I am gradually catching up on “Criminal Minds,” the CBS crimes drama that operates in an America where there are serial killers under every rock. On an episode from 2008, the show used a quotation (famous quotations generally begin and close each episode) attributed to Ayn Rand, the author/philosopher who championed “objectivism” and her own peculiar brand of non-compassionate individualism. The quote: “We are all brothers under the skin—and I, for one, would be willing to skin humanity to prove it.”
This seemed a little harsh even for Ayn Rand; I figured she must have been having a bad day. “Nice lady,” I commented to my wife, who rolled her eyes, for she is not a Rand admirer. Later, I mentioned the quote to a quotation-obsessed friend, who informed me that the words were really uttered by an Ayn Rand villain, Ellsworth Toohey, the unprincipled newspaper columnist who makes life miserable for the hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark.
Was “Criminal Minds” fair to Ayn Rand?
I don’t think so. Presenting the quote in this way was wrong in several respects: misleading to the audience, unfair to Rand, and disrespectful to the novel. It is true that a novelist writes everything that his or her characters say, but that is not the same as the author actually saying or writing a personal comment or opinion. Referencing a character’s quote as the words of the character’s creator without explaining the context can cause a reader, especially one who isn’t familiar with the writer quoted or the fictional character involved, to arrive at erroneous conclusions. This is particularly likely when the writer did more than just write novels, as in the case of Ayn Rand.
Imagine attributing this quotation to Sen. James Webb of Virginia: “If she’d been born with anything between her legs except an asshole, I’d be happy to bring some class to your low-rent name by knocking the bitch up.” Would that be fair? This isn’t Webb talking, but a character in his novel, A Sense of Honor. When former Sen. George Allen was running for re-election against Webb in 2006, he tried to make the case that it was fair. Virginia voters disagreed, and quite correctly. Or imaging attributing this quote to novelist Charles Dickens, one of the most ardent fans of the Christmas holiday who ever lived: “If I could work my will,every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” The quote is, of course, from Dickens’ creation, the Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge. Someone reading the quote who was not familiar with A Christmas Carol, however, would conclude that Dickens himself was a misanthropic Christmas-hater.
The writer who is always credited directly for everything he wrote is William Shakespeare, and in his case, it makes sense. For one thing, there are no quotes attributed to Shakespeare that are not from his plays or poems. But did Tennessee Williams say that he always depended on “the kindness of strangers,” or was it Blanche DuBois, the iconic character in his play, “A Streetcar Named Desire”? Did Arthur Miller realize that his life had been a “ridiculous lie,” or was it his creation, Willy Loman’s son Biff, in “Death of a Salesman”?
Don’t the characters deserve to be attached to their most defining words? I think so. To do otherwise diminishes their identity and cultural relevance.
Confusing the sentiments of an author’s character with the author is indefensibly sloppy, and worse the device can be used to intentionally make a writer seem unsavory, radical or crude, as I believe some Rand hating scriptwriter was doing on “Criminal Minds.” The fair, honest and ethical way to quote a fictional character is to note the speaker first, then the book, play or movie, and finally the author, like this:
“We are all brothers under the skin—and I, for one, would be willing to skin humanity to prove it.”—“Ellsworth Toohey” in the novel The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Anything less is misleading, careless, or mean.