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Holding Court - July 21, 2005
July 21, 2005
In this column, and perhaps in the next, I shall present excerpts from my interviews with Ayn Rand, specifically those dealing with her childhood. This is in response to a number of requests from SOLOists—after I mentioned that I had cut from The Passion of Ayn Rand a considerable amount of material dealing with Rand’s childhood—that I reproduce that material here. I am reproducing some of it, and without interpretation.
Q: What are your very first memories of your childhood?
AR: My first memory is when I was two-and-a-half. I was sitting on a windowsill, Father beside me, and I was looking out into the street at the streetcars, the first streetcars ever in St. Petersburg. I remember the colored lights, yellow and red, and Father explaining what it was.
From the same period, I remember that my second sister had just been born, and she was being diapered and changed. I was looking on in astonishment at the sight of this new baby.
I remember very distinctly moving from that apartment when I was three, and that we had to stay with a cousin while Mother moved. I got into an argument with Mother about a kind of middy blouse that my cousin was wearing, it was the fashion among foreign girls, and I wanted one. But Mother did not approve of us ever dressing in fashion—if everyone wore pink and blue bows, we had to have green ones. And she did not approve of middy blouses, and so she refused to buy me one. We also argued because she would not let me drink tea like the adults; she said I was too young. I remember feeling a defiant resentment, and saying, “Why won’t you let me have what I want? Some day I’ll have it!”
Q: Were you an obedient child?
AR: I was quite obedient about anything routine or when it was useless to rebel. I would sometimes throw fits about not wanting to go for a walk, but it was an absolute that I had to. I was passive when it didn’t matter to me, I felt one had to obey, I was only absolutely impossible about something when I cared. I didn’t have to throw big fits, because Mother would give in when it was something I wanted to have or do very much. I was not unmanageable, but Mother considered me a difficult child, I would argue and refuse to do things I was told to do. My middle sister was more obedient; my little sister was more rebellious than I.
Once, Mother bought us some very expensive gymnastic equipment, there were bars to climb, and rings, and a trapeze, and she wanted us to use it constantly. If she insisted, I’d climb up for a moment, then stop, so by attrition she stopped nagging. I just wouldn’t do it.
There was no punishment, no such thing as going without supper or being locked in my room, all the issues would be spur-of-the-moment except for routine ones like going for walks or speaking French.
Q: You once told me, concerning your preoccupation with morality at an early stage, about a significant event that occurred when you were about six years old.
AR: Yes. It happened at the summer resort in the Crimea that we would go to. There was a kid’s playground with swings and games. One game consisted of a tall pole that had ropes with loops to hold onto attached to it. Children could hold onto the loops and run around the pole in circles, and if you gained enough momentum, you could fly through the air on that loop, it was up to your skill, how fast you could run. I loved it. There was always a waiting line for that game, but once you got hold of a loop, you could keep it indefinitely. One day, when I was on a loop, a little boy approached me and asked winsomely if I would please let him have it for just one turn. I said: Just one turn, and he promised solemnly. But then he wouldn’t give it back after his turn. I was so incredulous—I never remember having quite such a moral shock, nothing since has shocked me more. It was the first time I saw someone break his word. I was enraged and I started to argue, and he laughed insolently and returned to swinging. I ran and grabbed him, but the momentum threw me down and I hurt my nose—it was bleeding. There was a doctor in the park and he rushed me to the hospital. I had felt such a murderous rage that if he hadn’t started swinging I probably would have scratched and choked the kid ... It’s kind of symbolic of the rest of my life ....
There was a somewhat similar, lesser shock, another moral encounter, when I was ten and caught my little sister in a small lie. She told my mother that she hadn’t gone barefoot in the river; we were forbidden to go in the river because it was dangerous. I felt enormous shock and incredulity that my own sister could lie. It would never have occurred to me to tell a lie. I thought that it didn’t happen to people I knew. I had read stories about dishonest children, but it had no reality to me; in my own sister it seemed like total depravity.
I once caught Mother in a lie, really a broken promise. We had a nursery cluttered with toys. My favorite was a mechanical metal chicken that you could wind with a key and it would whirl and walk across the room, it was the most foreign-looking toy, the others were building blocks and balls. One day Mother came in and looked at the cluttered floor and said we couldn’t keep it that way, that we could keep only half our toys, but next year she would return the other half. I put aside for the future all the toys I liked best, including the chicken, because—I was a long-range planner even then, the future had precedence over the immediate moment—I wanted to look forward to the chicken and my other favorites. Next year, Mother said nothing about returning the toys. But I asked when we would get our toys back, and she looked amused and said she gave them away to an orphan asylum—she said she thought that what we put away for the future was what we wanted least. I felt that it was an enormous injustice. I didn’t feel real pain, I had different interests by then, but I did feel enormous shock that she had lied. This event contributed to my feeling that her values were not mine, it was one more minus for Mother.
Q: Apart from your fear of germs, which you explained was instilled by your mother, did you have any other fears as a child?
AR: No, no special ones, except horror stories. This was when I was six or seven, before I was allowed to go to movies, but I liked to look at the movie displays, the stills, in front of the theaters. One set of stills was for a movie called “The War of the Future”—it was a fantasy—and the stills were horrifying pictures of exploding bombs and such. I was terrified. But then I thought, well, that’s in the past, we’re civilized now, it can’t happen in the present. But if I saw horror stories in newspapers, gory murders, for instance, they had a certain morbid fascination, but I had the horrified feeling, an uncomfortable, ugly feeling: “How can such things happen? I don’t want them to be possible.” It wasn’t a fear for myself; it was a metaphysical feeling.
Q: What did you look like as a child?
AR: I was a very beautiful child. I’ll show you the pictures.
Questioner: You have shown them to me. I know that you were beautiful. But I was determined to make you say it.
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