Remembering Barbara Branden

Chris Matthew Sciabarra
4 min readMay 14, 2024

On this date in 1929, writer Barbara Branden was born. In 1950, she and her future husband, Nathaniel Branden, met the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand for the first time. Barbara was a part of Rand’s inner circle for nearly two decades and was a frequent lecturer for the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI). Having earned her M.A. in philosophy at New York University, under the direction of Sidney Hook, Barbara had much to say on the topic of free will and on tacit methods of awareness (especially ‘psycho-epistemology’, a concept that Barbara originated in the mid-1950s and brought to the attention of both Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden). At NBI, Barbara presented a series of ten lectures on the “Principles of Efficient Thinking,” while also guest lecturing on that topic in Nathaniel’s core course, “The Basic Principles of Objectivism.” (Nathaniel’s course was published in book form as The Vision of Ayn Rand in 2009.)

Barbara also led a remarkable series of interviews of Rand that was a foundation for both an “authorized” biographical essay (“Who is Ayn Rand?”), published in 1962, and — long after the dissolution of NBI and her departure from the Objectivist movement — the first comprehensive biographical work on one of the twentieth century’s most controversial thinkers: The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986). That book also served as a memoir of sorts, since it recounted the complicated evolution of Barbara’s relationship with Rand. (The book was adapted by Showtime in 1999 as a television movie, starring the Emmy-award winning Helen Mirren in the title role.)

In 1993, as I was working on my own book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, I reached out to Barbara to clarify some aspects of Rand’s university education. Thereafter, she generously consented to read an early draft of my book. We talked for hours on the phone, even as she sent me a lengthy page-by-page commentary and an accompanying five-page single-spaced letter offering constructive criticism that improved my exposition immeasurably. As she wrote in that letter (dated 28 June 1993): “Your book is a wonderful achievement, and I hope you are very proud of it. Congratulations! As you know, I could not put the manuscript down. I lost a week of evenings into the mornings — and I lost Sixty Minutes, David Brinkley, 20–20, Prime Time Live and Bernard Shaw, as well as a couple of friends whom I barked at when they phoned. (But lo and behold! — the world muddled through without me.)”

I was deeply touched.

We became dear friends, and we couldn’t wait to finally meet one another in person at the 1995 Liberty Editors Conference in Tacoma, Washington. She urged me to introduce myself with a rose in my teeth so that she’d recognize me. On Friday night, September 1, as the clock moved toward midnight, I avoided thorns and met her with a silk rose in my teeth. And I presented it to her. Hugs and kisses followed.

That weekend, we both joined philosopher John Hospers for a panel discussion on Rand’s legacy. Both John and Barbara had written resoundingly positive endorsements of my book on Rand, and I was honored to be on the same stage as them. (See the photos above.) John and I also became friends. By Fall 2000, he joined the Advisory Board of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

My productive exchanges with Barbara continued for many years thereafter. She commented extensively on the manuscript of my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000), even as Mimi Gladstein and I invited her to contribute a biographical essay to an anthology we were coediting, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999). Barbara’s essay, “Ayn Rand: The Reluctant Feminist,” opened the first section of the book. And Nathaniel Branden contributed his own essay (“Was Ayn Rand a Feminist?”), thus marking the first time since 1962’s Who is Ayn Rand? that both authors appeared in the same volume.

Barbara visited me again and again in New York, offering her love, guidance, and support, especially during some of my most difficult days. Even our little dog Blondie adored her. When Barbara died in 2013, I mourned the loss of a dear friend. I loved her very much.

In 2017, I wrote the foreword to Think as if Your Life Depends on It, which provided the first published presentation of Barbara’s lecture series, “Principles of Efficient Thinking,” and other lectures that expanded on earlier themes in the light of her own intellectual evolution.

Today, on the ninety-fifth anniversary of her birth, I celebrate her life — and the gift of our friendship.

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