The Mystery That Was Madalyn
Frank R. Zindler
The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair, by Brian F. Le Beau New York University Press, (New York, 2003). ISBN 0-8147-5171-7. $29.95.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was different things to different people. To her religious enemies, she was an imp of the Devil, if not probably the Devil himself incarnate. She was blasphemous, vulgar, a Communist, a threat to the mental and physical virginity of their children, and she was much smarter than “God” ever intended a woman to be. She had “taken God out of the public schools” and was threatening to get the FCC to outlaw religious broadcasting–an effort some Christian fund-raisers claim she is still engaged in now nearly eight years after her death!
To her secular enemies, Madalyn was a vicious, paranoid, demanding tyrant who practically ran a cult. She was avaricious and had squirreled away millions of dollars in overseas accounts. She countenanced no disagreement from her followers and “excommunicated” all who dared to suggest she might do things differently. Moreover, her lawsuit that led in 1963 to the abolition of forced prayer and bible reading in the public schools wasn’t really all that important after all. Most of it had already been done by others, and the remainder would have been taken care of sooner or later. Her foul mouth gave Atheism a bad reputation, and her abrasive manner actually hindered the Atheist cause.
To her close friends and colleagues, however, Madalyn could be like a mother or grandmother–doting, affectionate, sending flowers on one’s birthday or when one was in the hospital, or even performing funerary duties on behalf of an indigent Atheist colleague who died without family or funds. Madalyn had practically no money of her own–her Social Security and military pension checks automatically were given to American Atheists Inc.–and the “overseas accounts” were known even by the general membership to be the American Atheist Trust Fund, which had been established in New Zealand with considerable fanfare.
Those of us who were close to her saw clearly that Madalyn loved and defended her children with the intensity and ferocity of a broody hen and could never understand or recover from the loss of her older son William. She had been betrayed many times by many people–even her first-born–and her “paranoia” was not pathological at all. Rather, it was the cautious suspiciousness of a nervous system that was highly sensitive to signs of danger. She was a brittle diabetic whose fluctuating blood sugar levels sometimes led to emotional outbursts which she often later regretted. Even her trademark use of “bad words” was understood as being part of her overall theory that there are no magic words of any kind–neither the “words of power” used in Christian prayer nor the blessings or curses in which religious minds believe with such abandonment of reason. She had devoted her entire life to the liberation of the human mind, to the freeing of humanity from the death-hand grip of public religion, and to the advancement of reason, science, and liberty in all aspects of the human adventure.
Which of these–if any–was the truest picture of the real Madalyn?
Brian F. Le Beau has attempted to sort this all out in what appears to be the first full-length biography of Dr. O’Hair that is not obviously motivated by malice toward its subject. Titled The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the New York University Press book is dedicated somewhat enigmatically “To Freedom of Religion and the Separation of Church and State.” Le Beau is Professor of History and American Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Other books by him include Currier and Ives: America Imagined; The Story of the Salem Witch Trials; and Religion in America to 1865.
It must be said at the outset that The Atheist is the product of impressive research. It would appear that Professor Le Beau has read nearly everything Dr. O’Hair ever published, as well as the diaries that were sold to Jimmy Nassour when the IRS seized her estate and sold it at auction. His search of media files appears to have been prodigious, and he seems to have searched among civil records as well–along with the FBI files that J. Edgar Hoover ordered to be created back in the early 1960s. Considering the fact that nearly everything in this book will be controversial to at least some one and subject to dispute, it is startling to discover that there is no bibliography and that Le Beau uses instead a clumsy system whereby footnotes are used both to indicate sources of information and bibliographic data about those sources. In this system, full bibliographic information is provided only at the point where a source is first cited. Thereafter–perhaps hundreds of pages later–the source is given only as a last name, and one has to search backwards through hundreds of footnotes to find the full identification. This is not an idle quibble. On at least one occasion, when trying to discover what the source “Shaw” was, I could not find the first entry at all. It is often crucial to know what Le Beau’s source for a particular “fact” might be, and it is often very difficult to find that out.
Perhaps of necessity, Professor Le Beau had to interview William J. Murray, Madalyn’s apostate son, and report the claims made in the latter’s My Life Without God. Unfortunately, Le Beau seems not to have interviewed any of the surviving American Atheists leadership, relying entirely, it would appear, on media reports of interviews with them. The overwhelming majority of Le Beau’s sources were individuals hostile to Madalyn O’Hair and to American Atheists Inc., the organization she founded. Despite the preponderance of hostile input, however, Professor Le Beau has written what I consider to be an eminently fair and even friendly biography. This results from the fact that a very large portion of the book is actually the work of Madalyn herself. Frequently this is in the form of careful paraphrases that connect phrases or sentences of Madalyn’s own into a meaningful narrative. Often, however, Madalyn is allowed to speak for herself at some length, as when Le Beau quotes her famous explanation of Atheists that she wrote for the Murray v Curlett case when it went to the US Supreme Court:
An Atheist loves his fellow man
instead of god. An Atheist believes
that heaven is something for which
we should work now, here on earth,
or all men together to enjoy. An
Atheist believes that he can get no
help through prayer, but that he
must find in himself the inner conviction
and strength to meet life, to
grapple with it, to subdue it and
enjoy it. An Atheist believes that
only in a knowledge of himself and
knowledge of his fellow man can he
find the understanding that will
help [both] to a life of fulfillment.
He seeks to know himself and his
fellow man rather than to know a
god. An Atheist believes that a hospital
should be built instead of a
church. An Atheist believes that a
deed should be done instead of a
prayer said. An Atheist strives for
involvement in life and not escape
into death. He wants disease conquered,
poverty banished, war eliminated.
He wants man to understand
and love man. He wants an
ethical way of life … He believes
that we are our brothers’ keepers,
and are keepers of our own lives;
that we are responsible persons and
the job is here and the time is now.
Quite happily, The Atheist proves to be more than just a biography. It is a history book as well. It contains a brief summary of separationist legal history against the backdrop of the McCarthy anticommunist hysteria, giving useful summaries of major Supreme Court rulings on Church-State issues and placing Madalyn Murray O’Hair squarely in the mainstream of that history. Indeed, Madalyn emerges as the most notable personality and thinker of those who made that history.
Although a large amount of space is granted to Bill Murray as a counterweight to his mother, Madalyn still emerges from the contest as the clear winner. It is nevertheless a pity that Le Beau did not investigate Bill’s more outrageous claims more carefully–if at all. An investigation of Bill’s contradictory accounts of his alleged conversion would have led, I suspect, to a more cautious acceptance of his accounts of landmark events–and nonevents–in the Murray-O’Hair saga.
One place where I wish Le Beau might have verified Bill’s claims involves the circumstances of Madalyn’s expulsion from Mexico. In 1963, after the Supreme Court decision in her favor, Madalyn was brutally beaten by Baltimore police. As Madalyn told me the story, as soon as she got out of the hospital, she fled to Hawaii and then to Mexico, to evade a warrant for her arrest on charges that she had assaulted and battered sixteen (or thirty-two, as the officers had filed charges doubly, both as individuals and as officers of the law) Baltimore policemen. (The number of police allegedly assaulted could vary from time to time, it should be noted!) Upon her arrival in San Antonio with her son Jon Garth, she was arrested by Texas police and held for extradition to Maryland to stand trial for the awful things she had done to all those policemen. She appealed to Texas Governor John Connally to block the extradition.
According to Le Beau–accepting the claim of Bill Murray, apparently without independent verification–on October 11, 1965, Connally refused her asylum and ordered her extradition to Maryland. Madalyn appealed the decision and, before the decision could be decided, was freed as a result of charges against her being thrown out by a court decision back in Baltimore. This is to be contrasted with what Madalyn once told me many years ago when I asked her why she had settled in so hostile a state as Texas. According to her, when Governor Connally found out she was wanted for assault and battery of thirty-two cops, he exclaimed “The Dallas Cowboys could use a woman like that!” and granted her asylum on the basis of the absurdity of the charges. Which is the truth? I fear that Bill’s account accords better with my assessment of Connally’s character, and Madalyn’s anecdote may have begun as a joke associated with the story and ended up being incorporated into the history.
A more significant question of facts, however, concerns the circumstances of Bill’s parole after his arraignment for attempted murder of a police officer in July of 1979. According to his own account, the charge was later reduced to aggravated assault, whereupon he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years’ probation. Shortly thereafter, Bill claims to have “seen the light” and he became a born-again crusader against his mother and the organizations she had founded. Was there a cause-and-effect relation between the terms of his parole and the life-long career of mother-bashing upon which he then embarked?
Some years after the event, Madalyn told me that the judge in the case was a Christian notorious for his imaginative sentencing. It was alleged, for example, that he once had sentenced a teenage shoplifter to six months in Sunday School to expiate both his crime and his sin. Madalyn guessed that, when the judge realized who the fish was that he had trapped in his net, a Star Chamber proceeding must have taken place wherein the judge offered Bill a choice: life in prison for attempted murder of a police officer, or a life working against Atheism for Jesus. She claimed that there had been no legal resolution to the case and that not too long after Bill’s arraignment he was in Washington, D.C., with Jesse Helms introducing him to a Senate sub-committee, saying “I would like to introduce Mr. William J. Murray, son of the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mr. Murray is going to tell us about the Communist underpinnings of the atheist movement in America.”
Some time during the mid-80s, I remember doing a search through microfilms of Houston newspapers to get details on the resolution of the case. Although I was able to find articles about the arraignment, I never found any notice of a resolution such as Le Beau accepts from Bill Murray’s writings. My negative findings seemed to support Madalyn’s thesis that Bill was being extorted into a life of Christian crusading. Unfortunately, I was unable to go to Houston at the time to check court records directly to see if the newspapers simply had not bothered to report on the outcome of the case. Until this day, however, I have agreed with Madalyn that Bill was not really a Christian but was maligning her out of practical necessity–the need to stay out of jail. (I once asked Bill, “Are you now going to go back to believing in the Easter Bunny too?”–for which I received a decidedly Atheistic wink in reply.) Unfortunately, I do not see how this question can be answered definitively. Even the book’s claim that Bill received five years’ probation after reduction of the charges is completely compatible with an hypothesis invoking plea bargaining of a peculiarly evangelical, extortionary sort.
We may hope that The Atheist is just the beginning of a series of biographies that will attempt–honestly and objectively–to explain the mystery that was Madalyn and to assess her position not only in the narrow field of Freethought history, but also the part she played in the greater theater of twentieth-century American legal and intellectual history. One such work that is expected to appear shortly is by Ann Seaman, the author of the award-winning Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist. She is known to have interviewed many friends of Madalyn O’Hair as well as the requisite enemies. There are reasons to believe her account will be more thorough than that of Le Beau’s, but it is not likely that so many of Madalyn’s own words will appear in Ms. Seaman’s pages.
Now that the American Atheist Library and Archives is being reconstructed and activated, it is only a matter of time before someone will be able to undertake a definitive study of the diaries, documents, tapes, videos, written records, and other memorabilia contained in that treasure trove. Old light trapped in boxes, files, and envelopes will be set free to become new light that will illuminate our understanding of the mystery that was Madalyn.
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