The Unbearable Lightness of a Protégé's Being


Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand, by Nathaniel Branden, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 416 pages, $21.95

Nathaniel Branden, the Objectivist psychologist who was Ayn Rand's protégé, lover, publicist, and cultmanager in the 1950s and 1960s, has written a fascinating memoir of the 18 years he spent at the side of the brilliant, somewhat loony woman who wrote Atlas Shrugged. It's not a biography—while Rand is a constant presence, she hovers in the background. The focus of the book is Branden himself; this is the self-portrait of a protégé. It's a tale of adventure and betrayal that casts light, not only on the Objectivist movement, but on the nature of the political intellectual in our time.

Branden grew up in Toronto in the 1940s as Nathaniel Blumenthal, son of a Russian Jewish immigrant clothing-shop owner. As a teenager, he felt alienated from the stolid world of his parents, "in which," as he recalls, "life was perceived not as an adventure but as a burden, and in which growing up was equated with giving up." Nathaniel longed for the "laughter and challenge and high-energy excitement" he'd experienced as a child. "I wanted to find heroes."

He found them in a book. "Howard Roark laughed," he read one day as he glanced at the first page of a novel his sister had left on the coffee table. By the time he'd finished The Fountainhead, his world had been turned upside down. The liberal pieties he's been brought up on suddenly seemed "preposterous" to him. They "missed the point of what life—and greatness—demanded. Not to sacrifice the self but to remain true to it at all costs—that was [Rand's] heroic vision." From age 14 to 18, "I read and reread the book almost continuously," Branden says. "It was the most important companion of my adolescence."

Nathaniel remained the obedient kid he'd always been, relating to Objectivist ideals the way he says his parents related to their liberal ideals: by cherishing them in his rhetoric and fantasies, but acting on the basis of what others expected of him—and by denying the contradiction. Then, as later in life, Nathaniel was an expert at denial. When he blocked out a problematic reality—as, for example, when he committed himself to the woman who was to become his first wife despite, he says, her lack of ardor and continuing involvements with other men—Branden experienced what he describes as "lightness," and "drama," or flight through air; that is, feelings of distance, numbness, dissociation, unreality.

Lightness and drama became a way of life for Branden when, as a UCLA freshman in 1950, he met Ayn Rand. He'd written Rand to ask what economic philosophy she believed in—"certainly not capitalism," he guessed—and she had replied with an invitation to visit her ranch house in the San Fernando Valley. It was love at first sight. Nathaniel, Ayn, and her husband, Frank O'Connor, talked from 8:00 in the evening to 5:30 the next morning. She invited Nathaniel to call later that day and to come back later in the week. In the 18 years that followed, Ayn and Nathaniel mentored and protégéd each other almost daily in a complex relationship that was both a wonderful success and a bitter failure.

Their intellectual collaboration was a triumph. They shared a genuine love of rationalist-individualist ideas and had complementary needs and strengths as intellectuals. Nathaniel was an ideal student—intelligent, needy, aggressive, deferential—and Rand a born teacher. He got an incomparable education. At a time when she was lost in the world of her novel-in-progress—Atlas Shrugged took her 13 years to write—she got a sounding board for her ideas, an approving first reader for her chapters, and an impresario who recruited a circle of fawning disciples. Later, his Nathaniel Branden Institute lectures helped turn her ideas into an intellectual-political movement and crowned her as its queen.

Their personal relationship, however, was sick, sick, sick. Ayn's philosophy held that people should be honest with themselves and others. That's the last thing Ayn and Nathaniel were, according to Branden. They threw themselves into exploitive, dependent relationships. They were false to their hearts' desires. They coerced, manipulated, lied to, and hurt the people around them. They betrayed themselves and the values they held dear.

Ayn Rand, the exponent of heroic individualism, was an intensely dependent person in private life. In matters ranging from personal transportation (though a long-time Angeleno, she didn't drive a car) to friendship (she and Frank were socially isolated until Nathaniel began bringing his friends and relatives around) to stimulation (she took amphetamines daily to control her weight), Ayn relied on others for the material and psychic wherewithal to sustain daily life. This inability to stand on her own two feet, Branden's account suggests, reflected the deeper fact that the great American novelist of pride and self-esteem had very little regard for herself.

Seeking a sense of self-worth in the attention and approval of the people around her made Ayn domineering, possessive, jealous, manipulative. "You have no right to other concerns…, no right to casual friendships, no right to vacations, no right to sex with some inferior woman," she yelled when Nathaniel once said he'd like a little space. She demanded total loyalty from, and was highly suspicious of, the members of her circle (with wonderful irony, they called it "the Collective"). She and Nathaniel spent much of their time together evaluating and disciplining the Collectivists, and over time most were banished. One who wasn't: future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

Ayn could be amazingly cruel. Before starting the affair with Nathaniel, he recounts, she asked his wife, Barbara, and her own husband for their consent, and from time to time she discussed with them the liaison's progress and problems. And she was a past master at making people feel guilty. At the end of the conversation in which they broke with each other, she pronounced this memorable curse: "If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health, you'll be impotent for the next 20 years! And if you achieve any potency sooner, you'll know it's a sign of still worse moral degradation."

If Ayn was a tyrant, Nathaniel was a hypocrite and a traitor. Like all protégés, he professed a childlike devotion to his mentor that, as a young adult aggressively using her patronage to further his career, he couldn't and didn't entirely feel. She was the active one, the initiator in their relationship; he was passive, reactive, opportunistic. From the beginning, and especially once their sexual liaison was established, Nathaniel felt the accustomed sensation of lightness in connection with the emotional side of their relationship. Yet her abuse didn't drive him away; it merely intensified his space-cadet numbness.

Nathaniel's hypocrisy deepened into a general pattern of betrayal that infected many of his relationships. In 1968, when at 38 (she was then 64) he gave Ayn a letter announcing the end of their sexual relationship of 14 years, he was still married to (though not living with) his first wife and for seven years had been increasingly involved with a third woman he would later marry. He had become so detached from the moral and psychological reality of human relationships that he felt he didn't need to tell Ayn about the new woman, and he imagined that after the break he and Ayn would remain friends. "You bastard. You nothing. You fraud," Ayn shrieked when she got the drift of the letter. "Everything you have professed to be is a lie."

Branden says of this reaction that it was vintage Ayn, rewriting history to deny the pain she was feeling. But Branden's book, taken as a whole, suggests that he had compromised himself so deeply for so long in connection with so many relationships that her judgment, far from being a flight from reality, was actually pretty close to the truth.

Sometimes Branden appears to sympathize with Rand's perspective. At a number of points in this book, he writes as an older and wiser man who in the twilight of his middle years has set himself the task of revisiting the folly of his youth with new insight and compassion.

In this spirit, Branden argues that her paranoia and his own hypocrisy teach a lesson about the flaws of Objectivism. Ayn and her circle, Branden says, insisted on "unbreached rationality," by which they meant "a commitment to use one's mind to the fullest of one's ability, a respect for facts, reality, and logic, and a refusal to indulge [mere] wishes by evading knowledge or evidence." In theory, it's a fine idea. In practice, Branden says, it was a formula for elevating the mind at the heart's expense and for denying or repressing emotions.

Now the scales have fallen from his eyes, Branden suggests at a number of points. He's learned that emotion and mystery have a necessary place in the human scheme of things; that while reason is a virtue, rationalism is a destructive vice; that being true to yourself can be the most difficult of tasks. In these passages, Branden is in effect confessing error and imploring others to take to heart the lessons he learned at such a cost to himself and those around him.

Most of the time, however, Judgment Day is an exercise in self-aggrandizement. From the vengeful title onward, the book seethes with unacknowledged animus against first-wife Barbara (author of a successful and mostly adulatory biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand) and Rand herself. In memory as in life, Branden relates to them with veiled hostility. He dwells on their unattractive traits and actions and describes them with a minimum of context.

By contrast, the narrative puts his own actions in a sympathetic and rational context—Branden, we soon realize, isn't a man to tell a lot of stories at his own expense. I don't know how many times Branden reports infidelities on Barbara's part and fits of jealous rage on Ayn's. But on the one occasion when Branden purports to explain why he rejected Ayn, he merely says, as if reporting an objective fact of scientific physiology, that a 64-year-old female body lacks sex appeal. At length it becomes apparent that Branden at 60 isn't in much better touch with his feelings and motives than he was at 20. He's still a prisoner of lightness.

In the closing pages, Branden shifts from self-exculpation to self-glorification. "We were ecstasy addicts," he declares. "No one can understand Ayn, or her appeal to people, or the force that held all of us together back in New York, who doesn't understand that there exists in human beings [a] need for an ecstatic state of consciousness. That's what Ayn transmitted through her novels, and that's what we fell in love with and fought against leaving, because it was through her that we first entered that other plane."

Branden apparently means it. He says that in the effort to satisfy their need for ecstasy, people should do whatever turns them on. If sex is your thing, Branden counsels, get thee into the sack. If religion, athletics, drugs, or war is what you get off on, he declares, do it and don't look back. And if, he implies, the quest for ecstasy draws you into a 14-year-long exploitive affair with a married woman old enough to be your mother whom you don't love and eventually abandon in full view of both betrayed spouses, that's great, too. Branden wants us to understand that he has no regrets, that he's hall-of-fame material. At the same time, he also lets us know that he's getting his ecstasy in less problematic ways now—from a happy marriage to his third wife, Devers, and from his writing and therapeutic practice dealing with self-esteem and romantic love.

For me, this is an often tantalizing and frustrating book. On the one hand, it affords a uniquely intimate glimpse of Ayn Rand and, through her, of the world of a modern political intellectual movement, with its authoritarian patrons and hypocritical protégés, its pretensions to scholarship, its rabid sectarianism, its mind-bending hypocrisy. I can't think of another nonfiction work that probes these important and ill-appreciated topics as deeply or that reflects my own experience of the intellectual world as well. And as someone who has tried his hand at memoir, I'm in awe of Branden's achievement in courageously and often movingly bearing witness to so intimate and vast a range of personal experience.

On the other hand, this book has a credibility problem. It's not just that Branden isn't a disinterested witness or that he hasn't fully owned up to his part in the story he's telling. The problem is that it's hard to trust a man who, after everything that happened and everything he says he felt, insists that the only thing amiss in his relationship with Rand was an age difference that made it inevitable that eventually he'd lose interest in bonking the old girl. Or who, at the end of a wrenching, dark, real-life tragicomedy, sees fit to get off stage with a trite credo of '60s narcissism and nihilism. After all he's been through, first as protégé and more recently as a memoirist, Nathaniel Branden deserves a larger, more humane perspective on what he's seen and felt than the one he projects in his book.

Paul H. Weaver, author of The Suicidal Corporation, is John M. Olin Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution.