Thursday, March 3, 2011

Was Ayn Rand a Drug Addict?

In addition to her indisputable addiction to nicotine (she was a chain smoker) there’s no question that Ayn Rand was a habitual consumer of amphetamines starting in 1942, when she was prescribed Benzedrine for weight loss (a common medical practice in that era) and discovered that it gave her the energy to put in the long hours needed to finish the first of her two major novels, The Fountainhead. Rand liked the boost that “speed” gave her, and from that time until at least 1972 – a period of 30 years – she continued to use amphetamines, moving on to Dexedrine and Dexamyl.

Rand’s admirers have always insisted that their hero and intellectual mentor was not a drug addict. In the first place, they say, the drugs she took were prescribed. True enough – but prescription drugs can be as addictive as anything sold in back alleys.

Second, they claim her use of amphetamines was very limited. A biographical FAQ published by the Objectivism Reference Center states: “She took two pills per day until the early 1970s, when another doctor told her to stop taking them. If you refer to any and all amphetamines as ‘speed,’ then she did take ‘speed,’ although it is probably not accurate to say she was addicted to it. She certainly did not take the street drugs to which the term ‘speed’ is more commonly applied.”

Evidence from more impartial sources, however, indicates that at times Rand used amphetamines heavily – at least heavily enough to cause her friends to be deeply concerned. One of them, the journalist Isabel Patterson, wrote to her: “Stop taking that Benzedrine, you idiot. I don't care what excuse you have – stop it.”

Certainly symptoms of amphetamine addiction – irritability, mood swings, paranoia – showed up in Rand’s personal relationships, especially later in her life. The members of the cult-like inner circle she assembled around her in New York were terrified of the fierce, bitingly cruel attacks she would unleash against any of them who disagreed with her. Even her devoted husband Frank O’Connor would sometimes be the target of her scorn.

Rand claimed to value rationality above all else, and to live by the principles laid down in her novels. “I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books — and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters,” she wrote in the afterword to Atlas Shrugged. And she violently denounced drug use by others, writing in one essay that “it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity.”

It’s profoundly ironic that someone with Rand’s (claimed) principles would herself become a drug addict. But self-delusion was one of Rand’s defining traits. As Charles Murray wrote in 2010 in the Claremont Review of Books: “Rand … faked reality throughout her life, beginning in small ways and ending with the construction of a delusional alternative reality that took over her life.”

Was Ayn Rand a drug addict? I believe the evidence shows conclusively that the answer is yes. Does that, in itself, invalidate her philosophy? Of course not. But it does make it legitimate to ask whether her philosophy – or Rand herself – was as purely rational as her followers believe.