Review of "My Years with Ayn Rand"


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I posted this review of My Years with Ayn Rand eight years ago on the Amazon.com Website, and in one of their database glitches, my name was detached from it. Some recent digging into my e-mail archives reminded me of it, as Ellen Stuttle and others wrote to say they liked it. I thought it'd be worth posting here. ~ SR

***** Already a compelling memoir, made better and more pertinent

April 9, 1999

Nathaniel Branden has reworked his memoir of his 20 years of romancing the mind of Ayn Rand -- before, during, and after he knew her on a daily and intimate basis -- into a more focused narrative with this second edition.

He took the subtitle of the previous edition, made it the title of this one, and jettisoned his use of a famous Rand quote as an epigraph. ("Judge, and be prepared to be judged.") All were wise decisions, because this book is really not about Rand's judgments. They would have been difficult to get past -- especially her final sweeping, damaging, slanderous ones about Branden. But to focus too directly upon them ignores the story line, and it's one of a love story that reads like a novel.

Branden fell in love as a teenager with the intellect that shone from "The Fountainhead." And by virtue of his own formidable intellect, along with an uncanny fit into the life of a writer who was missing a genuine challenge and grist in her friendships, he came to love the woman as well. He couldn't handle so many varieties of love at once, and their being present in one skein of interactions that ranged from metaphysics to physical admiration in bed. Such lucid and candid self-admission is what I doubt has been seen this clearly since the extraordinary life of Benvenuto Cellini, in his own famed Renaissance autobiography.

For either edition, I couldn't fathom those who see "self-aggrandizement" running rampant on Branden's part. He doesn't minimize his intellect or achievements in publicizing and even, in part, integrating Rand's philosophic work. Nor should he, with the memory hole that Leonard Peikoff and others have erected regarding his role. (I would have been far more bitter than Branden is about such immature revisionist efforts.)

If anything, Branden is much too hard on himself, considering the detachment from reality that Rand was capable of creating in her worst moments. He bends over backwards to insist on limning many of her best moments. In how he respects and compactly describes Rand's achievements, he shows that in one sense, his "years with Rand" never really ended. They still live in his mind and heart. What had been added to them, after 1968, were the years of Nathaniel Branden, a person and innovator in psychology that he had suppressed.

Branden is, indeed, much less sharp with some of his former associates and "Collective" members than he had been 10 years ago. One exception to Branden's rounder edges, and well aimed in light of 10 years of public absurdity, is with Peikoff. Branden doesn't hesitate to point out the roots of the mess Peikoff has made with the role of Objectivist thought in the wider culture. His own 1950s warnings to Peikoff, his ex-wife's cousin, are even more timely to re-read in light of the many sycophants that Peikoff has gathered to his side. Unlike Branden, Peikoff apparently has never tried to re-own his self.

Another decade has also improved Branden's appraisal of and regard for his ex-wife Barbara, and rightly so. They were not on the best of terms in the mid-to-late '80s, partly from the contrast between their biography/memoir efforts, and that obscured some genuine mutual respect.

The one lengthy addition to this new version, that of his current (third) wife Devers' encounter with Rand, is superbly revelatory of several strains of Rand's personality that Branden depicts throughout his memoir. It makes the tragedy of Rand and Branden more poignant, in showing what emotions and inner conflicts Rand could never quite give up upon in her own life ... even when this could have helped make her whole.

Nathaniel Branden won't say so, here or anywhere, even obliquely, but he was the love of Rand's life, and he remains the prime shaper of all of her public role beyond that of novelist. That makes his story compelling.

I have one mild complaint and one subtle plaudit about this edition. I had hoped for some more detail about Branden's relationship with his third great love and second wife, Patrecia. He may have held back on adding more detail out of wanting to include the episode with Ayn and Devers, and that was probably the better choice for his narrative and for his slice of intellectual history.

Branden did, though, do better this time with his use of photographs. These end up being more evocative than those in the first edition (though slightly fewer), largely from their being placed at timely points in the body of the book, rather than being a single section in the middle.

I was glad that the fascinating Patrecia did, at least, get an additional and striking photo, along with her husband, on an Aspen mountaintop. And, also, that two different photos of Rand, with their handwritten inscriptions to Branden, were newly included. Nice defense against the memory hole ... take that, Lenny.

When I spoke briefly to Branden 10 years ago after a talk he gave about his memoir, I said that the story he told called for a happy ending in the best and most innocent storytelling sense, and that I saw it in how he described life with Devers -- and in the photo of her arms around his neck, the last in the book. You'll understand why I found text and photo so compelling if you try the whole of this intelligent and passionate memoir.

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  • 2 weeks later...

MYWAR literally kept me attached to all of this.

And, even if one were to know nothing of Rand, the book is written so well, it's hard to put down. He has a wonderful flow.

I only wish he had published that darn novel.

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MYWAR literally kept me attached to all of this.

And, even if one were to know nothing of Rand, the book is written so well, it's hard to put down. He has a wonderful flow.

I only wish he had published that darn novel.

He DID publish his play based on his break with Rand. It's very good, and available on his web site in both written and audio media. Check it out.

Judith

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  • 9 years later...

The love affair between Rand and Branden was going on while she was writing Galt's speech for Atlas Shrugged, according to Branden's chronology in My Years with Ayn Rand. I came across a passage this morning in Atlas in which Francisco says to Rearden "You're the man who would know that just as an idea unexpressed in physical action is contemptible hypocrisy, so is platonic love. . ." (491). According to Branden's memoir, when Rand, with Branden, had announced to the spouses that she and Nathan had fallen in love and were intending to consummate it, she had said something like "We're not Platonists. . . . We don't hold our values in some other realm, unrelated to the realm in which we live our lives. If Nathan and I are who we are, if we see what we see in each other, if we truly hold the values we profess, how can we not be in love?" (133). In Shoshana Milgram's contribution to A Companion to Ayn Rand, she includes the following in a footnote: "There is incomplete documentary information about the course of the romantic relationship between Rand and Branden. At some point, Rand wrote in her personal notes, that they had made a 'Platonic decision', . . . which signaled a change in their relationship [the end of the making-love element]" (43n67).

The final sentence in the recollection of Branden's, quoted in the preceding paragraph, echoes Rand's "You will follow me" passage as Dagny heads for the tunnels where she will be ravished by John Galt (955). Perhaps she indeed made such an echo as is contained in Branden's recollection. On the other hand, perhaps Branden's reconstruction of what Rand said to the group adds the echo or strengthened it, given his familiarity with Atlas. 

AR 1953a.jpeg

c. 1953 (somewhat before the love affair)

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I'd have to guess Atlas Shrugged would have been somewhat different if not for the Brandens, especially Nathaniel.

Rand's super brain naturally was capable of super rationalizations. I don't think you think your way into love, especially when both partners have to do the same thing thinking to the same conclusion. But both Rand and Branden were super thinkers and super talkers who seem to have gotten away with all their chains of powerful deductions until it finally came a cropper. All that NBI teach Objectivism stuff on behalf of intellectual-cultural war was right and ready and surprisingly effective in the 1960s. It traveled less and less well into the succeeding decades until today it's quite dead in the water. There was money in it; not much money in doing it right, however, but they were incapable of doing it right regardless or there would have been a switch away from the philosophy per se in the 1980s (after Rand's death) into critical thinking and true individualism. The most basic problem is in and from Rand's great novel affirming and traducing reality all over the place all swept along by the power of her artistic recreation of reality.

--Brant

there is more in heaven and earth . . . (and there is more in Atlas Shrugged than there is on earth)

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Rand was a hypocrite in this business  – she didn’t do Platonism but then she didn’t do divorce either – still ...

“[James Valliant’s PARC is a] corrective counterpoint to the equally one-sided version of history promoted by Nathaniel Branden.  It is possible to read both of Nathaniel Branden’s ... memoirs about his affair with Rand ... and forget that Branden lied to Rand’s face for nearly five years.  Branden makes it somehow seem Rand’s fault that she placed so much trust in him – and gave him such a prominent place within the Objectivist community – that he couldn’t possibly tell her the truth about his feelings.”

from “In the Ayn Rand Archive” by Jennifer Burns in Raritan (an academic journal of Rutgers Univ.) Fall 2012.  (In this article Burns pretty much trashes PARC otherwise.)

Mark
ARIwatch.com
 

 

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JV demonstrates why when going to court you bring your own nasty-nasty-nasty-ass attorney with you.

--Brant

and your sweet looking mother--even if she's a rent-a-mother

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  • 2 weeks later...
On May 2, 2012 at 5:03 PM, Guyau said:

A few days ago, I read somewhere that Nathaniel Branden’s book My Years with Ayn Rand (1999) included intellectual biography. So I got the book, and this morning I skimmed through it. One thing I had wondered about for some time was the development of the concept of self-esteem as set out in Galt’s speech and as elaborated in print some years later by Nathaniel Branden in a major essay in The Objectivist. I got my money’s worth (pp. 148–49), realizing of course the window has to be taken as with some fog of memory and individual perspective.

There are bits of Rand’s intellectual history to be gleaned from this book. I see, for example, that in the ’40’s Rand was somewhat familiar with logical positivism and that with her Nathaniel and Barbara discussed a work of Hans Reichenbach, who was one of their profs at UCLA.

Personal associations come to mind with some of the personal details of this memoir. At the bit about Reichenbach, immediately I remembered reading in early college on my own his Axiomatization of the Theory of Relativity. It was my first exposure to the theory. Warm memories. Then in connection with another moment in the memoir—I’ll leave it to the reader to find—I remember my first lover saying to me “I’m the only one who is not afraid of you.”

My personal associations clash harshly with Branden’s response to something Rand wrote in 1966. It was the close of “Art and Sense of Life” published in The Objectivist. I remember where I was in my university library reading that essay for the first time, which was about 1968. I remember because of my response to the close of the essay, which is: “When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man’s character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work—and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it.” I felt a thrill of intimate kinship with the author (of the novels and these lines) in that phrase gentle reader. Those two sentences were all warmth and light in my reception of them. Branden writes of them: “The use of words like expose, naked, and gentle reader could have no other purpose than to intimidate—to scare the hell out of her audience” (307). How different, New York and Oklahoma. I imagine I was fortunate not to have been plugged into NBI.

The purpose of this note, however, is mostly to correct a certain specific impression this book gives about public knowledge of the love affair between Rand and Branden. In his Introduction, Branden writes that at the time of his break with Rand, “neither she nor I (for different reasons) chose to disclose to the world its actual cause.” He means the factor of the romantic relationships, their shifts and pains. Nathaniel Branden did reveal his affair with Ayn Rand, if not to “the world,” then at least to a good number of us. It was in the form of a letter, as I recall, he wrote to some of his Objectivist-type associates. Some time before finishing college in 1971, I had been shown the letter and knew about the affair. I informed my friends immediately. I imagine hundreds, if not thousands, were informed by little ripples from that letter.

At the end of his memoir, Branden relates some conversations Rand had with his wife Devers (c. 1981). Within these Rand denied repeatedly having an affair with Nathaniel, which Devers squarely and repeatedly disputed to Rand. Finally, Rand conceded with the remark “A gentleman would have carried it to his grave” (399).

As mentioned in the earlier note above, I think it right to lie in some settings concerning private matters. Then too there are details concerning some acquaintances of mine across the span of my life I intend to take with me unspoken to the grave. The work of the dead is to inspire, and there is no need for people who knew and admired those acquaintances to know of any such defects.

In contrast Rand was a public figure about whom many friends of her work have a sincere and wholesome interest in knowing the important facts of her life, and that certainly includes her affair with Nathaniel. So I don’t fault Rand (or others in the know) for lying to the public in this matter, and I don’t fault Branden—either earlier or later—for relating what transpired as he saw it and remembers it.

To Rand’s remark “A gentleman would have carried it to his grave,” Devers replied “All the years when you and your supporters were attacking him, he never said a word about it.” Not quite. From early on, some of us knew about the affair. I did not and do not think any the less of either of them for that. Actually, my friends and I thought it was neat, apart from the sad ending. We were not normal (thank goodness).

 

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12 hours ago, Guyau said:

My personal associations clash harshly with Branden’s response to something Rand wrote in 1966. It was the close of “Art and Sense of Life” published in The Objectivist. I remember where I was in my university library reading that essay for the first time, which was about 1968. I remember because of my response to the close of the essay, which is: “When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man’s character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work—and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it.” I felt a thrill of intimate kinship with the author (of the novels and these lines) in that phrase gentle reader. Those two sentences were all warmth and light in my reception of them. Branden writes of them: “The use of words like expose, naked, and gentle reader could have no other purpose than to intimidate—to scare the hell out of her audience” (307). How different, New York and Oklahoma. I imagine I was fortunate not to have been plugged into NBI.

I've always felt that way, too, Stephen. Living in the Midwest during the heyday of NBI was providential insulation from the worst of the dysfunction of the earliest days of the movement.

I think NB's "scare the hell out of her audience" was a bit hyperbolic, but there is some intimidation and fear and self-doubt that naturally occurs when someone pontificates about certain works of art being no good and says that your response reveals your soul. Suppose you like one of those (supposedly) rotten or defective works of art - you really like it. Now your revered font of philosophical wisdom and truth tells you, in effect, that you are rotten or defective, that you have revealed a flawed soul. Softening the blow and offering rapport by concluding it with friendly phrases like "gentle reader" or "my friend" &c was a good idea, considering how emotionally precarious a position Rand was putting her followers and readers by in effect asking consumers of art to psychologize themselves and evaluate themselves as in being in some sort of spiritual trouble. But who was going to counsel you through this agonizing self-appraisal (assuming you don't evade)? Especially if you lived not in NYC, but somewhere out in the boondocks of Fly-Over Country, like Oklahoma or Iowa? Lucky you, if all of your favorite art and music were approved by Miss Rand and your nakedly revealed soul had no ugly spiritual sores on it. :P

So, yes, a lot of us feel lucky not to have been subjected (much) to that. :excl:

12 hours ago, Guyau said:

The purpose of this note, however, is mostly to correct a certain specific impression this book gives about public knowledge of the love affair between Rand and Branden. In his Introduction, Branden writes that at the time of his break with Rand, “neither she nor I (for different reasons) chose to disclose to the world its actual cause.” He means the factor of the romantic relationships, their shifts and pains. Nathaniel Branden did reveal his affair with Ayn Rand, if not to “the world,” then at least to a good number of us. It was in the form of a letter, as I recall, he wrote to some of his Objectivist-type associates. Some time before finishing college in 1971, I had been shown the letter and knew about the affair. I informed my friends immediately. I imagine hundreds, if not thousands, were informed by little ripples from that letter.

I don't think NB's letter to subscribers actually confirmed The Affair in so many words. The way he worded it, he was suggesting that the triggering event of The Split was a rejection of Rand's request to have an affair. , and her reaction as a "woman scorned."

Naturally, many of us "read between the lines" and inferred that they actually had been having an affair, and that he was trying to extricate himself from it. But he did not actually say that there was an affair. We had to connect the dots for ourselves, and many of my friends refused to do so. Were they being naive? or just objective?

So, there was no "public knowledge about the love affair between Rand and Branden." There was, in our relatively minuscule subculture, enough lurid verbiage from Branden to suggest that there had been an affair. But that's all.

12 hours ago, Guyau said:

To Rand’s remark “A gentleman would have carried it to his grave,” Devers replied “All the years when you and your supporters were attacking him, he never said a word about it.” Not quite. From early on, some of us knew about the affair. I did not and do not think any the less of either of them for that. Actually, my friends and I thought it was neat, apart from the sad ending. We were not normal (thank goodness).

Well, I think NB said all he possibly could, without actually saying that there had been an affair. Interpret it how you like. There were lots of people taking it either way. But I don't think that any of us in the movement actually "knew about the affair."

I wasn't psychologically astute enough in those days to think it was a really bad idea for them to have had an affair. Nor were most of my friends in Iowa. We were just greatly fascinated in the drama and relieved at the end of the mystery, relieved to know that there was something human and intelligible behind the breakup of our Movement.

REB 

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Thanks for these perspectives, Roger. For some reason unknown, when I read the "gentle reader" line, I did not connect it to anything but her own literature. So it was just a note and reminder of that intimate positive connection of the reader to her. I and many others were reading her nonfiction writing at all, and indeed in that very moment, only because we had so much loved her fiction writing. And when we read her nonfiction, of course we were interested in the ideas, but we were also after the continuation of her style of writing, her personal voice, which was so enjoyable to us. My favorite essays of hers became "Apollo 11" and "Kant v. Sullivan." As I recall, in a Q&A session in '76, she mentioned that she too was especially fond of them for their literary quality. Her children were usually pretty bright, and we naturally set our thought on the extents to which what she was writing was true or false.

I think I mentioned to you before, but it would right to include here, that it was one of your Iowa associates Linda Northcote who read the Branden letter to our little group, and she remarked that some say it was more than a solicitation, it was an affair. In his later report in the subject book, Branden includes that he and Rand told Allan Blumenthal about the affair in the last crumbling days of the Rand-Branden association. That was one person who actually knew of it outside the two couples. Ellen has mentioned here the occasion, prior to the split, she Ellen hit "Ah ha" on what was going on. On hearing Linda with the letter, my naive attitude towards Rand and Branden was anger that they dissolved the professional association over an ended romance. I had some things to learn about human nature in this area, and anyway my picture of the social importance of the NBI and the Rand-Branden team was way off. They would both continue to new writings and with readers old and new, and their influence on personal growth and in the political arena would continue. My anger with them soon evaporated, and I wished them only for the remainder of their lives to be "watched by every human love" (to borrow Auden). At the time I knew Linda, she was a grad student in geology at University of Oklahoma. I gather from the internet that she then went to work in Texas, that she died some years ago, never married, and that she was loved very much by friends in a rock club.* 

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9 hours ago, Guyau said:

Thanks for these perspectives, Roger. For some reason unknown, when I read the "gentle reader" line, I did not connect it to anything but her own literature. So it was just a note and reminder of that intimate positive connection of the reader to her. I and many others were reading her nonfiction writing at all, and indeed in that very moment, only because we had so much loved her fiction writing. And when we read her nonfiction, of course we were interested in the ideas, but we were also after the continuation of her style of writing, her personal voice, which was so enjoyable to us. My favorite essays of hers became "Apollo 11" and "Kant v. Sullivan." As I recall, in a Q&A session in '76, she mentioned that she too was especially fond of them for their literary quality. Her children were usually pretty bright, and we naturally set our thought on the extents to which what she was writing was true or false.

1

I remember leaping directly from the fiction to the available non-fiction, which in 1966 included only For the New Intellectual and The Virtue of Selfishness. And the Objectivist Newsletter and Objectivist, which I didn't have access to until sometime the next year, followed closely by Capitalism the Unknown Ideal. Powerful, exciting stuff. Even Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, as geek-friendly as it was, had a really delicious literary quality to it. :) 

9 hours ago, Guyau said:

I think I mentioned to you before, but it would right to include here, that it was one of your Iowa associates Linda Northcote who read the Branden letter to our little group, and she remarked that some say it was more than a solicitation, it was an affair. In his later report in the subject book, Branden includes that he and Rand told Allan Blumenthal about the affair in the last crumbling days of the Rand-Branden association. That was one person who actually knew of it outside the two couples. Ellen has mentioned here the occasion, prior to the split, she Ellen hit "Ah ha" on what was going on. On hearing Linda with the letter, my naive attitude towards Rand and Branden was anger that they dissolved the professional association over an ended romance. I had some things to learn about human nature in this area, and anyway my picture of the social importance of the NBI and the Rand-Branden team was way off. They would both continue to new writings and with readers old and new, and their influence on personal growth and in the political arena would continue. My anger with them soon evaporated, and I wished them only for the remainder of their lives to be "watched by every human love" (to borrow Auden). At the time I knew Linda, she was a grad student in geology at University of Oklahoma. I gather from the internet that she then went to work in Texas, that she died some years ago, never married, and that she was loved very much by friends in a rock club.* 

I remember Linda Northcote very well. We called her "Rocky," because of her geology major. :)  She was a sweetheart, and one of my friends had a serious crush on her, which alas came to naught. Side-tracked and derailed romances - sometimes it's interesting to speculate on how different the world might have been, had those relationships continued or taken root.

REB

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