PARC, p. 161.) Valliant's only source is PAR.
2. "Ms. Branden relates that Rand was herself quite close to her brother-in-law Nick O'Connor--who, according to Ms. Branden, Rand believed was gay. (P.A.R., pp. 100-101)." (PARC, p. 405 n. 7.) Again, PAR is the only source.
3. "PARC does not challenge the Blumenthals' story or the idea the Blumenthals were quoted correctly [in [i]PAR[/i]] -- I presume they would have challenged Ms. B[randen] by now about it if they were not." (James Valliant on Objectiblog, August 6, 2006.)
Now, in fairness to Valliant, he does say in the preface to his book that "the inclusion of material from either of the Brandens' biographies in no way implies that any of the events related actually took place, or, if they did, that the Brandens are believed to be credible sources regarding those events." (PARC, p. 8.) Even here, Valliant doesn't follow his own strictures. The example concerning Frank O'Connor's insight is obviously taken by Valliant as true, because in the next line Valliant tells us that "[t]his is not the only evidence of O'Connor's perceptiveness." (PARC, p. 161.) Evidence? What happened to the giant asterisk and the attached footnote?
Likewise, it is correct that a biography or memoir might be generally unreliable, but certain accounts have a "ring of truth." If Valliant seeks to use the Brandens' books in this limited way, it is incumbent on him to tell his readers why he finds some uncorroborated accounts of the Brandens accurate and others not. He rarely does this. As I've shown, his main criterion of reliability (with occasional exceptions) is whether something helps his case.(5) Thus, the Brandens' criticism of each other is credible, their criticism of people other than Rand is credible, even other witnesses who sometimes criticize Rand (such as the Blumenthals) are at other times credible. It is only when the Brandens criticize Rand (or Leonard Peikoff) that their accounts become suspect.
Thou Shalt Not Speculate
Valliant claims that there is too much speculation in the Brandens' books. I should have highlighted more the fact that Valliant is the king of speculation.
To take the first of three examples pertaining to Ayn's and Frank O'Connor's relationship, Barbara Branden says that Frank O'Connor told her that he wanted to leave Rand, "'But where would I go? . . . What would I do? . . .'" (PAR, p. 262.) Here is Valliant:
Barbara Branden was an eyewitness and I see no reason to doubt her recollection. Even if what Valliant says is true about husbands receiving generous settlements (a claim he doesn't document), O'Connor might not have known this or might have felt there was something wrong about asking for money from Rand.
The manifest absurdity of believing that the husband of a very successful author--whose crucial role in that author's own work had been publicly professed by Rand--would be left penniless from a divorce cannot be ascribed to O'Connor but to Ms. Branden. (Even in those days, husbands of high-income wives could--and did--get attractive settlements.) (PARC, pp. 151-52.)
As a second example, after quoting from Rand's notes for Atlas Shrugged from 1949 where Rand writes that Rearden takes pleasure in the thought of Dagny having sex with another man, Valliant writes that "this particular account of male psychology is almost certain to be an expression of her husband's own psychology." (PARC, p. 166, emphasis added.) This note isn't even about O'Connor. As a final example, take this piece of speculation on p. 167 of PARC (emphasis added):
The only direct evidence bearing on the affair's effect on O'Connor are the reports of Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden that it hurt him, at least at times. To the extent that one need speculate, experience indicates that these types of relationships cause hurt and even the innocent party may feel "conflicted." Even Valliant has to admit that "[w]hether they were always truly happy together, especially in light of Rand's affair, can be questioned . . . ." (PARC, p. 157.)
O'Connor almost certainly believed that his wife was an exceptional genius and a woman intensely loyal to her values. He may well have appreciated his wife's complex emotional--and intellectual--needs. Possessing such a sensitive and daring soul [it's now a fact] may well have given him the capacity to embrace his wife's quest for joy, a capacity obviously not shared by the Brandens. (And he surely could have left Rand without much fear, had he truly objected to the situation.)
On my SOLO Passion weblog, I pointed out that the back of PAR contains a favorable blurb from Alan Greenspan ("A fascinating insight into one of the most thoughtful authors of this century."). Greenspan sided with Rand after the break and knew Rand well from the early 1950s until she died in 1982. I said that this constituted Greenspan's "vouch[ing]" for the book. I was taken to task by Valliant and his supporters. After all, Greenspan said only that the book was a "fascinating insight" into Rand. Diana Hsieh and Gus Van Horn (both supporters of the ARI) apparently read Greenspan's blurb the same way I did. According to Mr. Van Horn:
Diana Hsieh notes of Greenspan that, "He endorsed Barbara Branden's smear of a biography with a laudatory quote printed on the back cover. (You can see it for yourself on Amazon.)" So much for Greenspan remaining loyal to Ayn Rand on a personal or philosophical level.
Additional research into The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics further demonstrates that it is an unreliable critique of Nathaniel Branden's and Barbara Branden's works. In particular, Valliant's claim that he has reliable sources which undercut the Brandens' account of events is highly suspect.
March 16, 2008
1. Reference assistance courtesy the Ayn Rand Archives, A Special Collection of the Ayn Rand Institute.
2. As readers of the thread can see, Valliant repeatedly refused to answer my simple question of what efforts he made to verify that the meeting took place. It was only after I informed him that the Archives documented Branden's meeting that he admitted that no one told him the meeting didn't take place.
3. After I pointed out Valliant's mistake concerning the 1981 meeting, Valliant wrote: "Now, as to how the meeting may have gone down... (the most suspicious part of all)?"
4. George Reisman said on his blog in 2006 that "[t]oward the close of the play's run, an actor prevailed upon this young woman to allow him to alter one of Ayn Rand's lines in one of the play's last performances."
5. For example, Barbara Branden's recollection that O'Connor wanted to leave Rand is inaccurate; but her recollection that O'Connor denounced Nathaniel Branden as "no damn good" is accurate. In addition, as I mentioned in Part 2 of my critique, Valliant accepts that Rand and Nathaniel Branden secured the consent of their respective spouses, but the Brandens are the only sources for this claim.