Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
The “Church” of Scientology likes to compare what it sees as the unfair religious persecution it experiences under the German government for being an abusive commercial enterprise masquerading as a religion to the genocide Jews experienced during the Holocaust. Arguments that can be reduced to “our enemies are just like the Nazis!” are famously flimsy and hyperbolic, and as a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust I am personally offended by the Church’s disingenuous attempts to link the richly merited scrutiny they experience from a vigilant government looking out for its citizens to a historic tragedy where millions were cruelly executed for their religion.
But no one is more entitled to be nauseated by Scientologists continually playing the Holocaust card than journalist and author Paulette Cooper. When Cooper was a little girl in Europe, her Jewish parents were both killed in the Holocaust. From the time she was born, her life was defined by brutal persecution from a sinister organization.
As an adult, Cooper wrote one of the first and most important muckraking exposés about Scientology, 1971’s The Scandal Of Scientology. For her troubles, she was relentlessly persecuted by another sinister organization with no mercy: Scientology. Oh sure, there are plenty of comparisons that can be drawn between Nazis and Scientology, but they aren’t in service of L. Ron Hubbard’s long, long con. For example, the Nazis succeeded in destroying Cooper’s parents for what they believed, and the Scientologists tried their damnedest, but did not succeed, in trying to destroy Paulette Cooper for the uncomfortable truths she uncovered.
As a longtime Scientology obsessive (my editors here are encouraging me to subtly turn this into the “Silly Little Scientology Book Club” but I am resisting, for the time being), I’ve read an awful lot about Paulette Cooper. Her larger-than-life tale of being the victim of a Kafkaesque program of surveillance, persecution, and bullying appears again and again in stories of Scientology’s rise and fall, including Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear.
But before Tony Ortega’s The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, Cooper’s story had never been told in full. It is one of the most remarkable and unlikely narratives in the sprawling field of Scientology exposés. Ortega’s specialty is his ability to contextualize Cooper’s soap-opera life within the raging currents of history. Cooper embodied her times: She was a child of World War II and the Holocaust, an orphan of one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies who grew up to be the epitome of the chic New York career woman. Though her loving adoptive parents were conservative-minded American Jews, Cooper took advantage of the freedoms of the sexual revolution and led a Mad Men existence at advertising powerhouse BBDO, where her life consisted of an endless series of three-martini lunches and casual trysts with hard-drinking ad men eager to blow off steam.
It was through her work in advertising that Cooper first became fascinated by Scientology. While working at BBDO, an eccentric colleague told Cooper that he was the reincarnation of Jesus. In a possibly related development, this same gentleman informed her that he was really getting into Scientology. She found her associate’s assertion that he was Jesus to be perplexing even by the lenient standards of the time. So a curious Cooper asked another friend who had gotten into Scientology about her friend’s claim to be Jesus’ reincarnation and he replied, to her surprise, that, yeah, it was entirely possible that her friend was the reincarnation of Jesus.
Cooper wondered what could make such seemingly smart and savvy people like her colleagues believe in such far-fetched nonsense and began investigating the religion, first for a magazine article and then for The Scandal Of Scientology. When Cooper signed on to write her pioneering exposé of Scientology, she had no idea that she had unwittingly signed on for years upon years of psychological warfare with a wily, unrelenting adversary.
Scientology’s attacks on Cooper came in all forms and from all sides. They ranged from the banal to the utterly bizarre, even surreal. Scientologists would send Cooper’s neighbors smear sheets alleging that, among other transgressions, Cooper worked as a prostitute, sexually assaulted a 2-year-old baby, and could only attain sexual satisfaction by being whipped, something she learned at the hands of a rabbi-lover. Scientology agents would write Cooper’s name and number on bathroom walls, with an inducement to call her for a good time. Scientology sent Cooper vast volumes of pornography and filled her phone line with obscene calls.
Other Scientology schemes to ruin Cooper were more involved and Machiavellian. The Church would surround Cooper with people she thought were her friends and confidantes, but were really only interested in gleaning as much personal information about her as possible for use against her when the time came. These people included a roommate and some of her closest friends.
It didn’t stop there. Scientology didn’t just target Cooper herself. It also targeted her publisher and even her parents, who were sent particularly incriminating pages from the diary Cooper had started as a teenager in an attempt to create a rift between them.
How crazy-making must it be to never know whether people who enter your life are genuinely interested in you or are instead part of an espionage program so elaborate that it would impress the KGB? There was a sadistic logic to the way Scientology manipulated its enemies. It went out of its way to make people who had publicly criticized the Church seem crazy through an extensive process of gas-lighting, then was able to dismiss these legitimate criticisms as the delusional, paranoid ravings of crazy people.
Scientology’s campaign of bullying and harassment succeeded in pushing Cooper to the very brink of suicide. In its most successful attempt to undermine Cooper, it succeeded in getting the writer indicted for allegedly delivering bomb threats against Scientology. As was almost invariably the case with Scientology’s black ops operation, a lot of subterfuge was involved in the framing. Scientology was able to acquire Cooper’s fingerprint and some of her stationery, and used them to create the impression that Cooper had been driven so crazy by her conflict with Scientology that she snapped and threatened them.
The Unbreakable Miss Lovely poignantly conveys how much of Cooper’s agony came from knowing that a lot of people in her own life—including her friends, legal representation, and colleagues—suspected that Cooper really was guilty. Ortega doesn’t push the point too hard, but I got the sense that to be smart and strong and sexually assertive the way Cooper was in the late 1960s and 1970s was to be viewed with suspicion by society as a kook and quite possibly something more ominous.
Scientology’s persecution of Cooper comes to feel like a strange echo of the Watergate controversy riveting the nation at the same time. People who profess to be the victims of sinister, far-reaching conspiracies are often seen as crazy, but Cooper genuinely was the victim of a sinister, far-reaching conspiracy. Yet through hard work, determination, and a changing of the times, Cooper was able to get her story out and establish herself as a preeminent expert on Scientology’s dark side.
This put her into contact with similarly larger-than-life figures like L. Ron Hubbard Jr. (who later re-christened himself Ronald DeWolf), who worked with Cooper when he turned against the Church and wrote a scathing attack on the veracity of his father’s claims to be the most impressive person in the history of civilization. Yet, in the kind of twist that fills The Unbreakable Miss Lovely and makes it such a compulsively readable page-turner, Cooper discovers too late that, like far too many people in her life, Hubbard Jr. (or “Nibs” as he was known) was not what he appeared to be, and was probably a double agent working against Cooper on Scientology’s behalf.
Later in the book, Cooper is overjoyed to be offered full-time, lucrative work investigating Scientology for what is described only as a wealthy benefactor with a grudge against Scientology. Cooper discovers, however, that the “wealthy benefactor” in question is actually Scientology itself, which had been taping her conversations to use against her.
Cooper should have been destroyed by Scientology. But she proved astonishingly brave and bold. The book’s title proves appropriate both because Cooper is model gorgeous but also unbreakable, with a spirit strong enough to stand up to an entire organization out to destroy her and everything she stands for. In that respect, the book is oddly inspiring.
Much of Cooper’s unlikely triumph lies in her incredible resilience. A power-mad organization with incredible resources and no regard for morality tried to destroy a petite woman (Cooper is about 5 feet tall, and weighs less than a hundred pounds). Not only did they fail, but Cooper, the woman they drove to the brink of suicide with their unconscionable cruelty, lived long enough to see herself completely exonerated both legally and in the public imagination, and to see the ongoing and exceedingly public implosion of an enemy she spent so much of her adult life fighting, at such a tremendous, almost unfathomable personal and professional price.