My History with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden

 Posted by on 22 March 2006 at 7:28 am  The Brandens
Mar 222006

I wrote the substance of this post on my personal history with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden quite some time ago. At the time of writing, my purpose was to more fully explain my strongly negative judgment of the Brandens, as well to use my own case to examine some of the errors commonly committed by honest admirers of Objectivism in the course of judging them. However, the publication of Jim Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC) rendered that whole enterprise thoroughly superfluous. For any honest inquirer, Mr. Valliant presents an overwhelming case against the Brandens. He does not merely prove that they manipulated, deceived, and abused Ayn Rand all those decades ago, but also that they continue to do so to this day. (And, I should add, they do so with the blessing and assistance of The Objectivist Center.)

So at this point, I’m mostly just posting this history for the record. Still, I think that my errors in judging Nathaniel and Barbara Branden indicate the great value of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, particularly to young people new to Objectivism. Certainly, my own history with the Brandens, and probably even with TOC, would have been radically different if I could have read that book ten years ago. (That’s why I’m such an enthusiastic supporter of the book.)

So here is my history with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden…

Early in my freshman year of college in the fall of 1993, I read Ayn Rand’s major philosophic anthologies — The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology — for the very first time. Just a few short months later, in February 1994, I read Nathaniel Branden’s article “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.” At the time, my basic view of the article was very positive. I was too much of a novice to understand the gross inaccuracies in Branden’s claims about Objectivism, let alone the fallacies and falsehoods of his criticisms thereof. I wrongly read the article as identifying and criticizing certain common but significant errors of Objectivists in applying the philosophy, rather than as critical of the principles of the philosophy itself. Or at least I regarded his criticisms as valid to that extent. (Unfortunately, my e-mail record is a bit spotty on this point.)

Of course, Nathaniel Branden was clear enough that he blamed Objectivism in that article — and elsewhere. For example, in response to my “Yet Another Heretic” post to MDOP in February 1994, he wrote:


In my reply, I clearly rejected Branden’s criticisms of Objectivism, unfortunately while still accepting his basic portrayal of Ayn Rand (and Leonard Peikoff) as demanding dogmatic agreement from Objectivists. That’s not surprising, since at that point, I’d already accepted David Kelley’s views about the injustice of the various “purges” in the Objectivist movement.

The next month, I read Nathaniel Branden’s memoir, Judgment Day. My reaction to that work was more mixed. I was completely enthralled by the brilliance of Ayn Rand’s mind as portrayed in his first meeting with her. Yet as the story progressed, I was deeply dismayed by her seeming irrationality in her dealings with other people. Knowing the ways in which strong emotions can distort memories over time, I did have some reservations about the reliability of Branden’s recollections. Yet I never really suspected outright, devious, and wholesale deception from him. I’m not entirely sure why not. I was likely naive, in that I tend to find grand-scale dishonesty utterly bizarre as a strategy in life. I was also likely impressed by his seemingly frank admissions of his own past wrongdoing. Obviously, I should have seriously considered the possibility of ongoing deception, given his admitted willingness to live in a mess of lies for so many years.

In those early years, I also read a few of Nathaniel Branden’s other books, namely The Psychology of Self-Esteem, The Psychology of Romantic Love, and The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. I attended a weekend seminar he conducted in Chicago in October 1994. During the seminar itself, I was favorably impressed by Branden’s intelligence, insight, and consistency with my (limited) understanding of Objectivism. (Later, once I knew more, I realized that his grasp of Objectivism was superficial at best.) About a year later, in November 1995, I heard him speak at the Cato Institute on “The Philosophical Foundations of a Free Society.” In response to a question, he claimed a close affinity for Objectivism:

Questioner: I’m wondering if you see yourself as a spokesperson for Objectivism and also how you’d contrast yourself with others who certainly do, like Leonard Peikoff or David Kelley.

Branden: I have struggled with that question for a long time. I don’t technically think of myself as a spokesperson for Objectivism because I’m no longer teaching Objectivism; I’m developing my own work and my own ideas. But if you ask me: In the main, am I in large agreement with the Objectivist philosophy? Yes. Do I have differences with Rand? Yes. Will historians probably say those differences are not that important and that in fundamentals Branden was an Objectivist? I’m sure of it, if anybody cares.

So I don’t really care that much about the labels anymore. I think that I certainly know that philosophy very intimately well, and I think it has enormous contribution to make to human well-being, and I have benefited from it in my own thinking enormously.

From my perspective at the time, Nathaniel Branden seemed very Objectivist, regardless of his tumultuous history with Ayn Rand. My doubts about his portrayal of Ayn Rand slowly faded into the background.

After graduating from college in May 1997, I moved to Los Angeles in search of web programming work. As I was job hunting, I approached Nathaniel Branden about the possibility of developing a web site for him, mostly so that I would have some work for my portfolio. (It wasn’t because I was a big fan of his work, since I wasn’t.) That began my long tenure as his webmaster. For many years, we had a reasonably friendly business relationship, mostly consisting of infrequent e-mails about the web site. While living in southern California, I also attended a few gatherings of people interested in Objectivism held at his house.

During those years, I never bothered to read Barbara Branden’s biography The Passion of Ayn Rand, except for a page or two. Predictably enough, I’d totally lost interest in the details of Ayn Rand’s life after accepting Nathaniel Branden’s basic portrait of her. Reading Passion seemed like an unnecessary and unpleasant chore. In those years, I did frequently hear disparaging stories about Ayn Rand from people in and around David Kelley’s then-named Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS). Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that Barbara Branden’s biography was often the only source for those stories. I presumed her to be fairly reliable reporter of the early history of the Objectivist movement because Passion seemed to be the widely-confirmed truth. (What a vicious circle!) Also, I thought of her as reliable simply because she was a first-hand observer of events. As with Nathaniel Branden, I did not seriously consider the possibility of grand deception, personal bias, or the like.

So in time, I came to accept the broad strokes of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden’s portraits of Ayn Rand’s character. Despite my admiration for the philosophy she created, I concluded that Ayn Rand was often deeply irrational in her dealings with other people. It was a harsh disappointment at first, but one which I felt bound to accept in light of the seemingly well-established facts. (I can vividly remember a moment of grappling with that bitter conflict in my freshman dorm room.) I concluded that I would not have liked to have ever met Ayn Rand, since we surely would have been at odds. (Augh!) Obviously, I failed to examine the portraits of Ayn Rand created by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden critically enough, in substantial part because I was too quick to accept the standard view of Ayn Rand found in IOS/TOC circles.

Without a doubt, the Brandens’ portrayals of Ayn Rand were widely taken for granted in the intellectual circles of IOS/TOC in which I involved myself (to varying degrees) for ten years. That’s hardly surprising, given David Kelley’s reliance upon and praise for Barbara Branden’s biography in making his allegations of recurring tribalism in the Objectivist movement in Truth and Toleration. Kelley conceded that he did not regard Ayn Rand as “entirely responsible for the tribal character of the [Objectivist] movement,” but then wrote:

It is clear to me that Ayn Rand was a woman of remarkable integrity, who largely embodied the virtues she espoused. But it is also clear that she had certain other traits often found in great minds who have waged a lonely battle for their ideas: a tendency to surround herself with acolytes from whom she demanded declarations of agreement and loyalty; a growing sense of bitter isolation from the world; a quickness to anger at criticism; a tendency to judge people harshly and in haste. These faults did not outweigh her virtues; I consider them of minor significance in themselves. But they were real, and I thought [Barbara] Branden’s book, whatever its other shortcomings, gave a reasonably fair and perceptive account of them (T&T 75, emphasis added).

In the mid-1990s, David Kelley invited Nathaniel and Barbara Branden to actively participate in IOS/TOC. For the past decade, both have done so to varying degrees. Nathaniel Branden has spoken at TOC’s Summer Seminar almost every year for the past ten years. He has been prominently featured at other TOC conferences, including “Reclaiming Spirituality From Religion” (1999) and “Success: What it Is and What it Takes” (2004). Both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden were invited to speak at “Atlas and the World,” although Barbara had to cancel at the last moment due to illness. Barbara Branden was featured as the keynote speaker at the 10th anniversary banquet in 1999. TOC’s magazine, Navigator, published two articles by Nathaniel Branden and favorably reviewed The Art of Living Consciously and The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. In 1998, Navigator welcomed the publicity from the then-forthcoming movie The Passion of Ayn Rand based upon Barbara Branden’s biography. In a 2003 book review of by William F. Buckley’s Getting It Right, Robert Bidinotto clearly treated Barbara Branden’s biography and Nathaniel Branden’s memoirs as accurate and reliable accounts of Ayn Rand’s life, even referring to “Barbara Branden’s excellent biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand.” TOC’s book service reissued his Basic Principles of Objectivism course, as well as edited versions of his essays from Who is Ayn Rand?, “The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged” and “The Literary Method of Ayn Rand.” Both Nathaniel and Barbara were interviewed for the so-called Objectivist History Project in 2003, 2004, and 2005. (Nathaniel was interviewed twice.)

Perhaps most telling of all, despite the publication of Jim Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden are slated to speak at the upcoming 2006 Summer Seminar. Barbara Branden will speak on “Rage and Objectivism.” Nathaniel Branden will speak on “The Implications of Love.” Together, they will be publicly interviewed on the topic of “Galt’s Gulch and Objectivist Community.” (Uncle! Those three topics are so pathetically ironic as to be beyond my capacity to mock.)

Predictably, once Nathaniel and Barbara Branden became officially involved with IOS/TOC, the general attitude toward them among IOS/TOC supporters shifted in a significantly positive direction. Self-selection was partly at work; most of the few people who strongly objected to their presence, such as Joan and Allan Blumenthal and Jim Lennox, quietly abandoned the organization. Others stayed but tended to keep their objections quiet. Many devout fans of Nathaniel Branden began attending the Summer Seminars largely to hear him speak, to the point that people sometimes joked about him “holding court” in discussions with far too many people gathered in concentric circles around him. Also, more than a few individuals adopted a more positive view of the Brandens at this time. I suspect that many people, particularly those confused or undecided about them, were swayed by their trust in David Kelley’s judgment. They were also likely influenced by Nathaniel Branden’s charm, large persona, and seeming friendliness to Objectivism. Moreover, given the pre-existing break with ARI, people generally ignored or dismissed the contrary testimony of ARI-affiliated scholars who personally knew Ayn Rand and/or the Brandens as biased hagiography. Many people attempted to erect an untenable wall between the person of Ayn Rand and her fiction and philosophy, disclaiming any interest in the person, even though disdain for person clearly bled over into disdain for the fiction and philosophy. (All that was certainly true in my own case, I’m sorry to report.)

Notably, all those changes happened without any serious discussion about the honesty and objectivity of Barbara Branden’s portrayal of Ayn Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden’s in Judgment Day. Personally, while I often heard objections to the quality of the Brandens’ writings and lectures, moral objections to their involvement in a supposed Objectivist organization were not just rare, but non-existent. Nathaniel Branden was such a regular fixture at TOC that he was widely regarded as the Benevolent Patriarch of Objectivism. Correspondingly, Ayn Rand was generally seen as the Wicked Witch of Objectivism. For so many years, I went along with all that.

Now let me pause here to offer an assessment of all that.

While writing up the bulk of this history in the summer of 2004, I came to a hard judgment about myself: Over the course of far too many years, I defaulted on the task of morally judging Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, particularly Nathaniel. To be clear, the fundamental problem was not that my moral judgment was in error, nor that my method of moral judgment was flawed, but rather that I refrained from moral judgment. Here’s what happened — or rather, did not happen. I did not come to a clear and solid evaluation of the Brandens’ actions and character based upon the evidence available to me. When the evidence seemed mixed and confused, I did not set myself the task of answering the critical questions, e.g. “Are the Brandens’ trustworthy recorders of Ayn Rand’s life?” and “Are their criticisms of Objectivism just?” and “Are the Brandens genuine allies of Objectivism?” Instead, my judgments tended to drift along in confusion, pushed here and there by the evidence close at hand. As a result, I passively absorbed a fairly positive view of both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, as well as a correspondingly negative view of Ayn Rand, from the culture of IOS/TOC. My negligence in this case resulted in substantial injustice, not just to Ayn Rand but also to all those who saw through the con game of the Brandens years ago.

And yes, it was important for me to come to a clear moral judgment of the Brandens, particularly Nathaniel. Nathaniel and Barbara Branden were not mere distant strangers, but intellectuals actively involved in an organization claiming to represent and promote Objectivism. So by supporting and promoting that organization, I was also indirectly supporting and promoting Nathaniel and Barbara Branden’s unjust and dishonest attacks upon Ayn Rand’s philosophy and character. I was helping to send the message to the world, including to newbie Objectivists, that Nathaniel and Barbara Branden are basically friends of Objectivism, that their criticisms thereof are honest and reasonable, and that their portraits of Ayn Rand are generally correct. By participating in an self-described “Objectivist” movement which welcomed the Brandens as friends, I implicitly sanctioned — and even encouraged — those nasty smear articles on Ayn Rand and Objectivism based upon the “stunning revelations” of the Brandens. From an outside perspective, if even defenders of Ayn Rand’s philosophy accept that she lived a sordid life, then that’s all fair game, right? (Every single person who still chooses to associate with TOC in any way, shape, or form, is guilty of the same injustice, even if sometimes critical of the Brandens. That’s why I think it’s so critical for the few honest ones to read The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics — and then sever their ties with TOC.) Even worse, as Nathaniel’s webmaster, I personally and directly promoted his work, including his attacks upon Ayn Rand and Objectivism. So due to my failure to judge the Brandens as I ought to have, I was destroying the very values I wished promote.

All in all, I feel a rather mushy and foul disappointment with myself for this failure to properly judge the Brandens. Even given my limited context of knowledge, I could have and ought to have done better. In contrast, although my ten years with IOS/TOC was predicated on substantial error on my part, at least those errors were mine. I made them, by my own conscious judgment and deliberate choice, because I believed David Kelley to be on the side of the true and the good. In contrast, with the Brandens, my failure to judge meant that I passively allowed others to decide for me. I had no malicious motive: I did not wish to think ill of Ayn Rand, as so many of the nasty folks on “Rebirth of Reason” and “Objectivist Living” clearly do. Still, I allowed my confusions to get the better of me; I passively accepted the standard views at TOC; I defaulted on the responsibility of moral judgment. At least that black cloud has a small silver lining: that failure provided me with an enormously clear lesson in the real-life importance of moral judgment. As with all philosophic issues, if you do not decide for yourself, you allow others to decide for you.

So let me now return to my history.

My turning point with respect to the Brandens began in 2003, as I was editing my introductory course on Objectivism, Objectivism 101, for the 2003 TOC Summer Seminar. I decided to add a brief biographical sketch of Ayn Rand to the first lecture, focusing on her life up through the writing of the novels. For some background, I skimmed the early chapters of Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand, as well as the material covering the same time period in her biographical essay from Who Is Ayn Rand?, both for the first time.

Although I was delighted by some of the childhood stories in The Passion of Ayn Rand, my overwhelming response was disgust at the barrage of disparaging, gratuitous, and arbitrary psychologizing of Ayn Rand. Barbara Branden seemed determined to spin the worst possible interpretations from the most innocuous facts. In order to do so, she routinely interjected herself into the story to draw some unwarranted negative conclusions about Ayn Rand’s psychology, usually about her deeply repressed subconscious motives. She refused to allow her readers to form their own judgments based upon the facts presented. It was infuriating. (I’ll rip apart some examples in a later post.)

At the time, I recognized that Barbara Branden’s basic evaluations of Ayn Rand were less than objective, even malevolent. I suspected that her account of her own years with Ayn Rand was similarly, if not more seriously, poisoned by bias. I wondered whether Nathaniel Branden’s memoir was similarly flawed. In addition to these worries about the Brandens’ portrayals of Ayn Rand, I also wondered what justice was rightly due the creator of Objectivism, whatever her personal conduct. In particular, I was disturbed by the contrast between my tepidly mixed feelings toward Ayn Rand and my wholehearted reverence for Aristotle. After all, Aristotle advocated slavery! (As it turned out, I didn’t need to solve that dilemma, since I soon realized that it was based upon a false premise about Ayn Rand’s private conduct.)

My assessment of these matters was substantially hampered by the thought that I faced the Herculean task of having to find out the truth about those long-gone days of the Nathaniel Branden Institute. I thought, for example, that I had to determine who was responsible for the stifling atmosphere around NBI, if such existed at all. That seemed impossible to me, as I couldn’t blindly trust the claimed recollections of one side of the conflict while arbitrarily ignoring or discounting the other. Nor was I going to adopt some cowardly middle position. I wanted to judge for myself based upon direct knowledge of the facts, but such knowledge seemed out of my reach. (In fact, I could have largely decided these questions first-hand by listening to Ayn Rand’s Ford Hall Forum lectures, as I did in 2005. Her tone in the lectures is serious but not angry — and her benevolent responses to all sorts of questions were clearly nothing like the dogmatic authoritarianism portrayed by the Brandens.)

For the next few months, I was overwhelmingly busy with work in graduate school, not to mention with my efforts to get to the root of my unhappiness with The Objectivist Center. I pursued my questions about the Brandens only on occasion, mostly by speaking to a few trusted friends who’d attended NBI lectures and seeking out various criticisms of the Brandens.

Finally, in the spring of 2004, I was able to come to firm moral conclusions about both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. In the course of reading some of their recent writings on Ayn Rand and Objectivism, I realized that I did not need to somehow uncover the hidden truths of decades past. Those writings were revealing enough on their own. As indicated in my “Unnecessary Evidence” post, further consideration of Barbara’s arbitrary psychologizing of Ayn Rand in her biography, combined with her too-often-ludicrous posts in NoodleFood’s comments, were reason enough for me to judge her guilty of longstanding, malicious injustice toward Ayn Rand. Since then, her behavior has only confirmed that judgment: she arbitrarily accused her then-friend Lindsay Perigo of alcoholism, invented ludicrous fairy tales about Leonard Peikoff, offered fantastically twisted interpretations of Ayn Rand’s personal journal entries, and more. As for Nathaniel, re-reading his “Benefits and Hazards” article told me more than I needed to know about his character. For him to promulgate such amorphous, slippery, and context-dropping criticisms of Objectivism, even while asserting his great authority on the subject, was beyond the pale. (I’d like to blog on his particular charges someday, since some are quite cleverly constructed, almost worthy of Ellsworth Toohey.) And so I concluded that Nathaniel and Barbara Branden were and are dishonest, unjust, and generally vile people. I told them so in a private e-mail in June 2004. I announced that judgment in my August 2004 blog post, Unnecessary Evidence, after Nathaniel Branden decided to play a malicious practical joke upon me — by trespassing upon my property, no less. (My e-mail to the Brandens is reproduced in that blog post.)

Since then, Jim Valliant published The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics. He sealed the case against them, revealing them as dishonest, unjust, and malicious critics of Ayn Rand and Objectivism — to this very day. Before I read the book, I did not think that I could possibly think worse of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. I was wrong.

In the meantime, the leadership of TOC is steadfastly refusing to consider the issue. In the wake of the revelations about the ongoing immorality of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, they are suddenly disclaiming all interest in Ayn Rand’s life, while simultaneously refusing to even read the book. TOC is too committed to “openness” and “tolerance” to make the requisite moral judgments of the Brandens. As someone said in the NoodleFood comments recently, they’re willing to tolerate everything — except genuine Objectivists.

With the publication of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, all those who claim some affinity for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism face a stark choice: EITHER Ayn Rand and Objectivism OR Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. It is simply not logically possible to value both Objectivism and its would-be destroyers. The middle ground is gone forever. For many years, I thought that I could and ought to stand on that middle ground. I’m delighted to have been proven wrong, since that leaves me free to admire Ayn Rand in the way she so richly deserves.

More than anything else, that is the great value of Jim Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics.

  • jim

    Thanks for helping to clear up this mess for newbie objectivist students.

  • HeyMcD

    My guess would be that you’re still re-reading.

  • Carl Jacobson

    I’ve seen interviews with Nathaniel Branden and he comes off as a first rate narcissist. I don’t agree with Ayn Rands ideas but she didn’t assume the absolutist Guru stance until her association with Nathaniel Branden (Blumenthal).

    I feel that Nathaniel, in ingratiating himself Ayn Rand and positioning himself as her intellectual heir, brought out the worst in Rand’s personality and allowed the oppressive atmosphere of the “Collective” to develop.

    Rand’s intellectual development stopped at this time – when she was being hailed as the finest mind and foremost philosopher by her head acolyte, Nathaniel Branden. Branden himself is no angel, he gladly played her Torquemada – her chief inquisitor who was the first to denounce all heretics and bring them forward for punishment.

    Rand was an intelligent lady, but very insecure and with no sense of human emotions or motivations. Which is probably why she was so easily maipulated by Branden – who played to pride and preyed on her emotional weaknesses.

    The only one I felt any pity for was Frank O’Connor who seemed to be a nice guy who would have been better off with a conventional wife and kids.

  • Russ Hamilton

    Dear Diana Hsieh, I realize it has been many years since you posted this but I wish to thank you for it. For many years now I have tried to be a good objectivist. At least from the standpoint of being true to my valus and intellect, meager as that may be. In explaining or defending objectivism or Ayn Rand I have come across certain individuals as of late engaging in very personal attacks against her and her life. Though these alleged personal faults bothered me, I reasoned that it did not invalidate her philosophy. Never the less it was troublesome to me. I know that any and all of mankind have their individual faults and it is doubtless Ms. Rand had hers. Your marvelous rehabilitation of her character has brightened my day so thankyou again for the time and effort of your post.

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