Publisher’s note: This story contains depictions of abuse that may trigger some readers.
I was 21 and probably looked like just another young woman arriving in New York, waiting for someone to pick her up at LaGuardia Airport. My thick brown eyebrows had never been plucked, and preppy classmates in Ohio teased that I looked like a teenager who came from the mountains.
A month before winter break, I’d spotted a flyer on the college theater bulletin board from Paul, a talent scout and director of a children’s performing arts camp where acting, singing and dancing would be taught by industry professionals. He was seeking an unpaid intern.
I called Paul. He sounded older, caring and interested in who I was as a person. He asked what first brought me to the theater.
“I loved Annie as a kid. The plucky orphan was like me,” I responded.
I knew from writing and winning college scholarship essays that I had to trick out my trauma if I wanted the golden ticket like in Willy Wonka. So, I continued to confide: “I, too, didn’t know my dad. I grew up singing on the street when our food stamps ran out. From that moment on, I wanted to be an actor and singer.”
“I can introduce you to casting directors,” he said, dryly.
I squealed. I’d have a chance to be a working actor. A world of opportunity would be mine.
Paul detailed how as an intern I’d stuff envelopes and send out welcome packets to kids across the country to advertise his camp. After two weeks of this secretarial work at his suburban home, along with girls my age and younger, we’d travel a couple of hours to the camp, where I’d be a camp counselor for a week. In return, I’d receive free singing lessons and room and board. It sounded safe, educational, fun.
A brunette around my age approached me near the baggage check, and said, “I’m Natalie. Paul’s head intern. Let’s go.” (I’ve changed the names of all people mentioned in this piece, including my own, to protect our privacy and safety.)
I fiddled with the straps on my overalls and sprinted along with Natalie, out of the airport and to a car.
Years later when the FBI asked me if I remembered what kind of car she drove, I couldn’t.
“Paul can make or break your career,” Natalie said, turning on the heat in the car.
She looked at me like I was weird for asking.
“How old are you?” I asked, trying to make small talk.
“Twenty-three. I was a theater major like you. But I dropped out. I’ve been living with Paul for a few years. He’s good, if you’re good to him.” Her accent sounded working-class or from somewhere in the Northeast.
Once on the highway, she looked over at me, her dark eyes tense. “See the manual on the floor? Read it.”
I picked it up and flipped through 50 pages filled with very specific notes. “Always wear bright colors, never white or black, for on-camera auditions. Eat mostly vegetables, and maintain direct eye contact when meeting a talent agent.” There were lists of casting directors, pages of monologues and songs from Really Rosie and Runaways, and rules that read: “No makeup, no phone calls, no TV, no radio, no complaining, otherwise you’d be told to leave the group.”
The rules reminded me of my controlling, Christian-fundamentalist single mother, who wrote lists of chores like “comb hair, then sweep the floor, take out the garbage” on torn-out notebook paper and taped them to the uneven walls of our tenement. She also wrote notes in black Sharpie on the walls about locking the door and how to properly flush the toilet. “Hold the handle down firmly and count to five.” Yet she couldn’t keep it together enough to keep friends or stay with a job long enough to pay the rent.
In the distance, the snow blew across the city. I flashed back to being homeless with my family as a child, freezing on the sidewalks, scrounging for food and a place to sleep. I didn’t dare tell Natalie that this internship and becoming a successful actor was my way to never return to that place.
I also didn’t want to spend another long holiday with my mother, who watched televangelist Pat Robertson on TV and complained about her life. During my childhood I’d wanted to help her, but now I had to help myself.
When we arrived at Paul’s small house, Natalie honked. Paul opened the door. He appeared to be in his mid-40s, with hooded dark eyes and a full head of hair. He was also a foot taller than me. I was short and skinny. Without speaking, Paul’s eyes scanned my body from top to bottom, and then he gave me a half smile. It was creepy.
“Come to daddy,” he said and stretched out his arms to me.
I slowly walked toward him and leaned in for a hug. It was the polite thing to do. His hands as big as my face slid down my back and lingered a little too long.
I walked inside his house. The door spun behind us and he locked it.
“Do you have any listening devices?” he asked.
“I have a Walkman.”
“Hand it over.”
I did. I took a deep breath, trying to contain my unease. I tried to reason with myself that maybe he just wanted me to listen to show tunes on his radio.
We walked farther inside, past his diploma from an Ivy League school and photos of famous actors he had coached as kids. It was clear: I had entered the home of someone important. Someone who had knowledge, power and influence.
The cramped back room had one dirty window and a bunk bed. The room was cluttered with stacked boxes. If I had known the word hoarder back then, I would’ve called Paul that.
He introduced me to Mellie, age 18 from Michigan, who was tall and fair, and Sabrina, 15, who had brown eyes that squinted with mischief. Sabrina wore a white turtleneck with no bra. I’d never have the confidence to go braless; I was still a virgin.
“So, you’re the new girl?” Sabrina said.
My eyes darted back and forth to the different girls.
“Relax. You’ll be OK. I’ve been living with Paul for the past three months,” she said, slipping my backpack off my shoulders and placing it on the bed.
“Why don’t you live with your parents?” I asked Sabrina.
“She was in the Crips gang. She’s safe here,” Paul said, firmly.
“You’ll work and sleep in this room. I’ll hear audition songs later.” He lit a cigar and left the room.
I was freaked out to be sharing a room with a former gang member. I avoided eye contact.
Natalie gave me my first task as an intern.
“Fold, address, stamp and seal these.” She handed me a stack of form letters. “In four days, we’ll drop them at the mailbox a few blocks away. I’ll chaperone you. Until then, we’re not permitted to leave. Let’s get to work.”
The air dissolved around me. This was not what I expected. I felt a surge of fear and wondered: Was I trapped?
I decided to keep my eyes open and my mouth closed and got to work.
Hours later, Paul returned with cans of pea soup. At last. I was starving. After we ate, Paul said with a twinkle in his eye, “Time for your singing lesson!”
He and I walked into another dimly lit room that had a piano, a wooden desk and a chair. I don’t remember any windows. But I do remember the bed with a flannel sheet. He shut the door.
My shoulders went up as I breathed. I felt uncomfortable and intimidated. Paul came up behind me, pressed his body against mine, pushed his hand against my abdomen, and brushed downward.
“Breathe here, baby,” he instructed as if I were a child.
I wanted to scream. But I didn’t want to be blackballed from my budding career for being hysterical. On the other side of the door were the other girls. Would they think I was overreacting if I ran?
“Don’t touch me,” I said, wiggling away.
Paul chuckled like something funny had happened. “Calm down,” he said. “Exhale into my mouth.”
I don’t remember if I did, but I do remember trying to belt out “I Want It Now,” a song from Willy Wonka that he had picked out. My voice weaved in and out, louder and softer, cracking at times, but I was doing my best: “I want a feast; I want a bean feast. Cream buns and donuts, so good you could go nuts. I want it now!”
“You need lessons,” he said, silencing me with a hand swipe in the air. “And you’ll take six vitamins daily. I hand them out to everyone in the morning.”
“What are they?”
“Try trusting. You’ll be a better actor for it.”
He opened the door.
“Here’s a list of chores. Wash all the windows, clean the house, sweep.”
My shoulders slumped, feeling the shadow of my mother, constantly telling me to clean.
“Listen, kid, it’s good physical exercise. But I’ll take the garbage outside,” he continued, relighting his cigar. “No one leaves the house.”
Puffs of smoke swirled around me. I was dizzy.
“One more thing,” he continued. “When you take a shower, don’t pull the shade down.”
I waited until 11 p.m. to take a shower. I turned off all the lights, afraid that Paul or someone else might be watching from the window. I had never taken a shower in complete darkness. The hot water cascaded down. I felt like if I opened my mouth, I might drown in the darkness.
Later that night, there was just enough light from the full moon peeking in from the dirty windows to write a 20-page entry in my journal. I wrote about how, deep in my bones, I knew when I got out of the car and walked over to him, I should’ve left right away.
The next morning, Paul sat on my bed and gently woke me up by running his fingers through my hair.
“Time to start working,” he said.
Dazed and disoriented, I sat up and banged my head on the top bunk bed.
Sabrina leaped down and landed on the floor, pointing her finger at Natalie, who had a mattress on the floor. “You kept me up all night with your snoring. Again!”
I had to agree, Natalie was loud, and I was worried I would never get any sleep either.
“You’re crazy!” Natalie said, casting a ferocious glare at her.
Sabrina poked Natalie in the chest and yelled, “I’m going to beat you up!”
The two girls wrestled on the rug.
“Enough. Girls, stop. Take your pills,” Paul said, handing them out.
“Where’s Mellie?” I asked. “Doesn’t she need a vitamin?”
“She’s in the other bedroom, working,” Paul responded.
Later, I wrote in my journal: The walls are closing in on me as the hours slowly pass.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” I told Sabrina.
“Me too,” Sabrina said. “But Paul’s done a lot for me.”
“Don’t you feel like he’s controlling? And a little strange with all the rules and pills?
Natalie overheard us and said, “Remember the manual? It says there are consequences when you complain. You should be careful. He can hear you.”
Just then Paul walked in. The room was silent. His eyes narrowed. He walked over to Sabrina and forcefully grabbed her by the top of her head and pulled her to his chest. He reached down with his other hand and groped her thighs. This girl who seemed to be a spunky fighter, a former teen gang member, looked humiliated. He had a power over her. She tried to pull away. He didn’t let go. He slyly smiled and took pleasure in forcing her close and having us watch what he did to her. After a few tense moments, he released her.
“I miss my mom,” she whimpered. She was only 15, still a girl who wanted her mother.
“Call her,” he said. “You’ve got one minute.”
She quickly dialed. I couldn’t hear what she said, she spoke so softly into the phone.
Paul looked at his watch. After a minute he said, “Time’s up!” He grabbed the phone and slammed it onto the receiver. “Back to work!”
He left the room, taking Natalie by the arm with him.
“You OK?” I asked Sabrina.
“I don’t want any trouble.”
We continued in silence, sealing envelopes and writing addresses to kids across the country.
An hour or so later, Paul came back in, walked up to me and said, “You’re toxic for the group. Come with me.”
I didn’t have much choice. I wasn’t sure what he would do if I refused, or what would happen if I went with him. In my childhood, I had tried to confront my monsters — whether it was my volatile mother, who once threw a knife at me, or our creepy neighbor, who sat on our shared fire escape and sang to us through our window gates at night. It didn’t always work. But I had always faced my monsters.
I got up from the floor, trying to conceal how scared I felt. I followed him to the room with the piano — and the bed.
He turned and left me there alone, slamming the door shut. I assumed Natalie had told on me. I melted down, crying.
When Paul returned, hours later, he pulled a wooden chair into the middle of the space.
“Sit,” he said.
He dumped trash all around me.
“This is what you are. Garbage. Pick it up.”
I picked it up, too scared to do anything else.
He got close to my face, blowing cigar smoke into my eyes.
Something clicked. He was trying to break me, groom me. I decided to prove him wrong. I wasn’t garbage. I’d plot my escape and get out.
The next few days passed slowly. Every night, I wrote in my journal and cried myself to sleep.
On the day we were allowed to leave to mail the letters (I think it was day four), my hands shook. The letters were all meant to recruit more young people, but I had also written one to Ken, a family friend, telling him of my plight and begging for help. When we arrived at the mailbox, I slipped it in along with thousands of manila envelopes to be sent all over the country.
A couple of days later, a stranger came pounding on Paul’s door and said, “Open up! I want Robin. If you don’t, I’ll call the FBI.”
Paul looked at me like I had betrayed him. He slowly walked to the door and opened it.
“Take her. I don’t want her,” he said.
I ran out the door, not looking back.
The stranger said, “Ken, your friend, sent me.”
I hopped into his car.
Once we reached the East Side of Manhattan, I jumped out of the car and ran into Ken’s outstretched arms. Ken, a World War II vet, told me that the man he had sent was a member of an ex-military secret volunteer group who are ready to help when a friend is in need.
My college classmates returned from winter break bronzed and relaxed from sunny island vacations. I returned anxious, feeling like a fraud whenever they asked about my time as an unpaid intern for a famous talent scout.
Months later, my grades were bad. I thought I was bad. I dropped out of college and moved to New York. I wasn’t born a quitter. I wanted to be a working actress. Yet every time I auditioned for a musical, my heart raced, I forgot lyrics. Memories flooded back of being held captive, touched, traumatized.
I couldn’t pursue my dream. I became a waitress. After my shift, I returned to my apartment and sat in front of my full-length mirror and chain-smoked, trying to figure out who I was and what had happened. I withdrew from the world.
Like many survivors, I had years of emotional and psychological pain. I would grind my teeth at night, had severe night sweats, nightmares, insomnia, became a bulimic, and had anxiety meeting new people, especially on job interviews. I tried to move on.
At 30, I quit the biz and became a music teacher.
Last summer, out of curiosity, I found Paul on Twitter and Facebook. I was astonished to see that he was traveling across the country, speaking (free of charge), recruiting more young people at dance studios and selecting them to study acting at his home.
Paul was now using famous actresses’ photos on posters (who he had trained when they were kids) to lure naïve, troubled girls with dreams of stardom. I discovered a YouTube clip of four awkward young women with long hair and no makeup who lived with him. He called them his interns. They looked like sister wives and gushed about how he had taught them so many things. They said their parents had warned them not to go. It was eerie to watch.
I wondered what had happened to the 15-year-old I had left behind when I escaped.
Then I found a public Google Group where a young woman claimed Paul had molested her when she was 11. Another young woman claimed he had sexually assaulted her at age 16, at his summer camp — a year after I’d stayed at his house and sent out piles of letters promoting his workshop.
I felt ill. I might’ve recruited her and others for Paul.
I began an email thread with the survivors. We exchanged more than 100 emails describing how things had been when they lived with him. Their stories were the same. They talked about Paul spanking girls, showing them naked photos from magazines, and telling them to call him “daddy.” They talked about “living in fear of him,” how he “controlled every aspect of their lives,” how they “didn’t feel safe around him, and were afraid for their lives.”
They emailed stories of witnessing weeklong sleepovers with aspiring actresses (ages 10 to 16) from across the country. The children flew into a New York airport, were picked up by one of his interns, or the child was dropped off at his house. The parents weren’t allowed inside. The interns who lived with him said they liked when children visited because he stopped yelling and terrorizing them.
I read the police reports that a woman filed in 2005 and 2018. (Yes, it was one woman, and she filed a police report twice, in 2005 and 2018.)
The FBI got involved and took photos of my 20-page journal entry as evidence. They took notes as I relayed how we worked 14-hour days for free and slept in the same room, waiting for him to bring us food and granting us permission to go outside. The female agent said isolating me and throwing garbage around me was a sadistic punishment meant to wear me down, and that I had done the right thing by leaving.
What keeps me up at night is that he’s still out there, preying on children and young women. He still has workshops lined up all over the country.
After Paul threatened to sue the young woman who claimed he molested her, she disappeared from our email thread, and another woman said she was too scared to come forward.
Most of us were of legal age: 18, 19, 20, 21, but those are vulnerable ages for brainwashing, gaslighting and manipulation — much like the young girlfriends of R. Kelly, the underage masseuses and sexual victims of Jeffrey Epstein, and the boys who had sleepovers with Michael Jackson.
It wasn’t until I became a mentor for at-risk teens that I found my home. For a decade, these young women helped me find my own voice by writing essays and speaking at public readings. They taught me how to sharpen my pencil into a sword. They even showed me how to pluck my eyebrows.
I’m committed to supporting survivors who tell their stories. I won’t let this go. I know I’m putting myself and my reputation at risk by exposing him. After watching Christine Blasey Ford on TV when she alleged that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, I know my intentions will be questioned. I know that Paul might retaliate, like he has against other survivors, either physically or by threatening legal action. I’m using a pseudonym because I don’t want to be defined by Paul or have my name googled and find his with mine. I want my privacy. I want my life; I want the nightmares to stop. I want him to stop hurting others.
The FBI told me recently that they interviewed Paul and closed the case because of a lack of criminal evidence, but they encouraged me to keep in contact if anyone else with information comes forward. I can’t do it alone. We need voices of solidarity to write reports and shout the truth. We need an army, armed with facts and with stories. We need an army to stop this monster.
New York’s new Child Victims Act finally offers survivors justice. For a period of one year, starting in October 2019, victims who didn’t report within the statute of limitations can bring civil cases, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place. I hope more states pass similar laws. I want justice. Like the Willy Wonka song I sang to Paul so many years ago, “I Want It Now.”
To report predators or offer any information, dial 1-800-CALL-FBI.