Anne Rowe Seaman: America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., New York, 2006) Let’s face it, this book can be read as a journalistic hack job trying to make a quick buck on the back of an easy target. And I’m not entirely sure how far that is from the truth. Semen was not, I assume, stupid enough to publish any easily identifiable misrepresentations or factual errors (though I speak only from the standpoint of one who has not independently researched the subject). However, she delves deep into the rhetorical thesaurus of weighted and judgmental terminology, bogus psychobabblistic asides and total disregard for quotation marks such as to make factual slander largely unnecessary. The least she could have done is to underline that the personal and family details she reports are largely sourced from O’Hair’s alcoholic son, Bill, who was obviously pushing his own neo-goddist agenda.
The conclusion we are supposed (since the disquotational anti-atheist slurs far outweigh any other opinion, attributed or otherwise) to draw is that O’Hair was a bad woman, maybe not a very bad woman but a self-indulgent, abrasive natural trouble-maker who did what she did out of a lust for attention and as a get rich quick scheme. Moreover, O’Hair’s convictions arose from her early commie-pinko sympathies and uncontrolled porn addiction. The idea is that that’s what atheism is all about – commie-pinko sympathies and porn addiction (a conclusion that I’m sure would have left Ayn Rand uncharacteristically speechless). (In fairness the anti-porn reactions Semen records were often from prudish atheists. And, in a surprising moment of lucidity, Semen observes that O’Hair’s carnival of lawsuits laid the foundations for our current secular society.)
Equally absurd are the group descriptions of contributors to O’Hair’s cause as lonely souls seeking comfort and solace in some sort of community. (Maybe they were lonely because people like Semen would make their lives intolerable unless, like Spanish Jews, they thought one thing and said something else. At least the goddists haven’t come up with a bacon eating test yet.) Of course, Semen’s snide little thumbnail portraits have the air of being lifted literally from any number of (shall we say?) objective reports – the descriptions of the suckers who give their life savings to the legions of televangelists. At least when they aren’t the views of the ever reliable Bill, who, according to the book, once caught a glimpse of some neo-hippy bag lady and just knew that she had to be an atheist (p. 169). The irony is, if I wanted comfort and solace, the last place I would turn to would be atheism many of whose champions (or at least many of those who do draw moral conclusions from the fact that there is no god – Nietzsche and Rand come immediately to mind) tend to come down hard on the side of independence and self-reliance. Indeed, isn’t there something pitiful in the weak-mindedness of people who need the comfort of a caring god or a Xtian community? They need real help, not the bogus embrace of some plastic-haired preacher boy.
Most annoying to the humanist scholar and indeed to anyone who cares about visual art is the disquotational slap (p. 231) at modern art and Andres Serrano’s truly sublime Piss Christ. Not to mention something she refers to as “a collection of sadomasochistic homosexual photographs.” Oh, she surely must mean Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the greatest visual artists of the last half century. Why not go all the way and call Caravaggio an Italian queer?
I think we can just set down to literary incompetence and accordingly forgive the laughable descriptions of prosecutors and detectives that are clearly lifted from the latest John Grisham. My favorite (aside from FBI agent Donna Cowlings’ “cool style and blue-eyed good looks” (p. 308)) is the description of IRS agent, Ed Martin (p. 268): “A fit man of 50 with deep set eyes and an affable grin behind a professional poker face, Martin spoke in the accents of his native New Orleans where he had run high school track and worked summers in the oil fields.” At least no one hid their vulnerability behind a tough as nails exterior.
I guess the excusatory interpretation for Semen’s wallowing in squalid bourgeois morality is that she is not (directly) expressing a personal opinion. She is merely recording “people’s” reactions. But even the most sympathetic reader of the book cannot but recognize the meta-text of disapproval in the choice of descriptions and attitudes and the selection of sources. Perhaps that was the only way she could get the cooperation of Bourbon Bill and access to private family documents. But the lesson is clear: Avoid atheism and pornography and you won’t be murdered.
For whatever my opinion is worth, I consider much of the circus of O’Hair’s life – the excommunications, the tirades, the self-defeating lawsuits – to be rather admirable. Her only real transgression, and it was a big one, was her diversion of tax free donations for personal use. Theft is one of the few true crimes (Goddist Jim Bakker rightly went to jail for mail fraud). That said, the crime of the messenger does not in this instance invalidate the message. Ultimately the basic problem with this book is that Semen doesn’t recognize - or even air the idea as a possible take on O’Hair’s life - that a commitment to the truth and outrage over uncorrected falsehoods can be a powerful individual motivation. You don’t have to look for greed or self-aggrandizement as an exhaustive specification of the meaning of O’Hair’s crusade. Perhaps she believed in what she was doing. (Even a few odd Xtians are probably motivated by conviction; the problem is they are just wrong.) Nor does Semen understand that the emergence of something good is often accomplished from the midst of sordid and messy circumstances, but that a palpable good does result in spite of it all.