Newsday.com, Feb. 2, 2003
By Scott McLemee
Scott McLemee is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the woman who brought a lawsuit that, when it reached the Supreme Court in 1963, ended Bible reading and prayer in American public schools.
The grand lady of American atheism inspired (and indeed cultivated) a cult of personality, as Bryan F. LeBeau shows in his biography.
Not many readers will turn to “The Atheist” in search of a hagiography. A magazine once called O’Hair “the most hated woman in America” – and passages that LeBeau quotes from the mail she received makes this sound plausible.
Although O’Hair published autobiographical writings, LeBeau shows that she never narrated any incident in her early life the same way twice. (Just when and why she turned against religion remains open to question.) LeBeau has access to the diaries she began to keep in the 1950s, in her 30s, which sound as if they deepen the puzzle of her personality as much as they illuminate it.
LeBeau provides a temperate and dispassionate account of the life of a woman who was seldom either. On the whole, he admires her fortitude, without overlooking just how much misanthropy fueled it or how much it cost her.