Is Ayn Rand dangerous? The question arose recently when Lissa Roche, a onetime Rand votary, shot herself after disclosing that she'd been having a 19-year affair with her father-in-law, George Roche III, the then president of Hillsdale, an ultraconservative Michigan college. After Lissa's death, Roche III was suspendedpresumably because he'd embarrassed Republican moralists everywhere, all of whom have been licking their exemplary wounds ever since. Shortly thereafter he resigned.
It seems Lissa killed herself over her lover, aiming thereby to disgrace the man Vanity Fair writer Sam Tanenhaus described as a "matinee idol of the right." Some say Roche III was Lissa's John Galt, the cartoonish superman of Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. Others saw him as a petty tyrant who flaunted his family values publicly, but exercised his droit du seigneur privately.
"An ideal woman is a man-worshipper, and an ideal man is the highest symbol of mankind." This Randism would seem, in part, to explain Lissa's monomaniacal pursuit of Roche III. (Lissa once confessed to marrying George Roche IV only because his father was already married.)
But is Rand to blame for Lissa's mercenary love life and her tragic end? Lissa was steeped in Rand in her teens when she attended the Flint School, an experimental education program wherein students lived, worked, and studied aboard a sailing ship. The school's founders made Rand's dogma of free-market selfishness the core of the curriculum. Atlas Shrugged was Lissa and her classmates' bible.
In a recent New York Post editorial, historian Garry Wills wrote: "Ayn Rand has done a lot of damage to adolescent minds of all ages and genders. Lissa Roche was an appropriate symbol of that fact."
Some feminists have denounced Rand even more viciouslySusan Brownmiller called her "a traitor to her own sex." Until recently, Rand's work had not generally appeared on women's studies syllabi. If youngsters discovered Rand at all, they usually did so alone. But now a hungry assortment of Rand scholars has resurrected the Russian polecat from the closet bookshelves of maverick undergrads.
Last year, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, founding editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and a visiting scholar in NYU's politics department, coedited a volume of essays entitled Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. When I asked him about Wills's take on Lissa, he said: "Blaming Rand for the bad judgment Lissa may have shown is a new variation of the Twinkie Defense. Now people can say: 'Don't blame meAtlas Shrugged did it.' "
Sciabarra's coeditor, Mimi Reisel Gladstein, an associate dean at the University of Texas at El Paso, naysayed the suggestion that Rand's ideas are misogynist: "I read Atlas Shrugged and it gave me intellectual ammunition to defy the sexist stereotypes that were being used to limit me. It helped me clarify my thinking on a number of cogent issues in the early struggles of the women's movement."
Likewise, Dana Berliner, an attorney who read Rand from the age of nine up, denies that Objectivism has unleashed a coven of brainwashed termagants on the world: "A lot of people who don't understand Rand's philosophy find something attractive in it. If Lissa only got that women should look for a heroic man, she missed the entire philosophical content. No one who properly understood Objectivism could have done what she did."
Sciabarra explained: "Lissa was described as a 'groupie,' something that is foreign to Rand's individualist philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of reason, judgment, and self-esteem. Many feminists recognize that Rand's emphasis on 'man-worship' was simply an extension of her sexual psychology and not essential to her philosophy."
But Rand's not just taking flak about women. Recently, Timothy Trout sued his brother Monroe Trout Jr. for firing him from the futures trading firm they once operated together. Timothy's claim? That his brother, a generous donor to the Ayn Rand Institute, used Rand's philosophy to justify cutting him off from the company's assets.
Negative press notwithstanding, Rand is making a comeback. The Ayn Rand Institute's 1999 annual report shows it received over $2 million in contributions in 1999 as opposed to only $430,000 in 1992. Sciabarra's scholarly Web site is getting nearly 50,000 hits a month. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, says Sciabarra, are showing up in literature courses, while Rand's philosophical essays are being assigned in government, philosophy, and political theory classes across the country. Not to worry, thoughat least now budding Randians are being supervised.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.