Had she not become a guru, Ayn Rand would have been the kind of person few people really like who still accumulates admiring followers, whom she would banish for the slightest deviation from total devotion. She would have been a particularly mean Mean Girl, terrorizing some suburban high school and then a middle class suburb. Judging from the stories told even by her admirers, she seems not to have had friends, only inner circles.
In one story I remember, her devotees rose one by one to say who had most influenced their lives. The only acceptable answer was, of course, Ayn Rand. A young man rose and began talking about a friend who’d helped him when his parents divorced, was sharply rebuked, and thrown out.
Her philosophy was essentially the life of a mean girl turned to human affairs. This, for example, from an essay called “Of Living Death.” The belief that the unborn child has a right to life is “vicious nonsense,” she says.
potential with an
actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable. . . . Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives.
No one, she continues, should have to raise a child “unwittingly or unwillingly.” For those she calls “conscientious persons, an unwanted pregnancy is a disaster; to oppose its termination is to advocate sacrifice, not for the sake of anyone’s benefit, but for the sake of misery qua misery, for the sake of forbidding happiness and fulfillment to living human beings.”
In another essay she writes: “If any among you are confused or taken in by the argument that the cells of an embryo are living human cells, remember that so are all the cells of your body, including the cells of your skin, your tonsils, or your ruptured appendix—and that cutting them is murder, according to the notions of that proposed law. Remember also that a potentiality is not the equivalent of an actuality—and that a human being’s life begins at birth.”
You will notice that this is both evil and stupid. It is hard to think of any other influential thinker who managed to combine the two so consistently.
Still, it’s easy to laugh at Rand and her work. Flannery O’Connor wrote of her fiction, in which Rand incarnated her philosophy in a stick-figure kind of way: “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”
Then there is the famous comment ascribed to the writer Raj Patel: “There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.”
Even in this age of dialogue, there are ideas to be fought and Rand’s are high among them. Nothing in her life commends her ideas. If she exemplified her philosophy, that in itself is a strong argument against it. She was America’s ideological Mean Girl and a Mean Girl in person. At least, I suppose, she was consistent. But here’s the thing: You never know why someone is as he is and if with the same experiences you would have done as badly or worse.
Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul by a journalist named Gary Weiss is unevenly written, and though a lefty Weiss has a disturbing sympathy with some of Rand’s ideas — he’s attracted by their shared secularism, I think — but it’s still a helpful description of the movement she created, and of Rand herself.
Weiss relays stories from her followers and former followers, and from them and others I’ve read Rand seems like a very frightened little girl who learned to deal with her fear with anger and control turned up all the way. Weiss relays a story from one of Rand’s earlier disciples, named Iris, who was first introduced to her as someone who’d helped design ads for a Randian enterprise.
Rand said, “Tell me how much you like the ads.” Iris felt that “here’s my chance to tell her something she didn’t know.’ So she began to tell Rand about how she designed the ads. She told Rand, “You figure out what is the most important thing for people to know, and you make that largest.”
Iris noticed that Rand’s eyes widened in anger. She didn’t know what she said that teed her off. Ed Nash [her Randian boyfriend] said, “Oh, excuse me,” and pulled her aside. “I think I could have lived my life and never guessed what made her angry,” said Iris. “Ed said, I said ‘you.’ It was as if I was telling her how she should design the ad. I should have said ‘one.’” Ayn Rand did not like to be told what to do, even when she wasn’t being told what to do.”
There are many stories like this and they all suggest some deep trauma, something that fixed her emotionally as a small child. We don’t know what horrors she may have suffered during her childhood in pre-Revolutionary Russia. I could be wrong about this very amateur psychoanalysis, but whatever the truth of that suggestion, we have no idea what makes an Ayn Rand an Ayn Rand. And how we might have done in the same circumstances.
Feeling empathy for what she may have suffered doesn’t make her ideas any less repellent or her life any more admirable. These are still things to be kept in mind in our public witness. But it is something to keep in mind when we think about her life and work. It’s too easy to forget Jesus’ order to “Judge not” when engaged in debate.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.