The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics: The Case Against the Brandens, by James Valliant. Dallas: Durban House, 2005. 433 pp. $27.95 (hardcover, out of print).
Ayn Rand was an influential and controversial novelist and philosopher whose name invariably ushers in a flood of debate. Unfortunately, not all of the controversy stems from Rand’s radical ideas, such as her advocacy of egoism and laissez-faire capitalism. Distracting from the discussion of her ideas is a controversy concerning claims made about Rand’s personal life and character in the works of two of her former students: Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday, 1986) and Nathaniel Branden’s My Years with Ayn Rand (Jossey-Bass, 1999). For eighteen years, the Brandens (who were married to each other from 1953 to 1965) were among Rand’s closest friends. However, their relationships with Rand ended abruptly in 1968, at which point they became her most vocal and publicized critics. In their books, both of which were published after Rand’s death, the Brandens tell their stories.
James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics: The Case Against the Brandens is the first book-length critique of the Brandens’ allegations. Valliant’s book is divided into two parts: the first, an analysis of several dozen claims made by the Brandens about Rand; the second, a selection of journal entries from Rand concerning psychological issues that Nathaniel Branden revealed to her during their romantic relationship. (Rand was happily married but had an open affair with Nathaniel Branden, with the full knowledge and consent of her husband and Barbara Branden.) The purpose of Valliant’s book is to dispel false claims the Brandens made regarding Rand, setting the record straight for those interested in the details of her life.
Valliant is a prosecutor by profession, which shows in Part One of the book, where he employs a legalistic style to present evidence showing that many of the Brandens’ allegations about Rand and the events of her life are either baseless or false. Valliant cross-examines their “recollections,” exposing the fact that their accounts repeatedly conflict not only with a wealth of other sources—including Rand’s private journal entries—but also and often with themselves. For example, Valliant shows that Barbara Branden’s claim that Rand’s insensitivity to the feelings of her husband, Frank O’Connor, regarding her affair led him to years of alcoholism can hardly be substantiated: None of the O’Connors’ closest friends recall seeing him drunk even once—including the originator of the charge, Barbara Branden (p. 146). Valliant similarly dispels other allegations, including the claims that: Rand wrote obsessively about Nathaniel Branden for years after their break; Rand was the initiator of the affair and she rekindled it after any interruption; Rand viewed the age gap (twenty-five years) between her and Nathaniel Branden as an illegitimate reason for ending their romantic relationship; and Rand held that ending a romantic relationship necessitates the complete severing of business and personal ties.
In Part Two, Valliant presents a series of journal entries that Rand wrote during her relationship with the Brandens—entries that constitute Rand’s only means of responding to their claims in her own words (given that the Brandens published their accounts after her death). The earlier entries are primarily “therapist’s notes” from sessions with Nathaniel Branden during which Rand counseled him regarding his psychological issues. As the entries progress, however, they take on a more personal tone, as Rand reveals more and more of her thoughts and feelings about Branden, such as her assessment of the damage to their relationship caused by his reluctance to address his psychological problems. This part of the book culminates in essay-length entries in which Rand reevaluates her entire relationship with Branden. In Valliant’s presentation of these journal entries, he intersperses his own commentary, recalling previous entries and relevant events that aid the reader in understanding Rand’s thinking at the time of her writing. Valliant reveals much new information—information that often conflicts with the Brandens’ claims and that, Valliant notes, they curiously omitted from their own accounts. Such information, Valliant says, is essential to understanding the truth about the events and relationships in question, and to judging the character of those involved.
The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics is well-researched and covers a wide range of articles, audio recordings, books, movies, and interviews with individuals who knew Rand for years, if not decades. Although the book focuses primarily on the Brandens’ claims and the evidence against them, it also includes interesting details about aspects of Rand’s philosophy (such as her little-known concept “meta-selfishness”) and fills many gaps in the history of her life. Consequently, the book will be of interest not only to those wondering about the veracity of the Brandens’ books, but also to students of Rand’s philosophy, to those curious about how she applied it in her daily life, and to those interested in the biographical details about this great thinker.