“Madalyn is napping,” my guide told me. “Would you like to take a look?” We weaved through offices filled with visitors from around the country who had come to Austin to attend the dedication of the handsomely appointed new headquarters of the American Atheist Center (valued at $1.7 million) and to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that removed prayer and Bible reading from public schools. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the instigator of that famous lawsuit, was 69 years old and in frail health, and as usual at this hour in the afternoon she was taking a snooze on her couch. Several visitors were peeking through the glass wall into her darkened office. They gave way reluctantly as we approached. There before us lay the first lady of atheism, as she calls herself, in a flower-print dress. “It’s a little like Lenin’s tomb,” my guide observed.
Did she hear us? Suddenly Madalyn startled awake and swung her bare feet to the floor. She ran a hand through her vivid, abruptly cropped white hair. A heavy woman, she appeared even in this half-awakened state like a bowling ball looking for new pins to scatter. Before I could gracefully escape, Madalyn turned to look at the shadow in her office glass, and I was caught by her stare. There was no surprise in her face, only resignation and a look I would see several times again in those brief, unguarded moments when Madalyn stepped out of the spotlight and her mask of anger dropped aside to reveal the anxiety, the fear underneath.
I slipped away in embarrassment, realizing I had started badly with her. As with most Americans my age, my life already had been given a good shaking by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For the first ten years of my schooling, I listened to prayers and Scripture every morning following the announcements on the P.A. system. I don’t recall ever questioning the propriety of such action or wondering what my Jewish classmates, for instance, might think about hearing Christian prayers in public school. But in the fateful fall of 1963 we began classes amid the enormous hubbub that followed the Supreme Court decision. The absence of morning prayers was widely seen as a prelude to the fall of the West. And the woman who had toppled civilization as we knew it was some loudmouthed Baltimore housewife—that was my impression—who then proceeded to wage another legal campaign to tax church property. She was the first person I had ever heard called a heretic. She jumped out of the front pages with one outrageous statement after another; indeed, the era of dissent in the sixties really began with Madalyn Murray, who styled herself as the “most hated woman in America.”
Certainly she was the most provocative. Soon after the school-prayer decision, Mrs. Murray, as she called herself then, was charged with assaulting 10 Baltimore policemen (she has inflated the number of policemen to 14, then 22, and then 26). She fled first to Hawaii, where she took refuge in a Unitarian church. Then she went to Mexico, which summarily deported her to Texas in 1965. Her odyssey ended in Austin, where she successfully fought extradition to Maryland, married an ex-FBI informer named Richard O’Hair, and remained long after the Maryland charges were dropped.
Over the years I followed Madalyn O’Hair in the way one keeps tabs on celebrities, as she bantered with Johnny Carson, sued the pope, or burst into a church and turned over bingo tables. When I was in college, she came to speak. By then she had achieved a kind of sainthood status with the undergraduate intelligentsia. True to her billing, she raked over capitalism and Christianity and especially Catholicism, unsettling if not actually insulting every person in the auditorium. Afterward she repaired to the student center and held forth in the lobby, giving an explicit and highly titillating seminar on the variations of sexual intercourse. I had never seen anyone with such a breathtaking willingness to endure public hatred. “I love a good fight,” she boasted to the press. “I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?”
Neutrality is never present around Madalyn O’Hair; she polarizes everyone. “The insults she stood, the beatings she suffered paved the way for more modern atheists,” says her friend Frank Zindler. “She has done the consciousness raising. It is accepted now that atheists have the right to exist in America, whereas when she started that was not a given.” Charles Dews, who used to work for her, says, “She’s really a freedom lover. Beneath everything else, Madalyn Murray O’Hair is about freedom.” On the other hand, G. Richard Bozarth, another former employee, calls her a “petty, jealous little ex-bureaucrat who once shouted loud enough to gain attention and has continued shouting for lack of imagination to do anything else—and because it pays.” Her former treasurer, Brian Lynch, says, “I really think she hates herself, and that hatred is projected onto everyone else she comes into contact with.” Everyone has an opinion about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, yet no one who knows her well claims to understand her.
Hungry all her life for money and power, she lives at last in a world of material comfort, surrounded by luxurious German cars and expensive artwork, yet the organization that she created to carry on her crusade is little more than a hollow shell, a sounding chamber for the roar of Madalyn’s complaints. She has suffered the loss of her husband to cancer and the defection, in 1980, of her eldest son, William, to Christianity. Perhaps those losses might account for the anxiety that one sometimes sees in Madalyn’s eyes. More than once I had heard from some gloating Christian that even Mrs. O’Hair stood quaking at the prospect of death. But the more I learned about her, the more I wondered whether it was not death but life that frightened her—life and the contradictions, the lies, and the deceit