That is the title of her biography, written by one of her ex-adherents who also happened to be the wife of a man Ayn had a long-term affair with–given all that, one would expect the tone of the book to be rather more unsympathetic than otherwise. However, that’s not really the case. I read it over a decade ago for a college class–the one and only women studies course I ever took required us to choose and write an in-depth paper about an influential woman of the first half of the twentieth century. I chose Ayn Rand, for three reasons: first, because she fit the criteria as presented; second, because I have a rebellious streak and knew full well that we were expected to choose a feminist, regardless of what the criteria explicitly stated; and third, because I was genuinely interested in the woman behind Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
On CNN this morning, I caught sight of the following headline:
This struck me as a little odd, since I know Ayn’s been dead for several years now. What, is she seeing it from Heaven? (An even odder idea, given the virulence of her atheism.) But it isn’t the first time I’ve been reminded of Ayn recently–she’s been resurrected quite often lately, both by conservative types who are threatening to “go on strike” a la John Galt and by liberals who regularly mock both her admirers and her concepts, at least as they understand her concepts, which is usually poorly. (I won’t speak much to the whole “go on strike” routine the previously mentioned spoiled-rich poseurs are engaging in, other than to say it likely would have cracked Ayn up no end.)
Now, Ayn was no great fiction writer. She had her moments, especially humorous ones–but for the most part, her novel writing skills just ain’t there. She liked to give speeches–loved to give speeches, really, really long ones–! And, as anyone who writes fiction knows, one of the cardinal rules is to show, not tell, as much as possible, and Ayn never showed it if she could tell it, and tell it in excruciating detail. On those less frequent occasions when she did decide to show, she clearly felt that there was far too much of a chance that simply showing just wasn’t going to get her extremely important point across clearly enough. Suffice it to say that she injected enough symbolism into her showing scenes to fell an ox, and with about as much subtlety. She was also fond of eroticizing rape, which I suspect stemmed from a strong personal yearning to be a femme fatale. She seemed to figure that the pinnacle of sexual tension and excitement was some guy wanting you so badly that he couldn’t stop himself from ripping your clothes off (literally!) and that you would be so thrilled by this unmistakeable tribute to your irresistible attractiveness that all other considerations would pall. And beyond the desire to be incredibly physically attractive, she obviously, badly wanted to meet a man, a male, that she could genuinely consider superior to herself–she just as obviously never did, but if she’d managed to do so, she clearly imagined the experience to be so overwhelming that her only option would be to fling herself at his feet and become his slave. (Had she actually met such a man at some point, I think she’d have figured out fairly quickly that abject servitude to him was no more fun than abject servitude to anyone else is–it’s a shame she didn’t, it might have resulted in some more interesting writing.)
While researching her, I also stumbled across her testimony before HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities Committee, which amusingly sounds much more like a group of subversive Satanists than what it really was, which was a nasty part of the McCarthy era) in the late 1940′s. The University of Maryland has a lot of great goverment stuff in its archives, unsurprisingly given it’s geographic location, so I got to read the original transcripts on microfiche. It was depressing, though not completely without justification. Ayn had a pretty bad time of it in Russia before she managed to defect–given that, her virulence towards Communism and supporters of Communism is more understandable than some other people’s. It also makes her knee-jerk revulsion towards governmental controls on private citizen’s finances more understandable–but I was very sorry to learn that she’d gotten involved at all. Who wouldn’t be?
All those caveats aside, though, it was very good for me to read her stuff when I did, which was first in my early- to mid-twenties. I had been raised in a very liberal fashion, politically-speaking, yet I wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of my core beliefs–but I didn’t really know how to articulate that discomfort. I certainly wasn’t drawn to the Republican mantra of how feminists and welfare queens (a) lived high on the hog and (b) were responsible for the decline of the high morality of our civilization–I already knew that was total bullshit, having lived much more intimately with, er, welfare queens and feminists in their actual melieu than any of those self-same Republicans ever had. But I also wasn’t satisfied entirely with the black-and-white presentation of oppressor/oppressee–see, I’d had little contact for most of my life at that time with those liberal demons, the Rich Old White Men. However, I’d suffered plenty at the hands of my supposed fellow victims–far more than I could relate to any suffering I hadn’t yet had at the hands of the ROWM brigade. Liberals were happy to address the gendered motivated aspect of my suffering, and I could resonate with that–but what about all the rest? They were ominously silent.
What was the rest of my suffering? Well, for one thing, I (like Ayn) was very bright. I had always been very bright, noticeably bright–I came to expect, every time I had a new teacher, the half-suppressed choking as he or she went over my very first reading test for placement in each class, and of course the inevitable IQ testing in the counsellor’s office that followed. Interestingly enough, that never did result in a swelled head–I was the only child, for a very long time, in a family of unusually bright adults, and I spent my childhood not realizing that a child can’t be expected to read, write, or figure at the same skill level as not only adults, but very smart adults. I remember always feeling bad whenever I lost a game of Risk to my mother, uncle and grandfather–I didn’t realize that of course a six-year-old is going to lose to those people! It was actually wildly impressive that I could compete with them on any really equal footing at all–but then, as I said, I didn’t understand that. So I never really knew how smart I was, compared to the mean, til high school.
Oh, but high school. I had it figured out at that point. And I was pretty pissed off about it, too. I remember sitting in German class and listening to lots of the other kids talking about college. It was so hard to decide which one to attend! Mom wanted them to go here but Dad wanted them to go there but they had really heard that here was the total party university–oh, those children of privilege!
Another class I had back then was Expository Writing. I did not want to take it, but I needed four full years of English, and it was convenient to my open time slot for an elective course. I hated that class. Not because I didn’t love writing–I did love to write, and clearly still do (or I wouldn’t be here). However, I simply could not relate to the teacher. He had us spend the first five minutes of every class writing in a journal, just stream-of-consciousness, to various pieces of music he would put on–I have no idea what that type of music is called, but it consisted of vaguely ocean-y sounds–I think it was supposed to be soothing. All it was, was irritating. I didn’t need that sort of exercise to allow me to practice putting my thoughts on paper. I excelled at putting my thoughts on paper. I also had no desire to share a single personal thought with some guy I barely knew. I found it invasive, boring and silly. I suspect I didn’t hide that very well–let’s just say that he and I started off on the wrong foot, very early on in our relationship.
This guy, I think, was of the politically liberal persuasion. He certainly liked to go on and on at times about some home for mentally challenged kids he volunteered at–he often had an anecdote, or wanted to share some kid’s achievement or other, or related it to some story we were reading as part of the coursework. And boy howdy, I got sick of hearing about it. Between having to listen to other kids complain about the multitude of higher learning choices available to them and how they really wanted to go where they’d have the most fun, and listening to Mr. Whateverhisnamewas rhapsodize about the massive, plush facilities dedicated to teaching some other kids with severe mental impairments how to bake a cookie, I seriously began to wonder why I was so worthless and undeserving. Nobody, not the government, not the schools, not private charities or individual doners, and certainly not my family, was forking over the $$$ to see that I got any opportunities. Quite the opposite–any job I had, my family snatched up the paycheck as soon as I got it home and dumped it into the grocery-and-gas budget. There were either no gifted school programs or practically none–but money for the mentally handicapped abounded. And why was I being punished by the government because my dad worked like a dog..? We made too much money for any kind of assistance whatsoever–not medical, not educational, not housing, nothing–but we didn’t make enough money to provide those things for ourselves, either. And instead of being mentally handicapped, I was the opposite. I didn’t feel like that made me more deserving than someone who was handicapped, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why it made me less so.
This is why I sneer at conservatives and their “bootstraps.” They certainly don’t make their own children rely on their “bootstraps,” and I can assure them, it ain’t because their kids are smarter or harder-working than I was. It’s funny really (once you get over being too mad about it to think straight) because they like to pretend that they do–a previous long-term relationship (we’ll call him “F,”) certainly a child of privilege, was extraordinarily and loudly proud that he’d “made all his money himself, nobody had ever just given him any of it.” He utterly failed to realize that his supportive family environment, healthy food and living habits of his childhood, his parents’ pickup of his college tab and their welcoming of him back home after college so that he could live rent-and-food free to save up for his first home, and his sister’s “in” with the director at the company he got his first job at, were the props that had enabled him to “make all that money himself” at all.
But Ayn helped me learn to also sneer at liberals and, as she put it, the luxury of their pity, that you pay for. They pitied the mentally handicapped, and so agitated for big bucks to be poured into educational resources for them. But they had no interest at all in the unusually bright. Because that is not pitiable, it is not worth a share of the pooled government resources. They pitied the homeless and third-generation welfare families and agitated for big bucks to be poured into them as well–but they had no pity for the working poor. When I was a kid, I was madly jealous of my friends whose families were on welfare because they got to get braces, and go to the doctor when they were sick, and eat lunch every day at school, and live in a nice trailer with wall-to-wall carpet and air conditioning–yes, I was jealous of living in trailers. They were much nicer than anywhere we ever lived, honestly. I didn’t have any of that stuff because my dad worked too hard at his miserable, crappy, blue-collar job. Somehow that made his daughter less deserving of medical and dental care, regular meals and a decent roof over her head?
And Ayn helped me free myself of my own family. My mother, in particular, who took every penny I ever made when I lived at home, thereby making it impossible for me to ever save up a dime for anything. And after I left home, suctioned up as much of my paycheck as I was able to send her. In return, she doled out emotional support…in a niggardly, grudging fashion–and of course I was aware of that. In an effort to show her that she didn’t have to be nice to me to get money, I ended up just giving her money, a lot of it! And asking nothing in return, which I think in the back of my head I believed would free her from feeling obligated to love me and would then result in a more natural expression of the same. (Yes, I know. Please, don’t mock the naivete. Keep in mind how young I was when all this was unfolding.) My mother, who on my eighteenth birthday told me she hoped I didn’t think I could just sit around at home being supported all day–I had better have some kind of plan, or else–! I was just telling my ex-husband the other day (who grew up in even poorer circumstances than I did) how funny it was that she felt the need to say that to me, who had been working and feeding cash into the family coffer since I was thirteen years old. (My ex-husband’s father put him to work on farms around the same age, and he got the same speech from him at age eighteen, so he understands how funny that was. Not.)
In Atlas Shrugged, there’s a scene where one of the main characters is facing arrest, and he goes home to his family before going on the lam. His family (mother and brother) have lived with him all his adult life and he has supported them uncomplainingly; when he gets home, they both start in on him, begging him to cooperate with the authorities and turn himself in and give them whatever money he has on him so they can survive while he’s in prison. He tells them he has no money, all his assets have been frozen–I can’t find my copy of the book, so I’m going to have to quote this from memory, and I’m sure I’m not getting it perfectly right. But this is the gist:
“If you really cared about me,” Hank said, “you’d be urging me to run, and helping me do it all you could.”
His mother stared at him, then screamed, “But what will we do without you? We need you!”
“Well then,” Hank said. “You should have known how to value me before.”
That really resonated with me. Why do I owe my hard work and life’s blood to people who have made it clear that all I am is a way for them to avoid having to work hard themselves at anything, people who clearly don’t value me, the individual, at all? In the political sense, of course, that’s a conservative argument. Their fallacy is that they are utterly unable to distinguish (willfully, I suspect) the difference between can’t work hard and won’t work hard, nor are they able to comprehend the poisonous atmosphere that children in won’t work hard families are brought up. Children believe what their parents teach them, and when your childhood is a monotonous litany of we’re doomed from the start nothing we do makes a difference they’re all out to get us anyway so we may as well sit here til we rot because That’s Just The Unfairness and Injustice of the Universe—you will internalize that to some degree. To escape it, you usually must be willing to sever all ties with your family…and most people aren’t willing to do that, and many people are incapable of doing that. It is very difficult to become an orphan by choice. Very difficult. Or, as more commonly is the case, you can keep ties with your family and endure their resentment and jealousy and self-centeredness day in and day out, in exchange for which you get to feed them a steady supply of your income.
I don’t extend that argument to the population at large. I extend it only to my family, whose circumstances I know very intimately, intimately enough that I can safely and freely say that they won’t work hard (excluding my poor beleagered dad, of course, who passed away two years ago, I should mention), and therefore they don’t deserve what I have gotten by being willing to work hard. Sorry.
All these other people who are chanting and quoting Ayn–if they did read her books, they missed a lot of the message, and that goes double for the dude currently running the Ayn Rand institute–
“So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” Brook said.
People are idiots. In Atlas Shrugged, the government takes over healthy, productive, afloat companies and gives the money gained to inefficient, corrupt companies. What’s actually going on in our country is that the government is taking over inefficient, corrupt companies and leaving healthy, productive, afloat companies alone. Now, Ayn would have hated the takeovers even of the former–she believed in letting companies that couldn’t make it on their own merits collapse–but the people who are moaning about and drawing tight-lipped parallels to Atlas Shrugged are frequently the same people who are eagerly accepting the government bailouts funded by taxpayer money. As Jon Stewart so pithily said, “Yeah, man, Wall Street is mad as hell! And they’re not gonna take it anymore! Unless by ‘it’ you mean 2 trillion dollars in their own bailout money! That, they will take!”
So, Ayn was personally effed up in multiple areas (sexuality, the complexities of national and global economics, etc.) and often a tedious fiction writer–but she did have some things of value to say. It’s a real shame that nobody ever dwells on those, and the people who do spend time dwelling on her at all, either dwell on her flaws or on whatever misunderstanding of what she said happens to suit their agenda. But I don’t suppose that makes her any different from a lot of other well-known writers—it’s just a shame she’s not around to add her voice to the chorus any longer.