UPDATED with afternoon session: The oldest daughter of filmmaker Paul Haggis said Monday there is “circumstantial” evidence of a Church of Scientology plot against her father, who is facing a rape accusation in New York civil court, after he walked away from the religious organization and became a vocal Scientology critic.
But Alissa Haggis, who quit the church as a teenager and came out as gay years before her father left Scientology, testified on cross-examination that she doesn’t know of any such plot. “There’s no way I could know that directly,” she said, repeating a refrain of the Haggis defense.
A former high-ranking Scientology official, Mike Rinder, testified on Friday that “nobody would have any knowledge of that” because Scientology uses subterfuge so effectively to attack and undermine its critics.
Another ex-Scientologist and Haggis friend, Shawna Lee Brakefield, said she feared the lawsuit was the church retaliating against him. “Because the first thing I thought of was that the church was behind it,” Brakefield, a documentary filmmaker, said in a 2019 deposition played for jurors today, the ninth day of testimony.
“I don’t know for sure,” she added. “But yes the thought crossed my mind.”
When Haleigh Breest filed suit in 2017 against Haggis accusing him of rape four years earlier, Brakefield said she flashed back to an incident from 2009 or 2010 right after Haggis quit the church. Brakefield was still a Scientologist, and a Scientology official named Tom Davis called her to demand that she dig up any production and personnel files containing complaints about Haggis from her former job at the Screen Actor’s Guild.
“He was clearly after something negative,” Brakefield said. She declined, she said.
Brakefield left the church in the same time frame, saying, “It wasn’t working in my life the way I hoped it would.” It was unclear from the deposition if the demand for dirt on Haggis played a part.
Asked if she still feared Scientology, she paused for several seconds and in an emotional voice said, “Anybody who speaks out publicly about the church is just a target for being destroyed. I’ve seen it happen.”
There is no shortage of public criticism of Scientology. Rinder, the former church official, co-hosted with Leah Remini the Emmy-winning documentary series Scientology and the Aftermath, and the pair hosted a podcast, Fair Game, that ran through March detailing Scientology’s alleged misdeeds and methods. More episodes are promised.
Haggis himself spoke at length about Scientology’s inner workings in a 2015 HBO documentary exposé Going Clear, about his journey out of a church that prized his celebrity stature as the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, and tapped his wealth to help fill its coffers.
After he quit, he told New Yorker magazine in 2011 that he feared “within two years you’re going to read something about me in a scandal that looks like it has nothing to do with the church.”
With her father seated at the defense table and her two younger sisters looking on from the gallery, Alissa Haggis said Monday that before the lawsuit, she, her father and another ex-Scientologist were working on another exposé about the church for HBO. They code-named it “Arizona” and discussed it only on encrypted email, she said.
But in September 2017, the Haggises’ partner, Mark “Marty” Rathbun, suddenly turned on them and wrote a blog post vilifying her father. Suddenly, Haggis testified, strangers were going through her trash at her home in Los Angeles, and calling her and her friends to ask about her father — a repeat of the harassment she experienced after her father left the church.
A couple of months after the break with Rathbun, she testified, her father called to tell her that their encrypted emails with Rathbun had been handed over to Scientology. And when the rape allegation surfaced, she said she thought, “It has to be Marty.” Pressed by a lawyer for Breest, Ilann Maazel, she said the only evidence she had was “just circumstantial.” She also said HBO scrapped the project with her father.
Maazel, outside the courthouse, again ridiculed the defense as a distraction. “They want this to be a case about Scientology and it’s not,” he said. “This is not a Mike Rinder podcast.”
Haggis’ daughter, a screenwriter, screenplay editor and script researcher who has often worked with her father, testified that when they went to Rome in late 2012 to work on a film, Third Person, a chiropractor treating her father’s chronic back problems injured him severely enough that Haggis had to undergo surgery. Lawyers for Haggis have said they may also call a back injury expert to testify that Haggis could not have carried out the violent rape described by Breest. Haggis himself could testify as early as Wednesday.
Alissa Haggis — who said she has done script work worked for Disney, Steven Spielberg and the James Bond movies — said that work is scarce for them both since Breest filed the lawsuit. Haggis, from Los Angeles, is married with two children. “I don’t have much of a career now,” she said. “Hollywood won’t hire me because I have the last name Haggis.”
Jurors also heard from a woman, Kyra Ross, who said Haggis tried to kiss her in his apartment doorway after she had already told him multiple times that she wasn’t interested in him romantically because he was much older. “I pulled away,” said Ross, a psychotherapist in New York specializing in trauma cases. Haggis took the rejection with “calm, jovial, dry, sarcastic humor,” she said. They remain friends, she said, adding, “I’m drawn to him because of his position on social justice.”
Brakefield, in her deposition, said of Haggis, “He’s a stand-up guy” and “he’s sort of known for sticking up for the little guy.” She said he never made a pass at her, and they were alone together often, and he was always “cordial, friendly, professional, joking, normal, relaxed.”
She said the assault allegations leveled by Breest and four other women testifying in the lawsuit don’t resemble any behavior by Haggis that she saw first-hand or heard about from the many women in film and television they both know in common.
“No one has ever complained about Paul in any way,” she said.
PREVIOUSLY, 12:34 PM: A friend of filmmaker Paul Haggis said Monday that the one time he made a pass at her, she let him know she wasn’t interested and that was that: The two moved past the moment and became even closer friends — fellow Canadians who bonded over backgammon. Later in the day, the defense called on a professor of psychology and expert on memory, Deborah Davis, who also is a consultant for the lawyers representing Harvey Weinstein in his criminal rape cases in New York, where he was convicted, and in Los Angeles, where his trial is underway.
Both witnesses testified on day nine of the sexual assault civil trial for Haggis, the Oscar winner for Crash and Million Dollar Baby. The plaintiff, Haleigh Breest, has testified that Haggis raped her in his apartment in Soho in 2013 in an encounter Haggis says was consensual. Four other women, all Canadian, have also testified in the case that Haggis assaulted or tried to assault them sexually when they were alone with him.
Sarah McNally, founder of the boutique bookstore cafe chain McNally Jackson Books in New York City whose flagship store is in Soho, told a different story for the defense. She said the two met in 2015 or 2016, and that the pass happened after at his apartment as he poured them wine. “He moved to kiss me and I turned my head away,” McNally said.
“He kind of shrugged and went, ‘Okay,’” McNally said, pronouncing “okay” in a high-pitched voice. “And then he taught me backgammon,” she added. McNally, 47, said that of anyone whose advances she had ever rejected, Haggis had “the most easygoing, comical and friendly response.”
After the Breest lawsuit was filed, McNally said she was asked by Haggis’ ex-wife to write a statement on his behalf. A lawyer for Breest, Ilann Maazel, read from McNally’s email reply to the request from January 2018. It began, “I haven’t known Paul long nor do I know him well, but here’s a statement.”
The proposed statement went on to describe Haggis as “the menschiest of mensches, endlessly generous, kind, supportive, clever, and funny,” with “an instinctive devotion to making everyone around him feel happy and at ease.”
“In the absence of due process and in the presence of a vindictive church of scientology,” it concluded, “I find these accusations very difficult to believe.”
On cross-examination McNally said that she has spoken with Haggis about the allegations by Breest, but that she doesn’t know Breest or any of the other four women who testified against him. McNally said she knows other female friends of Haggis’.
“Would you agree with me that people are complex?” Maazel asked. McNally agreed they are. “Would you agree that people show different sides of themselves to people in different circumstances?” he asked. McNally said it depends on the circumstances.
Maazel then asked if, as a bookseller, she was familiar with “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the 19th century gothic novel about a respected doctor who uses a potion to turn himself at will into a monster and then back to his civilized self. A defense lawyer objected and the judge, Sabrina Kraus, agreed before Maazel could ask McNally any more about split personalities.
The defense then called Davis, who also is a colleague of Elizabeth Loftus, the expert on false memories who testified for Weinstein and for Ghislaine Maxwell, the latter who was convicted of procuring underage girls for her billionaire friend Jeffrey Epstein.
Davis today told jurors that people bend memories of events to fit their emotional needs and sometimes remember things that didn’t happen. “What’s left over time is the story we tell ourselves of what happened,” she said. Davis also contradicted claims made by a psychologist for Breest’s legal team, Lisa Rocchio, about memory and about myths that prejudice people against victims of rape.
Davis said it “so very, very not” the case, as Rocchio testified, that our memory of the “central details” of particular events is more accurate and durable than the “peripheral details.”
“Memory for central details can be very, very inaccurate,” said said, influenced by emotional states, alcohol consumption, external information such as news reports, and the input of other people. Lawyers for Haggis have argued that Breest was drinking, and might have taken an anti-anxiety pill, on the night of the movie-screening party in 2013 that she was working as a freelance publicist before she agreed to go home with Haggis, where they both drank more.
But research also shows that drinking doesn’t necessarily impair a person’s retention or recall of events, Davis said under questioning by a lawyer for Breest, Zoe Salzman. Davis protested that the research is incomplete because “there’s only so drunk you can get people in the laboratory.”
Salzman, on cross-examination, highlighted Davis’ connections to Weinstein and, over several objections, her professional ties to Loftus, who testified in the New York Weinstein case that she is “not an expert in brain regions.”
Davis didn’t dispute that she used to be a jury consultant who helped lawyers figure out how to pick and influence panels, and that she has mostly testified for defendants in civil rape cases. Salzman read aloud from a deposition that Loftus gave on behalf of Kevin Spacey, who won a jury verdict in New York earlier this month in a federal civil case brought by the actor Anthony Rapp accusing Spacey of rape.
Salzman also quoted back research from her colleague Loftus showing that “traumatic experiences are better remembered than everyday experiences.”
Finally, in a discussion of rape myths, Salzman read some of Davis’ own published writings back to her: a passage that showed juries tended to disbelieve the central claims of people who got peripheral details wrong; and that jurors will look for ways to acquit an accused rapist “if the victim can be painted as unlikeable … or unworthy of justice.”
“I said it was a review of the research,” Davis said curtly.