Randy Girls – adolescent females love Ayn Rand – wonder why?

Amy Benfer | Posted on 01/01/07

In “Present for the Sweet Sixteen,” published in 1999, poet Daphne Gottlieb writes of a twenty-one-year-old friend who gives her “thigh-high fish-net stockings and a paperback copy of The Fountainhead,” a gift she perceives as “a recipe for a pin-up with velvet panties and an iron fist.” Presumably, the stockings are the ingredient responsible for the “pin-up” aspect, while the novel, written by that doyenne of self-reliance, Ayn Rand, is crucial to developing the “iron fist” (though Rand, whose counterintuitive fixation on girly baubles and frills is a less well-known aspect of her personality, most likely would have enjoyed wearing velvet panties herself, or at least gifted them to one of her famously glamorous heroines). The poem ends with Gottlieb, at age twenty-nine, looking back at the gift and its giver with a desire to inflict humiliation, and perhaps even violence, on them both: “It’s OK by me if Ayn Rand could only get Atlas to shrug,” she writes, invoking the title of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, now being made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie, “but right now he’s cleaning my floor/and when he’s done I’m coming for you.”

I recently spoke with Gottlieb, a San Francisco–based slam poet and member of the collective Sister Spit, while she was in New York for a book party held at the lesbian bar Cattyshack. She said she doesn’t remember much about The Fountainhead, other than that it was given to her by someone with whom she was “very smitten” and also that it had something “vaguely to do with architecture.” But, she said, “It had to be that book. The poem wouldn’t have worked with any other one.”

Few authors inspire the kind of life-changing devotion, blind hatred, or contemptuous dismissal so frequently achieved by Ayn Rand, the founder of “Objectivism” and author of the novels Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, the non-fiction book The Virtue of Selfishness, and nine others. Despite nearly unanimous critical disdain, her books became best-sellers; the combined sales of her work continue to top 500,000 copies every year – more than Philip Roth, way more than, say, Zora Neale Hurston. Objectivism, as dramatized in Rand’s novels and meticulously set out in her non-fiction, glorifies the self-reliant individual (as opposed to the collective), prizes rational thought, and dismisses organized religion of any sort. Politically, it bears some resemblance to libertarianism, though Rand herself dismissed members of that party as “hippies of the right” who “substitute anarchism for reason.” Next to her casket was a six-foot-tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign.

It’s easy enough to explain Rand’s appeal to those who adore capitalism, abhor government intervention, and prize individual liberty above all. But the particularly fascinating thing about Rand is that many young women, like Gottlieb, revere the book as teenagers and later come to loathe – or at least laugh at – the novels as adults. In the 2003 movie Lost In Translation, Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, says that every girl goes through a “horse phase” and a “photography phase, where, you know, you take dumb pictures of your feet.” For a certain kind of American girl, the “Ayn Rand phase” is another rite of passage.

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Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg in 1905, a daughter of czarist Russia. At twenty-one, she left what was becoming the Soviet Union, armed with a one-way ticket to Chicago and a life-long hatred of Communism. She changed her name and set about fulfilling her dream: to become known as the greatest thinker of this or any other century. With the exception of a visit from her sister, who made a brief trip to America in 1973, she was never again to see any of her family. She became a Hollywood screenwriter, and then, with the 1943 publication of The Fountainhead, a hugely profitable novelist. As one of the twentieth century’s strongest advocates for the individual and opponents of collectivism, she nevertheless became, ironically, the leader of a group, a devoted – its detractors would say cultish – following of men (including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan) and women, dubbed “The “Collective,,” which she ruled with an iron fist (perhaps a velvet glove) that some members, at least in retrospect, came to resent deeply.

Rand’s followers, who were most prominent in the ’60s, referred to her as “the greatest person who ever lived” (the verdict on “second greatest,” for a time, was a tie between Aristotle and Nathaniel Branden, her anointed “intellectual heir,” until Rand and Branden had a falling out), and they followed her dicta on issues both large and small. Apparently, this involved deferring to her taste in music (she admired Rachmaninoff and Chopin and dismissed Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Handel), art (Dali and Vermeer were acceptable, Rembrandt and French Impressionism verboten) and writing (she disliked Thomas Wolfe). Smoking, it appears, was mandatory.

My copy of The Fountainhead, a cheap paperback issued last year on the hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth, still bears a prominent quotation from a review that appeared in the New York Times in 1943, the year of its publication: “This is the only novel of ideas written by an American woman that I can recall.” While researching this article, I went out to breakfast with writer Fred Van Lente, who with his partner, Ryan Dunlavey, is the author of “Action Philosophers!,” a comic-book series devoted to illustrating the ideas of Western philosophers. Out of twenty-seven philosophers, Rand is the only woman in the series. When I asked him why, he looked at me balefully over his lox and eggs. “We wanted to include more women,” he acknowledged. “But who else is there?”

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When I first picked up The Fountainhead in the public library, at age fifteen, I was attracted to its length, in an Infinite Jest sort of way. This was during the phase that I now dub my “god-awful pretentious period.” It was the same year I tried, and failed, to read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair because it had been written in another century and it was long. It must also have been a year in which my political ideals were either refreshingly unformed or willfully naïve – that same year I argued, quite convincingly I thought, that Social Security should be privatized, an idea that I had dropped by age seventeen.

More than fifteen years later, all I can remember of the book is a red-headed architect, an image of a woman with slender wrists and large bracelets; a confusing scene involving a housing project, and a deeply disturbing sex scene.

Actually, on re-reading, Howard Roark’s hair is “neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind.” He is, however, still an architect. As the novel opens, he has just been expelled from architecture school for insubordination. Specifically, he refuses to acknowledge any authority outside himself. “I want to be an architect, not an archaeologist,” he tells his dean, then proceeds to deconstruct the nearest example of poor architecture, which happens to be hanging in the dean’s office. (“It’s the Parthenon!” exclaims the apoplectic dean, to which Roark replies, “Yes, god damn it, it’s the Parthenon.”)

Smart teenagers of either gender are no doubt thrilled by Roark’s anarchistic brilliance. Most of Rand’s knowledge of philosophy, novel-writing, and the English language was self-taught, and throughout her work she glorifies the autodidactic impulse. Roark’s buildings, writes Rand, “were as the first houses built by the first man born, who had never heard of buildings before him…. [I]t was as if the buildings had sprung from the earth and from some living force, complete, unalterably right.” There’s a sweet, almost romantic appeal to the idea that everything one needs to know can be found inside oneself. To be an architect, you don’t need to go to the Yale School of Architecture (or to the Stanton Institute, in Roark’s case). All you need to do, young man, is look inside yourself and build the buildings that emanate from your very core!

Against Roark are pitched all manner of villains and heroes-in-training, united in a bewildering tendency to take actions that are the exact opposite of their true beliefs. The villains include Peter Keating, a fellow architect, who borrows Roark’s structural designs and gussies them up with useless embellishments, thus becoming, for a time, the most renowned young architect of his day. (The study guide put out by the Ayn Rand Institute labels Keating a “second-hander” and helpfully supplies other examples of such people, including “criminals, family bums, welfare recipients, military conquerors, political dictators, and social climbers, like Keating”). Ellsworth Toohey, a parody of the fashionable leftist intellectual, preaches collectivism and praises mediocrity in an evil plot to enslave the masses and bend them to his will. Gail Wynand, the owner of a New York City tabloid, understands greatness – as evidenced both by his fine-art collection, which he jealously guards from unworthy eyes, and his later friendship with Howard Roark – but peddles trash to the masses, who, he gleans from a reader survey, see unwed mothers as more deserving of sympathy than toiling geniuses.

There’s no doubt that Rand intended these characters to be her stand-ins, dramatizing the glory of the capitalist individual against the villainy of the collectivist state. But as a young teenager, I saw the battle as illustrating a very different drama: the tyranny imposed on the smart, misunderstood girl by the rest of the know-nothings she is forced to contend with in high school. Ironically, Rand would have recognized at least some of those know-nothings as sharing the values she held dear – I despised the Republican reverence for money, for example, while Rand and I shared a mutual disdain for religion. But the sense of being isolated, the sole genius among a herd of sheep, is a familiar feeling to many children and adolescents, especially gifted ones.

As a future defender of capitalism growing up in a Communist country, Alissa Rosenbaum probably felt this sense of isolation more acutely than most children. But she was particularly fierce in projecting it onto others. In taped interviews with Barbara Branden that would later appear in Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand, Rand recalls feeling an acute protectiveness for anything she held dear. “This is my value, and anyone who shares it has to be extraordinary. I was extremely jealous – it was literal jealousy – of anyone who would pretend to like something I liked, if I didn’t like that person…. They have no right to admire it, they’re unworthy of it.”

The corollary was Rand’s utter intolerance of anyone she did admire holding a value contrary to her own. In another especially poignant anecdote, Rand recalls admiring another child in her class from afar. Curious as to what made the girl as compelling to her as she was, Alissa approached her and asked her what the most important thing in her life was. The girl answered: “My mother.” “That killed the ideal for me thoroughly,” Rand recalled as an adult. “My emotional reaction was like an elevator crashing – enormous disappointment and contempt. I had thought she was a serious girl and that she was after serious things, but she was just conventional, ordinary, a mediocrity. She didn’t mean anything as a person.”

So Roark’s buildings, Wynand’s art collection – they must be jealously protected from the masses, who would only misunderstand them. In my adolescent world, which revolved around music, the equivalent would have been, say, a jock declaring undying admiration for the Smiths. In Rand’s world, this contempt hardened into an ironclad elitism that divided the world into a tiny band of true believers and everyone else, which justified all manner of bizarre behavior that served to anchor Rand’s objection to altruism within the narrative of her novels. In Atlas Shrugged, the intellectuals and producers actually go on strike rather than share their gifts with an undeserving public, whom they refer to as “looters.”

As for the housing project that I vaguely remembered from my first reading of the book, Roark blows it up. He designed it, you see, in a secret pact with Peter Keating, who took credit for the work on the sole condition that it be erected as is. Once again, the evil collectivist ethos intrudes in the form of an architecture committee that meddles with, and thus destroys, Roark’s work. Standing before a jury, Roark explains, “They took my work and made me contribute it as a gift. But I am not an altruist. I do not contribute gifts of this nature.”

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Rand’s women and her ideas on sex and love are the most troubling aspect of her work. The novels are loaded with fetishistic sex, which contributes both to their popularity and her reputation as a writer of philosophy lite. (A recent review I found on Amazon.com reads : “It’s Ayn Rand people! Danielle Steele–style sex fantasies with the mind of Aristotle!”) Like Our Bodies, Ourselves, Rand’s books were meant to be serious, yet were ready-made for appropriation by the sexually curious adolescent. Still, the sexuality in her work is as troubling as it is erotic. Although Rand was a dark-haired, buck-toothed woman who could gently be described as “homely,” she valorized female beauty, particularly the blond, blue-eyed, long-legged “American type” – one might also describe her taste as “Aryan,” which, given what we know of how people internalize hatred, might not be odd for a Jewish woman who grew up in Europe in the time of the pogroms.

Dominique Francon, Roark’s partner in the deeply disturbing love scene, resembles a Mondrian painting, all angles and borderline-anorexic loveliness – recently, I found a woman who used the handle “Dominique Francon” on a pro-anorexic web site; Dagny Taggart is the equally angular heroine of Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s men are not so encumbered with physical beauty: The ARI study guide asks students to consider the symbolic reason that Dominique describes Roark as having “the face of a god,” even though he is plainly unattractive. (“In seeing such beauty in Roark’s face, an evaluation not shared by the rest of society, what does Dominique reveal about her own soul?”). Both women are intelligent and have jobs: Dominique writes a column for a New York tabloid (although it’s on the womanly art of interior design); Dagny is a powerful executive of a transcontinental railroad. There is no domesticity in Rand’s novels. None of her major characters have children; few even have mothers. The most pathetic character in the Randian canon is Peter Keating’s fiancée, Catherine Halsey, who also happens to conform most closely to the expected ideals of womanhood of her time. Katie waits at home for Peter to call on her, and she refuses to scold him when weeks or even months pass with no word from him. As a social worker, she cares for the poor and downtrodden, whom she comes to despise. By the end of the novel, she’s been dumped by Peter (for Dominique, who later dumps him) and is railing about how the poor are the masters and she is the slave. “Uncle Ellsworth, don’t you see?” she pleads. “I’m becoming selfish.” It’s an astonishing indictment of maternal self-sacrifice – a fusion of feminism and individualism perfect for the smart, angry girl, the kind who still thrills to Ayn Rand.

Meanwhile, Dominique and Dagny benefit from bizarre plot devices that allow them to have even more sex. In Dagny’s case, the real hero, John Galt, is off in the wilderness for the first two-thirds of Atlas Shrugged, thus affording her ample time to begin an affair with Hank Rearden, the almost-heroic steel-mill owner. Dominique, believing herself to be unworthy of Roark, makes it her professional mission to sabotage his career and her personal mission to sleep with – and marry! – his enemies.

But then there is the deeply disturbing sex scene. Roark, temporarily banned from architecture, spends his days working in a quarry (“to feel the drill and his body gathered into the single will of pressure, that a shaft of steel might sink slowly into the granite”). It’s there he first meets Dominique, who believes him to be not a genius but the hired help. Nevertheless, she is drawn to the man with hair the color of a ripe orange rind and invents tasks designed to lure him into to her domain. But when Roark takes Dominique, it’s in an act she later describes as rape. “The act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted.”

“I think I willfully misread the rape,” says Daphne Gottlieb, the poet. “But then again, I misread my own rape. The idea of the poem, however, was violence begets violence.”

It’s certainly the reason, at the end of “Sweet Sixteen,” that Gottlieb has Atlas cleaning her floor.

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For the best example of the contradictions and limits of rational thought and self-reliance, one has to look no further than the life of Ayn Rand. She wrote that “the essence of femininity is hero worship – the desire to look up to a man.” But she married Frank O’Connor, an aspiring actor she met during the crucifixion scene on the set of Cecil B. De Mille’s “King of Kings” (where both were working as extras) “because, she said, “he was beautiful.” O’Connor, who sometimes introduced himself, perhaps with bitterness, as “Mr. Rand,” depended intellectually and financially on his wife throughout their fifty-year marriage. He kept busy with home decorating and gardening, and particularly loved to cultivate and arrange flowers. In his later years, he picked up painting, although it was too late for him to become more than a very talented amateur, and drinking, at which he proved professionally adept.

The final soap-opera–worthy flourish to their marriage came when Rand created a love triangle that closely resembled those in her own fiction. In 1955, Rand, then in her forties, insisted that she take Nathaniel Branden, twenty-five years her junior, as her lover. She expected both O’Connor and Branden’s wife, Barbara, to realize that it was the only “rational” outcome to their relationship. (According to Barbara, Rand’s exact words were: “Whatever the two of you may be feeling, I know your intelligence, I know you recognize the rationality of what we feel for each other and that you hold no value higher than reason.”) Thus ensued a hellish fourteen-year period, which ended when Nathaniel, after a brief break from Rand, decided that despite his intellectual respect for his mentor, then sixty-one, his sexual needs were better met by a young model named Patrecia.

Later, according to Barbara, Nathaniel described his sexual relationship with Rand as resembling “theater – no, not theater, it was a scene from a novel by Ayn Rand, full of sexual dominance and surrender and the uncontrollable passion of two noble souls.” One can see how young women uncertain of their sexuality might find it reassuring to create the fiction that they are not actors, but merely succumbing to a force greater than their own. By the early ’90s, as bondage and sado-masochism crept into academic theory and pop culture, it even became fashionable in some circles to view an honest desire to dominate or submit to others as a legitimate personal choice.

But Rand’s own choices seem less the product of a self-reliant woman comfortable accepting her own desires, and more the genuine confusion of a girl who refused to grow out of emotional adolescence. When Rand sensed that her lover’s attention’s might be directed elsewhere, she responded by writing a flurry of “papers” analyzing his psychology in Objectivist terms. Branden, always the good disciple, responded with equally solemn “papers” that were equally beside the point – until he finally delivered one that attempted to explain, in “rational” terms, why he was no longer sexually attracted to a sixty-one-year-old woman.

To Rand, for whom sexual love was a direct result of intellectual respect, this was heresy. “If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health – you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years!” she screamed at her former lover, in front of his wife, her husband, and Allan Blumenthal, a psychiatrist who had been asked to come down to mediate the situation. “And if you achieve any potency, you’ll know it’s a sign of still worse moral degradation!”

Rand claimed that she spent her life looking for a man worthy of her worship. But when she curses her lover’s loins as a consequence of his moral failure to love her, it’s pretty clear whom she considers the fountainhead. Unfortunately, it may also be true that a sixty-one-year-old man of Rand’s achievements would easily command the sexual attention of his much younger lover. But Rand never admitted the contradictions in her own hermetically sealed universe.

The Fountainhead ends with Dominique in an elevator, ascending the great phallic height of a skyscraper to meet her lover at the top. Atlas Shrugged ends with the two lovers on a mountaintop, with John Galt tracing the line of the almighty American dollar sign across the valley with his finger.

Buildings may endure, or they may fall. Currencies may be exchanged for fair trade, or they may become worthless. But people – intellectual rivals, families, villages, cities, lovers – are entirely dependent on each other. It’s one of the truths that anyone who has moved past adolescence should find inescapable; and if some women and men still cling to it, then at least they are in rather brilliant, if misguided, company.