Ayn Rand Writes a Harsh Letter To Her 17-Year-Old Niece: “I Will Write You Off As a Rotten Person” (1949)


Image via YouTube, 1959 inter­view with Mike Wal­lace

I recent­ly hap­pened upon the Mod­ern Library’s “100 Best Nov­els” list and noticed some­thing inter­est­ing. The list divides into two columns—the “Board’s List” on the left and “Reader’s List” on the right. The “Board’s List” con­tains in its top ten such expect­ed “great books” as Joyce’s Ulysses (#1) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (#6). These are indeed wor­thy titles, but not the most acces­si­ble of books, to be sure, though Ulysses does appear at num­ber eleven on the “Reader’s List.” At the very top of that more pop­u­lar rank­ing, how­ev­er, is a book the literati could not find more wor­thy of con­tempt: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Just below it is Rand’s The Foun­tain­head, and at num­bers sev­en and eight, respec­tive­ly, her Anthem and We the Liv­ing. (Also in the top ten on the “Read­er’s List,” three nov­els by L. Ron Hub­bard.)

One obvi­ous take­away… mass­es of ordi­nary peo­ple real­ly like Ayn Rand. Which is odd, because Ayn Rand seemed to pos­i­tive­ly hate the mass­es of ordi­nary peo­ple. As Michael O’Donnell writes in Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, “Rand… lived a life of con­tempt: for peo­ple, for ideas, for gov­ern­ment, and for the very con­cept of human kind­ness.”

Per­haps her most sym­pa­thet­ic read­er, econ­o­mist Lud­wig von Mis­es, summed up the over­ar­ch­ing theme of her life’s work in one very tidy sen­tence: “You have the courage to tell the mass­es what no politi­cian told them: you are infe­ri­or and all the improve­ments in your con­di­tions which you sim­ply take for grant­ed you owe to the effort of men who are bet­ter than you.” This is appar­ent­ly a mes­sage that a great many peo­ple are eager to hear. (And if any fic­tion is “mes­sage dri­ven,” it is Rand’s.)

But imag­ine, if you will, that you are not a read­er of Ayn Rand, but a fam­i­ly mem­ber. Not by blood, but mar­riage, but con­nect­ed, nonethe­less. You are Ayn Rand’s niece—Rand’s hus­band Frank O’Connor’s sister’s daugh­ter, to be pre­cise. Your name is Con­nie Papurt, you are 17, and you have writ­ten Aun­tie Ayn to ask for $25 for a new dress. Have you done this sim­ply to be cheeky? You do know, Con­nie, how deeply your Aunt Ayn despis­es moochers, do you not? No matter—we have nei­ther Connie’s let­ter, nor a win­dow into her moti­va­tions. We do have, how­ev­er, Rand’s replies, plur­al, from May 22, 1949, then again—in response to Connie’s follow-up—from June 4 of that same year. The ini­tial request prompt­ed some earnest ser­mo­niz­ing from Rand on the val­ue of hard work, and of being a “self-respect­ing, self-sup­port­ing, respon­si­ble, cap­i­tal­is­tic per­son.” Etcetera.

Now, to Rand’s cred­it, the first reply let­ter con­tains some com­mon sense advice, and describes some sit­u­a­tions in which oth­er close con­nec­tions appar­ent­ly took advan­tage of her gen­eros­i­ty. She seems to have cause for leer­i­ness, as, grant­ed, do we all in these sit­u­a­tions. Bor­row­ing from fam­i­ly is very often a tricky busi­ness. As was her wont, how­ev­er, Rand seized upon the occa­sion not only to dis­pense wis­dom on per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, but also to mor­al­ize on the worth­less­ness of peo­ple who fail her test of char­ac­ter. As The Toast com­ments, the let­ter is “30% very good advice, 50% unnec­es­sary yelling, and 20% non­sense.” First, Rand lays out for Con­nie an install­ment plan:

           Here are my con­di­tions: If I send you the $25, I will give you a year to repay it. I will give you six months after your grad­u­a­tion to get set­tled in a job. Then, you will start repay­ing the mon­ey in install­ments: you will send me $5 on Jan­u­ary 15, 1950, and $4 on the 15th of every month after that; the last install­ment will be on June 15, 1950—and that will repay the total.

            Are you will­ing to do that?

Notice, Rand assess­es no interest—a kind­ness, indeed. And yet,

            I want you to under­stand right now that I will not accept any excuse—except a seri­ous ill­ness. If you become ill, then I will give you an exten­sion of time—but for no oth­er rea­son. If, when the debt becomes due, you tell me that you can’t pay me because you need­ed a new pair of shoes or a new coat or you gave the mon­ey to some­body in the fam­i­ly who need­ed it more than I do—then I will con­sid­er you as an embez­zler. No, I won’t send a police­man after you, but I will write you off as a rot­ten per­son and I will nev­er speak or write to you again.

Accord­ing to her 2012 obit­u­ary, Con­nie went on to became a local Cleve­land actress and nurse, a per­son “ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing the lives of oth­ers bet­ter.” Accord­ing to her aunt, she should have noth­ing bet­ter to do—for anyone—but to pay back her debt, should she wish to remain in the good graces of the great Objec­tivist. We do not know if Con­nie accept­ed the terms, but she appar­ent­ly wrote back in such a way as to leave quite an impres­sion on Rand, whose June 4 reply is “damn charm­ing!”

          I must tell you that I was very impressed with the intel­li­gent atti­tude of your let­ter. If you real­ly under­stood, all by your­self, that my long lec­ture to you was a sign of real inter­est on my part, much more so than if I had sent you a check with some hyp­o­crit­i­cal gush note, and if you under­stood that my let­ter was intend­ed to treat you as an equal—then you have just the kind of mind that can achieve any­thing you choose to achieve in life.

The let­ter goes on in very kind­ly, even sen­ti­men­tal, terms. In fact, it may con­vince you that O’Donnell is dead wrong to sin­gle out con­tempt as Rand’s defin­ing qual­i­ty. And yet, he argues, her biog­ra­phers show that “she hap­pi­ly accept­ed help from oth­ers while denounc­ing altru­is­tic kind­ness” (and those who accept it), espous­ing “an indi­vid­u­al­ism so extreme that it does not mere­ly ignore oth­ers, but actu­al­ly spits in their faces.” While Con­nie man­aged to escape her wrath, such as it was, most oth­ers, through their own fail­ings of true cap­i­tal­is­tic char­ac­ter or the cru­el­ty of cir­cum­stances beyond their con­trol, did not.

Read both of Rand’s let­ters here.

via The Toast

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ayn Rand Helped the FBI Iden­ti­fy It’s A Won­der­ful Life as Com­mu­nist Pro­pa­gan­da

In Her Final Speech, Ayn Rand Denounces Ronald Rea­gan, the Moral Major­i­ty & Anti-Choicers (1981)

A Free Car­toon Biog­ra­phy of Ayn Rand: Her Life & Thought

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • javaria younas says:

    what con­tin­ues to baf­fle me is the fact that how peo­ple just can­not stop for any oppor­tu­ni­ty to hate Rand. I am not a fan of hers, either (before some­one starts bash­ing me as well). but I do believe that even if some­one we hate does some­thing good, we should acknowl­edge that. the author of the arti­cle titles this arti­cle as ‘ayn rand writes a harsh let­ter…’ what’s harsh in let­ting your 17 year old niece know the impor­tance of debt. seri­ous­ly, that’s very good advice up there, accept­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ty that fol­lows a debt. and fur­ther­more I don’t know how it goes in oth­er fam­i­lies, but most of the time peo­ple we are relat­ed to are the first to pass on their advices. now, the fact that the niece asked rand instead of her uncle, the one she was actu­al­ly relat­ed to, tells us that maybe she was more close to rand. idk. but seri­ous­ly, why must we hate every word of some­one we abhor. why is it so hard to swal­low the fact that maybe some­one, bad in one aspect of life, could be bet­ter in anoth­er.

    tl;dr okay maybe I am more angry over the actu­al social prob­lems of the world, but the thing is I actu­al­ly hoped for a ‘let­ter full of harsh words’, and the rea­son how I end­ed up writ­ing this whole essay is because I am thor­ough­ly dis­ap­point­ed.

  • Andre Kibbe says:

    “One obvi­ous take­away… mass­es of ordi­nary peo­ple real­ly like Ayn Rand.”

    In my expe­ri­ence, peo­ple who love Rand don’t love lit­er­a­ture, and vice versa—or at least lit­er­ary fic­tion. Ask any­one who lists Atlas Shrugged as a favorite for a short list of oth­er favorites, and they’re inevitably non­fic­tion (usu­al­ly busi­ness and self-help books) or pop fic­tion. I don’t see Atlas Shrugged as hav­ing any more lit­er­ary mer­it than, say, The One-Minute Man­ag­er, but at least the lat­ter is prop­er­ly shelved in the Busi­ness sec­tion.

    Noth­ing sums of Rand more than the Hem­ing­way’s immor­tal words: “For a writer to put his own intel­lec­tu­al mus­ings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of arti­fi­cial­ly con­struct­ed char­ac­ters which are more remu­ner­a­tive when issued as peo­ple in a nov­el is good eco­nom­ics, per­haps, but does not make lit­er­a­ture.”

  • Dan Benbow says:

    This sen­tence from Andre’s com­ment nails it. Even a cur­so­ry glance at Rand’s fic­tion reveals godaw­ful, starchy prose and one-dimen­sion­al char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.
    The char­ac­ters in her books have lit­tle in the way of human qual­i­ties; they exist mere­ly as ide­o­log­i­cal pawns, and Rand’s ide­ol­o­gy has all the sub­tle­ty of a tire-iron to the fore­head.

    But her books are great for self-cen­tered, mean-spir­it­ed teenagers (and those who think like self-cen­tered, mean-spir­it­ed teenagers) who don’t know what it’s like to read a nov­el with depth, grace, and human­i­ty.

  • Dan Benbow says:

    *The sen­tence (cut off from my com­ment above) is

  • Dan Benbow says:

    peo­ple who love Rand don’t love lit­er­a­ture, and vice ver­sa

  • Don Kenner says:

    Yeah, this is much ado about noth­ing, and points to the curi­ous way in which a dead Russ­ian lady makes cer­tain peo­ple crazy.

    The two lists are not much dif­fer­ent; each con­tains Ulysses, Great Gats­by, Loli­ta, etc., just at dif­fer­ent spots. The rea­son? The Board is pick­ing the best nov­els, rather than the nov­els that meant the most to each of them as indi­vid­u­als (which is what a Read­ers list essen­tial­ly is).

    Atlas Shrugged is big to read­ers for the same rea­son that Gone With The Wind and Exo­dus and Shogun were huge hits: they are grand in scope and pro­vide much enter­tain­ment. Plus, Rand’s book is (like 1984) a cau­tion­ary tale (an indi­vid­ual should­n’t have to sac­ri­fice their dreams for oth­ers or for the State).

    Putting Rand’s We The Liv­ing on a “best” list is a big stretch, but so is Owen Meany (gag!) and Stephen Freak­ing King!

    Andre Kribbe: my favorite Nov­el­ist is Nabokov, fol­lowed by Updike, Waugh, and Bel­low. But I also like Rand. Your cir­cle of acquain­tances is too nar­row, along with your Weltan­schau­ung.

  • Mark says:

    Con­nie shrugged…

  • Mark, Again... says:

    …and now for a seri­ous com­ment! I have a nephew and a God­daugh­ter (we are real­ly both Agnos­tic) who have dis­ap­point­ed (but not sur­prised) me very deeply. The nephew BORROWED mon­ey telling me he loves me and my wife repeat­ed­ly while ask­ing for it. After he received the check we haven’t heard from him again IN 11 YEARS!! The “God­daugh­ter” lives about 15 min­utes away and she did not invite me to her grad­u­a­tion, or her 18th, 19th and now her 20th birth­day! Last Decem­ber I called her 4 times, once each week and she was too busy to talk. Now it’s SEPTEMBER!! They both remind me of the “thought­less lit­tle pig” speech Alec Bald­win gave his daugh­ter Ire­land.

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