My Years With Ayn Rand is the reminiscences of a spiteful man—a bitter man—a malicious man. This is not a biography of Ayn Rand; it is the pathetic account of Nathaniel Branden’s personal feelings of the years that he spent with her.
The book transports the reader into an unhinged world. This is not the world of Ayn Rand’s rational philosophy; it is a world ruled by Immanuel Kant’s doctrine. Welcome to Branden’s noumenal world—a world where reality can be ignored, lying is a way of life, morality is whimsicality, hypocrisy is condoned and encouraged, and the mind is devoted to speculation and rationalization.
Branden, the narcissistic shrink, uses the vantage point of Freudian psychoanalysis to derive the conclusion that Rand, the philosopher of reason and reality, was in real life a repository of irrationality, immorality, maliciousness, hypocrisy, impoliteness, and vindictiveness.
Is he talking about the real Ayn Rand? I can’t believe that Branden’s Ayn Rand is the same Ayn Rand whose corpus consists of classics like We The Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. The philosophy of reason, purpose, and self-esteem that she has presented in her fiction and essays are an inspiration for individuals all over the world.
I am not claiming that Branden is lying about Rand. He may be telling the truth in case of some of the incidents that he talks about. Rand was not a blemish-free personality. She often reacted harshly and abruptly when she was being badly treated. She had little patience for people who she felt were wasting her time. At times she made mistakes while judging people and situations. But these are temperamental issues which cannot lead us to conclude that Rand’s sense of life was flawed and that she was immoral and irrational.
The 432-page book is divided into seventeen chapters and an introduction and epilogue. In the first two chapters, Branden talks mostly about the early years of his life and how he entered Ayn Rand’s circle when he was 20-years-old. In the epilogue he gives a short summary of his life after his separation from Rand. From chapter three to chapter seventeen, which means about 85% of the book, his focus is on presenting a laundry list of scenarios and arguments which show Rand in an extremely bad light. He hardly has anything good to say about her.
He displays ruthlessness in attacking not just Rand but almost every member of her circle: Alan Greenspan is uninterested and ready to fade away from Rand’s life; Leonard Peikoff is high-strung and chronically anxious; fear and malice drip out of Murray Rothbard’s face; and so on. He attributes all the good traits to himself. For instance, in his Introduction, he superciliously declares: “I was the person responsible for launching Objectivism as a philosophical movement.”
In Chapter 8, Branden gives an account of how Rand forced their affair on their respective spouses by describing it as an intellectual pursuit. “Ayn’s manipulative dishonesty, and my own complicity in it (which is obvious to me in retrospect), seemed in that moment like ‘rationality’ and ‘realism.’” He repeatedly points out that while Rand used to rationalize and lie about their relationship, he knew from the beginning that she was taking a preposterous stand, one that would lead to a disaster.
He claims that Rand was jealous of Barbara Branden (his wife in that period)—if he showed slightest concern for Barbara in Rand’s presence, Rand tended to flare up. He says that the fact that Barbara was his wife was of no consequence to Rand. “Confused and horrified, I had to keep reminding her of this reality.” But he contradicts himself when he goes on to describe several incidents which show that Barbara was in some aspects closer to Rand than he was.
It is well known that Branden caused great damage to Rand’s reputation and to the future of Objectivist movement by playing the role of an over jealous cult organizer for her. He makes a brief mention of that in the book, but instead of acknowledging his role he blames the students at NBI (Nathaniel Branden Institute) for trying to inculcate a complete devotion to Rand. He claims that the students were more severe than him in their condemnation of infractions.
But the students could be acting in a certain way because of the training they got from Branden. He reveals in the book that they used to tell the students that Rand was the greatest human being who has ever lived, and because she “has designated Nathaniel Branden as her ‘intellectual heir’ and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.”
It was common for people in Rand’s circle to get excommunicated for their betrayal of Objectivist standards. Branden claims that Leonard Peikoff was excommunicated and exiled to the University of Denver. “[Peikoff’s] offence, as always, involved some failure to support and defend Ayn and her work in his dealings with other people.”
Branden recalls that when he informed Rand that he was studying hypnosis, there was a disconcerted look on her face—she seemed torn between “the impulse to declare hypnosis nonsense and her reluctance to suggest that her ‘intellectual heir’ had lost his mind.” He claims that he was astonished at how closed she was to any new knowledge that seemed to clash with her familiar paradigms. But why did he expect her to endorse his brand of hypnosis?
In the epilogue, Branden describes the suspicious death of his second wife Patrecia by drowning in the swimming pool at their home. He gives the precise time when Patrecia made the final phone call to him, and the precise time when he reached home to find her body floating in the swimming pool. But this precise style of describing an incident is not there in his descriptions of his interactions with Ayn Rand, and so there is a sharp mismatch in the writing style in the earlier chapters and the epilogue.
It is clear that Branden’s intention in the book is to establish that he is morally and intellectually equal to Rand. But it is quite irrational of him to think that he can be regarded as her equal. He cannot scavenge personal glory for himself by vilifying Rand. In My Years With Ayn Rand he has an outcome that he didn't set out to achieve—the inflicting of irreparable damage to his own reputation.