Life magazine once dubbed Madalyn Murray O’Hair “the most hated woman in America.” This week, a feature film about the longtime Austinite’s life and tragic death made its debut at South by Southwest.
“We dove in and started writing it and the more I wrote it, the more I fell in love with Madalyn Murray O’Hair," said Tommy O’Haver, co-writer and director of The Most Hated Woman in the World for Netflix. "For all her faults, she was a pretty amazing woman.”
But if you haven't heard of her, you may be wondering why she was considered the most hated woman in America.
O'Hair made many media appearances on behalf of the American Atheists, a group headquartered in Austin that she helped found in 1963.
Before arriving in Austin, she spearheaded the movement to remove compulsory Bible reading and prayer from public schools, suing Baltimore schools on behalf of her oldest son. After the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, O’Hair was forever linked to one side of an American cultural debate.
O'Hair frequently used these opportunities to stir the pot, pointedly attacking Christianity, with comments like, “You guys are going to spend your whole life preparing to meet the lord. … Boy you folks are crazy as hell.”
She made several appearances on The Phil Donahue Show, often going on to debate well-known preachers.
“It just seemed like such a juicy role to sink one’s teeth into," said Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, who plays O'Hair in the movie, "to get to play somebody through many different eras in their life."
“I think that Madalyn’s entire existence is completely full of surprises," Leo said. "And I think that the people she had worked closely with and trusted, that they would end up doing what they did to her is also equally surprising.”
Surprising and tragic. In 1995, O’Hair, her youngest son and her granddaughter disappeared, along with $500,000 in gold coins from the organization. Their bodies were not found and identified until 2001. Three men – one of whom had been fired by O’Hair for theft – are believed to have kidnapped them, forced them to hand over the gold, then killed them. One of the men is dead; the other two went to prison, though not for the murders.
William Murray, the son who had inspired the Supreme Court case, became a Christian Evangelist.
“That’s what makes her such a great character. She’s so complicated because she can be awful and to her own family," O'Haver said. "But at the same time, she was a dedicated family person.”
The Most Hated Woman in America has one more showing during the festival tomorrow night. It goes live on Netflix next week.