Shiny & Free
Scientology's Scourge, Paulette Cooper, Visits with the Voice
Our regular readers can probably imagine why we were pretty thrilled this morning to finally meet the original badass of Scientology watchers, none other than Paulette Cooper.
She was in town to visit her sister and found time to have breakfast with us this morning at the Noho Star, not far from the Voice offices. Speaking of her sister, Suzy, Paulette says that the two of them are still trying to piece together exactly what happened when, as young children, they were rescued from a Nazi camp in Belgium, sparing them the fate of their parents, who were shipped to Auschwitz for extermination. A Belgian man rescued the girls by paying the equivalent of what today would be about $2 million to save 22 children from the camp, and to this day Paulette would like to learn his identity.
She went on, of course, to move to New York, became a magazine journalist, and published several books, including 1971's The Scandal of Scientology, the first journalistic expose of the church. She paid for that with years of incredible harassment by Scientology, which tried to frame her for crimes that had her facing 15 years in prison.
Which makes us wonder: Why the hell hasn't a movie been made about this woman's life?
In fact, she told me, she has been approached about TV shows and feature films about her experiences. A television series tells her it plans to do something about her "next year" (she's not holding her breath), and she herself passed on a movie contract (and now regrets it) because the contract's language about her "life rights" seemed fairly draconian.
Well, we figure the market for her story on the big screen will be opening up, what with the popularity of Janet Reitman's book Inside Scientology, another book from Lawrence Wright coming, and the release next year of Paul Thomas Anderson's movie The Master (yes, yes, we know the studio claims the Philip Seymour Hoffman character -- a WW2 vet who comes home damaged and then starts a 1950s faddish religion -- is not based on L. Ron Hubbard, but give us a break, we're not stupid).
Yeah, I was pretty rapt with attention
And there's plenty for a good screen adaptation of Paulette's life. She told us a story this morning we hadn't heard before: at one point, she says, she and her sister were hustled with the rest of the children into a line at the camp where they were staying. Nazi guards went down the line of kids, yelling out "left" or "right" at each of them to separate them into two halves. Then one group was taken away to the extermination camps. Paulette and her sister, she says, somehow both ended up in the group that was spared.
Fast forward some twenty years, and a Scientology spy who called himself Jerry Levin, after the publication of Paulette's expose of the church, worked his way into Paulette's confidence. She ended up trusting him so much, she allowed him to move into her apartment as a platonic friend. But the FBI later concluded that "Levin" masterminded the operation that lifted a piece of her stationery, got her fingerprint on it, and then wrote bomb threats to the local Scientology "org" on her stationery, managing to get Paulette indicted and facing 15 years in prison. Levin also continually tried to get her up to a narrow ledge on the roof of her building, next to a pool. She became convinced that he was trying to create the conditions for an "accident" that would kill her. But she was too paranoid to go near the ledge. Finally, Paulette was only exonerated when the FBI raided Scientology in 1977 because the church was engaged in what to this day is the most extensive infiltration of federal offices in American history. Only then were documents discovered showing that Scientology's spy wing had dreamed up elaborate plans to frame Paulette. To this day, meanwhile, Paulette is searching for the real identity of "Jerry Levin" and two women who were part of his plot to frame her with the bomb threats.
Seems like some kickass film material if you ask us.
We recently marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Paulette's book, and it was heartening to hear that after all this time -- and the harassment, which included 19 lawsuits, which weren't concluded until 1983 -- she still pays close attention to Scientology news.
She and I compared notes about the various figures who watch Scientology, including prominent ex-church members. And she pointed out something I hadn't really considered before -- how difficult it is for ex-members to come out of Scientology and then struggle to get jobs with what might be years of service to the church in their backgrounds. How do you make that look good on a resume, she asked me?
I told her that I'd seen something of that when, for example, I'd interviewed Tory Christman (then Tory Bezazian) just a few months after her defection. It was obvious that leaving Scientology after many years was a devastating experience in itself, and it can take years for a person to recover -- as Nancy Many records so well in her self-published memoir. But except for Marc Headley, a former member who almost immediately had business success after leaving the church, I hadn't really asked ex-members to talk about what it was like to get back on their feet. As Headley and others have said to me, they are warned by Scientology officials that they would be completely unequipped to survive if they break away, having spent much of their adult lives with no real job, no bank account, and, in many cases, after cutting off all ties with all non-Scientologist friends and family.
In the comments, I'd love to hear your tale. After leaving Scientology, how hard were those initial years, and how did you get back on your feet? Who knows, someone considering leaving may see your story.
Well, it was amazing finally to meet Paulette Cooper. She was as entertaining and gracious and poised as I'd come to expect. She's a legend in the field of Scientology watching, and it's good to know that she's watching us here -- so give her a shout-out!
PS: There's still one more day to vote for Scientology Story of the Year, so get over there and cast your ballot!
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.