The Branden Tapes

Are they classified?

These tapes were recorded during "group therapy" sessions I attended with Nathaniel Branden in the late 1970s.

But what is "group therapy"? Why was I there? Did it hurt?

The longer I live, the more I realize what a vast amount of really important stuff most of us hardly ever talk about. One of these quasi-forbidden topics is the unfortunate fact that many of us have some fairly large gaps in our development as "grownups" simply because our parents had issues of their own that they never overcame. As Paul Simon put it:

I had a childhood that was mercifully brief
I grew up in a state of disbelief. *

"Group Therapy," at least as I experienced it with Nathaniel Branden, is one of those things that could really benefit from a better name. Yes, at times someone in the group -- including yours truly -- would get into some really intense psychological issues; these were the times when the "therapy" part of the name was 100% accurate.

But many of the issues raised by clients for "work" were simply life situations that they wanted to talk about and hopefully learn better ways to handle. Not surprisingly, these almost always involved some kind of interaction with others; and, just like in a million TV shows, most involved some combination of love and / or money. Not a whole lot really new under the sun.

One evening, during a session at Lee and Joyce Shulman's home (Nathaniel had referred many of us to them when he began doing Intensives) I realized something: we were learning things that, for a variety of reasons, we hadn't learned earlier in life -- frequently due to a variety of difficulties during our childhood. In a sense we were getting a second chance, which sounded like a good thing to me. **

And I realized that the crucial requirement for this opportunity was something that many people are unwilling to do: we had to admit to ourselves that we didn't "know everything," that in fact there were things in our lives that we wanted some help with.

Once again it seemed that the truth just might set us free!

* Think too Much, from the album Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon, 1983
** Why not call what Nathaniel and others do "Learning the stuff you would have automatically learned if you had been born into a world that respects individuals and their pursuit of happiness, instead of this one that is distorted so that a few can benefit at the expense of the rest of us"?

My Work With Nathaniel

Therapy Client, 'Intensive' Assistant

My total involvement was probably between two and three years although I continued to work with other therapists, including the top-notch Lee and Joyce Shulman, friends and colleagues of Nathaniel, for a year or two more.

Goals, Objectives, Background

The 'what', the 'why' and some of the 'how'

What do I hope to accomplish with thebrandentapes.com?

I hope to answer three questions with thebrandentapes.com. Two of these should be of value for those with a general interest in Nathaniel Branden and his work; the third one is primarily for the benefit of those who are interested in some kind of "personal growth" work or who just wonder if "life could be better," as Paul Simon said

Here are the questions:

  • Why was Branden so effective?
  • Why was he so controversial? (and did this
  • Who else does the kind of work he did?

What do I hope to accomplish with thebrandentapes.com?

I consider myself really fortunate to have worked directly with Nathaniel Branden. His work started me on a path that has led to a much greater understanding of myself, our troubled societies, and the kinds of things that could lead to a much greater chance for a meaningful existence for much of humanity.

And this is my main reason for creating this website: I want to help make the things I learned from Nathaniel available to as many others as possible. As the home page graphic says, they were changing the world. I don't think there is any question that it could still use some additional changing.

Changing the world is a big job, of course. Here are some of the kinds of steps I believe it will require:

Nathaniel Branden: Yay or Nay?

  • Explore some of the criticisms made of Branden and their significance (or lack)
  • Explore possible reasons why Branden's approach was so successful with some yet so threatening to others

Therapy, psychology: thumbs up? Thumbs down?

  • Discuss the distinction between Branden's "personal growth" and mainstream "mental health" system
  • Explore potential benefits of Branden's approach for "psychiatric survivors" and others questioning the "mainstream" approach to "mental health"

Political, Social

  • To explore the political implications -- causes and effects -- of Branden's work.
  • Branden's work helps to explain why a free society would be so much better in terms of individual well-being -- and why this is resisted. This is important for those advocating for more individual freedom -- the opposite of the direction our world is headed, unfortunately.

Action Items: What can I do?

  • Get specific: provide a series of ongoing discussions, both real-time and in a convenient online forum, to see how these principles can apply to specific day-to-day conflicts that many experience
  • Provide an ongoing resource for those looking for the kind of approach to personal growth that Branden developed.

Nathaniel Branden opened my eyes to the intricate, largely ignored / misunderstood / denied relationship between our societies and our individual lives. As the gap between the kinds of lives we humans are capable of creating and the reality of our conflict-torn civilizations continues to increase, this awareness continues to be a bittersweet part of my daily life.

(NOTE: This is not a political statement as such; my purpose here is not to "sell" a particular political position, although it is probably going to appear that that is exactly what I am trying to do. My goal is to clarify the interconnection between our lives as individuals and the types of societies that we create. Closely related and every bit as important is an explanation of why many, perhaps most, resist the kinds of fundamental changes to these societies that would result in vastly better lives for virtually everyone.)

It started in 1974, shortly after I moved to Los Angeles from the cold Midwest. Somebody gave me a copy of Branden's book The Disowned Self, written shortly after his professional and personal alliance with author / philosopher Ayn Rand ended somewhat explosively.

I was 26 years old, trying to figure out what to do with myself, and just beginning to comprehend the enormity of the mixed-up world in which I lived. It was almost 10 years since my own rather explosive parting of the ways from my chronically unhappy-and-unwilling-to-even-discuss-it family; I had rather naively assumed that once I got "out into the world" all would be well, or at least understandable.


I quickly came to understand that my unhappy family had simply been a subset of a contentious and frequently irrational species -- and that somehow I was to make my way, create a satisfying life for myself, in this environment.

(To get ahead of myself a bit: I didn't realize it yet, but I played my part in continuing the unhappiness of my family's traditions by instinctively seeking out those situations that would allow me to continue the drama of it all. After all, this was familiar territory!)

The really frustrating thing was the fact that nobody wanted to discuss it -- most people around me seemed generally unhappy and frustrated with their lives but barely willing to even acknowledge it, much less try to figure out why.

Then I read The Disowned Self. All of a sudden things began to make sense! For the first time I began to realize several really important things:

  1. I wasn't crazy -- there really was something terribly wrong with our lives.
  2. The instinctive reaction of the majority of people was to simply deny the reality of the ongoing pain they were suffering -- to "disown" that part of their existence that they found unacceptable. This, I realized, explained why nobody wanted to talk about it.
  3. Best news of all: this could be fixed! Or at least helped. This fellow, this Nathaniel Branden, who made more sense and simply made sense in a way that nobody had before, said that he could help with this. I had to get in touch with him!

Here is an important clarification: I was astounded by Branden's book and felt that I had to find out more -- but it was the things he was saying that were so important to me, rather than Nathaniel Branden himself. Yes, I was very much impressed with him and his work, and I remain so almost 40 years later. But in our "Superstar" -oriented culture it's important to make this distinction.

There is a huge benefit to this awareness, this separation of the message from the person delivering it: it eliminates the need for perfection on the part of the teacher. (Someone told me when I was quite young that you should never put anyone on a pedestal -- they will give you a pain in the neck!) In this era of social media, with more and more of our communication happening online, the ad hominem attacks seem to be pretty much continuous -- and they usually interfere with whatever point is being made.

This is particularly relevant to Nathaniel Branden and his former partner, mentor, whatever term fits, Ayn Rand: in addition to quite a few followers and adherents to their messages, each has a significant number of detractors as well. It is all too easy to get bogged down in the personalities involved when considering what someone has to say. For my part, I decided early on to concentrate on the message, without demanding perfection from the messenger.

Back to the story of my initial involvement with Nathaniel Branden. As I finished The Disowned Self, I realized I had to find out more about all these new ideas. I turned to the very last page where there was some information about the author, something like "Nathaniel Branden is a practicing psychotherapist with an office in Los Angeles, California." I had moved to Los Angeles the year before, so the next step was pretty easy: I went to a telephone booth (remember those?) and miraculously the one I found not only had a working telephone but an intact phone book. I put a dime (!) in the phone, called Nathaniel Branden and made an appointment to meet with him the following week.

Toward the end of The Disowned Self, a couple days before I made my appointment with Nathaniel, he threw me a curve. (I had begun reading Ayn Rand shortly after this; one statement of hers that I really liked was "Contradictions don't exist. If you think you have found one, check your premises. One of them will be false.")

The "curve" Nathaniel threw my way gave me a real-life example of this principle.

By the time I got to the end of The Disowned Self I was convinced that whoever this Nathaniel Branden was, he had information and an understanding of the world and our place in it that went so far beyond anything I had learned up to that point, it was astounding. I began to believe that my life could be important, that I could in fact do something worthwhile with my time on Earth... powerful, powerful thoughts that in fact I still believe several decades later.

So what was the "curve"? Just the statement that "the most moral society, the one that provides individuals with the best opportunity for living fulfilling lives, is one based on free-market capitalism." Not an exact quote -- I will locate my copy of this book (it's out of print unfortunately) and get the exact wording. But this was the essence of it. And I was floored!

I had graduated a few years prior to this with my Bachelor's in Marketing, meaning I had spent several years on a college campus. Actually I had worked my way through, paying all of my expenses, but I had still managed to soak up a more or less liberal mindset, pretty much through osmosis as I hadn't paid a lot of conscious attention to politics. The views I held were more or less "placeholders" since I had not really thought them through -- but I wasn't aware of this at the time. So, since my liberal mindset "knew" that capitalism was evil, I really had a problem! Here's this guy who has begun explaining things that I immediately knew were essential to my well-being and would probably increase my chances of getting out from under the gloomy mindset that seemed to affect much of humanity -- and he goes and announces this despicable belief of his! Jeez, what a revoltin' development that was (or so I thought)!

I had discovered a contradiction: the things I had already learned from Nathaniel Branden were far and away the most valuable concepts I had ever heard, and they seemed 100% grounded in decency, morality, and the best chance of a decent life for all who cared enough to try -- yet he simultaneously announces support for a social arrangement that I "knew" to be evil. How could this be?

Ayn Rand's principle would have helped me here: one of these had to be false. A cannot be A and non-A simultaneously, it's just math or physics or something. My reading of Rand was still a little bit in the future, though, so I just muddled through. I wound up doing something moviegoers routinely do: I suspended disbelief. I decided to take a closer look at both sides of my apparent contradiction to see what would happen.

I realize that I could just as easily (well, maybe not easily, but I could have done it) closed the book and written Branden off as just another evil capitalist.... and gone back to my life and my "placeholder" philosophy. I am glad I didn't go that route. And I am more convinced than ever that a reasonable amount of open-mindedness is one of our most important survival skills, if that's the right word for it.


Because 'self-help' doesn't have to mean doing it all by yourself

This section will answer the question: "Okay, this sounds great; I don't think of myself as "mentally ill" and I sure don't want to be drugged into compliance with our increasingly weird society. But I would like to be happier, and the things Nathaniel Branden had to say along these lines make sense. So what do I do now?"

Nathaniel Branden represented an important category among the various ways we humans attempt to improve our lives: the category of "Tell the truth; acknowledge difficulties, both inner and outer; and recognize your right to create the best possible life for yourself provided you don't prevent others from doing likewise." He helped thousands with this effort during his career.

But there are still those looking to make things better, many of whom find this category appealing and want to put some of the concepts into practice. Nathaniel Branden's many books, audio presentations, and videos are excellent resources. And for those who want more, who want some kind of interaction with others on similar journeys, this section can help.

The challenge is to somehow incorporate some new ideas, as well as some interactions with others regarding their experiences, while keeping up with your life and all its demands.

We know that succeeding in a new activity is more likely when we have some kind of companionship: "exercise buddies," "jogging partners," and similar are examples of this. Unfortunately, since our culture encourages us to put on a happy face and pretend all is well even when it could in fact be better, it's harder to find others to share the exciting journey of making the most of your life. With that in mind, the suggestions here are designed to take small steps, easing into the (possibly threatening) idea of the kind of openness that this kind of shared journey will require.

An important goal of this site is to provide direct, personalized communication between individuals based on specific topics. The topics will primarily be those that create some kind of difficulty in someone's life, usually in their dealings with others. The idea is not so much that anybody has "all the answers" as it is to provide an opportunity to acknowledge and discuss some difficult topics without worrying about criticism or other unpleasant consequences.

Sometimes just being able to express something to others, to acknowledge the existence of something other than the pretense that all is well, more or less expected by our culture, can be helpful. "That which is expressed is impressed" as the saying goes.

And another old saying gets to the heart of the expected benefit: two heads are better than one. But in this case it's not just two, it's however many people want to join the discussion and contribute their perspective on the (probably challenging) topic at hand. An important "ground rule" of the forums is relevant here: the idea is to hear many different perspectives, many different approaches to dealing with a given issue; the person (or persons) facing the issue can decide what makes the most sense in his or her particular situation.

In other words: if you are responding to a situation faced by another member in the forums (note that this applies to the "LiveTalk" group conversations as well), the important thing is to resist the temptation to tell the other person what he or she "should" do. This is actually beyond important: it's a requirement. How do you do this? Simple. Talk about yourself. (Something many of us like to do anyway!) Talk about how you have handled similar situations and how it has worked out.

This approach reduces the tensions and defensiveness that frequently result when we start telling others what we think they "should" do. The great thing about hearing about other people's experiences is it gives us more information about possible approaches and possible outcomes -- without challenging our need to make the decisions involved. After all, we are the ones who will live with the results.

This approach reduces the tensions and defensiveness that frequently result when we start telling others what we think they "should" do.

Speaking of defensiveness, just about everybody knows by now that many online discussions are dominated -- ruined is probably more accurate -- by name-calling, bickering, and the stupid "flame wars" that are so prevalent. There is clearly no way that the forums here could have any hope of accomplishing their goal if this kind of environment is tolerated.

There is no substitute for a real person for talking things over, especially important things. This site will help make this available while keeping things as safe, private, and economical as possible.

"LiveTalks" work hand in hand with the Forums to provide an ongoing dialogue -- a great way to gradually form new habits. Since mankind has a bit of a "conflict" habit, one way to reduce conflicts is by replacing the conflict habit with alternatives. These talks, along with the forums and other resources on the site, are designed to help make this happen.

Information about the companion site, the "practice" member of the "theory / practice" team.