Looking over my shoulder,
The Inside Account of the Story That Almost Killed Me
The author in 1967. Little did she realize the turn her life was about to take.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
The Scandal behind "The Scandal of Scientology"By Paulette Cooper
You may not believe this, but you can write something that some group doesn't approve of and then have a quarter of your life almost ruined. I know because it happened to me.
I haven't previously written about this from beginning to end because it's still painful, but here goes. In 1968 I was a struggling New York freelance writer, searching for an investigative story that would make a difference. I was already used to controversy - and publicity - when a year earlier I had successfully stowed away on an ocean liner and wrote an article (and sold movie rights) about it that had appeared all over the world.
I had obtained a master's degree in psychology and had studied comparative religion at Harvard for a summer. So I became interested in researching a newly-popular quasi-religious mental-health cult founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. I started by writing an article exposing Scientology for the British Harper/Queen, (now Harper's Bazaar) and expanded this into a book.
In it, among other things, I stated that the crux of Scientology - their e-meter which they say acts like a lie detector - produced questionable results; that Hubbard had lied about his credentials; that Charles Manson had called himself a Scientologist; that some auditors had behaved improperly toward their "parishioners"; that some who left may have feared being blackmailed; that some defectors claimed that they had been psychologically damaged by Scientology, financially ripped-off, and/or harassed when they tried to leave or speak out.
I soon got used to telephone death threats, harassing calls - and lawsuits.
I was occasionally followed - often conspicuously as if to upset me - and people seemed to be trying to gain access to my apartment. Then, in the basement of my small building, I discovered alligator clips on my phone wires - likely the remnants of a phone tap.
Next, my cousin - who was also short and slim like me - was in my apartment alone when a man arrived with a "flower delivery" for me. When she opened the door, the intruder pulled a gun out of the flowers and put it to her temple. Fortunately, the gun jammed, misfired or was empty. The man then began to choke her, and when she pulled away and screamed, he ran off. The police said afterward that they were mystified, because there appeared to be no motive for the attack.
I quickly moved to a safer doorman building. But soon afterwards, 300 of my new neighbors received an anonymous smear letter about me, outrageously describing me as a part-time prostitute with VD!
Then, a few weeks later, I received a visit from a pompous FBI agent named Bruce Brotman. He said the spokesman for the Church of Scientology in New York, James Meisler, claimed to have received 2 anonymous bomb threats and named me as a likely suspect.
I didn't take it seriously until I was called to appear before a federal grand jury - and was shocked to learn that I was the target (suspect). I had to hire a top law firm (I chose one headed by Charles Stillman) who required a $5,000 retainer on my meager freelance income. Little did I realize that they would ultimately cost me $28,000 (like $75,000 today) and they would unsuccessfully sue me after the case was over for even more money!
Even worse, during the grand jury, the prosecutor, John D. Gordon III, told me that if this Grand Jury decided that I had sent Scientology the 2 bomb threats, I faced 5 years in jail for each letter, 5 more for perjury for denying it, and $15,000 in fines.
He showed me the letters, and I truthfully testified that I had never touched or seen them before. Then Gordon dropped the real bomb. "Then how did your fingerprint get on one of them?" he asked.
I was so shocked I think I momentarily lost consciousness because the room turned upside down. I then rightly explained that Scientology could have obtained a blank piece of paper that I had touched, and typed threats on it afterwards.
But Gordon was unconvinced. On May 9th, 1973, I was indicted on all 3 three counts by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. And 10 days later I was arrested, released on my own recognizance, and forbidden to leave the state without the court's permission.
"I was named a likely suspect and the next thing I knew I was called to appear before a federal grand jury in New York."
For months, my anxiety was so terrible I could taste it in my throat. I was in a total panic. I could barely write, and my bills, especially legal ones, kept mounting. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day, popped Valium like M&Ms, and drank too much vodka.
I worried obsessively about the possibility of going to jail. And also about my career. I had been doing extremely well. I had 4 books out and I wasn't yet 30. But once these accusations came out at trial, what editor would give an assignment to a writer believed to have sent bomb threats to the people she wrote about? I had wanted to be a writer since I was 8 years old, and my dream life was about to be over.
I was also very concerned about my parents. They had adopted me from an orphanage in Belgium when I was 6, and I had always tried to make them proud of me. However, I knew they would soon be humiliated when the trial started.
The sexual revolution was going on then, and young people were also experimenting with pot, considering horrifying by adults (and jurors no doubt!) in those days. As a single photogenic woman involved in a bizarre case, I knew I would become the scandal du jour for the tabloids during the anticipated 3-week trial.
I tried desperately to prevent a trial. I made a writing barter arrangement with a private investigator, Anthony Pellicano - the same one in jail and in the news now - who I wanted to look into L Ron Hubbard Jr., the son of the founder, who I had worked with against his father but whom I now began to suspect had turned. But Pellicano did nothing.
I also volunteered to take lie-detector tests to prove my innocence. But they returned contradictory and inconclusive results, although not surprisingly, they did show me to be highly stressed.
My state of mind got worse when the man I had been dating for a year and planned to marry, a lawyer named Bob Straus, left me. Most of my friends also stopped calling because I was so obsessed with the horrors that were happening that it was all I could talk (or think) about.
On July 26th on my 30th birthday, I decided to end it. Fortunately, an editor friend at the New York Times stuck by me and called me. She kept me on the phone for hours to stop me from continuing to take the entire bottle of Valium I admitted that I had started to take that evening.
Another loyal friend was a new one, a short smiling redhead named Jerry Levin. He was sympathetic to what was going on and moved in with me late that summer. Since I was too depressed to go out much, he did my errands and walked my dog Tiki while I compulsively watched the Watergate hearings.
Toward the beginning of September, I was in such a bad state that I even became slightly suspicious of him. When I questioned him, he turned on me, berating me for not even being able to trust my closest friend any more. Then he too walked out of my life, leaving me alone to face the trial.
The court date, October 31, 1973, was approaching when, a Professor and researcher from Scotland, Dr. Roy Wallis, came to interview me. Earlier, he had interviewed L Ron Hubbard Jr.
Boastfully, Jr. gave Roy a letter he wrote to his father, saying he could "bring the enemy to their [sic] knees" - and he had suddenly purchased an expensive house right after I was indicted although he had been broke. Roy brought this and other information he had gathered on Scientology's dirty tricks to Gordon, who had a growing file I had also given him on Scientology's "fair game law": That stated that an "enemy" of Scientology - such as me - "May be injured by any means by any Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed."
But no prosecutor wants to give up a high publicity case. So I started searching for a doctor to give me a truth-serum test. After months of barely eating, I had gone down to only 83 pounds, and my health had deteriorated from the stress. Doctors refused me, saying I could die from the anesthesia. But I didn't care. I had decided to kill myself right before the trial rather than humiliate my parents (and myself) once the news stories came out.
Finally, a neurologist, Dr. David Coddon of Mount Sinai Hospital, agreed, and after several hours of questioning me while I was out, he was so convinced I was innocent, that he said not only would he testify for me, but he would chain himself to the courthouse steps if they proceeded with this case. (Just what I needed; more publicity!)
On Halloween day, 1973, the government postponed - and ultimately canceled - the trial, agreeing to file a nolle prosequi. I went into therapy for a year, and the depression lifted somewhat. But the threat of a trial and scandalous publicity remained over my head, because the government could still try me, and the press could still discover that I had been arrested for sending bomb threats and ruin me.
So for four long years, I was bitter - and broke - feeling that everything I had done was right and it had all come out so wrong. Strangers from all over the world continued to call me for help on Scientology, unaware of what I had just gone though. Since no one else was doing anything or speaking out against them, I continued to try to help Scientology's many victims (free), including those they were suing or who were suing them, and those who had lost their families and their money to them.
So the Scientologists therefore kept suing following and harassing me. As one example, when they found out I had seen a shrink, they broke into his offices and stole my records to find out what I had said during therapy - then sent excerpts of negative things I had said about my friends and parents to them. Nice, eh?
In July of 1977 I was flying home from Africa on a travel writing assignment when I picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune on the plane and couldn't believe the headline Washington Post story they had picked up: it was about me.
It seems the FBI had raided 3 Scientology offices and seized their internal memos after learning that they were engaged in a variety of criminal activities. And that included framing a writer who had exposed them and was working against them: me.
I was so happy; I thought that last I would be able to prove my innocence when I came home, which had become an obsession with me. But it took me four more frustrating years (during which time they harassed me more than ever, set me up with private investigators, and continued to sue me for nonsense, for example, for that Washington Post story, saying I had given it to them) before I at last saw those documents.
By 1974, the author wears the stress of her ordeal in her pained visage.
And then I spent 3 months in Washington D.C., reading all the nasty stuff they had done not only to me but to anyone who had ever said or done anything against Scientology. As I later told Mike Wallace when I was on 60 Minutes discussing the frame-up and their "dirty trick" papers: "Scientology turned out to be worse than anything I ever said or even imagined.
For example, one series of documents dated 1976 was a plot of theirs against me called "Operation Freakout." to get me "incarcerated in a mental institution or jail or at least to hit her so hard that she drops her attacks" on Scientology. It seems that after the first frame-up - a plot they apparently called "Operation Dynamite" - had failed to imprison (or silence) me, they plotted again to make it look like I was making bomb threats against them and others with fake threats sounding eerily like the '72 ones.
Mysteriously, there was also an anonymous diary someone wrote of what I did each day during the "frame-up" period, and how close I was to suicide. "Wouldn't that be great for Scientology?" the person wrote
And then I realized the writer could only have been Jerry Levin. He must have been a Scientologist whom they sent to spy on me and help Scientology set me up. He and his friends, Paula Tyler and a woman calling herself Margie Shepherd (who may be Linda Kramer from Boston, who married and may be Linda Kobern), had been in and out of my old apartment back when the threats were sent. And they had access to paper on which Scientology could have obtained my fingerprint and then typed the threats.
Even now I still wonder: why did Jerry want me to go up on that ledge with him? If he had pushed me over, everyone would have simply assumed that in my depressed state of mind, and rather than face a trial, I had committed suicide. Operation Freakout indeed.
A new grand jury in New York spent 3 years investigating my frame-up. Alas, the case went nowhere because the Scientologists refused to talk about what they knew about the frame-up. One, a Charles Batdorf, was even jailed for months for refusal to speak but still wouldn't talk.
But a simultaneous Washington, D.C., grand jury (and trial) ultimately jailed 11 Scientologists who were involved in wiretapping, infiltration and theft of government documents. Some had also been involved in the frame-up and harassment of me so I finally had some justice. I also initiated my own legal actions against Scientology while they piled on more suits, spies and harassment against me. Finally, in 1985, we reached an "amicable" settlement of all lawsuits.
Indirectly, through the lawyer who handled this settlement, I became reacquainted with Paul Noble, a New York TV producer, whom I had dated in my 20's, long before this all happened and we have been very happily married for 19 years now. I went on to write 11 more books, win 6 writing awards (including two for "The Scandal of Scientology,") do some travel writing, and have a newspaper column on pets. True, it's not as "glamorous" as the investigative reporting I did with Scientology, but at least dogs don't harass and cats don't sue.
I also quit smoking, barely drink, and try to forget what happened. Try. But when I see the news, or my e-mail, I'm often reminded of the years of torment I endured. Whenever I hear about litigation,or depositions, I remember the years (and money) I spent fighting the 19 lawsuits they filed against me from all over the world that I had to defend - not to mention that I was subjected to 50 days of depositions.
Or I read about something like prosecutor Nifong's going after the innocent Duke soccer players and I am reminded of what it was like for an innocent person to be prosecuted. Me. Or someone will send me inside information from a higher-up who left, like the affidavit from Margie Wakefield swearing that: "The second murder that I heard planned was of Paulette Cooper, who had written a book critical of Scientology, and they were planning to shoot her"
Other names keep bringing me back as well. My useless private investigator, Anthony Pellicano, is all over the news. My former attorney Charles Stillman often defends high-publicity clients. like the Reverend Moon. Bob Straus, the boyfriend who left me, went on to head a large New York organization that investigates judges. John D. Gordon III is with the high profile law firm of Morgan Lewis.
Bruce Brotman retired from the FBI and I was pleased to read negative news stories that appeared about him. It seems he left the FBI and became head of security at a big-city Airport and the local papers reported that he was fired when he refused to go through the security system, reportedly saying, "I make the rules."
Dr. Roy Wallis committed suicide in 1990, blowing his brains out when his wife left him. Dr. David Coddon died in 2002. And while I've never heard further of James Meisler or Charles Batdorf, I heard that Jerry Levin - which I'm sure was not his real name - is still a Scientologist.
Yes, I often wish I had never ever heard the word "Scientology," But despite all that happened, I would still have done the same today, because no one else was speaking out or working to expose them then. I would not have been capable of remaining quiet because I learned too many scary things and talked to too many people who were being hurt to turn my back on them.
Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, others are speaking out. And fortunately Scientology is not as litigious or vicious toward their critics. But if you think there's nothing bad happening to (former) members and/or critics, go read www.clambake.org (especially the message boards), www.lermanet.com, xenu.net, xenutv,com &.holysmoke.org for starters.
Cooper says her life is back on track, and that she is enjoying some well-earned time away from the pandora's box she opened nearly forty years ago.
Sometimes I get discouraged because Scientology gets so much publicity from people like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, etc. And I wonder whether it was worth wrecking so many years of my life when they're so powerful again. But then I remind myself that I did help a lot of people. My book sold 154,000 copies - not that I ever saw any money from it and it cost me a fortune - and what I called "The Book That Launched a Thousand Suits" is really "The Book they Couldn't Kill," since it's still read today (free) on the Internet - in several languages.
Finally, some of the people who read my book (or the story of what they did to me which is also on the Internet,) e-mail me from all over the world to thank me, and that gives me satisfaction. My favorite was the man in his 50's who e-mailed me to say that years ago, after learning the truth about Scientology from me, he left the cult, married, has 4 children (2 are twins) and now runs a computer company employing 40+ people. He wrote to tell me that he feels that I am responsible for his happiness.
That reminded me of why I did what I did, and why we journalists do what we do: we try to tell the truth so that we can help others.
Unfortunately, we sometimes pay a terrible price for it.