Sandi Brents began the summer of 1978 in Houston with great anticipation. She and her children were joining her husband Jim, on his project team assignment in an apartment in Houston, Texas and she would at long last have time to catch up on her reading. First on her list was Atlas Shrugged, which had been enthusiastically gifted to her by a friend some ten years earlier.
She wasn’t familiar with Ayn Rand, but was quickly intrigued by the teasing questions on the first page of the novel: “What Moves the World? Was he (Atlas) a destroyer or a liberator?” Sandi promised herself that she would one day know and understand the answers to those questions—along with a more recent one she’d asked herself: why had her pregnant neighbor emphatically rejected Atlas Shrugged, exclaiming “Ayn Rand! I don’t think so!” in outraged response when Sandi offered to loan it to her to occupy her time on a physician-imposed bed rest?
This would also be the summer that Sandi and Jim again tried to kick their smoking habit. While supervising her children at play, Sandi read and consumed bowl after bowl of salty popcorn as a replacement for cigarettes. She was mesmerized by the novel; it was unlike anything she’d ever read. It was as if a lightbulb flicked on in her mind. “While I was reading, I kept thinking, this is great. If I can just understand the philosophy behind these characters, it’ll resolve all of the contradictions I have had throughout my whole life,” Sandi recalls fondly.
Sandi was raised Catholic. And while her father took religion seriously, he also taught his children to use reason and to see things for what they are. Yet being Catholic was separate for him, and he believed that being a devout Catholic was the proper thing to do as an absolute that could not be reasoned, only accepted. As Sandi describes it, “You could question and reason everything except God. When we got to that, it was always ‘Well, Sandra, that’s just how it is.’”
Reading Atlas Shrugged helped Sandi to understand that using reason and seeing things for what they are applies to religion as much as to all areas of life. In an effort to understand the philosophy of the book, Sandi soon immersed herself in reading Rand’s other fiction and non-fiction works. Sandi reflects that “it was an extremely liberating experience to be able to connect so thoroughly to the philosophical ideas illuminating the novels.”
Initially, Sandi’s husband Jim was unreceptive to the ideas in Atlas and Objectivism, the philosophy of its author. “He was antagonistic at first,” Sandi remembers, “and finally, I just said, ‘You know what, I am not going to argue with you about this because you haven’t read the books and you’re simply not qualified so we’re not going to discuss it.’” Sandi informed Jim that once he read the books, she would happily argue with him all day long.
Jim read the books and to his surprise, found he didn’t have much on which he cared to argue. Jim was an engineer and realized that at heart, he had always been an Objectivist thanks in part to having undergone rigorous engineering training to look at reality. At this point, Sandi had already independently made the decision to study Objectivism, and Jim now opted to join her. The couple became a team, and soon stopped attending church, introduced their children to the ideas in Atlas Shrugged, and began a study of Objectivism that would continue for over twenty years.
The real challenge came in revealing to friends and family members that they had both become atheists. Though Sandi and Jim didn’t attempt to conceal their atheism, they also didn’t announce it to everyone they met. They thoughtfully aimed to balance privacy and honesty. Given that they lived in religious Texas and Sandi worked for a company with devout owners, this was not without difficulty.
When Jim unexpectedly passed away in 2008, Sandi was faced with the challenge of organizing his funeral along non-religious lines while remaining mindful of the fact that several friends and family members did not know the true extent of Sandi and Jim’s atheism. They had never discussed the subject of funerals for themselves, but Sandi knew in her heart that Jim’s funeral had to be truth-oriented and not an insincere church service since she and Jim had given up religion in the late 80’s.
Because Sandi and Jim had been members of The Houston Objectivism Society for two decades, it seemed natural that Sandi should turn to her respected friend who was also the organization’s previous president, Warren Ross, to do the equivalent of a eulogy for Jim. Together, Sandi and Warren planned a tribute to Jim that was true to his long held beliefs.
Sandi hoped Jim’s niece would sing something non-religious at his funeral but was disappointed to learn that her niece didn’t know any appropriate non-religious songs. Sandi also hoped that Jim’s nieces would say something at the service about the uncle with whom they had been so close. Much to Sandi’s chagrin, one of them remarked that she knew her own mother was waiting at the doors of Heaven to welcome Jim, and Sandra knew instantly that anything the nieces said would need to be both carefully scripted and monitored to avoid mystical references. Thanks to Sandi’s thoughtful planning and oversight, the funeral went according to plan.
The family, however, never forgot that Sandi and Jim had “turned away from God.” After one year without contact, Sandi’s nieces on Jim’s side sent her a letter explaining their discomfort with her and Jim’s atheism. Sandi wrote her nieces back, kindly and warmly explaining that her atheism didn’t prevent her from loving and caring for them, but Sandi never heard from them again. As Sandi reflects, “breaking away from family tradition is like always swimming upstream.”
After Jim’s death, Sandi set up a memorial fund to honor the memory of her husband and support scholarships for students who wish to attend the Objectivist Summer Conference (OCON).
Thirty-nine years after first opening Atlas Shrugged, Sandi remains an active supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute. In recent years, she has scaled back her real-estate business and describes herself as “semi-retired.” Sandi continues to contribute to Jim’s memorial fund in the hopes that even more students will be able travel to conferences to learn about the ideas that shaped her life.