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Member Spotlight: Diana Amsden

Member Spotlight: Diana Amsden

10 Mins
April 26, 2019

Editor’s Note: Friends and members of The Atlas Society are among our greatest resources -- providing energy, ideas, and support that actively shape our work. Their individual stories are testaments to Ayn Rand’s ideals of reason, achievement, and ethical self-interest. Diana Amsden is an author, archaeologist, and anthropologist. The Atlas Society Senior Editor, Marilyn Moore, Ph.D., interviewed Diana about her work and family, the role Ayn Rand played in shaping her outlook, and her Index to Atlas Shrugged.  

MM: Diana, how long have you been associated with The Atlas Society?

DA: Since the early 1990s. David Kelley introduced himself at a Reason Foundation event (perhaps John Stossel or Margaret Thatcher was speaking), and invited me to an Atlas Society meeting in Washington, D.C. I also enjoyed a meeting in New Hampshire.

MM: Tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?

DA: Northern New Mexico, between Santa Fe and Taos. My mother home-schooled me (mail order, Calvert School in Baltimore) some of my elementary school years.  I was a high school cheerleader, began college at 15, and graduated from the University of New Mexico (UNM) at 19, major anthropology (specialty archaeology), minor art history.

My family included archaeologists and anthropologists. My father, Theodore (“Ted”) Price Amsden, was the expedition artist (this was before color photography) for Harold Gladwin at Casa Grande and for A. V. Kidder at his classic excavation at Pecos, New Mexico. Uncle Charley, curator of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, wrote Navajo Weaving. Uncle Monroe worked on the Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá with Ann and Earl Morris.  My cousin, Charles W. Amsden, was an anthropology professor in Canada and Australia. I was taken on an archaeological expedition to El Moro, where my father was doing an archaeological survey, when I was a year old, and I have excavated most Southwest cultures (Clovis with Dennis Stanford, Desert Culture with Frank Hibben, Basketmaker with Paul David Reiter, Pueblo with Bertha Dutton).

MM: How old were you when you first discovered Ayn Rand?

DA: I discovered her by accident the summer of 1968 in Albuquerque. Late one evening, bored, I flipped on the TV–in the middle of The Fountainhead. Never had I seen such inspiring characters, saying such perfect things! The movie title was not given, so I asked around, then read everything by Ayn Rand I could lay my hands on.  Philosophically, I had been at sea all my life in the days when that meant scurvy. Discovering Ayn Rand was like being presented with a crate of fresh oranges; I just couldn’t get enough.

Assuming “Ayn” to be a man’s name, a variant of “Ian,” I thought, “What a man! Would I like to meet him!” When I discovered Rand was a woman, I was not disappointed, the first woman I came across who made me feel, “Wow, there’s a woman worth being like!” Boys are offered many heroes to emulate, but who was offered to girls of my generation? Those who suffer and serve–Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Longing for the companionship of others who enjoyed and admired Ayn Rand, I wrote the readers’ inquiry column in the Albuquerque paper, and was put in touch with a man who planned to start a group of Students of Objectivism. We met at UNM, where, as an assistant professor, I was qualified to be the required faculty advisor.  We had a delightful variety: a real estate agent (Maurice MacDonald), a pilot (Ed Carlson), a jewelry-maker (I had him make me a gold dollar-sign pin), a serviceman (Evan Soule), etc., etc. Being a member of this group is one of my happiest memories. We thought so much alike that we moved like one animal––which is what distinguishes a team from a committee.

MM: In what ways were you influenced by Ayn Rand?

DA: My heritage was Puritan on my father’s side, Old Order Amish on my mother’s.  Rand taught me what I desperately needed to know: that I can trust my own mind. Yes, I can make mistakes–but I can also correct them. I studied an old-fashioned logic textbook, and was appalled that logic had never been part of my required curriculum. That I could graduate summa cum laude in a demanding field, taught by top professors–without being given the philosophical tools for analyzing and judging ideas––and for detecting fallacies–reveals the deplorable state of American education. I felt as if I had a Chinese lilyfoot in my head, as if my capacity to reason had been bound, never allowed to develop. Indeed, much education consists of being taught what to think–and even what to like–which implies that you are incapable of figuring out these things for yourself.

Philosophically, I had been at sea all my life in the days when that meant scurvy. Discovering Ayn Rand was like being presented with a crate of fresh oranges; I just couldn’t get enough.

Learning to think, to make connections, to form causal chains backward and forward, was heady, exhilarating–and agonizing–I had to face the fact that my most crucial life decisions––career and marriage––had been mistakes.

In my late teens, on my mother’s recommendation, I had succumbed to Christian Science. Religious tolerance, ecumenicism, and attending “the church of your choice” were then the religious values.  At 19, I succumbed to my former husband’s fundamentalism.

Galt’s scathing denunciation of mysticism (Atlas Shrugged p. 1026) is no exaggeration–but how did Ayn Rand know? She was never religious! An omniscient, omnipotent being who permits some of the things that happen in this world does not deserve worship.

When our Students of Objectivism group heard that the Libertarian Party was starting, several of us enthusiastically drove up to Denver for the first national convention. We envisioned the Party as a means for bringing Ayn Rand’s kind of world into existence.

In Denver, I learned that Ayn Rand was opposed to the Libertarian Party, which baffled me, because I knew that she had been active for Goldwater, and our party’s philosophy was like her own. But, if there is anything Rand taught me, it is to put nothing above my own mind––which necessarily includes even her opinion.  In a discussion of school vouchers, I said something like, “You mean, the good teachers are for them because they’re smart, and the bad teachers are against them because they’re stupid.”  This inspired Don Parrish to nominate me for Vice President, which horrified me because the press would discover I had had psychotherapy––having therapy had just ended Senator Thomas Eagleton’s candidacy as George McGovern’s running mate (Eagleton had been hospitalized; I never was, but merely walked to an office for a 50-minute hour).  I urged the delegates to choose Toni Nathans, who had her own talk show, expected to be nominated, and was temperamentally suited to campaigning (I am an introvert). Maurice insisted I accept nomination to be the Party’s first national secretary, and I was elected.

As President of the New Mexican Libertarian Party I presided over the first meeting.  However, I hate Robert’s Rules of Order (while acknowledging their utility), hate running meetings––and am not good at it.  A few months later, I was called on, as a member of the Libertarian Party executive committee, to help decide which of two factions should rule the California Party. Already, jockeying for power was corrupting us!  Disgusted, a short time later I left the Party, and have never regretted it. It appears to me that the only way a freedom-loving person can achieve anything in politics is to compromise, that is, sell out his reasons for being involved in the first place.  Worse, the Libertarian Party could split the vote, propelling the worse of the two leading candidates into office. My 1983 pamphlet points out that John Galt refused political power--even when tortured! (I believe that Robert Poole is having a beneficial effect––via persuasion.)

MM: And Ayn Rand remains an important influence?

DA: I admire Ayn Rand for her brains and guts.  She survived the Russian revolution, starvation, and poverty, fled to America, determined to be a writer–in a language she had yet to master. (In compiling my Atlas Shrugged index, I found only a couple of errors.)

Boys are offered many heroes to emulate, but who was offered to girls of my generation? Those who suffer and serve–Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Eleanor Roosevelt.

As an anthropologist, I found an evolutionary perspective only once in her writings, and it reflects the teleology of Lev Semenovich Berg, from whom she probably took a biology course in 1922: “The d’Anconia heirs had been men of unusual ability, but none of them could match what Francisco d’Anconia promised to become. It was as if the centuries had sifted the family’s qualities through a fine mesh, had discarded the irrelevant, the inconsequential, the weak, and had let nothing through except pure talent; as if chance, for once, had achieved an entity devoid of the accidental” (AS, p. 93.)

E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology did not appear until 1975, when Rand was seventy, but even Darwin did not limit natural selection to anatomy, but speculated about psychological and social traits and sexual selection.

Ignorance of the 1930s-1940s Modern Evolutionary Synthesis undermines her theory of sex: Frisco, Atlas Shrugged copper titan and ostensible playboy, says, “The man who is proudly certain of his own value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer–because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement, not the possession of a brainless slut.”

This better describes female sexual psychology. The female bears relatively few offspring; the better her mate, the better her offspring’s chances of surviving and reproducing. For good evolutionary reasons, male sexual psychology focuses on quantity. The more healthy females with good genes and strong maternal instincts a male impregnates, the more offspring he leaves to perpetuate his less discriminating tastes.

A man in any era who wanted only an Ayn Rand heroine would probably not perpetuate her superior genes––or his own genes and rarefied taste. Rand frequently admonished people, “Question your premises!” Her personal experience did not bear out her theory of sex, but, to my knowledge, she never questioned it.

None of her heroines ever gets pregnant, and birth control does not exist in her fictional world. Anne Heller tells us that Rand became pregnant once, but had an abortion. Rand’s view of motherhood is expressed by Kay Ludlow, an inhabitant of Galt’s Gulch and wife of Atlas Shrugged pirate-hero Ragnar Danneskjöld. Kay says of her two little boys, “They’re the profession I’ve chosen to practice, which, in spite of all the guff about motherhood, one can’t practice successfully in the outer world” (AS, p. 785). As the mother of six who needed and deserved more than I could give them, I have to agree.

Most readers assume that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are based on the same premise––but they are based on opposite premises. Rand had a philosophical about-face. Dominique, believing Roark cannot win against the world, begs him to drop out.  He persists––and is proven right. Galt, in Atlas Shrugged, knowing he cannot win against the world, wants Dagny to drop out. She persists–and is proven wrong!

Ayn Rand says Frisco won a debate, switched sides, then won again.  This is what she did. In her introduction to The Fountainhead, she says that one evening she felt so indignant at the world that she stopped writing; only her husband’s encouragement enabled her to continue. Perhaps Roark spoke for her when he said at his trial, “I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built. We are approaching a world in which I cannot permit myself to live.” At the Ford Hall Forum in 1977, in reply to a query on the progress of another novel, she said she had stopped writing it due to discouragement over the world. She went on strike!

If there is anything Rand taught me, it is to put nothing above my own mind––which necessarily includes even her opinion.  

My heart goes out to Ayn Rand. I love her. I am grateful to her. She is the woman I most admire, for her genius, her courage, her independence of mind, and her powerful, spare, lucid writing. I wish she were with us–and happy.  Her last appearance was in 1981 in New Orleans, when she was a frail old woman. She ended her speech by quoting John Galt, the major Atlas Shrugged hero: “Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and absolute rectitude of knowing that yours is the Morality of Life and that yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth.”

MM: You are a very accomplished woman yourself. You’ve earned six degrees, among other things. What are the degrees, and what motivated you to pursue such ambitious academic goals?

DA: My background is mostly anthropology, archaeology, art history, and architecture, all Amsden family interests (I legally resumed my maiden name). In my library hang six degrees, including one from Harvard.  Some are mementos of a misspent life, “union card degrees,” intellectually negligible, but required to get a job that pays a living wage.

I discovered an apparent fraud in anthropology. Wanting to know whether there was an alternative explanation, I presented a paper at the well-attended Symposium on Culture Theory at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting in Toronto. No one challenged me. My Ph. D. dissertation, Piltdown II, refutes a theory of cultural evolution allegedly based on physics.  (I gave papers at three other AAA symposia.)

MM: You compiled an index to Atlas Shrugged. What gave you the idea for that project?

DA: I needed an index to Atlas Shrugged myself, so during a writers’ strike (while doing research at Universal Studios for television’s Quincy, M. E.,), I went through the 1168-page book three times, line by line, writing each occurrence of each name or term on a 3x5 card. I used my Royal portable electric typewriter and Kinko’s.  I share my index.

I long ago chose the Winged Victory as my symbol for how I want to face life. I had drawn the Nike of Samothrace for a class taught by Hibben.  I began using the drawing on my calling cards and stationery. It appears on my index and pamphlet,“Some Observations on Ayn Rand and Her Work.”

MM: You are also a writer.

DA: I have published scholarly and popular articles, poems, and prose. In 1978, I almost sold my novel, The Stained-Glass Woman (SGW), about the arts, the Amish, and successful psychopaths, but the publisher had just bought a multigenerational family saga. Grown into a trilogy, SGW is now undergoing what had better be the final revision.  I created an account for publishing and marketing it as an ebook, paperback, and signed limited edition hardcover. I want to direct my film scripts, The Virtual James Mason–now that we finally have the technology to create a virtual James Mason––and Ask and Ye Shall Receive, a satire in which God and the Devil are female roles. Late last year my parody of a medical report was published in The Journal of Irreproducible Results.  I plan to update my website, DianaAmsden.com, temporarily stopped by a pedestrian vs. SUV accident in which I was not the SUV.

MM: Having spent so much time reading and thinking about Atlas Shrugged, and with your background in television and film––you sold a script idea to Quincy, M.E.  and worked as a reader for New World Pictures and for agent Jack Scagnetti ––how would you cast and direct a movie or miniseries of the novel?

DA: I believe that Atlas Shrugged was inspired by H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. Rand, a movie buff, would have seen Alexander Korda’s 1936 film version,Things to Come, starring Raymond Massey (who played Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead). When I tried writing an Atlas Shrugged film script, however, it was insuperably difficult. When I heard that Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, wanted to film it, I sent him a complimentary index, as I later did John Aglialoro. Rebecca Dunn complimented me on my index. I contributed what I reasonably could to support the film. Graham Beckel’s Ellis Wyatt is a gem; the opening of the John Galt Line brought tears to my eyes.

I want to see Atlas Shrugged made into a television series long enough to do the story justice. Thank you, John Aglialoro, for breaking the ground. Even though technicolor was available, The Fountainhead was filmed in black and white. Atlas Shrugged might be too, perhaps using color sparingly, as Spielberg did in Schindler’s List. The scenes in Galt's Gulch would be in color. We should aim for the timeless; timely is a euphemism for soon-to-be-obsolete.  Being timely dates a film. I just saw The Green Mile, directed by Frank Darabont.  I would like to see him direct the Atlas Shrugged TV series.  He has the depth and dramatic sense needed.

Casting: after hearing Ayn Rand speak at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, I asked her what actress she would choose to play Dagny Taggart. She said, Katherine Hepburn as she was in The Philadelphia Story. Rand describes Dagny as brown-haired, not conventionally beautiful. The viewer’s first impression of Dagny should be: fierce intelligence, determination, strength, character, a woman to be reckoned with.  A sweet pretty blonde more easily envisioned as a model, PTA president, or kindergarten teacher doesn’t cut it.

As for Galt, an actor can portray someone less intelligent, but only an actor who knows both the joy of inventing something wonderful and the pain of being envied and exploited could project the intellect and character of a genius who both invents a world-changing engine and convinces hardheaded successful businessmen to forsake their life’s work. A good-looking hunk, a nice guy who might be handy around the house, doesn’t cut it.

I suggest a well-publicized worldwide search to cast Dagny and Galt. Either find people who can plausibly project genius, or have others’ reactions to them reveal their genius. Dagny Taggart and John Galt are not an ordinary gal and guy for viewers to identify with.  They are a heroine and hero to look up to, admire, emulate, and aspire to be like.

Rand specified ethnicity for only Francisco d’Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjöld. By default, the other characters are generic Caucasians. Forget “diversity”: a black Eddie Willers was jarring. Rand’s Frisco may have been inspired by Porfirio Rubirosa. Like Cary Grant, Rubirosa was a clean-shaven, impeccably groomed natty dresser.  Look at him on YouTube. That man would never slouch. He carried himself like an aristocrat.

Eddie Willers is Hank Rearden’s less-gifted foil; Cherryl is Dagny’s. The foils reveal Hank and Dagny’s sensitivity and compassion. Cherryl’s fate merits a poignant scene.

Locations, sets: There is no road into Galt’s Gulch; everything was flown in or made there. Homes are innovative cabins, social life camplike. No upscale restaurant, no cocktail parties; showing Dagny and Galt dating trivializes them. Rearden’s character shows in his Spartan office, nothing like a successful Century City executive’s office.  Dagny followed Daniels; she didn’t chase him. Had he known she was behind him, he would not have led her to Galt’s Gulch because he would not want to reveal its existence. An aerial flight through the Rockies would be better than video-game computer images.

Sex:  With one exception, I have found all sex scenes in movies and TV boring and embarrassing. Dagny would not wear a nightgown. The tunnel had no platform handy.

Taggart Tunnel disaster: Suggestion, timing, rhythm can have a more powerful impact than special effects.  Alternate scenes revealing passengers’ deplorable characters with scenes in the control room and the trains headed toward each other, leading to the inevitable disaster. End with the bucolic landscape around the tunnel entrance–then the sound of the crash, then a pause, then smoke and dust suddenly billow from the entrance.

Richard Halley: Music revealing a great new composer can’t be faked.  An usher could mention an unprecedented number of encores, then show the formally dressed audience rise and cheer the exhausted, frazzled pianist as he staggers up from his stool and bows.

MM: Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Thank you.

DA: It was my pleasure.


Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore
About the author:
Marilyn Moore

Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.

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