Exclusive: Ex-Harvey Weinstein Employee Breaks Silence on Her Memo That Helped Take Down Movie Mogul

StoryJanuary 29, 2019
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In her first television interview, we speak with a woman who helped topple Harvey Weinstein and expose his rampant sexual abuse but has remained largely behind the scenes until now. Lauren O’Connor was a literary scout at the Weinstein Company who worked closely with Weinstein. In 2015, she penned an internal memo about her boss that would later become famous. In it, she wrote, “I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.” This memo was later leaked and would eventually become the bedrock of the 2017 New York Times investigation that first exposed Weinstein’s decades of abuse. Lauren O’Connor tells her own story for the first time in “Untouchable,” a damning documentary about Weinstein’s abuse of power through the eyes of the women he targeted, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to the story of a woman who helped to topple Harvey Weinstein and expose his rampant sexual abuse but has remained largely behind the scenes until now. Her name is Lauren O’Connor. She was a literary scout at the Weinstein Company who worked closely with Harvey Weinstein. In 2015, she penned an internal memo about her boss that would later become famous. In it, she wrote, “I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10,” unquote. This memo was later leaked and would eventually become the bedrock of the 2017 New York Times investigation that first exposed Weinstein’s decades of abuse.

Lauren O’Connor tells her own story for the first time in the documentary Untouchable, the damning film about Weinstein’s abuse of power through the eyes of the women he targeted. It premiered at Sundance on Friday. I sat down with Lauren this weekend for her first television interview and asked her about what led her to write that memo.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: I wrote the memo after I had been at the company for about two years. I started at 26, you know, and I joined the Weinstein Company as a literary scout. Huge book nerd, so I basically get to find movies—or, books to make into movies and TV shows. And it was a dream job. It was a dream job. I like to work hard. I respond to rigor. And you get a phone call from a company that changed the way movies are made, and, you know, it’s a total dream. It’s a total dream.

I expected—when I started there, you know, I went in with my eyes wide open. I expected rigorous hours, late-night phone calls, to travel a lot. And I was really ready for it. In fact, I hoped to work closely with him, because, you know, you really would be taking a master class. You would learn things that are unteachable just through exposure. And surviving an environment like Weinstein, learning, being able to handle the intensity of that company, it equipped you with skills to walk into any room, any area of your field, for the rest of your life. What I didn’t expect was the abuse I’d be exposed to, the abuse that I’d see others have to withstand.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there a precipitating event that led you to sit down and write this memo?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yeah, so, there was one particular event in which things I maybe perceived were going on became undeniably clear. And I talk about it a bit in Untouchable, as well. I was on a trip with Harvey. I traveled a lot with him. Middle of the night, a young woman comes to my hotel room pounding on the door, and she is crying and shaking. And, you know, so I ask her to come in and ask her what’s wrong. And there’s hesitation before she tells me and starts explaining to me what’s now referred to as a massage incident had occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that means.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: You know, that she had been with him in his room and probably taking—my guess is, taking a meeting. And he had asked for a massage. She said no. He kept pushing the subject matter. And eventually, I think, she got scared, and so she just gave him a massage and got the hell out of there, because saying no is starting to escalate the scenario rather than neutralize it and get her to a point of safety.

But she came in the room, and she was, I mean, really distraught. And when something like that happens, when you are a secondhand witness to something, you really can’t forget that. You can’t unsee that. And you’re presented with a really clear choice that at the end of the day doesn’t feel like a choice at all: You know, are you going to do something about it or not? And really, that isn’t a choice to make. And so the question becomes: How do you do something about it?

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what you did.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: It took me some time to figure out what—you know, how to—how to speak up. How to speak up. But, you know, eventually I filed a pretty extensive complaint detailing that allegation and other instances, with HR, which has since been referred to as “the memo.” You know, and I think, in that, I really—you know, look, when I filed the memo, I knew there was a—

AMY GOODMAN: This is—you filed it with human relations at the Weinstein Company.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yes, yes. And I think, you know, when I filed the memo, I knew it was at great risk to my career and my professional track, potentially risk—you know, potentially a risk to myself as an individual. But I think, on some level—and I don’t know still if it was naive or not—but I really hoped that if something was in writing, then when HR read it, they wouldn’t be able to unknow that, in the same way that when a young woman told me what happened to her, I couldn’t unhear it. And I really—I really thought there was a chance that the system would be driven by humanity in an instance like that, you know, that there would be some repercussion, that some sort of change would be made.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we haven’t seen the whole memo. The New York Times had it leaked to them. But one of the things you say, that they quote, is suspecting that you and other female Weinstein employees were being used to facilitate liaisons, quote, “with vulnerable women who hope he will get them work.” Explain what you meant.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: The best way I can explain the dynamic at that company and the way female employees were utilized, there’s one example that really readily comes to mind regarding a flight attendant. And I think it really exemplifies how difficult it was for the left hand to know what the right hand was doing at every step of the way and how cleverly he wielded internal systems to that end.

You know, as I said, I traveled with Harvey a lot, and I remember we were getting off a flight. It was a private flight. We get down to the bottom. You know, we’ve boarded off the plane. And he sends me back up on the plane alone to get the phone number of the young flight attendant, under the auspices that she had done a great job on the plane and he wanted to employ her again. Fair enough, right? Your boss is asking you to help you hire someone. So I, you know, go back up on the plane. And it’s funny, because I remember earlier in the flight they had been talking. I remember her age. She was 21. For whatever reason, I clocked that she didn’t have a wedding band on. Like, on some level, I was picking up on something. But what are you going to say to your boss, who has given you a perfectly reasonable ask? “This person did a good job. I’d like to hire them.” So, take the phone number. Hope that your—you know, your spidey sense is way off, you know, and that it’s your compass that’s askew.

And then, this is where sort of the systems of workflow come into play in a way that completely confuses the intention. You know, so the rhythm was this. We would—I took the number down, sent it to the New York office to be filed in contacts. Then that’s passed to another person’s hand to be put in the file, you know, in the database. Then, later—and I didn’t piece this out until two days later on the trip this is how this happened—the assistant who was on the trip with him, but did not hear me or see him tell me to go get her phone number, is then told separately by him, “Please get the phone number of the woman—you know, find the phone number of the woman who—you know, the woman I met earlier today. I’m meeting her for a drink.” So then that phone call goes in separately to the office into one of four people who don’t have context.

So by the time a reach-out is made to the flight attendant to set up a cocktail meeting, no one knows that she’s a flight attendant. No one—there’s no context for how or why he met her. There is no understanding of the purpose. And he could give that person any reason and present it professionally or within understandable personal means. And, I mean, quite literally, it was a game of telephone. There were a lot of people, myself included—I look back sometimes, I’m like, “What meeting was I setting up?” I had no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: So you send this letter to HR. Did you send it to your boss?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: No.

AMY GOODMAN: You sent it to HR. Did someone get in touch with you right away?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yes, HR got in touch with me. And, you know, it’s interesting, as to this day I still do not know if any change was made inside the company. I do not know if there was any effect on the way—on the work and the task given to the female employees and male employees. I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he was told, Harvey Weinstein was told?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: I don’t know. I don’t know. I have no idea what happened next.

AMY GOODMAN: Among the things you wrote was “There is a toxic environment for women at this company.” Can you talk about his interactions with you?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: You know, it’s funny. Harvey and I actually had a really strong working dialogue. You know, we had really productive meetings together. We were able to work long hours. So, it was really quite a paradoxical thing where I was learning a lot and I was excelling in my role at the company. But, you know, look, Harvey is a notoriously passionate person, to put it lightly. There’s a lot of vulgarity, a lot of yelling. You know, so it was a mixed bag.

You know, one thing that I remember looking—when I look back, I remember, and I can’t tell you why or when this shifted. But at some point very early on in my time there, I did stop wearing makeup, stopped doing my hair, stopped wearing form-fitting clothing, mostly wore black. And like, I look back, and I like actually remember, you know, this period of time in which my friends would like joke about how my entire affect changed. I have no idea why I stopped, why I started hiding my figure and myself. I have no idea. But I think, on some level, there was some sort of protective instinct kicking in.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren O’Connor, a former literary scout who worked closely with Harvey Weinstein. Her leaked memo helped topple him. We’ll be back with her after break.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Never Is a Promise,” Fiona Apple. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We continue with Lauren O’Connor. The former employee at the Weinstein Company wrote a damning internal memo in 2015 exposing Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct. Let’s return to the interview.

AMY GOODMAN: So, on October 5th, The New York Times comes out with their piece, October 5th, 2017. I assume your life was very different after that day than it was before. What happened for you?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yeah, it’s—it’s interesting, I think, because sitting where we sit today—right?—there seemed to be two paths, two paths when it comes to standing up to abuse, standing up to power, right? One is localized and a little more private. You know, in my case, I went to HR. You go to the systems, the small powers that be that—not small, but the localized powers that be, that you think will be able to effect immediate change. You know, as we’ve already discussed, you’re often left wondering if any change occurs. You’re also often silenced. The other path is, you know, it’s public. And whether you move forward on a private path or a public path, it’s a devil’s trade. And I think when you’re positioned publicly, it’s very difficult to conceive just—to conceive of just how high the cost of courage is and just how literal the tax on integrity is. You know, thinking about my own experience, at the time that the—you know, when The New York Times, that first exposé published, featured my name, my memo, I was still handcuffed by a very strict NDA. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Nondisclosure agreement.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yes, yeah, nondisclosure agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Which said? I guess it’s a nondisclosure agreement.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yeah, I had a nondisclosure agreement, which restricted me from talking about any of my experiences or my memo or acknowledging it. And, you know, so, I remember in the lead-up to The New York Times article publishing that featured my name and my memo, sitting for an hour and a half in a Walgreens parking lot with a burner phone, crying because I couldn’t figure out how to call mom and dad back on the East Coast—I was living in L.A. at the time—and tell them that their daughter was going to end up—was likely going to end up in a newspaper, in a major article about sexual assault, sexual harassment, tied to a very powerful man. I couldn’t—I mean, because I was too scared to say anything.

You know, there was just such a clear demarcation point of life before and life after. I mean, one of the most trivial examples, and yet something really lasting—it’s a silly one. Like, grilled cheese is my favorite food. And when the article published, I was at work. I was downstairs getting a grilled cheese sandwich in the little cafe. The timing took me by—I had no idea the article was publishing that day. I had no idea when it was publishing. And, you know, so I’m standing there waiting for my food, and I black out, and it was the smell of the grilled cheese that actually brought me back to my senses. And I can’t eat grilled cheese anymore. And it’s such a silly thing, but that’s it. It’s things that trivial change.

And then, on a larger level, there are really—there are practical impacts. You know, when we talk about cost and tax, those are real things. You know, people often ask me, “Did Harvey retaliate?” And, you know, I’ve read in the papers that there’s someone following me since 2016. Who knows? I read in another newspaper that—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to say what you’re referring to, at least according to Untouchable, this documentary about Weinstein, and pieces written in The New Yorker and in The New York Times, this Israeli company, Black Cube, that Harvey Weinstein employed, that used former Israeli Mossad agents to investigate people like Rosanna Arquette and others—

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Mm-hmm, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —you well could have been on that list.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yeah, there was a Guardian report that suggested I was. But what’s funny is, when we talk about retaliation, even with all that in the mix, Harvey has not come after me financially, he has not come after me legally, and yet I still have hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills that I cannot pay—

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: —from the last year and a half. You know, there are a lot of legal situations surrounding this, that—

AMY GOODMAN: You mean because of the many women who have come forward?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yes, yes, that have required participation or support, you know, legal support on my end. And then there’s also—there’s therapy. You know, I think when you go through trauma, therapy is crucial both in weathering it and in recovering from it. Those bills are expensive. I mean, where I sit today, I’ve blown through my entire savings in a year and a half. I am in debt. I haven’t really figured out past next month how I am going to pay for therapy. And I’m employed full time. I have a good job, you know? And it’s—there is a real, literal cost to all of this.

And then there’s a very personal cost, you know? There’s a personal cost. When you’re positioned publicly, whether you choose to go public or are made public, and regardless of whether you do or don’t have power or platform, you are thereafter defined by a single instant. You are called a victim or a survivor. You are called a whistleblower or complicit. You have to then operate through the rest of your life, every time you walk into a room, you—whether it’s a business meeting, a first date or making a new friend, you have to assume that that one moment of time in your life precedes you, that someone has already decided who you are. And it’s ironic. We’re in a moment right now that is about—you know, it’s about consent. It’s about ownership of voice. It’s in direct protest to objectification. And yet, when you are made into a public figure, you risk being objectified all over again by a label. We forget how to see the human behind the headlines. And that’s a tricky thing.

AMY GOODMAN: So let me ask you. An organization like Time’s Up, that just grew up in response to the whole Me Too movement, that has raised tens of millions of dollars, particularly for situations like yours, are you reaching out to them? Are they reaching out to you?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: I’ve been in touch with Time’s Up. And I think that their mission is hugely admirable. I’m really grateful they exist. I wish they had back in 2015, when I was, you know, filing a harassment suit—or, filing a harassment complaint, I should say. But, you know, their focus, from my understanding right now, is singularly on active harassment cases, which, of course, is not the situation I’m in.

AMY GOODMAN: Whether it’s sexual assault and harassment or dealing with it by seeing other people, like the woman who came to your room, or what you experienced yourself. In Untouchable, the film about Harvey Weinstein, you describe your experience when you got something wrong, how Harvey responded. What happened there?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yeah, you know, so there was this one time—and I talk about it in Untouchable—where I made a mistake. And we had been working up in his hotel room, which was actually quite common. And, you know, I was getting up to leave the room. It was the end of the evening. And he was very angry. Still can’t remember the mistake I made. Will never be able to forget what he said to me. You know, and he was yelling at me—this big man—maybe a couple inches away from my face. My back’s up against the wall. The door is to my right. The rest of the room is to my left, and I can’t really get past him. And he says to me—and it’s funny, it was almost a compliment thrown in there. He says to me, “You’re smart enough to be me one day. But if you don’t want to be me—if you don’t want to be me, maybe you should just go marry some fat rich Jewish [bleep], because maybe all you’re good for is making babies.” And you’re sitting there, and you’re like, “OK, I need to get out of here.”

AMY GOODMAN: So you got out of there.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Yeah, and it’s—you know, I don’t believe that’s true about me. But it’s—you can’t forget that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, 2017, the article comes out, and your memo is joined with, well, the awareness that came out in both these pieces and subsequent reporting, and then women coming forward themselves, whether we’re talking about Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow or Rosanna Arquette, or Rose McGowan talking about being raped right here at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997—one story after another. How did this affect you? And were you shocked by it?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: I am so grateful for all those women who came forward—really, bottom of my heart—and the ones who continue to do. You know, when the article my memo is featured in published, it was the very first story on any of this. If you’re a powerful media figure, you can bury one story. You can’t bury hundreds of stories. So, you know, the solidarity provided by each woman that came forward actually protected me, too, and I am so grateful for that. And I think one of the most beautiful things we’ve seen happen over the last year and a half is that, you know, “rape” is often a word associated with shame, and in the place of shame we have seen the word “rape” come out of the closet. In the place of shame, there is solidarity. And that’s not something I could have conceived of, and I think it’s brilliant. And what I’d love to see next is, you know, policy really rise to meet social change and grow in support of it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that quote from your memo. “I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career.” Well, you can take it from there.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: “The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that balance of power and what that means.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: Power operates on multiple levels. It operates in professional hierarchy. Right? You have juniors and seniors and presidents and CEOs and COOs. Power operates across the media. Do you have platform? Do you have voice? Do you not have platform? Do you not have voice? Power operates across finances. Do you have money? Do you not have money? And it operates across gender. So when we talk about, you know, Harvey Weinstein being stacked at 10 and me stacked at zero, those are the measurements.

AMY GOODMAN: When he was charged last year, from May through July, one crime after another, for which he will go to trial, apparently, in something like May, pretrial hearings in March, charged with rape, charged with predatory sexual assault, charged with sex crimes, faces more than life in prison, your thoughts?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: I am really grateful to see due process at play here. But I also don’t think that one man losing his job or going to trial means that the world has changed. And I think what people—we’re seeing men and women alike—stand up for here over the past year and a half and through Me Too is for a system to change, and a system to change in that it protects the abused and not the abuser, and a system that resets the balance of power.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you suing Harvey Weinstein?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: No.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren, you saw the film Untouchable for the first time this past week. I’m wondering your response to the film, and particularly to Zelda Perkins, who, like you, worked for Harvey Weinstein and was spurred into action when another young woman was abused by him, and she resigned over that.

LAUREN O’CONNOR: I mean, first of all, to Zelda, thank you. I think it’s—you know, it’s hard for me to articulate how isolating my own experience has been, both when I worked there after filing the memo and being silenced and still then being restricted by an NDA, while volume erupted over the last year around Harvey. So, when I learned about Zelda’s story, it was actually deeply reassuring. It was deeply reassuring. And, you know, I don’t know Zelda, and I feel kindred with her.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you make the decision to come forward in the film Untouchable, to actually be filmed? I mean, the Times had printed your name and excerpts of this leaked memo, that you didn’t leak. What made you decide to come forward?

LAUREN O’CONNOR: You know, we’re in a moment and a movement that’s about ownership of voice, ultimately, and I think it’s an important part of healing. I think it’s a really important part of healing to use your voice. And it was time for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren O’Connor, a former literary scout at the Weinstein Company, she’s featured in the new documentary Untouchable about the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is rumored to be here in Park City now. The film premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. This marked Lauren O’Connor’s first time speaking on television. Her 2015 internal memo helped expose Weinstein’s misconduct.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is accepting applications for a full-time, 1-year paid news fellowship. Details at democracynow.org.

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