Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Madalyn Murray O'Hair: The Most Hated Woman in America

I recently watched The Most Hated Woman in America, about Madalyn Murray O'Hair, on Netflix. I read a comprehensive biography of her some years ago, but my memory is a bit hazy:

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

See my previous posts on O'Hair for my notes on this biography.

The film begins with her and son and (grand?)daughter kidnapped with hoods over their heads. I would think the dialogue is completely contrived, because unless the murderer-to-be told the story, how would be know? Seems tasteless to me. The police have no interest in following up on their disappearance, and the born-again son doesn't want to be bothered.

The motive for the kidnapping is blackmail, for funds the kidnappers know O'Hair secreted overseas, unbeknownst to the IRS.

Then flashback to 1955 in Baltimore. Madalyn and her young son are living with their parents, particularly the nasty Christian judgmental father. Madalyn is pregnant again as an unwed mother, which makes her a pariah in 1955. They're watching TV, Negroes are protesting not being able to be served somewhere, and Madalyn does not approve of this treatment. She and her son become the only white people to join the protest. She is an acid-tongued rebel, contemptuous of Christian hypocrisy. Her son knows the word "nonconformist".

Then it's 1960 .... she is a social worker. I don't remember any of this, but I'm pretty sure Madalyn got her MSW at Howard University.

Jumps to 1961: violent harassment. Jumps to 1963 Supreme Court decision against compulsory school prayer: rednecks go nuts. Jumps to 1964.

Madalyn founds American Atheists. Fired from social work job in Baltimore. Famous speech. Challenges Baltimore school system again. Makes cover of LOOK magazine: the most hated woman in America.

Flash forward to hostage situation--weird. News media not interested in the Murrays' disappearance, except for this one reporter. The man who reported missing persons is black and gay, rejected by parents, taken in by O'Hair--I didn't know this.

Flashback decades past: more controversy, radio programs, attack. Madalyn is married now. Later, older son is married with child, doesn't want to remain in the maelstrom. Jump ahead in time again: Madalyn on Carson; son's wife files for divorce.

Jump to 1979: O'Hair now in Austin, with protests against her.

Son Bill is a drunk, Madalyn and Bill now hate one another. Momma's boy Bill abandons her. Madalyn on Donahu debating Rev. Bob Harrington. They go on the road, making tons of money. I know there were debates, but this chumminess--for real? Son Bill in AA, a wreck now praying.

Son Bill denounces Madalyn on TV, now a public Christian. Madalyn hires future kidnapper. 1993: Found out he was a killer; this didn't bother her.

1994: Big fight between Madalyn and future kidnapper at solstice party. Several flash backs and forwards. In the future, son Bill gets involved, files missing persons report, suggests kidnapping is an inside job.

1995: news report on O'Hair. Skip ahead to 1998: reporter still investigating. Flashback to the murders. There were 3 kidnappers: starts with the killing of Robin, then Garth, then Madalyn. They are sawed in pieces, buried in a field. One of the kidnappers murdered. David Waters confesses.

I don't recall enough of the actual biography to know where inaccuracies in this biopic are to be found. It is quite sad. In real life Madalyn was quite a pill. The film does capture at various moments something you will find more of in the biography: while an outspoken rebel, Madalyn wanted to be thought of at times as a normal person, emphasizing family. At some point in the kidnapping in the film, she says, maybe in a flashback or voiceover--I don't remember now--that she most wants to be remembered as a mother. Then we see the brutal murders of her atheist son and granddaughter and finally of her. We need to remember that she was already a pariah as an unwed mother in a repressive society. I'm guessing it was the hypocrisy of white Christian America that drove her to single out atheism as her central cause among all the injustices she saw. But her environment also induced a single-minded narrowness that the more genteel "humanists" of the '60s could afford not to have--their narrowness was of a different sort--that drove her to act like the Stalin of atheism.

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