In honor of the release of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, The Master, VICE will be cherry-picking articles from our vault of the peculiar and grotesque that have to do with strange sects and cults. Keep checking VICE.com throughout the week as we roll out more of these oldies but creepies.
By now everyone knows the deal: A science-fiction author named L. Ron Hubbard wrote a self-help book. Lots of people started buying it. Then he bought a boat, took a lot of drugs on it, and wrote some more. One story was about an extraterrestrial deity who transported billions of his species to Teegeeack (Earth), made them stand around volcanoes, and dropped a bunch of A-bombs. They died. We came along. Then they haunted us. Forever. According to L, it’s those motherfucking Body Thetans making you feel anxious and fat and depressed and unworthy. Fifty years ago this was all top-secret stuff. So what caused Scientologists to go from arch mysterions suppressing every iota of information about their beliefs to becoming the laughingstock of the entire planet? A blond Jewish lady named Paulette Cooper. In the 70s she wrote The Scandal of Scientology and endured 15 years of court cases, death threats, and depraved harassment just to let everyone know what was up. Paulette has never agreed to an interview about her ordeal with the CoS, but for whatever reason when we asked her to chat about it she said, "OK.”
VICE: You were basically the first person to seriously investigate Scientology. Do you remember the first inkling that sparked your interest?
Paulette Cooper: When I was 12 I read a hilarious book by Martin Gardner called Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science that included information on Dianetics. I laughed when I read about it, and 15 years later, when I first heard about Scientology, I realized it was the same basic group. I was an advertising copywriter when the Church suddenly became popular in the 60s. A boyfriend working with me at BBDO advertising agency joined Scientology and told me he thought he might be Jesus Christ. Concerned, I told my boss, without realizing my boyfriend had also gotten him into Scientology. "Maybe he is Christ,” my boss said. I might add that both of them were Jewish, although, of course, so was Jesus.
How did the Church try to silence you?
There were death threats, but the worst thing they did to me was to criminally frame me after my book came out, a scheme they called Operation Freakout. Among other things, the Scientologists stole my stationery, wrote bomb threats on it, reported them to the FBI, and had me arrested. It almost worked, and I could have gone to jail for 15 years. Five years after the government dropped my charges, the FBI investigated Scientology for other crimes. They found memos Scientologists wrote about this and other unsuccessful attempts to put me in jail or mental institutions.
There were also other horrible things like putting my name and phone number up on walls throughout the city so that I’d get disgusting pornographic calls, canceling my airline flights, and sending anonymous letters to every one of the 400 tenants in my building that called me depraved names—that kind of stuff over the course of 15 years.
How did you stop yourself from pissing your pants with laughter when you started looking into beliefs concerning primeval clams and space coffins?
I went undercover for a weekend and thought it was bizarre, but then again so are almost all religious beliefs. What did trouble me was a notice I accidentally found when I was sniffing around. It declared some former Scientologists as "enemies of mankind.” I began to wonder exactly what this Church was all about and why certain former members were being targeted.
It seems that in the early days of Scientology there was a heavy focus on sensuality. You’ve written that auditors would include notes in their evaluations of potential female members about wanting to screw them. Was this a tactic to make the Church more appealing?
I don’t know what the situation is now, but they’ve always used very attractive women to lure people in. And unlike some chaste cults, such as the Moonies, I suspect there’s still a lot of sex going on within Scientology. Years ago one of my friends told me he joined Scientology so he could screw a lot of women—and he did. The funny thing is that he’s now a lawyer so he’s probably still screwing people. Did you ever meet or have any contact with L. Ron Hubbard?
No, but the Operation Freakout documents supposedly had his handwritten signature on them so he certainly knew who I was. You eventually became the human piñata for Scientology’s grievances against its critics. Was it worth it?
Before me, no one in the United States had mounted a serious and continuous attempt to expose and investigate Scientology. And mine was a very hard-hitting book. A few former members said some negative things but their credibility was suspect. Much of the public thought that if they were members of a cult there was something wrong with them to begin with and they couldn’t be believed. But as an outsider I seemingly had no ax to grind and no other goal than to tell the truth. The more I learned, the more I realized Scientology needed to be exposed and they were hurting people who needed to be helped. Did you ever come face to face with any of your harassers?
During a period of heavy harassment leading to mild depression, I briefly saw a psychiatrist. When Scientology later found out they broke into my doctor’s office and stole my files. The thief eventually left Scientology, apologized to me, and signed an affidavit to help me legally. Another time, I spoke at the annual Investigative Reporters & Editors Association convention about the difficulties of reporting on cults. Someone in the audience was extremely loud and disruptive throughout my speech and followed me around the hotel all weekend, harassing and frightening me. Later he left the Church and admitted to me that he had been the Scientology PR head. He said he was sorry for harassing me and disrupting my speech. I also knew that Scientologists were stealing my book out of libraries all over the US. After leaving the Church, the person assigned to do that in Michigan admitted he was under orders. We’re still good friends 30 years later. I’ve always been surprised that the people who did some of the really serious things against me, the ones who really hurt me and my life badly, have never come out and apologized to me. I’m still waiting if you’re out there. Your research was the first to establish the tenuous sort of link between Charles Manson and Scientology. What was that about?
I was the first to uncover that he had called himself a Scientologist when he was jailed and Scientology repeatedly sued me for it. Yet years later, when the FBI raided them and seized their records, they found information on his Scientology affiliation and the Church’s attempts to keep it quiet. How did they gain access to your diary and other personal affects?
They introduced me to a woman with whom I became friendly and then she introduced me to a man with whom I became [clears throat] very friendly and he moved in with me. I was set up with a secret Scientology spy as a boyfriend. At one point you submitted to an interrogation under the influence of Sodium Pentathol (truth serum) in an attempt to clear your name. Were there any serious revelations from that?
I was totally out of it although not unconscious. But I learned what happened afterward from the doctor, my lawyers, and my parents who were all present. They were all convinced when I said that I knew nothing about who sent the two bomb threats. I repeatedly named the Scientologists I knew were involved in the plot. The doctor also realized that I was harmless and knew nothing about bomb making. When he asked me what bombs were made of I said "glycerin,” which is a suppository. A real bomber would have known that the answer was nitroglycerin.
What was it like going up against the Church’s fabled lawyers?
Scientology has often hired very expensive lawyers, many of whom, in my opinion, have sold their souls to represent them—hardly surprising for that profession. In their litigation, which is itself often harassment, they try to be as unpleasant as possible. For example, their lawyers subjected me to 50 days of depositions and ordered me to answer over 20,000 interrogatory questions. They also tried to make the depositions as frightening and as uncomfortable as possible to get me to back off. During one deposition they had five male lawyers cross-examine me while videotaping the entire procedure. They were asking me questions like, "How long do your periods last?” That is rude. Are you still being harassed or otherwise contacted by the Church?
Rarely, and when they do it’s kid stuff so it doesn’t bother me. After what I went through for 15 years, anything is bearable. I do find it distressing that some of their tactics against others haven’t changed much throughout the years. Have you been keeping up those "Anonymous” guys from 4chan and their whole pissing match with Scientology?
Anonymous has done more in eight months to change the public’s perception and attitude about Scientology than I was able to accomplish in 15 years of fighting and exposing them. Most of these people have had no personal involvement with Scientology or ax to grind, yet they realize there are some pretty bad things going on. They have stuck their necks out and risked harassment and lawsuits to help get the truth out. I love them all even though I’ve never met any of them personally. Your last few books have focused on pet care. After your life-changing experiences with investigative journalism was it natural to seek out the other end of the spectrum? Which has been more satisfying?
Helping people who are hurting and getting the truth out was extraordinarily satisfying no matter what the price I paid for it was. But hey, cats don’t sue and dogs don’t harass so it’s a lot easier and calmer writing pet books. A few years ago I felt there was a need for interesting, informative, and humorous books for intelligent dog and cat nuts. So my husband and I wrote some advice books for dogs and cats, one of which won an award—one of six writing awards that I’ve won. But one thing I will never write about again is Scientology. Once is once more than enough.
Check out Paulette’s books, 277 Secrets Your Cat Wants You to Know and 277 Secrets Your Dog Wants You to Know. The Scandal of Scientology is available online for free. For more information check out her site.