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.
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.
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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.