There was a time when Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, was “The Most Hated Woman in America,” as the title of a new movie about her life and death declares.
Netflix released its biographical film about the outspoken atheist on Friday to mixed reviews, but there is one major problem – the movie is full of errors, omissions and distortions, according to O’Hair’s only surviving son, William J. Murray.
“Overall, the fictional and factual overlapped in ‘Most Hated Woman in America’ to a degree that moved the movie into the questionable category,” Murray told WND.
“This was clearly what Hollywood refers to as a ‘Google Movie,’ that is, a docudrama in which the total research upon which it is based is publicly available with Google searches with no true research or interviews of participants. There are no references in the credit roll to books, magazine or newspaper articles.”
Murray, who chairs the Religious Freedom Coalition, said the filmmakers refused to contact him, even though he is the only main character depicted in the film who is still alive. In fact, after Murray contacted the production company asking if any of his copyrighted material had been used in research for the film, the company’s law firm sent him a letter stating the company would have no contact with him.
The irony is Murray suspects the filmmakers used certain information that can only be found in his memoir “My Life Without God” or other public Murray writings, yet they still got so much wrong.
Perhaps the biggest omission, according to Murray, was the lack of mention of his mother’s affiliation with the Communist Party and her attempted defection to the Soviet Union when William was a child. Murray goes into detail about the attempted defection in “My Life Without God,” and in one of his newer books, “Utopian Road to Hell,” he dissects the “magic think” that led his mother to believe a Marxist utopian society could be created on Earth.
In the early 1990s, Murray founded the first commercial Bible publishing company in the Soviet Union as a way to help undo the damage done by utopian communists like his mother.
The movie portrays O’Hair as a social worker for the city at the time of her famous court challenge to the practice of mandatory Bible readings in public schools. She is depicted as a tireless civil rights activist, but Murray said she was more of a subversive: She managed the Communist Party bookstore and chaired the Maryland branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro organization.
The film also misrepresents the moment O’Hair discovered children were being forced to pray in school. In the movie, O’Hair went to the school to speak to a teacher because William was in trouble, and she heard students reciting the Lord’s Prayer as she walked through a hallway. That masks the reality of her communist leanings, according to Murray.
“In 1960, she led our family on an attempted defection to the Soviet Union that got as far as the Soviet embassy in Paris,” he recalled. “After their rejection of my mother we returned to America in September after the start of the school year. To re-enroll me required her taking me to the junior high school at the beginning of a school day, and that is when she discovered the prayer. She did create a scene at the school, but not in a classroom as depicted in the movie, but rather in the school office.”
The movie did not accurately portray the family’s home life, either. For example, O’Hair was shown having a close relationship with her mother, with O’Hair going by the nickname “Maddie.”
“My mother’s actual nickname in the house was ‘The Spider,’ but most often she was just referred to as Madalyn,” Murray corrected. “There was no close relationship between my mother and anyone in the household. Often there were brutal violent fights, as I described in ‘My Life Without God.’”
The movie depicts Murray’s grandfather leading the family in prayer at the dinner table and reading a Bible. But the grandfather Murray knew was a man who once ran a roadhouse selling whiskey and women during Prohibition, not the pious patriarch on the movie screen.
“There was never a Bible in the home at any time, and while I believe my grandfather may have believed in God, I never saw him attend church to the day he died,” he recalled.
And Murray didn’t like the way the filmmakers treated his late brother Jon Garth.
“The depiction of my brother Garth as rather stupid saddened me,” Murray said. “He was not a stupid man, just a man who had been controlled in a cult-like situation for most of his life, as was my daughter Robin. He was well educated and intelligent, but convinced by his mother that she was the most intelligent human who had ever walked the Earth – the keeper of all knowledge.”
“The Most Hated Woman in America” covers the mysterious disappearance in August 1995 of O’Hair, Jon Garth and O’Hair’s granddaughter Robin. Years later it was revealed the three had been murdered by David Waters, a disgruntled ex-employee of American Atheists, and two accomplices. Waters had also been convicted of murdering a fellow teenager in 1964, a fact Murray says his mother knew when she hired him in 1993. Murray said that error in judgment was key to understanding his mother’s personality, but the movie made no mention of it.
Murray further pointed out his mother fired Waters after she discovered he had stolen more than $54,000 from the American Atheists’ bank account, not because of comments he made at an office party about overseas accounts.
The movie depicts an employee getting police involved on the very day the three family members went missing. But the reality is stranger than fiction: Nobody reported them missing for a full year. Members of American Atheists moved into O’Hair’s home, but no one reported her missing, believing either she had deliberately left town for good or she would eventually come back.
They had reason to believe this: The family’s captors had left behind a typewritten note ostensibly from one of the family members. What’s more, Ellen Johnson, who took charge of American Atheists after O’Hair vanished, received calls from each of the three family members, all on Jon’s cell phone, within the first month of their disappearance. They said they were in San Antonio and would be home eventually, as the Washington Post reported in 1999.
It was Murray himself who finally reported his mother missing, in September 1996, only because a San Antonio Express-News reporter named John MacCormack contacted him. MacCormack had been assigned to do a piece on the one-year anniversary of the family’s disappearance. He did eventually uncover the truth of the family’s kidnapping and murder, but he did not get involved in the case until a year after the family went missing. The fictional reporter in the movie, meanwhile, doggedly pursued the mystery from Day One.
Murray pointed out the movie also left out the intervention into the case by the IRS and the hard work of the FBI to bring final resolution to the kidnapping mystery. It also failed to include the letter House Majority Leader Dick Armey wrote on Murray’s behalf to Attorney General Janet Reno asking for a federal investigation.
What the filmmakers did include were several scenes of O’Hair receiving threatening hate mail, which is misleading, according to her son.
“Most pieces of ‘hate mail’ were notes saying ‘Jesus loves you’ and tracts explaining salvation,” Murray recalled. “Most mail we received early on during the case contained money, not hate, as can be attested to by the wealth my mother had at her death. Everyone in America who hated the country and God sent her a few bucks, some sent her thousands. One Kansas farmer sent her tens of thousands per year.”
Nor was the scene of an attempted assassination in Berkeley realistic.
“There was never a gun fired at my mother, ever, and certainly not in Berkeley, California, where she was a hero,” Murray asserted. “The theme in the movie of constant threats to her was her theme used as a fundraiser. During the school prayer case she often would try to place me in what could have been dangerous situations in hopes I would be attacked so she could use that as a fundraiser.”
Murray does not think the movie will appeal to many people.
“This is not a movie Christians will want to watch,” he said. “Atheists will see their hero as a controlling, foul-mouthed hard drinker who cheated her followers and the IRS. Hardly an endorsement for their cause. It is a sure bet that the actors’ families and friends will watch it.”
Although he long ago broke free from his mother’s orbit and became a Christian, Murray can’t help but feel a twinge of regret for the way his mother lived and died.
“‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ did bring back to me memories of my family I would rather forget,” he confessed.
“I actually feel as sorry for my mother as I do for her victims. She lived a life that was not pleasant by her own design and which caused many others, such as my brother and daughter, to suffer. I escaped this kind of life; I only wish the three of them could have as well.”