I picked up William J. Murray’s autobiography, My Life Without God, largely because I figured he’d be a kindred soul. Both of us were raised in dysfunctional families dominated by abusive mothers. I did find much to identify with, but all in all I don’t think I’d have traded places with him.
Bill Murray holds a permanent place in American history as the boy whose mother, Madalyn Murray (later O’Hair), sued the city of Baltimore on his behalf, to spare him the emotional suffering of being forced to pray in school. The case ended up in the Supreme Court, and a novel and paradigm-shifting precedent resulted.
She was, apparently, less concerned about his emotional suffering in other areas of life.
As Murray remembers her, his mother was a perfect narcissist, an attention-seeker who fed off the hatred she actively pursued. She was an alcoholic, a sexual deviate, an emotional abuser and manipulator, and as great a misappropriator of the donations of her followers as the worst fake Christian faith-healer. On more than one occasion, he tells us, she tried to persuade him to poison his grandfather (her father), because the old man argued with her.
Murray grew up in his mother’s shadow, working on her magazines for little or no wages, traveling with her and promoting her cause. Like her he became an alcoholic, and like all children of alcoholics he became an enabler. Eventually he realized that it was impossible to live with her if he wanted to have any life of his own, and so—after several false starts—he managed to break free, infuriating her. His conversion to Christianity (sparked, of all things, by reading Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician) was unforgivable in her eyes.
Unlike most conversion stories, this one did not end on a high note. Murray seemed more weary than anything else. Even as a Christian, he remained a recovering alcoholic. Coming to Christ did not save his marriage, and he learned hard lessons about the con men who (sadly) flourish in the evangelical “celebrity” world. He was still hoping for reconciliation with his mother, his brother Jon Garth Murray, and his daughter Robyn, whom he left with his mother in his younger, irresponsible days, and who had been adopted by her.
As many of you know, it got worse rather than better. Much worse.
This article by Murray, written in 1999, tells the sad story. (I assume the most recent revision of My Life Without God also tells it. I read the 1992 edition, written before all this happened.) Mrs. Murray, Jon Garth and Robyn all disappeared in 1995. Rumors abounded—they had been kidnapped; they had run off to enjoy their riches under assumed identities; they were dead. Eventually a confession led to the discovery of their bodies. A former employee and some accomplices had kidnapped the three, held them for a time while draining their bank accounts, and then murdered them.
I can only begin to imagine the pain and conflicted emotions that Bill Murray must have experienced, and must be experiencing to this day. I could draw all kinds of morals from the story—it seems to cry out for moralizing. But it seems to me just too sad. For them, and for America.
Bill Murray’s story is not just his own. It’s a microcosm of the story we all share, those of us who lived through inversion that occurred in our culture after the middle of the 20th Century. Read it and weep.