Ayn Rand Killed My Father

Fascinating little testimonial on Salon entitled “How Ayn Rand Ruined My Childhood”, which doubles as […]

David Zahl / 4.7.11
Fascinating little testimonial on Salon entitled “How Ayn Rand Ruined My Childhood”, which doubles as a startling treatise on the cruelty of the Law. Say what you will about the political commitments of objectivism (ironically, most libertarians I’ve met are actually coming from a place of faith rather than reason), the relational ramifications appear to be pretty horrific: what happens when confession and repentance are, um, divorced, and honesty crosses the border into self-satisfaction. Is this merely an inflated athropology in the clothing of a deflated one? Or, in this scheme, if God is an objectivist, does that make Jesus a subjectivist? Either way, count me out:

My parents split up when I was 4. My father, a lawyer, wrote the divorce papers himself and included one specific rule: My mother was forbidden to raise my brother and me religiously. She agreed, dissolving Sunday church and Bible study with one swift signature. Mom didn’t mind; she was agnostic and knew we didn’t need religion to be good people. But a disdain for faith wasn’t the only reason he wrote God out of my childhood. There was simply no room in our household for both Jesus Christ and my father’s one true love: Ayn Rand.

[Rand] is a Russian-born American novelist who championed her self-taught philosophy of objectivism through her many works of fiction. Conservatives are known to praise her for her support of laissez-faire economics and meritocracy. Liberals tend to criticize her for being too simplistic. I know her more intimately as the woman whose philosophy dictates my father’s every decision.

What is objectivism? If you’d asked me that question as a child, I could have trotted to the foyer of my father’s home and referenced a framed quote by Rand that hung there like a cross. It read: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” As a little kid I interpreted this to mean: Love yourself. Nowadays, Rand’s bit is best summed up by the rapper Drake, who sang: “Imma do me.”

I don’t know exactly why [my father] sparked to Rand. He claimed the philosophy appealed to him because it’s based solely on logic. It also conveniently quenched his lawyer’s thirst to always be right. It’s not uncommon for people to seek out belief systems, whether political or spiritual, that make them feel good about how they already live their lives. Ultimately, I suspect Dad was drawn to objectivism because, unlike so many altruistic faiths, it made him feel good about being selfish.

Needless to say, Dad’s newfound obsession with the individual didn’t pan out so well with the woman he married. He was always controlling, but he became even more so. In the end, my mother moved out, but objectivism stayed.

One time, at dinner, I complained that my brother was hogging all the food. “He’s being selfish!” I whined to my father.

“Being selfish is a good thing,” he said. “To be selfless is to deny one’s self. To be selfish is to embrace the self, and accept your wants and needs.”

It was my dad’s classic response — a grandiose philosophical answer to a simple real-world problem. But who cared about logic? All I wanted was another serving of mashed potatoes.

From what I understood of his favorite capitalist champion, any form of altruism was evil. But how could that kind of blanket self-interest extend to his own children, the people he was legally and morally bound to take care of? What was I supposed to do, fend for myself?

The answer to my question came on an autumn weekend during my sophomore year in high school. I was hosting a Harry Potter-themed float party in our driveway, a normal ritual to prepare decorations for my high school quad the week of homecoming. As I was painting a cardboard owl, my father asked me to come inside the house. He and his new wife sat me down at the dinner table with grave faces.

“We were wondering if you would petition to be emancipated,” he said in his lawyer voice.

“What does that mean?” I asked, picking at the mauve paint on my hands. I later discovered that for most kids, declaring emancipation is an extreme measure — something you do if your parents are crack addicts or deadbeats.

“You would need to become financially independent,” he said. “You could work for me at my law firm and pay rent to live here.” This was my moment of truth as an objectivist. If I believed in the glory of the individual, I would’ve signed the petition papers then and there. But as much as Rand’s novels had taught me to believe in meritocracy, they had not prepared me to go it alone financially and emotionally. I began to cry and refused.

Hardcore objectivists often criticize liberals for basing decisions on emotion, rather than reason. My father saw our family politics no differently. In his mind, it was reasonable to ask that I emancipate myself and work for a living. To me, it felt like he was asking me to sacrifice my childhood so he didn’t have to pay child support. To me, it felt like abandonment.


22 responses to “Ayn Rand Killed My Father”

  1. David Browder says:

    Ayn Rand is terrible. A great artistic commentary is the last scene of "The Passion of Ayn Rand" in which she defines love, basically, as the self-actualization of potential. The very next scene is her tombstone.

  2. John Zahl says:

    This line from the wiki entry on Anton Levay is perhaps not so surprising:

    "In the late 1960s and early 1970s, LaVey melded ideological influences from Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Aleister Crowley, H.L. Mencken, and Jack London with the ideology and ritual practices of the Church of Satan."


    To be fair, she wasn't all bad. Doesn't she have a scathing critique of "boards" or "committees" (read: vestries) that any minister could sympathize with? Something about: the only thing a board can accomplish is nothing.

    I do want to read the Fountainhead, and have promised to give it a chance. But the decked is hugely stacked…

  3. Nick Lannon says:

    Ayn Rand's philosophy is terrible, but her writing is wonderful. I don't agree with the assertions of The Fountainhead AT ALL…but it's a wonderfully written book. JZ, you should read it.

  4. David Browder says:

    One thing to keep in mind with her is that she was a child behind the Iron Curtain. She saw the State either confiscate her father's business or run him out of business. One or the other.

    It is easy to understand why she went the other way from a coercive, collectivist, Leftist nightmare of a situation. I mean, could you imagine being a child in a place like the movie "The Lives of Others"? It must have been incredibly scarring.

    That said, her philosophy is just awful. Regurgitated Aristotelianism. Full bore.

  5. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    As we probably all know she didn't just live in Russia when the Revolution hit, she was also from a Jewish family and saw what anti-Semitism was like. As incoherent as her theory is in light of even a modicum of brain research she did take some stands against things like racism that I can respect even if her overall approach to philosophy is problematic at best.

  6. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    The father/daughter story reminds me of a guy I know who has become a huge Rand fan but resents that his mother gave him up to her parents so that he was raised by his grandparents while his mother absconded. I pointed out that if he takes Rand's praxis of selfishness seriously then a woman who abandons her children out of a selfish desire to fulfill her own life should be his hero rather than a villain. The truth is very few children would be willing to apply Rand's ideas so far as to exonerate their own mother abandoning them and disdaining them as a death sentence on personal happiness or fulfillment. And why would they? Rand herself was not happy to live with a mother like that, which was why she was for at will abortion–better that than see a world full of more mothers like Rand's own mother. For someone who held reason as the highest absolute there were a lot of deeply emotional and not exactly rational motives lurking in her thoughts.

  7. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    Okay, can't resist this one, if memory serves, one of the insults Gorilla Grodd has to throw at Lex Luthor in the final season of Justice League Unlimited is that Luthor is an objectivist.

  8. The Midland Agrarian says:

    Historian (and Anglican) Gillis Harp
    has a worthwhile review essay on Rand here:

  9. John Zahl says:

    I love Gillis Harp! Can't wait to read what he has to say. Thanks. JZ

  10. Matt Stokes says:

    I'll always be grateful that William F. Buckley, Jr. essentially read her out of the conservative movement in the late 1950s. Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged for National Review, calling it "sophomoric" and "remarkably silly." He even said that it had a strong tone of Nazism in it – "To the gas chambers go!"

  11. Richard P. Cook says:

    I have always been a heretical Austrian in that I never liked Rand or Rothbard, but I don't believe believing in their ideas are necessary to be Austrian. 1. If you believe Matthew 6, is taxpayer charity a good work? 2. If you believe that governments are made up of fallen people, what are the implications of instilling them with authority?

  12. Matt Stokes says:

    To the point about Austrians, Rand and Mothbard are both outliers – Hayek certainly believed in a moderate welfare state, but he was very much opposed to the road he saw Europe travelling immediately after WWII.

  13. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    Regarding Austrian economists that might have fallen under Buckley's observation that Rand's ideas, to the extent that they are good, are not at all original and to the extent that her ideas are original, none of them are good. Buckley wouldn't have had trouble pointing out who else besides Rand had come up with some the ideas she got behind before her. I think he was the one who said that while conservatives and liberals would disagree about the role and scope of government they were disagreeing with an understanding that some government is necessary for the common good, while Rand's take is more akin to someone who, upon seeing that there are bad doctors out there, believes that it is best to renounce the Hippocratic oath.

  14. as a former (fairly hard-core) Rand reader/follower: Rand’s philosophy will kill just about anyone. Browder is right, her philosophy, centered around hyper individualism and excessive pride-turned-virtue, is awful–she actually made my thesis this time around as a “the Gospel is against this very thing” example. Her philosophy cannot stand on its own and, personally, leads to total misery and self-annihilation (ironically). However, and this might also been seen as controversial or old habits dying hard: the one thing I still respect about her stories is the depth of depravity she gives the antagonists in her stories…if i were to pick up and read one of her books today (which I haven’t had the urge to do…in a while) it would be to read about these characters…those allured by power and prestige, greed and lust, and those caught between the villians and the heros: the utterly confused and easily lead astray. So, she gets one thing right, from a theological anthropological view; however, it’s not what she thinks she gets right.

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think the kid’s parents hadn’t bothered to read very deeply, as Objectivism has a category of parental responsibilities to children. I’m attaching a link to a piece where an atheist woman explains how Objectivism led her to a pro life position. “Selfishness” had a very carefully worked out definition in Rand’s philosophy that is easy to miss when we substitute a common understanding of the term. (C.S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory is a good counterargument. But they overlap more than people might guess.)

    To see how Rand’s philosophy led someone in a very different, read atheist Doris Gordon’s account of how Objectivism made her pro-life: Libertarians for Life archive.

  16. Caitlin says:

    Your father is crazy. Like you said, he relied on “a grandiose philosophical answer to a simple real-world problem”. The occassions you cite are not in line with Ayn Rand’s teachings per se, even if he was spouting her words. Basically he didn’t value you (or your mother). Rand promoted selfishness, true. But that selfishness means that you have the right to value what’s important to you more highly than what society says is important. His priority should have been his family, but it seems that he didn’t care about his family, otherwise he would not have acted that way. He interpreted it like, “Imma do me,” but you were right when you said it basically means “Love yourself”–with the extension “…even if other people say you shouldn’t.” I totally understand where you are coming from, though. My mother was self-centered, too. It’s very painful to realize when a parent doesn’t care about you. Don’t blame Ayn Rand; blame your asshole of a father. (Sorry for phrasing it that way, but I think you probably agree with me.)

    I refer you to this: http://rationaljenn.blogspot.com/2009/09/mythbusting-ayn-rand-mommies-and.html.

  17. On The Mark says:

    It’s not uncommon for people to seek out belief systems, whether political or spiritual, that make them feel good about how they already live their lives.

    It’s also not uncommon for people to distort belief systems into something that makes them feel good about how they already live their lives.

  18. It’s fascinating to see where Rand’s philosophy has lead the West: https://vimeo.com/27393748

  19. Giovanni Cervantes says:

    Its a flaw on Ayn Rand’s part, not her fault but solely her decision: the fact that her stories and her own life did not include children.
    There are no examples to follow on parenting with objectivism.
    As a devote reader, I would like to make a stated opinion.
    If Roark and Dominique had a child, they would not implement the same attitude towards society on their child. They would upbring the child to have self-esteem, individualism, and the full sense of what the child is capable of.
    By the time out of college, the child is unquivering in his self-knowledge and self awareness. With this self confidence, he has a passion to do action, one that the passion has its own calling. For Roark, it was architecture. For Dagny, it was trains.
    Only hint is Guy Francon and Dominique.

    So a timeline of what an ideal objectivist parents look like, unlike your father up there, is the following.
    There parents realizing what a natural phenomenon a baby is.
    From toddler ages, a protection and a youthful enjoyment of company with the child.
    k-12th grade. The best possible education of the universal law, history, and common sense.
    Parenting at home would mean constructing the child’s personality. Be it around books, be around the parent’s business, or be it traveling.
    The life of the objective person is swollen with passion and an unshaken foundation of character.

    I feel as if objective personalities are a mixture of Gryffindor and Ravenclaws.

    Your father understood Ayn rand and took it at face value but nonetheless he was an asshole.
    I’m sorry Rand is a bad connotation in your life. May I suggest Stoicism?

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