Was Madalyn Murray O’Hair Mentally Ill?

Is it possible that Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the pioneering atheist activist, was actually mentally ill?

One of the ways to detect mental illness is by indirectly detecting it through its effects on the family.  With that in mind, consider the following descriptions from various media sources about Madalyn’s relationships with her children.  According to one source:

She ran American Atheists as she ran her life, bulling through everyone in her way, with Jon and Robin close behind her. The three misfits did everything together. They sat on and controlled the boards of most of AA’s corporations, rotating the positions of president, vice president, and treasurer among themselves. They worked, ate, and took vacations together and lived in the same huge house on Greystone Drive in northwest Austin. They trusted no one else, except maybe their dogs.

And they were lonely. Madalyn had no close friends; Jon and Robin fared no better. AA member Arnold Via told the Baltimore Sun that around 1987, “Jon got a little horny and got a girlfriend and let her move into the house, and that was a big mistake. Madalyn locked horns with her fast, and that was the end of that love affair. Robin thought she had a boyfriend once until Madalyn cut the bonds.” The threesome made up for their loneliness with extravagance. Jon and Madalyn each drove a Mercedes, Robin a Porsche. “We’re accustomed to good food,” Jon told Lawrence Wright, “to eating in dining rooms with tablecloths, good dishes, a good bottle of wine.…All of us have nice clothes. My suits cost a minimum of five, six hundred dollars.”

This is a description of a family that is a) deeply dysfunctional where b) the mother is at the center of it all.  Madalyn did not want her son or daughter to develop any relations with someone other than her.  She sociallly crippled her children such that they really had no life apart from her, even as adults.  What’s more, it’s not like the three were very close and had healthy emotional bonds with each other. On the contrary, their relationships were saturated with fighting, bitterness and antagonism.

From another source:

Jon Garth Murray was not well liked by the American Atheist headquarters staff or others he came into contact with. Some diplomatically recalled that he lacked social skills. The undiplomatic said he was a neurotic, immature, mama’s boy with a penchant for screaming abuse at people, and that he was generally despised.

“I almost quit my first week there when I heard Jon screaming at his mother with a bunch of profanity,” employee Travis recalled. “I just wasn’t brought up to talk to my mother that way, but I later came to realize he talked that way because that’s the way she taught him to talk.”

Robin, too, lived in her powerful grandmother’s shadow. She had been given up by Bill Murray (her mother was never mentioned) when he was a drug addict, and O’Hair had legally adopted her. Observers say that although Robin was more pleasant in general than her Uncle Jon, she was seldom happy and that she, too, tended to belittle the staff, just like O’Hair.

So not only did the family constantly fight among itself, they purchased the illusion of a family life by uniting against a common enemy – everyone outside the family.

The reports noted that O’Hair was brash, profane and vulgar, that she had a reputation for being abrasive and turning friends and allies into enemies, that she was notoriously tight-fisted and always looking for ways to enrich her empire

And then there is the son William, as he too would eventually  be cast from the inner circle.

As Murray tells it, his atheism was enforced from childhood by a tyrannical, explosive and indifferent matriarch. Growing up in a household run by his mother and maternal grandmother (his father left when he was an infant), Bill says it was clear to him that his mother wanted only girl children: “One of her favorite stories—I’ve heard her repeat it many times—is that when I was born and the doctor told her, ‘It’s a boy,’ she asked him if there wasn’t some way he could put it back.” Bill says he remembers her cruelties all too well: Once, in a fit of temper, she shattered a model airplane he had been working on for months—and another time she bit him so severely he still recalls the pain. “As a kid I won a baseball trophy,” he says. “Two years later when she came across it she asked where I had bought it. I told her I’d won it, but since she didn’t know or care that I played baseball, she didn’t believe me.

He became an alcoholic, which is understandable if he was trying to escape the emotional and psychological torment he was constantly receiving from his mother.   When he finally escaped that lifestyle by becoming a Christian, Madalyn wrote something so abusive that only a mentally ill mother could write it:

“One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times…He is beyond human forgiveness.”

With a mentally healthy mother, her son could literally commit murder and she would still be there for him at some level.

William offers more descriptions of his mother that clearly highlight massive dysfunctionality:

My mother had complete power over my brother, Jon, and my daughter, Robin. Although I was able to break away from the evil of this family, an evil that had been there for generations, they could not. My mother did not permit either my brother or my daughter to speak to me. She had total control of them.

My brother would have been forty years old the month he was murdered. He lived with my mother. He had breakfast with my mother. He went to work with my mother. He had lunch with my mother. He had dinner with my mother. He went on vacation with my mother. He never married. He never really even had the opportunity to have a serious relationship with a woman because Of the control my mother possessed over him. My mother had the same control over my daughter. She was just thirty the year she was murdered. She also lived with my mother. My mother used food to control her and make her unattractive to men. By the time she was murdered she was so heavy she had to purchase two airline tickets because she could not fit in one seat.

For twenty years I could not talk to my brother. He would hang up the phone on me or tear up my letters and send them back. The same was true of my daughter. They both called me “TRAITOR” because I had accepted Christ and changed my life. By “traitor” they meant that I no longer followed the absolute direction of my mother as they did.


But, my brother was a total slave to my mother. He saw himself as her provider and rescuer. All his life she had talked down to him and made fun of him

Finally, this abnormal behavior also explains why Madalyn could never hold down a job for any significant period of time:

Our family was in fact classically dysfunctional and poor, and most of my mother’s musings about her father’s vast business experience was a myth created by her. Unable to hold down a job for more than a few months at a time because of personality issues, my mother found Marxism where most Americans of that era found it — in the unemployment lines.

I don’t see how any reasonable person could define O’Hair’s unusual family arrangement and interactions as anything other than profoundly dysfunctional.  As such, it is reasonable to infer the cause of such dysfunction as mental illness.

But what kind?

A good candidate would be some form of Borderline personality disorder:

What is borderline personality disorder?  It’s a pattern of intensely hyper-emotional responses, especially to situations that trigger abandonment fears.  It’s a pattern of demanding, critical and chaotic relationships instead of cooperative communicating.  It’s a pattern also of misinterpreting situations as hurtful that are in fact benign, with the misinterpretations occuring either while the situation is happening, or in retelling the events later.  It also may be a pattern of attractive and highly competent-appearing social functioning at times alternating with periods of intense and inappropriate anger, narcissism, and explicitly hurtful behavior (to themselves or to others).

For notice how nicely Madalyn’s behavior maps to descriptions of Borderline mothers:

Borderline mothers are threatened by the spouses and friends of their children. They feel that they are entitled to be not only the primary focus, but also the only focus of their forever obligated children. Spouses and friends are seen as distractions and having the potential to vie for their dominance. So they look for fault in friends and spouses of their children and use these flaws as cause for isolation and avoidance.

The Borderline mother’s definition of success of their child involves obedience and reinforcement of the attachment to the mother.

The child of the Borderline mother must work to consolidate a conflicted sense of self, and find a way to break free. They are preoccupied by what Mom thinks today, which interferes with everyday life and adult relationships.


The dynamics of the parent-child relationship are organized around the mother’s symptomatology; rather than understanding the child as an autonomous person with their own needs, desires, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses, the mother sees the child as a “need-gratifying object”. [4. http://bpdfamily.com/content/have-your-parents-put-you-risk-psychopathology%5D As a result, her parenting is driven by the desire to meet her own overwhelming need for validation, security, and love, rather than bestowing them upon you. You quickly learn that your role is to satisfy your mother’s demands, however unrealistic, unstable, and conflicting, and she often seeks to exert control and limit your autonomy as a frantic effort to avoid abandonment. Your sense of identity becomes intimately tied to and gained from your mother’s expectations and seemingly arbitrary vacillations between approval and rejection, adoration and disgust, exaltation and despair. Without the freedom and support to engage in the vital work of self-exploration and self-expression, you struggle to establish an authentic sense of self and to trust your own instincts.

A Borderline personality disorder would explain the pathological relationships Madalyn had with everyone: unable to make close friends, controlling just about every aspect of Jon and Robin’s life, the constant fights between Madalyn and her children, the constant fights with co-workers, and driving her other son to alcohol abuse and eventually casting him out of the family as a “traitor.”

So in the end, we are left with another highly ironic situation in the world of atheism.  Y’see, atheist activists have long been insisting that religious belief is a form a mental illness and that a religious upbringing is a form of child abuse.   Of course, those claims are empty rhetoric rooted in bigotry.  Yet that empty rhetoric reaches the laughable zone once you realize that one of the heroes of the atheist movement was not only likely to be mentally ill, but abusive with her own children.

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6 Responses to Was Madalyn Murray O’Hair Mentally Ill?

  1. TFBW says:

    Is it just me, or does anyone else see a kind of mirror-image Westboro Baptist in O’Hair and her family? I don’t know anything about the internal state of the Phelps family, but a rotten exterior isn’t likely to be covering a healthy interior, and the external similarities are noteworthy.

  2. unclesporkums says:

    Exactly, such disgusting situations.

  3. mechanar says:

    @TFBW you are on the nose. while reading this I thought ” this is a cult”

  4. TFBW says:

    From the end of the first linked article:

    “The best thing that ever happened to Free Thought in America was that Communism died,” says Keith Berka. The second best is that O’Hair is gone. “A lot of us were in American Atheists but dropped out, became offended,” says ACA co-chair Don Rhoades, his daughter bouncing on his knee. “There was a big collective sigh of relief when she left.”

    But now, of course, those atheists who never had to endure her in person are treating her like a folk hero. People are weird.

  5. unclesporkums says:

    The narrative must be protected.

  6. Dhay says:

    In the Friendly Atheist Alternative Facts thread Nolan asked, “What is your source for O’Hair engaging in embezzlement?” — and was promptly answered by Doug’s quoting a son saying she did. Michael was more cautious, he amended the post wording from “Waters wtinessed” [embezzlement] to “Waters believed”.

    I reflect that actual embezzlement is not not necessary for anyone wishing to skim off money from a charity or other organisation. Simply pay yourself a very good salary as president, employ close family members as vice president and treasurer on good salaries, that’s (in this case) three good incomes coming into one household.

    Now start up other organisations which each require president, vice president and treasurer, rotate the roles between the three people involved, and now there, six, nine, twelve, etc good incomes coming into one household. Did that happen?:

    The three misfits did everything together. They sat on and controlled the boards of most of AA’s corporations, rotating the positions of president, vice president, and treasurer among themselves.

    That’s how you afford a huge house, and an extravagant lifestyle:

    The threesome made up for their loneliness with extravagance. Jon and Madalyn each drove a Mercedes, Robin a Porsche. “We’re accustomed to good food,” Jon told Lawrence Wright, “to eating in dining rooms with tablecloths, good dishes, a good bottle of wine.…All of us have nice clothes. My suits cost a minimum of five, six hundred dollars.”

    Why embezzle, why risk prosecution by an apparently hostile and vigilant IRS, when you can cream off the funds for your extravagant lifestyle in plain sight and totally legally.


    Whether they did or didn’t embezzle has not been settled by the denial issued by American Atheists, a denial reported by Hemant Mehta in his blog post entitled “American Atheists: There’s No Evidence Madalyn Murray O’Hair Ever Stole Money From Our Group”.

    Mehta quotes AA (without providing the usual link to the statement) and adds his own comments:

    … To be clear, we have seen no credible evidence that there was financial impropriety on the part of the O’Hairs as was implied in the film. … American Atheists is fully transparent with its finances. We complete the required IRS Form 990 each year and have our finances audited annually to ensure that we are in compliance with non-profit best practices. This information is publicly available on our website …

    I haven’t heard anyone suggest that American Atheists is committing any financial impropriety today, so I fail to see the relevance of posting 990s that go back to 2009, as if that addresses anything O’Hair did 15 years prior to that (though it’s still good practice). That said, it’s important to know that the people at American Atheists have no reason to believe O’Hair took money from them. … saying she stole money from the group she founded shouldn’t be taken as gospel.


    As Mehta points out, financial returns going back no further than 2009 tell us nothing about what happened fifteen years earlier than that. And saying that “saying she stole money from the group she founded shouldn’t be taken as gospel” sounds like a defensive hedge on Mehta’s part — he’s not sure himself, and I can see why.

    The AA‘s “we have seen no credible evidence that there was financial impropriety on the part of the O’Hairs …” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence: shouldn’t they be telling us that there was credible evidence that there was no financial impropriety on the part of the O’Hairs, rather than telling us that neither those alleging financial impropriety nor the AA can prove the alleged impropriety.


    The theme got developed by Mehta a few days later in his “Netflix’s Film About Madalyn Murray O’Hair Gets Significant Details Wrong, Says Longtime Associate” post.

    (I note in passing that friends and enemies alike are united in slamming the historical accuracy of the film.)

    Last week, I gave a talk in Ohio and I had a chance to chat with Frank Zindler, someone who has been involved with the organization for decades, was the Interim President at one point, and still serves on their Board of Directors. I was really curious to hear what he thought about the movie since he knew O’Hair personally. While he hadn’t seen the film at the time, he knew what the storyline was, and he gave a thorough denial that went far beyond the statement American Atheists later released.


    And Mehta links to Zindler’s “Blame the Victim” account on John Loftus’ blog. Zindler’s account, focusing mostly on the O’Hairs’ murderer, David Waters, includes:

    As the title of this review indicates, the film sets up a false scenario where viewers might think that Madalyn (and Jon and Robin?) got her just deserts, given all her imagined swindling and embezzlement …


    So Zindler says it’s “imagined”, ie not actual, swindling and embezzlement. Zindler was a very close friend to the O’Hairs, an insider with insider knowledge, on that score a credible witness. A very close friend; at the end of his article he says:

    (For full disclosure, I must indicate that I am not without bias. Madalyn was like a second mother to me and my wife Ann, and my daughter Catherine and Robin were friends. The Murray-O’Hairs were welcome guests in our home, and we never experienced anything less than warm and stimulating hospitality at their home on Greystone Avenue in Austin. I shall ever mourn their loss.)

    A very close friend: so close it is startlingly weird that he did not report to the police the absence of his ‘second mother’, his daughter’s (implied close) friend Robin, the family who were his ‘welcome guests’ and hosts, did not report to the police the presumably achingly felt absence of the Murray-O’Hair family during — assuming the report to the police part of the story is correct — a year. That stinks.

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