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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Origin Stories - A Mini History of My Philosophical and Political Development

A year ago, before I got wrapped up finishing my book, a reader emailed me, "What's your 'origin story' if you will? What started you down this whole path...?" Well, I am finally getting my email again and getting back to this blog. So here goes--

First, I love this question. I want to know everyone's origin stories. Partly because I am curious to know if it is nature or nurture that makes freedom so appealing to some and so horrific to others, but also, the part of me that still wants to control (fix, change, convert) everyone and make them more like me would find great value in collecting origin stories and looking for similarities and trying to find that "key" that will make statists become freedom lovers.

The short version of my conversion from statist to freedom lover is that when I was eighteen I read Atlas Shrugged. I saw myself as Hank Reardon, working my butt off to carry my family out of poverty. I saw my family as similar to his family, unappreciative and entitled. I had been raised to believe that I was lucky and privileged to be stronger and more capable than other people, and therefore it was my job to take care of them. Reading Atlas Shruggled was like being freed from a life sentence of slavery and torture. Moreover, because my parents and society had also taught me to hide and despise much of my own nature, Atlas Shrugged didn't just free me from having to carry anyone on my shoulders, it also gave me permission to love and be proud of who I was.

Which means that I was an Objectivist-Voluntaryist-Anarchist long before I had ever heard the terms. Atlas Shrugged didn't convert me so much as invite me to be myself.

I have this crazy memory from when I was two or three years old. I was read The Three Little Pigs and I thought I was the little pig who built her house out of bricks and was angry at my parents and siblings because I thought they were like the other little pigs. I remember thinking that I preferred the version where the other little pigs got eaten to the one where they all move into my house. If this memory is accurate, it is insane to me that at such a young age I already had such ideas about my family.

I remember seeing the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty for the first time when I was around four years old. (I was raised on a farm with no TV, magazines, or radio. This was the only Disney movie I saw during my young childhood.) I was enchanted with the idea that life could be so beautiful. Prior to that movie I had accepted that life was ugly. There was no hope. All I could do was accept. But then I saw beauty and I knew there was world outside of my immediate household. Is that even possible at four?

At around the same age I remember being enchanted with my grandmother's fancy teacup collection. Again I was drawn to that which was beautiful, that which hinted at a world much more successful than the one in which I was living. My siblings didn't care much for the teacups--why?

When I was 5 we left the farm and moved to South Pasadena, California. I remember being very impressed with the clean and organized small apartment of an aunt. I knew instantly that I wanted that and from then on kept my room very organized and was disgusted (and ashamed) of the rest of my house. I remember constantly asking my parents to clean up and offering my father money if he would let me organize his office.

Sometime between kindergarten and third grade I got to meet my father's father, Granddad, for the first time. Granddad was an elegant, wealthy banker who lived in Los Olivos in, what was to me, a palace. When I set foot in his house, I knew that I wanted it, not just his house but his world. I asked how I could have it and I was told to make a lot of money. From then on I was an outspoken lover of money. I was told that in order to have a lot of money one day, I needed to do well in school. Success in school became my focus.

I remember in third grade feeling frustrated that the Japanese students always beat me (academically) in class. I asked my mom how I could beat them and she said I would have to go to school on Saturday like they did. I told her I would like that and she said, quite definitively, that no, I would not like that and could not do it. So I settled for being the best student who was not Japanese.

My drive to do well in school continued and after third grade we moved to a small farming town where I was consistently the best in my class at almost every subject. My parents were pleased with my success in school but spent a lot of time trying to "save me from being myself." They did not want me to love money and it was drilled into me: rich people are bad; poor people are good.

But where did all this drive come from? Was I just born to be a future capitalist, individualist, freedom lover? Sometimes I think that the great drive I experienced (and still do) stems from my physical reality: I am very sensitive. The discomforts of poverty (similar to the discomforts of camping) are not uncomfortable to many. But for me, perhaps from the day I was born, unpleasant smells, sights, temperatures, rough fabrics--these things bother me. There is a great Ted Talk called Life is Easy about how easy life can be, how little work one must actually do everyday to survive--if one doesn't mind living in third world poverty. I think about that here in Nicaragua. If you don't need a beautiful home, an a/c, electricity, bug proofing, maids, a cook, a driver--life is super easy. But I will always want those things so my life will never actually be easy. I'm okay with that. Every day I choose hard work and an environment that caters to my sensitivities over an easier life that requires acceptance of physical discomforts.

I remember when I was in fourth grade I spent an entire math period once with my hand in the air, waiting to be called on. The teacher was clearly skipping me and helping everyone else in the room, kids who put their hands up long after I did and even kids who did not put their hands up but seemed to be struggling. When everyone went out for recess I confronted my teacher about it and she told me, exasperated, that she would never help me because I didn't need help. I would never need help. And if I did, I could get it from a friend. She needed to spend her time helping people who actually needed help. The injustice and anger I felt at that moment are still with me.

I remember being shamed in my later elementary school years for not wanting to attend a protest with my family. I told them that I did not want to stand around protesting factories (it would be too hot and crowded and uncomfortable), but I would work very hard and make a lot of money and one day I would buy the factory and make it more environmentally friendly and more socially responsible.

I think of these memories and have no idea how they are possible. I was in elementary school! I was raised by socialist hippies and only exposed to Democrat ideals! How on Earth had I come to the conclusion (already) that poor, protesting hippies were ineffective and wealthy people were effective, and that I, still just a kid living in poverty, was part of the latter group. 

Because I was raised without pop-culture, not only was I "the smart kid" in school, but I never had any idea what anyone was talking about. I had no reference for any television show my peers watched and could not understand why they idealized the things they did, nor did I get most of their jokes. I didn't know that girls weren't supposed to be good at math or that girls should not be good at school in general. I didn't know that if you weren't well-liked, it was a bad thing.

My sixth-grade teacher, Katey, gave me a job cleaning and organizing her classroom and later grading papers and tutoring students. I worked for her for three years. She was elegant, beautiful, well-spoken, and passionate, but most importantly, she seemed happy. She had a respectful relationship with her husband and a beautiful, organized home that resembled a fairy-tale cottage. I made quite a bit of money working for her--$3/hr but I worked a lot of hours! Unfortunately, having zero financial education and terrible examples around me, I spent most of my money on books, food, clothes and my family. For many years, I provided (in what my head was) a Christmas worth having.

When I was thirteen my parents got divorced and, after a rather insane year in which it became clear to me that my high school was way too easy and boring and wasn't doing anything for my future, I pursued full scholarships to college prep boarding schools. Every school I contacted was very interested in me and my 4.32 GPA--until they found out I was white. And then I heard the same thing over and over, "We're so sorry, but we don't give scholarships to white kids." This was extremely upsetting to me, and eventually I decided to call the admissions director at my top choice school and discuss it with him. I am not sure what I said that made him change his mind, but I know it took repeated phone calls. He made a joke at my high school graduation about me winning my scholarship by politely bitching him out.

The scholarship I won was to Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona. It was contingent upon me staying at the top of my class academically, so when I told them I needed a job they freaked out a little. They said their school was so challenging it was simply not advisable. Be that as it may, at private school students are expected to buy their own textbooks--I needed to earn about $1500 a year just for my books! My parents could not send me the money, and I needed money on top of that for basic things like shampoo and pencils and paper, so they made an exception for me. I worked 15 to 30 hours a week in the dining hall, doing dishes at first and then prepping food and eventually cooking. And, still focused on succeeding in school, I memorized everything I was told to memorize, and jumped through all the hoops I was supposed to, and graduated Valedictorian. I didn't save a penny during those years. I paid for my life and bought presents for people. I wish instead of telling me to focus on school, my Granddad had told me to learn about money!

When I was fifteen, I got to spend a weekend with my Granddad. He took me to his country club for dinner. It was my first country club experience and my first steak. His friends, Cheryl Ladd and Brian Russell, met us for dinner. Cheryl asked me about my life and I told her my dreams of getting rich in order to carry my family out of poverty and then save the world. She told my Granddad to get me Atlas Shrugged. He bought it for me the next day.

It sat on my bookshelf for three years. I had no time to read it with the demands of school. A boy at my school saw it on my bookshelf and kept telling me that I had to read it. I read it the week after I graduated--it was mind-blowing. I didn't do anything else except read all day every day until I was done with it. After I finished reading it I bought it for everyone who mattered to me and none of them read it.

At Wesleyan University I made friends with the very few Objectivists on campus (who were largely Republican) and argued as best I could with my teachers, but overall felt very confused. My teachers were so smart. Objectivism had to be wrong if they thought so lowly of it, right? Between a challenging academic program, extracurriculars, and working, Atlas Shrugged hadn't impacted my life very much except to make me obnoxious to my family and particular about my friends. 

By working in restaurants, I had become quite a talented cook, and I loved that I had been paid to develop a useful skill. So when I graduated from college, I thought that the next useful skill I wanted to develop was caring for children--so that I would be a great mother one day. I wanted a career in the film business, so I moved to Los Angeles, but I got a day job as a nanny as that was the skill I wanted to develop (and, seeing as I had no financial support from my family, I could not live on the salaries available to me on film sets, but I could live very nicely working for great families who wanted a role model like me for their children to hang out with). My drive at its peak, I read book after book on kids and quickly became highly skilled and well-paid for my work. I also stumbled across Rand's Romantic Manifesto and now judged the film industry to be completely disgusting and any opportunity I did get required working with people I despised to make statist propaganda. I couldn't make myself do it.

The next jump in my evolution as a freedom lover was meeting the man I would marry, Tom Garrett. He was 22 when I met him. I was 24. He was about to graduate from UCLA and wanted to be president one day. He was a bleeding heart Democrat and our first fight was about socialized medicine. I gave him Atlas Shrugged and unlike everyone else to whom I had ever given Atlas Shrugged, he read it and loved it and... it changed his life. He had studied economics and political science in college and suddenly a whole world was opened up to him. He had read Marx in college. No one ever told him about Friedman or Rand or Rothbard.

With Tom in my life my philosophical growth exploded. Finally I had someone to analyze everything with--we found the inconsistencies in everything and always searched for better information, better ways to eat, organize our lives, save money, live, relate to one another, raise children. We pushed one another intellectually and in every sphere of our lives--and had fun doing it.

Tom made friends with other free-market lovers all over the US (and the world) and soon we had a social group that pushed me further to answer tougher and tougher questions about what raising children would be like in Galt's Gulch. Real answers started to form and eight years later I am still having fun researching philosophy, psychology, and parenting. At some point I would like to write some philosophically sound television or movies--art and entertainment that I could actually take pride in being a part of. But more than that I want to keep building our little gulch here in Nicaragua. Speaking at conferences has shown me over and over that I want to be always surrounded by likeminded, inspiring people. Life is too short to live any other way.

So there is my "origin story" as I understand it. I feel a little anxious about publishing something so personal! I hope it's interesting to you, and if you want to share your origin story with me, I would really enjoy it! 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your story! It's beautiful! I just came across your book and blog, but am looking forward to reading both. I just read Atlas Shrugged last year and it changed my life. I've followed it with many of AR's works, and have been looking for objectivist parenting resources. I am thrilled with what I have read so far!

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    1. That's great to hear, Kimberly! Thanks for letting me know! And welcome to the party :)

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