By Johann Hari
Posted Monday, Nov. 2, 2009, at 7:01 AM ET
The perverse allure of a damaged woman.
Ayn Rand is one of America's great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that "the masses"—her readers—were "lice" and "parasites" who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is "evil" and selfishness is "the only virtue," she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?
Two new biographies of Rand—Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller—try to puzzle out this question, showing how her arguments found an echo in the darkest corners of American political life.* But the books work best, for me, on a level I didn't expect. They are thrilling psychological portraits of a horribly damaged woman who deserves the one thing she spent her life raging against: compassion.
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For an edgier take on Ayn Rand and her admiration for a serial killer click here.
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