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Jon Atack puts us on the spot at the Toronto Scientology conference

CFITorontoThis morning, Paulette Cooper and your proprietor will be on the hot seat at the Scientology conference in Toronto. Jon Atack has asked us to speak about Paulette’s legendary harassment by the Church of Scientology as a way to discuss the Guardian’s Office and the Office of Special Affairs — the spy wings of the only church that we know of that has a spy wing.

In advance of our talk, Atack sent us out a questionnaire. We did our best to provide some cogent answers. So here we go…

JON: You’ve grilled (broiled?) me many times over the last two years, so it must be my turn, by now. I was near the end of my first stint, back in 1995, when you first appeared on the scene, and I really did avoid anything to do with Scientology for 17 years thereafter, so I don’t really know how you got here. First please fill in your back story – where were you born and what you studied at college.

I grew up in the three garden spots of Southern California — the Los Angeles suburbs of Compton, Bellflower, and Anaheim. After high school, I received the highest award an incoming freshman could garner at Columbia University, the Jon Jay Scholarship. One benefit of that exclusive club was that I actually ended up, with my fellow award winners, having dinner with Rupert Murdoch. This was in 1981 in New York City, and I’m certain it made a huge impression on him. Anyway, I spent three semesters at Columbia before realizing I had no business trying to scrounge up what it cost to go to an Ivy League school even with a scholarship, then finished my English degree back home at Cal State Fullerton. By then I was having such a good time I stayed for a masters degree as well. Then I spent more time teaching and studying at UC Santa Cruz, which left me “all but dissertation” for a doctorate in literature. But then things changed, I moved, and I managed to beg my way into a job at a newspaper that was roaring at the time, the Phoenix New Times.

I’ve worked with perhaps 200 journalists over the years. It is rare to find a journalist with a cause. For many, it is just a job. What decided you on a career in journalism?

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know how you got paid to do so. The daily newspapers didn’t appeal to me, and so I probably spent more time than I needed to in the academic circuit. But then I ran into the New Times, and fell in love with their kind of hard-hitting, narrative journalism. It was obvious that the writers there were having the times of their lives.


What was your media experience, prior to your appointment at The Village Voice?

I wrote about a lot of different things at the Phoenix New Times, but it was my first cover story, in November 1995, that really helped me get a permanent staff writer job there. The story was about a man named Rick Ross, and it was my first story that involved Scientology. Over the next several years, the company that owned the New Times employed me as a writer or editor at their outlets in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Fort Lauderdale, and then finally The Village Voice in New York, where I was editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2012.

What stories are you most proud of, other than the Scientology ones?

I’m still very partial to the story that revealed what happened to Robert Burnham, Jr. He was a legend among people who use telescopes, and he’d vanished. I tracked down his sister, and then learned his full story, which shocked a lot of people. I’m also still fond of other stories I did about a comet discovery, a piece I did debunking the “Phoenix Lights,” a long look at a Wyatt Earp controversy, and a family story with connections to John Steinbeck. As an editor, I was very proud of Kelly Cramer’s piece on Bruce McMahan, and Graham Rayman’s series on the NYPD.

When did Scientology first cross your horizon?

I grew up in LA, and I was a voracious newspaper reader even as a child. So I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t at least somewhat aware of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I remember reading about Hubbard’s death in 1986, and of course I was riveted by the Los Angeles Times series by Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos in 1990. I still remember the billboards the church put up around town about it.

What was it that alarmed you about Scientology?

I could tell that the LA Times had really put its reputation on the line for that series, and yet nothing seemed to happen because of it. It told me something about Scientology’s ability to keep on doing what it was doing, even though it had been so thoroughly exposed, time after time. To me, that was fascinating and unsettling. I grew up with a strong belief in the power of the press to effect change, and here it seemed so ineffectual.

What was the first piece you wrote about Scientology?

In 1995 I stumbled onto the story of Rick Ross after reading a letter to the editor he wrote to the Arizona Republic complaining about its poor coverage of the lawsuit he’d just lost. Writing for a weekly paper, that was the kind of thing you looked for — a story too complex or messy for the daily to do it justice. And Rick’s story did turn out to be very complex and rich. It was a great first story for someone developing an interest in Scientology. Rick was a deprogrammer who had been sued by a young man from a Christian group who had actually been recruited by Scientology to be a plaintiff. Scientology then used the victory in that lawsuit to bankrupt the Cult Awareness Network and then take over its assets.

It can be hard to prove that the cult is responsible for harassment, but what do you suspect Scientologists have done in the attempt to silence you?

I tend to dodge that question for the most part, Jon. But then Alex Gibney asked me for Going Clear, and well, it’s Alex Gibney. So I did admit that Scientology’s chief dirty tricks private investigator, Dave Lubow, visited my mother a couple of times asking about me, part of a “noisy investigation” that has involved a lot of my former co-workers and family members. And I told Alex that the church maintained anonymous smear websites attacking me. It goes much further, but I’m not going to give them the satisfaction to see me talking about it.

I’ve been amazed by some of your revelations these last two years. I especially remember the piece about Miscavige’s 24-year surveillance of Pat Broeker. What are the most important stories that you’ve broken about the cult?

I was very fortunate that when those two spies — Paul Marrick and Greg Arnold — decided to talk publicly about their experiences for a little over 24 hours, I had them to myself for the most part of it. The Tampa Bay Times guys got the other portion, and actually got their story out first, but my story about Marrick and Arnold is still among my favorites. As for scoops, I broke the news that Leah Remini had left Scientology in July 2013, and then a month later that she’d reported Shelly Miscavige missing to the LAPD. You heard here first that Monique Rathbun was suing David Miscavige, that the Garcias were suing Scientology, and we provided live coverage when Laura DeCrescenzo defeated Scientology’s motion for summary judgment. Other stories we’re proud of is our investigative scoop on Bob Duggan and his weird family, a shocking story of mistreatment in Arkansas, and a stunning audio recording of a woman being declared “suppressive.” Hey, and don’t forget when we nailed down exactly how tall David Miscavige is. Oh, and with the help of our researchers, we had the first look at L. Ron Hubbard’s high school grades. It’s been one revelation after another.

What decided you to write about Paulette Cooper?

She and I had corresponded occasionally for years. But then some people who knew her reached out to me in 2011 to tell me she was angry about Tom Cruise getting a humanitarian award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. So I wrote that for the Voice, and than asked her about some of the basics of her harassment. It was after that story that I learned she didn’t really know how she’d survived the Holocaust. So we researched that together. And then I felt we had the mutual trust and material for a full book.

How difficult was it to unearth material about Scientology’s harassment of Paulette?

I called a lot of people. Some got back to me, some told me to take a hike. You work with what you can. I was fortunate that Paulette’s memories were still very fresh and always checked out against the documented record. But I really got a boost from University of Alberta professor Steve Kent, who found some really amazing documents in his collection that helped me enormously.

Was there any particular interview that stands out in your mind?

I was stunned when I got Christine Hansen on the phone. She was one of the first female agents in FBI history, and it was her hard work that cracked the Snow White case — a fact that she’d never been given credit for. I was so excited that she was actually answering my questions, I had to pause and ask her, how many times have reporters called you up to ask you about this stuff? Never, she told me. I just couldn’t believe it. It was also really meaningful to talk to people like Nan McLean, Len Zinberg, Jay Zelermyer, and Paulette’s cousin Joy Heller.

I was fascinated to find that some of those who performed various immoral and criminal acts against Paulette still feel justified. Did you find anyone who actually expressed contrition?

Really only Len Zinberg. One person I called up had been the “Cooper I/C” — the person literally in charge of the Paulette Cooper litigation — but even though he’d left Scientology years before, he angrily told me never to call him again. Another former GO operative wouldn’t talk to me until I vowed not to disagree with him that Paulette was a “bad person.” I told him I wasn’t going to disabuse him of that, all I wanted was his information.

How has it been touring the book, with Paulette?

She’s been amazing. I think she’s been champing at the bit to talk about her story after she had to keep quiet while we were working on it. So she’s making up for lost time, and I think she really deserves the accolades. It’s been such a pleasure traveling with her.

What motivates you to spend so much time maintaining the Underground Bunker?

The people who show up, morning after morning, ready to devour something they haven’t already heard about Scientology. Some of them have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the subject, so the pressure is very real. And so I make the calls and send the emails and do my best to find something new for that ravenous audience, day in and day out. Really, it’s the reason for being a daily journalist — having an audience that’s going to consume eagerly what you write and let you hear it if you’ve disappointed them. I don’t know, I thrive on that challenge.

How do you think Scientology is faring in the US and in the world?

Well, I’m a daily reader of Mike Rinder’s blog, so I’m pretty convinced Scientology is on the verge of collapse. But until it actually does, I’m still in the front row taking notes.

What is the future for Scientology?

Litigation. Maybe prosecution. Endless and protracted and painful court fights over property — intellectual and physical — and ultimately, oblivion. Think Enron, except the Gibney documentary has already been done.

Do you believe that the IRS will ever be able to admit its mistake and reverse Scientology’s tax exemption?

The people there now include people who had nothing to do with what happened in 1991-93. On the one hand, that means they have nothing to prove, and on the other they might not really care. I think the biggest problem with the IRS is inertia. Someone has to care enough to open up a fight that will then consume the rest of their career. Who will do that? Oregon Senator Ron Wyden? I don’t know.

Do you have plans to write another book about Scientology (perhaps a biography of Jon Atack…)?

No one would believe that story, Jon. I have some ideas, and I have research going in a number of directions. For now, I need to focus on Miss Lovely and giving it the best launch I can.


We didn’t get a chance to include photos in our book, so we’ve posted them at a dedicated page. Reader Sookie put together a complete index and we’re hosting it here on the website. Copies of the paperback version of ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ are on sale at Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available, and shipping instantly.

Our upcoming appearances (and check out the interactive map to our ongoing tour)…

June 23: Toronto (with Paulette Cooper) The “Getting Clear” conference

June 28: Clearwater, Florida (with Paulette Cooper) Clearwater Public Library, 2 pm, sponsored by Center for Inquiry-Tampa Bay and the Humanist Society of the Suncoast.

July 12: Washington DC, Center for Inquiry (with Paulette Cooper)

July 14: Hartford, MARK TWAIN HOUSE (with Tom Tomorrow)

July 17: Denver, The Secular Hub, 7 pm (with Chris Shelton)

July 20: Dallas, Times Ten Cellar, 7 pm (with Robert Wilonsky)

July 22: Houston, Fox and Hound, 11470 Westheimer Road, sponsored by Humanists of Houston

July 24: San Antonio

July 25: Austin

July 29: Paris (with Jonny Jacobsen)

August 4: London (with John Sweeney)

August 24: Boston, Boston Skeptics in the Pub, 7 pm

September 16: Arizona State University


Posted by Tony Ortega on June 23, 2015 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward

UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield


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