The following is a chapter from my upcoming memoir ‘Prospero’s Daughter: A Life Beyond Convention.’
The Battle of ‘The Fountainhead’
Ocala National Forest, Florida, Spring 1960
We kids stood around outside, under the dry scratch and whisper of live oak leaves. In late morning, the sun was getting hot. I tried to get closer to the slight shadow granted by the giant oak tree over our cabin, but my father, Irving, had used old motor oil to weatherproof the cabin’s pine boards. Mechanical, oppressive, the oily reek pushed me back into the day’s April heat. I took a breath to clean my lungs with the forest’s scent of leaf mold, lake mud, and distant orange blossom.
My brother, cousin, and I were bored, so we started to pester the dogs, Nicky and Caesar. Nicky was just a regular dog, but Caesar was sensitive. If you accused her of being a DOG, she’d be ashamed and hide for hours.
I started to tease her, not really knowing why I wanted to. “You’re a dog, Caesar! A dog!” She cringed, looked at me in horror and vanished under the cabin, whining.
My mother, Barbara, came out of the cabin, where she’d been drawing a portrait of Iris. Eighteen years old, Iris had lived with us since she was sixteen, when her parents had dumped her off at our old hill farm home in Vermont, which my parents had bought when they got married, and declared it an artists’ retreat.
When Barbara was angry, her expression changed her beautiful and humorous Southern-lady face completely: she took on a fierce, hard, almost vengeful expression. Her light blue eyes became like a cold winter in the mountains. At such times I feared her even when I agreed with her, though Irving had forbidden anyone ever to punish any child who lived among us. She agreed, but could not always keep herself from blasting us – mostly me – with a deep irrational rage I had always sensed in her. There was still anger that lay deep between us over things that had happened when I was little.
And she hated it when we were unkind to Caesar, or to fruit flies, for that matter.
I tried to act as though I had nothing to do with Caesar being unhappy, but Barbara had always had a kind of psychic sense of who was doing what to whom. She wiped her hands on her man’s thrift-store shirt, streaking green and peach-colored pastel dust down its white surface.
“Ladybelle! Don’t be cruel to poor Caesar! She’s not a dog; she’s just wearing a dog’s body! Come out, Caesar. Yes! You’re beautiful. Look how brown you are.”
Lured by Barbara’s affectionate tone, Caesar lumbered out, wagging her tail in a loose, sorrowful way. She still had an embarrassed, fearful expression. I stroked her, feeling guilty. I didn’t know why I sometimes wanted to torment Caesar. I puzzled for a few minutes over my subconscious motivations. My family thought a lot about Freud and that kind of thing.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Irving quoted from Socrates.
Really, I didn’t like any of that stuff. I liked to keep my thoughts private; they were none of Freud’s business or anyone else’s. I didn’t see why the adults spent so much time trying to get out of their bodies with mental exercises and visualizations. What was wrong with being in your body anyway? I’d only been in mine nine years – well, ten in August this year.
Children should be free to choose whether to go to school, my parents thought. They also believed that public school would trap us in William Blake’s Mind-Forg’d Manacles. So, we kept moving. Every fall we left Vermont to drive 1,500 miles to Florida. In the spring, before people could notice us, we’d go back the other way, up the East Coast in our battered old car and homemade plywood trailer. We always had to be careful not to attract too much attention to ourselves.
In many public schools in the Fifties and early Sixties, teachers beat the students – often with a heavy paddle (and still do in many states today). Irving and Barbara, especially Irving, were as horrified as if they had seen genocide when they saw adults hitting children. Irving, a children’s rights activist when there were not many, told people that spanking was sexually motivated and was child abuse.
Barbara agreed, but occasionally she lost her temper and hit my brother or me. She would beg our forgiveness later, but it was impossible to forget that she had done it. Irving could be difficult too – he’d try to get us to do things by using reverse psychology and he’d yell sometimes, but he never hit us, and we always could yell back. But Barbara did understand that we needed to have Christmas presents and other kids to play with. She’d grown up as an only child in the Arizona desert with her mother, aunt, and cousins.
Now Barbara sighed. She spoke through the screen of Irving’s tiny office/bedroom window. “Let’s go over to the springs and go swimming. The kids are restless.”
Irving’s voice, goaded, emerged through the screen of his window. “Barbara, please! I must finish an extremely important letter. I’ll attempt to complete it with alacrity, but as I’ve told you repeatedly, I’m under too much pressure.”
We got our things together – food, towels, bathing clothes. I listened impatiently to Irving’s typewriter keys as they hammered and clacked. Finally, he emerged, stepping out into the marmalade-thick sunlight.
“Very well, I seem to be prepared now,” he said. If Barbara looked like a movie star, Irving looked like Albert Einstein – the same wavy silvering hair around a balding head. He carried a clutch of white envelopes. Letters to lawyers, probably. He was suing one of the big toy companies for stealing one of his inventions, a doll that could talk back. He also sometimes wrote to well-known people and sent them excerpts from his play Hamlet in Modern English. George Bernard Shaw had liked it and had praised Irving’s writing. Irving had written an essay comparing Shaw and our favorite poet and painter, William Blake. Shaw loved it, and he had it reprinted into a little white pamphlet that went everywhere with us, carefully packed into one of the many cardboard boxes we traveled with.
My brother and cousin kicked the seat backs, joking with each other, their feet black with forest dirt. “Will you get your dirty feet off the seat?” I said angrily. The boys laughed, and slowly, deliberately scraped their feet on the seats.
I turned away to escape into my book. I tried to avoid the rear view mirror, but couldn’t avoid a glimpse of my round plump body, my curly light brown hair and my brown eyes. I hoped to grow up slim and tall, like the Barbie doll Irving had given me, a gift from Mattel, before Barbie came out. I was beginning to realize that this was less and less likely, though.
I huddled over to one side of the car and kept reading. I had a big, thick book my uncle had discovered, The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.
Iris slid into the seat next to me, her blonde-brown hair piled up in a French twist. She turned the rear view mirror towards her and touched up her bright red lipstick. She looked like Jayne Mansfield, the movie star.
We drove several miles to Juniper Springs, where Milton and Robin, David’s older brother, were camping. David didn’t get along with his father at all, and his mother had died when he was two, so he moved in with us.
“Can’t we go any faster, Irv?” my brother nagged impatiently as we reached the paved road. Seven, he was fascinated by chemistry, numbers, and science.
“Thirty-five miles an hour saves gas. You know, it’s up to twenty-six cents a gallon now, even at the cheap gas station on Silver Springs Boulevard. And this morning I thought I heard a rod knock in the engine,” Irving replied. His voice was cultured, and as he liked to say, mellifluous. He’d gotten rid of his Brooklyn accent, maybe when he was in school at Cornell, by listening to records of his voice and then by imitating his favorite actor, Ronald Colman.
Barbara sat next to Irving, occasionally giving her chin a nervous rub with a hand still slightly tinged with soft pastel. She murmured, “What if we can’t get your sister to send us an advance on the money? We’re getting low on food.”
“How many times do I have to ask you not to verbalize your anxieties in front of the children? Why must there always be this constant concern about food?” Irving replied, annoyed.
I thought it was strange that he thought we didn’t know when they were worried. I didn’t like it when he snapped at Barbara, either, yet I knew the deep truth was that I liked being at the center of his defense. I felt safer when he was around, even though he and I also often argued. I was free to say anything I wanted to him, and usually to Barbara, without the fear of reprisal other kids had of their parents.
Most likely, his stomach was bothering him. It had hurt a lot since his mother died when I was eight. She used to send us salamis and salami-scented comic books from Brooklyn.
I’d been reading since I was three. I’d learned to read from comics, and couldn’t understand why some kids’ parents thought they were bad and dangerous. Irving would get up with me in the night when I couldn’t sleep. Barbara, who did most of the physical work, was too tired to read to me at one or two in the morning. We’d go quietly down the book-lined stairwell in Vermont hand in hand and sit in a chair in the living room. Irving read until I fell asleep. Then one day, the words on the page wriggled and swam into shapes I understood.
Soon after that, we’d gone down to the drugstore in the small town near our two hundred-year-old silver-grey swaybacked house under tall white pines. I rushed to the back of the store to peer through the glass case where the penny candy was kept – coconut watermelon slices, Tootsie Rolls, Nickl-Nips, and other goodies. Daily newspapers were spread out on a board near the candy. I looked down and read the headlines out loud, causing the townspeople and farmers having morning coffee and doughnuts at the marble soda fountain to turn and stare.
“Your little girl there, she’s not really reading that, is she, Mr. Fiske?”
It’s also possible that the local people simply reacted to my ability to read the headlines out of kindness or curiosity, but I didn’t think of this till years later.
There were never enough books to take up the long trip from Vermont to the woods of central Florida. I read as we drove from one pine-sprinkled roadside turnout to another.
The books ran out sometimes as I read by the light of a kerosene lamp in Florida while night-birds chanted, frogs hummed, and every once in a while an alligator on the far side of the lake let loose a mating roar, booming across the dark waters. I read not only because I loved it but also to secretly find out why the adults thought the way they did – and whether I agreed with them.
They liked the King James Bible for its flowing, poetic language, and because they thought Jesus was a kind of revolutionary. “‘Jesus Christ was the greatest artist because his medium was the human flesh,'” they quoted from the artist Van Gogh. They loved Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, and talked about it all the time. I focused on the big, heavy book in my lap. There was something wrong with this new book that they all seem to like so much. I began to bite my nails and the sides of my fingers, peeling them with my teeth and drawing blood on one finger.
We arrived at the springs, parked, and greeted my uncle and cousin, Robin, a quiet, dark-haired boy nine months younger than I. There had been a schism between Milton and Irving when Robin was little. Milton’s wife, Thekla, had died of Hodgkin’s disease a few years ago.
Milton and Robin traveled in their own trailer, with a piano so Milton could compose classical music when he was traveling. Milton had been born on Mozart’s birthday, January 27. His music was something like Mozart’s, swift and energetic. I always liked it better when it slowed and took on a reflective, contemplative tempo.
As we entered the recreation area, we passed a dark-brown, rustic wooden pavilion, and went down a few concrete steps towards the stone-encircled swimming area. The water, turquoise blue, with darker patches of reeds, was beautiful, like a great living jewel. In the depths of the center, a light glowing area where the water came out marked the center of the natural spring. There were a lot of people there – vacationing Northerners and a lot of local people, boys with crew cuts diving from the diving board at one end.
“How did Juniper Springs get here, Irv?” my brother asked.
“Well, the water that feeds the spring itself comes from somewhere up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. That’s why it feels a little chilly when you first get in – though really it’s always 72 degrees. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the picnic area. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was the President then, created the Corps to give people jobs during the Depression – like the program I worked for, the Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration, WPA for short. The CCC workers got a dollar a day, a place to sleep, and meals. I got paid nine dollars a week as a rewrite man on a guide to New York City. God, that was a wonderful time. My apartment on Charles Street only cost nine dollars a month!” His tone was as close to nostalgia as it ever got: loving, almost.
We walked on the Nature Trails and looked at bubbling little springs that rose, tickling, about our feet when we slipped into the streams, watching for alligators, and then went back to sit by the pool. I leaned against a palm tree, reading The Fountainhead, feeling more and more strange about it. Milton came up with a smile, arms folded behind his back. Dark-haired, balding, always carefully slender. He looked like a lost Marx Brother. “How do you like that book? Isn’t it good?” he asked, just the same way he would say “Yum!” over a favorite ice-cream cone or piece of candy, which he loved. His Brooklyn accent hadn’t changed at all. Despite his Juilliard education and an eccentric, brilliant grasp of science, he had a childlike manner. I was fond of Milton, but I couldn’t stand it if Ayn Rand became Important, like Shaw, Blake, and Melville.
“I hate it! The people are so mean! They say you should only care about yourself. I think people should care about each other and help each other! There’s something wrong with this book. It has a plot, and everything, but…” In our family, any well-plotted, Aristotelian story had great value. Conflict, reversal, recognition, and resolution: without these elements, my family didn’t consider a book worth reading.
A few years ago we all played “Moby-Dick” in the springs. Soon, I thought, we’ll be playing “The Fountainhead” if I don’t watch out. I had to fight back.
“This book makes me sick!”
My uncle smiled, smug, infuriating. “You really should keep reading it until you understand it. It’s about an artists’ revolt against society. Great artists shouldn’t have any responsibility to anyone but their own creativity, see?”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “I think people should care about each other. And there’s this horrible part where the man rapes the woman, too.”
“But she wants the man to,” my mother intervened. “Creative women want men who are geniuses to be dominant; that’s the point of that part of the book. Okay?” She always said, “Okay,” as though all she had to do was state her point of view and I would have to accept it.
“That’s disgusting,” I choked. “What about women? I bet women can be geniuses, too! What about your paintings? Aren’t they just as important as a man’s?” I demanded.
“Yes, but my artwork is great because I acknowledge Irving as even a greater artist than myself,” she retorted.
I kept insisting on my point of view.
My mother lost her temper. “Oh, women are just terrible sometimes!” she shouted.
“You’re just terrible sometimes, Barbara,” I shouted back. “This book is stupid, and you guys are idiots!”
Now, we had attracted the attention of the picnicking, sunbathing Floridians and tourists around us.
“How can you let this chile talk to you like that?” A blonde, red-cheeked woman in a flowered dress said furiously to Barbara. “If mah daughter talked to me lahk that, she’d get a good whippin’!” The Floridians weren’t sure what the argument was about, but my disrespectful tone made them morally indignant. To them, an “ungrateful child” was almost as bad as an uppity Nigra.
Irving got out of the water, rubbing a towel on his head and settling it around his shoulders. Hearing the woman’s words, he flared up. “Hitting a child is worse than MURDER!” he said in a loud voice that seemed to come from a body much bigger than he was. He straightened up, five feet five inches tall, dignified yet ferocious. The woman in the flowered dress stepped back, away from him.
“Don’t you realize, Madam, that every human being is born with his or her own innate sense of esthetic sensibility? When you repress a child with threats of brutality and force them to adopt a conventionally pious point of view about the supposed superiority of adults, you destroy that individual’s creative freedom.” He warmed up, quoting Jesus for the benefit of the Bible-thumpers around us. “And Jesus said, ‘Unless you become as a little child again, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
The woman’s mouth compressed like a lemon being squeezed.
Irving turned to me, intense, serious: “ And I think this is Rand’s point in The Fountainhead, sugar – that the worth of each individual is greater than that of the entire society of which he is supposedly a small part.”
“I don’t care, she’s horrible,” I shot back. “Not only artists can be important. Not only men. What would happen if everybody thought like this stupid old bitch? She’s an idiot.” My hands were shaking with tension and rage as I tried to keep from crying.
“I think we’d better get out of here!” Barbara said abruptly. Startled, we all looked around and realized she was right. We had forgotten that children were supposed to obey and respect their elders. Everyone was looking at us. Some of them, seeing a Yankee, a Jew, taking the Lord’s name in vain, were getting angry. We had to leave before they found out we kids weren’t in school, in the middle of the school year.
The boys yelled furiously at being pulled away from their swimming. But we grabbed our towels, stuffed hot, squashed deviled eggs and carrot sticks back into their crumpled brown paper bags, and headed for the parking lot.