Ayn Rand and the World She Made is a good biography of Ayn Rand by someone who admires
her but who came to her as an adult and is not blinded to her faults by hero worship.
Anne C. Heller is a journalist and did meticulous research for this book. She had a team of Russian researchers comb through 100-year-old archives to find out things about Rand’s family life and education. She tracked down just about everyone who ever knew Rand who was still alive, including Rand’s aged sister and her housekeeper.
Heller didn’t get access to the official Ayn Rand Institute documents — apparently she didn’t pass some ideological test — but that doesn’t seem to have mattered. Jennifer Burns did get such access when researching her book about Rand, Goddess of the Market, and Heller still did a far better job. This is a fascinating account of all 77 years of Rand’s life.
Like Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Heller always sees the life force stirring in Rand, even in moments of adversity.
I’ve been reading Rand and books about Rand for over 30
years, but this one still made me think. How is it that Rand could be such a
great writer and so problematic a person?
Well, consider just what it is that makes someone world-class great at something. I mean great on the order of Beethoven or Frank Lloyd Wright.
It presumably takes high intelligence and raw talent, but it must also take a certain way of living. You must be awesomely concentrated, superhumanly independent, and ferociously self-confident. Many such people make their own world and live in it rather than sharing the common frame of reference, which to them would be discouraging and a distraction.
Although she never lists them explicitly, Heller suggests that Ayn Rand made not just one world but three. Two of these were worlds that Rand herself lived in. First was the world of her novels. Rand said she wrote to have someone to look up to, a world she could bear.
Has anyone ever pointed out that there’s something wrong with this? Imagining an alternative world and furnishing it with admirable characters does not make up for the deficits of the real world. But it does encourage one to live among one’s fantasies. And it does tend to keep one from discovering good people and things in reality.
For example, And Rand was a contemporary with many great people whom she could have looked up to but whom she mostly ignored, including Daniel Chester French, Albert Einstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill, Jonas Salk, Nicola Tesla, Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, etc., etc. They did not look like Rand heroes (for Rand appearance was very important) and they certainly weren’t ideologically pure, but they were great nonetheless. It seems clear that Rand would settle for nothing short of the perfection of her fantasy, especially her fantasy male.
The second kind of world that Heller chronicles is the personal world Rand made. Instances of Rand’s personal world-making abound throughout the book. Easy examples include her conjuring a heroic identity for her husband and a genius identity for her young fan Nathaniel Branden. Branden is certainly a brilliant man, but not on the level of Rand herself, yet Rand thought he was a genius when she first met him at the age of 19.
A more complex example of her personal world-making would be how she replaced genuine feelings of rejection and loss with feelings of indignation and righteous wrath that depended on an excessively moralistic worldview. Apparently some kinds of negative feelings were unbearable to her, so she denied them and projected wrong-doing or inadequacy upon others.
This sounds a bit like narcissism, in the sense of the personality disorder, and indeed Heller suggests at several points, starting on p. 70, that Rand was a narcissist. From what I’ve read about narcissism online, I’d say it’s a plausible suggestion, but Heller fails us by not following through: If there is a well-understood psychological problem that would have explained much of her subject’s behavior, Heller should have called on a few experts and settled the matter. It’s not good to bring up something like that and then drop it. Neither is it fair to Rand.
Rand said that “psychologizing,” as she called it, is immoral. However, I don’t think it would have been unfair to Rand for a psychologist to make a psychological assessment of her based on her wide trail of letters, journals, novels, and interviews, plus the testimony of many people who knew her. That is not “psychologizing” but is legitimate psycho-biography. It’s not like saying Barry Goldwater is neurotic because you don’t like his politics.
I have my own theory about Rand, not a psychological one per se, but a philosophical one. She would have preferred that approach, although perhaps not applied to herself. I am writing a book on the mind-body relation in which I say that some people believe themselves to be minds that happen to have bodies, not integrated wholes.
I believe Rand was such a person. Look at some of the evidence: She obviously lived among her thoughts and fantasies a great deal. She took terrible care of her body, never getting enough exercise, for example, as if she didn’t enjoy being a physical being. Her drugs of choice — nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines — all hype up the mind. Heller quotes Rand saying in her journal (p. 71) that she must become pure will and be a writing machine. On p. 261 Heller quotes Branden’s account of how Rand said that before their affair she was just a mind.
This all suggests that Rand not only thought of herself as a mind, but identified primarily with the faculty of will. Rand seems to have subjected the people around her to that will, but also seems to have subjected herself. In her journal she said that she would send everything but her writing to hell. Well, she did damn a lot of people. She made herself miserable. She gave herself cancer through her smoking, which she rationalized for years. Apparently she was true to her word. Not everything else, but many things in her life did go to hell. Without patronizing Rand or minimizing her achievements, Heller makes this point perfectly clear.
So what is the third world that Ayn Rand made? It’s one that Rand did not get to live in. It’s the one we live in: the one where communism was defeated, where capitalism is celebrated, where self-esteem is regarded as a crucial part of a healthy personality, where people protest a president they don’t like by buying copies of Atlas Shrugged.
Rand played a major role in making this world, just as she did for the other two. Could she have borne to live in this third, real world? Sad to say, I doubt it, because even though she helped make it vastly better, it still falls far short of perfection. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use what she said to better live in it ourselves.
Kurt Keefner is a writer and teacher who has been published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and Philosophy Now Magazine. He is currently working on a book about mind-body wholism. He lives near Washington, DC, with his wife, the author Stephanie Allen.