This is a follow-up to my previous post, Ayn Rand's "real man."
After writing that post, I found myself wondering if it was really possible that Ayn Rand admired William Edward Hickman, the child kidnapper and serial murderer whose credo Rand quotes in her journal. Although my opinion of Rand is very low, it has never been quite that low, and I was, after all, relying on secondhand sources. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of Journals of Ayn Rand (though I have now ordered one) and so I thought I was unable to check for myself. Then it occurred to me that I could use Amazon.com's "Search inside" feature to read the relevant pages.
What I found was, in some ways, actually worse than the brief excerpts from the journals had suggested.
Clearly the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand had some qualms about Rand's open admiration of Hickman. He tries to put this admiration in some perspective, writing:
For reasons given in the following notes, AR concluded that the intensity of the public's hatred was primarily "because of the man who committed the crime and not because of the crime he committed." The mob hated Hickman for his independence; she chose him as a model for the same reason.
Hickman served as a model for [her fictional hero] Danny [Renahan] only in strictly limited respects, which AR names in her notes. And he does commit a crime in the story, but it is nothing like Hickman's. To guard against any misinterpretation, I quote her own statement regarding the relationship between her hero and Hickman:
"[My hero is] very far from him, of course. The outside of Hickman, but not the inside. Much deeper and much more. A Hickman with a purpose. And without the degeneracy. It is more exact to say that the model is not Hickman, but what Hickman suggested to me."
The editor also provides the briefest and most detail-free synopsis of Hickman's crime possible:
"He was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young girl. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in February of 1928; he was hanged on October 20, 1928."
As far as I could tell, this is the one and only reference to Hickman's victim to be found anywhere in the book. Ayn Rand (unless I missed it) never mentions the victim at all in any of her journal entries. (The closest she comes is a sneering reference to another girl, "who wrote a letter to Hickman [in jail], asking him 'to get religion so that little girls everywhere would stop being afraid of him.'")
Notice that the editor does not bother to tell us that the young girl in question was twelve years old, that Hickman tormented her parents with mocking ransom notes, that Hickman killed the girl even though the parents paid the ransom money, or that Hickman cut the girl in half and threw her upper body onto the street in front of her horrified father while scattering her other body parts around the city of Los Angeles.
This is the Hickman whose "outside" intrigued the young Ayn Rand so much.
Now here are some of Rand's notes on the fictional hero she was developing, with Hickman (or what he "suggested") as a model.
Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen -- it's inborn, absolute, it can't be changed, he has "no organ" to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel "other people."
He shows how impossible it is for a genuinely beautiful soul to succeed at present, for in all [aspects of] modern life, one has to be a hypocrite, to bend and tolerate. This boy wanted to command and smash away things and people he didn't approve of."
Apparently what Hickman suggested to Ayn Rand was "a genuinely beautiful soul." The soul of Marion Parker, the murdered girl, evidently did not suggest any comparably romantic notions to her.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a term for a person who has "no organ" by which to understand other human beings -- a person who "can never realize and feel 'other people.'" That word is sociopath. I mean this quite literally and not as a rhetorical flourish. A sociopath, by definition, is someone who lacks empathy and cannot conceive of other people as fully real. It is precisely because the sociopath objectifies and depersonalizes other human beings that he is able to inflict pain and death without remorse.
It is also fair to say of any sociopath that he "wanted to command and smash away things and people he didn't approve of." How this relates to having "a beautiful soul" is unclear to me -- and I earnestly hope it will continue to be.
In her notes, Rand complains that poor Hickman has become the target of irrational and ugly mob psychology:
The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the "virtuous" indignation and mass-hatred of the "majority."... It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal...
This is not just the case of a terrible crime. It is not the crime alone that has raised the fury of public hatred. It is the case of a daring challenge to society. It is the fact that a crime has been committed by one man, alone; that this man knew it was against all laws of humanity and intended that way; that he does not want to recognize it as a crime and that he feels superior to all. It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul.
Before we get to the meat of this statement, let us pause to consider Rand's claim that average members of the public are "beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives." Worse sins and crimes and kidnapping, murdering, and mutilating a helpless little girl? If Rand honestly believed that the average American had worse skeletons than that in his closet, then her opinion of "the average man" is even lower than I had suspected.
We get an idea of the "sins and crimes" of ordinary people when Rand discusses the jury in the case: "Average, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, 'dignified' housewives. How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone's fate?" Their sin, evidently, is that they are "average," a word that appears twice in three sentences. They are "shabbily dressed" or, conversely, "overdressed" -- in matters of fashion, Rand seems hard to please. They are "dried" and "worn," or they are "fat." They are, in short, an assault on the delicate sensibilities of the author. Anything "average" appalls her. "Extremist beyond all extreme is what we need!" she exclaims in another entry. Well, in his cruelty and psychopathic insanity, Hickman was an extremist, for sure. Nothing "average" about him!
Returning to the longer quote above, notice how briskly Rand dismisses the possibility that the public's anger might have been motivated by the crime per se. Apparently the horrendous slaying of a little girl is not enough, in Rand's mind, to justify public outrage against the murderer. No, what the public really objects to is "a daring challenge to society." I suppose this is one way of looking at Hickman's actions. By the same logic, Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy posed "a daring challenge to society." So did Adolf Hitler, only on a larger scale.
Hickman, she writes, knew that his crime "was against all laws of humanity" -- this is a point in his favor, she seems to think. And "he does not want to recognize it as a crime." Well, neither does any criminal who rationalizes his behavior by saying that his victim "had it coming." Hickman "feels superior to all." Yes, so do most sociopaths. Grandiosity and narcissistic self-absorption are another characteristic of this type. Hickman has "a consciousness all his own"; he is a "man who really stands alone, in action and in soul." I cannot think of any comment about this that would be suitable for a public forum.
Although the American people showed no sympathy for Hickman, Ayn Rand certainly did:
And when we look at the other side of it -- there is a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy turned into a purposeless monster. By whom? By what? Is it not by that very society that is now yelling so virtuously in its role of innocent victim? He had a brilliant mind, a romantic, adventurous, impatient soul and a straight, uncompromising, proud character. What had society to offer him? A wretched, insane family as the ideal home, a Y.M.C.A. club as social honor, and a bank-page job as ambition and career...
If he had any desires and ambitions -- what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; the degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromises....
A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet. That boy was not strong enough. But is that his crime? Is it his crime that he was too impatient, fiery and proud to go that slow way? That he was not able to serve, when he felt worthy to rule; to obey, when he wanted to command?...
He was given [nothing with which] to fill his life. What was he offered to fill his soul? The petty, narrow, inconsistent, hypocritical ideology of present-day humanity. All the criminal, ludicrous, tragic nonsense of Christianity and its morals, virtues, and consequences. Is it any wonder that he didn't accept it?
How exactly she knew that Hickman was "brilliant, unusual, exceptional," or that he "had a brilliant mind, a romantic, adventurous, impatient soul and a straight, uncompromising, proud character" is far from clear. A more realistic portrait of Hickman would show him as a calculating sadist.
For all those who assume that Ayn Rand, as a figure on the political right, would be "tough on crime," please note that she here invokes the hoariest cliches of the "victim of society" mentality. Poor Hickman just couldn't help kidnapping and murdering a little girl -- after all, he had a lousy home life and an unfulfilling job. And it would be asking too much of such a superior soul to put forth the long, sustained effort necessary to rise to a position of power and influence by means of his own hard work.
Rand's statement here reminds me very much of an attitude often found in career criminals -- that honest work is for suckers.
"A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet." This is about as bald-faced a confession of Rand's utter dependence on Nietzsche as we are ever likely to see. "That boy was not strong enough. But is that his crime?" No, Ayn Rand, that was not his crime. His crime, in case you have forgotten, is that he kidnapped a twelve-year-old girl and held her for ransom and murdered her and cut her to pieces and threw her body parts in the street and laughed about it. That was his crime. True, he did not "trample society under his feet" -- but it was not for want of trying.
Oh, but "he was not able to serve, when he felt worthy to rule; to obey, when he wanted to command." How sad for him. There is a point in most people's lives -- usually around the age of fifteen or sixteen -- when they reject authority and want to rule and command. Rand apparently feels that this adolescent hubris represents the best in human nature. A less addled personality would recognize that it represents a passing phase in one's personal development, one that a mature human being has long outgrown.
But of course we know the real villain in the picture. Not Hickman, but Christianity! More specifically, "All the criminal, ludicrous, tragic nonsense of Christianity and its morals, virtues, and consequences. Is it any wonder that he didn't accept it?" So it is Christianity, not Hickman, that is characterized as "criminal," just as it is average Americans, not Hickman, who are excoriated for their "sins and crimes."
Just so there is no doubt as to Rand's position vis-a-vis Christianity, a few pages later we find her fulminating against the depravity of:
the pastors who try to convert convicted murderers to their religion... The fact that right after his sentence Hickman was given a Bible by the jailer. I don't know of anything more loathsome, hypocritical, low, and diabolical than giving Bibles to men sentenced to death. It is one of those things that's comical in its stupidity and horrid because of this lugubrious, gruesome comedy.
I can think of at least one thing that is "more loathsome... low, and diabolical than giving Bibles to men sentenced to death." And that is: ripping up little girls for fun and profit.
Defending her hero, Rand asks rhetorically:
What could society answer, if that boy were to say: "Yes. I am a monstrous criminal, but what are you?"
Well, society could answer: We are the ones who caught you, tried you, convicted you, and are going to put you to death.
At times, Rand -- who, we must remember, was still quite young when she wrote these notes -- appears to be rather infatuated with the famous and charismatic boy killer. She offers a long paragraph of all the things she likes about Hickman, somewhat in the manner of a lovestruck teenager recording all her favorite details about the lead singer in a boy band. Rand's list includes:
The fact that he looks like "a bad boy with a very winning grin," that he makes you like him the whole time you're in his presence...
You can practically hear the young aspiring author's heart fluttering. I have always been puzzled by the psychology of women who write love letters to serial killers in prison. Somehow I suspect Ayn Rand would have understood them better than I do.
Still writing of Hickman, she confesses to her "involuntary, irresistible sympathy for him, which I cannot help feeling just because of [his antisocial nature] and in spite of everything else." Regarding his credo (the full statement of which is, "I am like the state: what is good for me is right"), Rand writes, "Even if he wasn't big enough to live by that attitude, he deserves credit for saying it so brilliantly."
Remember all the flak taken by Norman Mailer for championing a jailhouse writer and getting the guy paroled, only to have him commit another crime? Here we have Rand enthusing about the "credit" Hickman "deserves" for expressing his twisted philosophy of life "so brilliantly." Get that man on a work release program!
At one point, a sliver of near-rationality breaks through the fog of Rand's bizarre take on the Hickman case: "I am afraid that I idealize Hickman and that he might not be this at all. In fact, he probably isn't." Her moment of lucidity is short-lived. "But it does not make any difference. If he isn't, he could be, and that's enough." Yes, facts are stubborn things, so it's best to ignore them and live in a land of make-believe. Let's not allow truculent reality to interfere with our dizzying and intoxicating fantasy life.
Punctuating the point, Rand writes, "There is a lot that is purposely, senselessly horrible about him. But that does not interest me..." No indeed. Why should it? It's only reality.
At this point in my life, I did not think it was possible to significantly lower my estimate of Ayn Rand, or to regard her as even more of a psychological and moral mess than I had already taken her to be.
I stand corrected.