Ayn Rand Parenting
Ayn Rand never had children. She reportedly had an abortion early on in her adulthood, according to the fantastic book Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns, and was a firm proponent of abortion rights throughout her career. Her views on gender were controversial, as her books often had scenes that bordered on rape, with violent sex scenes galore. Despite having a childish philosophy, children were nowhere to be seen in Rand’s novels.
Unsurprisingly, anti-child philosophies mess up real life children. Take this account from salon.com writer Alyssa Bereznak, who delved in to her father’s unhealthy subscription to Objectivism:
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.”
Dad wasn’t always a Rand zealot. He was raised in a Catholic family and went to church every week. After he and my mother got married in 1982, they shopped around for a church. He was looking for something to live by, but he couldn’t find it in traditional organized religion.
Then he discovered objectivism. I don’t know exactly why he 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. My brother and I switched off living at each parent’s house once a week.
It was odd growing up, at least part-time, in an objectivist house. My father reserved long weekends to attend Ayn Rand Institute conferences held in Orange County, California. He would return with a tan and a pile of new reading material for my brother and me. While other kids my age were going to Bible study, I took evening classes from the institute via phone. (I half-listened while clicking through lolcat photos.)
Our objectivist education, however, was not confined to lectures and books. 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.”
That story couldn’t help but come in to my brain when I read a fantastic essay by Rebecca Walker. Walker is the child of Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple and feminist icon. To put it mildly, the younger Walker attempts to lay west to her mother in an article she wrote for the British Telegraph, called bluntly “How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart.”
The article is actually several years old (published in 2008) but was reprinted by a poster here at Little Green Footballs. It’s new to me and I’ll assume it’s new to you. Here’s a bite:
You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women. I grew up believing that children are millstones around your neck, and the idea that motherhood can make you blissfully happy is a complete fairytale.
If you really think about that statement, it is really messed up. The older Walker taught her children that they were slavemasters. Not just slavemasters but slavemasters of their own mother by simple crime of having been conceived. And who caused these little tyrants to be conceived and enslave the mother? The mother herself. That is something really horrible to grow up with.
This part brings me to the Ayn Rand comparison:
I love my mother very much, but I haven’t seen her or spoken to her since I became pregnant. She has never seen my son - her only grandchild. My crime? Daring to question her ideology.
While Rand and Walker likely would have been an odd couple, Walker having been a civil rights activist and Rand a compatriot and admirer of Barry Goldwater, they may have surprised themselves to have been on the same wavelength. Rand espoused “the virtues of selfishness” and hardcore individualism and this was certainly what Walker also valued for women:
My mother’s feminist principles coloured every aspect of my life. As a little girl, I wasn’t even allowed to play with dolls or stuffed toys in case they brought out a maternal instinct. It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.
Likewise, the selfish lifestyle of the elder Walker fit pretty well into the Randian paradigm:
My mother would always do what she wanted - for example taking off to Greece for two months in the summer, leaving me with relatives when I was a teenager. Is that independent, or just plain selfish?
Just like Rand, whose warped and broken philosophy absorbed her life to the point of openly touting an affair with an Objectivist disciple, Nathaniel Branden, in front of her own husband and Branden’s wife and then subsequently excommunicated him from her personality cult when Branden did the same thing to her, the elder Walker took her lifelong devotion to a philosophy to trump her relationship with loved ones. Take this portion from Walker’s essay:
I was 16 when I found a now-famous poem she wrote comparing me to various calamities that struck and impeded the lives of other women writers. Virginia Woolf was mentally ill and the Brontes died prematurely. My mother had me - a ‘delightful distraction’, but a calamity nevertheless. I found that a huge shock and very upsetting.
According to the strident feminist ideology of the Seventies, women were sisters first, and my mother chose to see me as a sister rather than a daughter. From the age of 13, I spent days at a time alone while my mother retreated to her writing studio - some 100 miles away. I was left with money to buy my own meals and lived on a diet of fast food.
The sickness continued decades later, when the younger Walker informed her mother about her pregnancy:
Instead, when I called her one morning in the spring of 2004, while I was at one of her homes housesitting, and told her my news and that I’d never been happier, she went very quiet. All she could say was that she was shocked. Then she asked if I could check on her garden. I put the phone down and sobbed - she had deliberately withheld her approval with the intention of hurting me. What loving mother would do that?
Worse was to follow. My mother took umbrage at an interview in which I’d mentioned that my parents didn’t protect or look out for me. She sent me an e-mail, threatening to undermine my reputation as a writer. I couldn’t believe she could be so hurtful - particularly when I was pregnant.
Devastated, I asked her to apologise and acknowledge how much she’d hurt me over the years with neglect, withholding affection and resenting me for things I had no control over - the fact that I am mixed-race, that I have a wealthy, white, professional father and that I was born at all.
But she wouldn’t back down. Instead, she wrote me a letter saying that our relationship had been inconsequential for years and that she was no longer interested in being my mother. She even signed the letter with her first name, rather than ‘Mom’.
Even if it was masked as “feminism,” an ideology made synonymous with social justice, the elder Walker’s variation of it, if we believe her daughter’s telling, was in line with Rand’s “virtue of selfishness.” Career first, family non-existent or troublesome to begin with. It’s the sort of ideology that sprouts in generations in which experimentation and throwing out of tradition is the zeitgeist. With a recession that knows no equal in the previous eighty years and a population of children that knows the reality of broken families, however, there may no longer be an audience for this sort of thing.
That’s a good thing.