In a five-decades-long career, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist Lawrence Wright has covered such contentious institutions as the Church of Scientology and the CIA, but he has been sued only once. That was by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, infamous atheist activist and the subject of a 1989 profile he wrote for Texas Monthly. Shortly after the piece’s publication, Wright received a knock on his front door. “There was a constable there, and she hands me this piece of paper that says, in really big, bold letters, ‘You Have Been Sued,’ so there’s no mistaking it,” Wright recalls. “And my wife Roberta said, ‘Wait, let me get a picture,’ so this constable puts her arm around me and says, ‘Well, this has never happened to me before,’ and I said, ‘This has never happened to me before, either!’”
The legal action was not a complete surprise. Wright had been painstaking with his reporting, and he and his Texas Monthly editors had been sure the story was ironclad, that O’Hair would have nothing upon which to hang a libel lawsuit. But she was a combative subject, and she had already yelled at Wright in person and over the phone, so when she sued him for $9 million on the grounds of copyright infringement, it seemed in line with her character. Wright wasn’t worried. “Jim George, who was Texas Monthly’s lawyer at the time, just sort of laughed it off,” he recalls. “And sure enough, it never got onto the docket and then it expired.”
By the time Wright covered O’Hair for Texas Monthly, she had been famous for almost three decades for fighting anyone and anything that stood in her way. Having first gained national notoriety in the early 1960s, when she filed the suit against the Baltimore school system that would ultimately lead to a ban on mandatory religious prayer in all U.S. public schools, O’Hair stoked her infamy by suing NASA, founding and running the nonprofit organization American Atheists, and serving briefly as Larry Flynt’s speechwriter in his 1984 presidential campaign. All the while, she seemed to delight in her status as “the most hated woman in America.”
But Wright saw something darker underneath. Amid the lawsuits, the public brawling, and an alarming cacophony of lies and contradictions about her personal and educational background, O’Hair was as scared about her place in the world as the rest of us are. “What I detected in her was fear,” Wright recalls. “There was some underlying anxiety about life itself that, when the mask would fall, was plainly written in her face. And this was a woman who one would think of as the boldest woman in America. But she was constantly worried,” Wright recalls.
As he noted in the profile, “I began to have a sense of the sadness of that life . . . I saw at last that Madalyn was a religious phenomenon, in the same way that antimatter is an expression of matter. She was a black hole of belief.”