Publisher: Berkley Books
Cover: Tiffany Estreicher
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 2/12/2005
Summary: An unsuual and highly readable overview, the life and death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s atheist (if you believe in such things).
Once upon a time, in February 1963, Madalyn Murray O’Hair walked up the steps leading to the United State Supreme Court, entered and sat and listened as her lawyer, one Leonard J. Kerpelman, awkwardly and with assistance from Justice Hugo Black, presented the case against prayer in public schools. Persuaded by argument, the Court banned prayer in public schools. Thirty-two years later, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was dead. Ted Dracos fills in the details with what can only be called effortless aplomb.
This is most assuredly not the definitive biography of Madalyn Murray nor of her kidnapping and subsequent murder. But Dracos sketches a portrait of the “world’s first high priestess of atheism” that comes as close to representing a real, live person-as the colloquialism goes-as you’ll get. Whether that portrait was in fact the real Madalyn Murray, or whether it could be fleshed out to expose the full dimensions of her life is an open question. Then of course, there is the more fundamental question of whether a full portrait is needed.
Born on April 13, 1919, married in October 1941, enlisting in the WAC in December 1941 and becoming pregnant by an officer she met while in the service, she mustered out of the WAC in 1945 and went back to the “dirt-floor” shack of her parents to live and have her baby. After the son was born in 1946, Murray filed the first lawsuit “of a lifetime of filings across the United States.” It was a paternity suit against the child’s father, which she won, receiving fifteen dollars a month until William Joseph Murray III turned eighteen. By the time of her appearance before the United State Supreme Court, Murray had received a B. A. in history from Ashland College in 1948 and had another child out of wedlock. The two traits Dracos brings to the fore in examining Murray’s early years are her ambition and her self-centeredness. The traits extended far beyond her youth, beyond her founding of the American Atheist General Headquarters (AAGHQ) in Austin, Texas in the mid-1980s, extended, in fact, all the way to the circumstances surrounding her death. And yet . . .
For a segment of our society, Madalyn Murray was a refreshing voice against conformity in the 1960s. For some, those deeply committed to the principles of a democratic society, she represented something more. As Dracos writes, “It was Thomas Jefferson himself, badly scarred as a young boy by a harsh religious schooling experience including regular corporal punishment, who wrote of the absolute need of ‘a Wall of Separation between the Church and the State’”. After the Supreme Court prayer ban ruling, Murray became a symbol of the Jeffersonian concept of separation of church and state. She had the gumption to challenge the staid convention of rote allegiance to god and country. Even the National Council of Churches, a federation of major Protestant denominations, praised the challenge. As a symbol, Madalyn Murray was a success. In reading Dracos, you come to realize how she capitalize on her circumstance in life, in effect using her thirteen year old son to join battle with the city of Baltimore, Maryland. You also come to realize that had there been no Supreme Court ruling, or if it had been the other petitioner, Ed Schempp of Philadelphia, who garnished the media spotlight, Madalyn Murray would have been a constantly warring busy-body somewhere hell-bent on enriching herself by whatever means available. As it turned out, she had the cause of atheism. Atheism, like Anarchism, is a negative response to a socially accepted convention. Madalyn Murray was, bottomline-wise, unconventional.
When Murray went missing in 1995, the national news media skimmed the surface of the story, as did the Austin, Texas police department-skimmed the surface, that is. It was generally assumed that she had taken off to parts unknown. It was left up to reporter John MacCormack of the “San Antonio Express-News” to conduct an investigation and perk the interest of the FBI. (The United States Internal Revenue Service was already involved to an extent, trying to collect delinquent taxes from Murray’s younger son and Murray’s granddaughter-both of whom were murdered along with Murray). What is most surprising about the kidnaping and murder of Murray is how apparently comfortable the murderer was in the belief that he would not be caught. The audaciousness of the kidnaping-murder is mind bending. Had it not been for MacCormack and an ambitious private investigator hired by the “San Antonio Express-News”, the ex-convict who masterminded the extortion and killings might have had to take out a bill-board advertizement to convince the authorities that he did it. Of course, he would have been hard pressed to come up with the money for the advertizing. A rather elegant twist in the way things went provides arguing ammo for the existence of gods if not a God.
UNGODLY is one of those rare books that is focused and delivers precisely what the author intends. Nothing to excess, but simply a recounting of the life of a symbol who was simply human.