Letters to Madalyn

More than 2-decades ago, as the world wondered where Madalyn Murray O’Hair had gone and Vanity Fair dispatched a reporter to New Zealand to investigate whether she might be there, I decided she needed a biography and that I would write it. After all, she was culturally significant and came to a bad end in a squalid true crime drama; who wouldn’t want to read it?

I began my research and, recalling that J. Edgar Hoover had hated her, filed a FOIA request with the FBI. About $100 in duplicating fees, and a year later, I got about 300-pages of surveillance notes.

Then life intervened; the project got set aside, and my notes got put in a box and set in a corner. Then the box got put into a closet, and then it got more or less forgotten about, and then it got buried under other stuff. When I recalled the project in the intervening years, I somehow convinced myself that the box had probably been hauled to the dump.

What do you know? Last weekend I found the box. I haven’t found the shoe-box filled with 3×5-notecards, but I still have the FOIA response and a miscellany of Web-printouts and sundry notes and to-do lists. And reviewing it, I find my conviction of her significance as strong as it was 20-years ago. In the mid-60s she was characterized by one of the weekly magazines as the “most hated woman in America.” But today, as the ‘nones’ teeter on the edge of being America’s largest religious group, and the Evangelical Right are in deserved disrepute, something seems clear: O’Hair … won.

Not bad for a widely-despised single-mom of the ’50s. So I’m sorting through it all and trying to figure-out what to do with it.

I do want to share the first paragraph of a 3-page letter received by O’Hair in 1982, almost 20-years after the school-prayer decision, that somehow made it into the FBI file.

To Madalyn O’Hair, you slut son of a bitch —

I have made a solemn vow to myself — I am going to kill you, you filthy slimy whore, and I am going to make certain that you die a terrible awful death. Remember, prostitute, this is no idle threat — it is a promise that will be kept. I am going to get ahold of your tits shove them down your throat and pour turpentine into the wounds.

Also, boxes of feces were mailed to her.

Clearly, it doesn’t do to annoy love-filled Christians.

People have a strange tendency to assume that biographers are admirers, that my interest in writing a biography of O’Hair means I celebrate her. Think, people: How many friendly biographies of Hitler are out there?

So, No, not exactly. Twenty years on, she seems more culturally significant than when I first conceived the project. Certainly, she exhibited exceptional courage and legal clear-headedness (O’Hair had a law degree), but she also exhibited personal coarseness and even crudeness, and had a strong streak of P.T. Barnum in her; she enjoyed provoking the Pious to frothy madness and gladly pocketed the reward.

O’Hair was not the two-dimensional figure of malicious Christian fantasy; she was self-serving and theatrical; she was very smart and courageous; she was deeply wounded, and wounded many of those closest to her. She did play a significant part in ending the cultural milieu into which she was born — and she played a part in shaping the culture in which we live today. I haven’t really decided yet what I’m going to do with all this stuff, but she deserves better than the thin daguerreotype portraits of her that are now available.

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