Friday, July 28, 2006

James Valliant on the Brandens

James Valliant and I have been engaging in a friendly discussion about his book on Ayn Rand and the biographies/memoires of Rand's former associates, Nathaniel and Barabara Branden.

Now, as I see it, Mr. Valliant is making the following claim (I paraphrase):

"There are so many significant mistakes, ommissions, contradictions (within and among the books and with the known facts), excessive psychologizing, failure to name sources and self-serving allegations in the Brandens' works that the only explanation is that their works are deliberately dishonest."

There is nothing wrong with this approach. It's the way we normally judge credibility and juries find people guilty every day using this methodology. If I say that I was born in Salt Lake City, my father is the president of the Mormon Church, and I read the Book of Mormon every day then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that I am lying (or insane).

But this requires an analysis of the various errors and a determination of whether there are innocent explanations. At times a narrow view if required (is it a literal contradiction?) and some times a broad view (is what the Brandens say consistent with those undisputed things we know about Rand?). My reading thus far of PARC indicates that Mr. Valliant has not shown that there are deliberate fabrications. (Which isn't to say that I consider these books the last word on Rand, or even reliable.)

For example, I think that there is an innocent explantion for the mistakes about Rand's name. I suspect that Rand said something that lent credence to the Remington Rand story. I do find it interesting that Gotthelf believed this story until at least 2000. And even if he relied on Branden, one gets the impression that there was uncertainty on this issue. (Incidentally, Gotthelf says that he received comments from Harry Binswanger on "each chapter." Did the draft that Dr. Binswanger reviewed contain a discussion of the name?) Of course, I don't know what Rand told Branden on this issue and whether Branden may have misunderstood it. But Mr. Valliant doesn't know either. (If this were the only mistake in Branden's book, is the evidence so strong that the only inference to be drawn is that Branden is fabricating the origin of the name or the reason for it?)

Likewise, Branden's views on Rand's intellectual influences and the changes in We the Living do not demonstrate that she has deliberately misrepresented Rand's philosophical development. People other than Branden have said the same thing about these topics and is Mr. Valliant accusing them of lying?


James S. Valliant said...


If anyone who is familiar with Rand's nonfiction says, "Rand thought that the only thinker from whom she had anything to learn was Aristotle," they would not be being honest. This applies to anyone.

You say Rand may have said something to support this false account of her name's origins. So, you are saying that Rand lied to Branden.

See, someone has lied about Rand getting the name from a typewriter -- Rand was calling herself "Rand" before there were any such machines in existence -- the story is false.

There is no reason to suppose that Rand would contradict what she said about her name in public (the truth, as it turns out), on more than one occasion, during a private conversation with the Brandens (by telling a lie, which the letters she herself preserved from her Russian family would disprove.)

Curiously, Ms. Branden's account -- one earlier to Mr. Branden's -- made no mention of Rand telling anyone this. If Rand had actually said anything like what Mr. Branden reports, then wouldn't Fern Brown's story have jogged Ms. Branden's memory about it?

It seems not. It was only after both Brandens were challenged about this name story -- one that gives them such "inside dope" authority -- that Ms. Branden's memory suddenly improved.

But these are only two, small examples. How much hyperbole, how little "reliability," to use your words, in such harmony with the giant chips they still shoulder from the nasty break, before we can suspect dishonesty?

I do analyze each of these things for the possibility of innocent error, as my readers can see. However, these items must be taken together and each understood in light of the others -- because together, these "errors," innocent or otherwise, paint the very picture needed to spare the Brandens' reputations.

James S. Valliant said...

You are coming up to the chapter, "The Exploiters and the Exploited." You might want to read through Nathaniel Branden's 1968 statement (which Ms. B, endorsed despite knowing better.)

I would like very much to hear your "innocent" explanation for how the Brandens' continued endorsement of that statement squares with the admissions and modifications found in their later biographical works.

ObjectiBlog said...


I did not say that Rand lied, but that she may have said something that was misunderstood and misremembered.

Incidentally, the ARI has an interesting post on this question on their site --

I quote:

"One lead to the actual source of the name comes from Ayn Rand herself. In 1936, she told the New York Evening Post that 'Rand is an abbreviation of my Russian surname.' Originally, we thought that this was a red herring in order to protect her family from the Soviet authorities."

So even the ARI (or the author of the article) believed at one time that Rand was being cagey (lied?) about the origins of the name.

James S. Valliant said...

This is such a minor point, but it is a tell. That the name of a typewriter has something -- anything -- to do with the origins of Ayn Rand's name is not a confusion or misunderstanding. It's an elaborate fabrication on someone's part.

Many differences of recollection can be such misunderstandings, sure. Not this.

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