Co-autrice del best seller “Beyond Belief” firmato da Jenna Miscavige Hill, -celebre fuoriuscita da Scientology e nipote dell’attuale leader del movimento-, Lisa Pulitzer riceve mail e chiamate da tutto il mondo di ex affiliati fuggiti da sette distruttive e li aiuta a raccontare le loro drammatiche storie
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
Many writers have specialties: mystery, romance, true crime, even vampires. But Lisa Pulitzer has developed a curious subgenre that she has nearly all to herself: the escape story. Ms. Pulitzer helps young women who have fled religious sects or cultlike organizations give their accounts in compelling, often best-selling prose. “I’m now the official cult gal,” she said over a salad at a French bistro in Huntington, N.Y., where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
It started when HarperCollins asked her to help Elissa Wall tell her story of growing up in a fundamentalist, polygamous sect that forced her to marry her first cousin at 14. The result, “Stolen Innocence” (2008), made its debut at No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list, and there are now 400,000 books in print.
This year Ms. Pulitzer, a former newspaper reporter, is the co-author of two more books. “Beyond Belief,” about Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of the leader of Scientology, David Miscavige, is already climbing the best-seller lists, and “Banished,” about Lauren Drain’s years in the Westboro Baptist Church, is a memoir about a sect with a particularly venomous attitude toward homosexuals.
Ms. Pulitzer, 50, has earned her role because she can turn around a book in three months and because she uses her reporting skills to substantiate her subjects’ stories for publishers. Finally, she has a motherly presence that is comforting to women who are about to expose raw truths of a sordid past, allowing her to establish a level of trust with them quickly.
“I felt like she knew not to make me look bad,” Ms. Drain said in a phone interview. “I worried I’d look like a freak show, but she was able to be confident about people understanding my experience and that it would help other women leave different cults.”
Ms. Pulitzer said she had never been personally threatened by sect or cult members, although she was once cornered in her car by two trucks in Utah while researching “Stolen Innocence” and warned to leave the area. But she said her work convinced her that disturbing experiences in extreme sects were all too common. She fields calls and e-mails from defectors all over the world.
The week Ms. Hill’s book came out in February, Ms. Pulitzer said she heard from a man in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, whose parents abandoned him to a Christian cult whose members physically abused him for years, and from a woman who had eight children with an extremist Christian leader in Canada. Ms. Pulitzer says she feels compelled to answer everyone who reaches out to her, often offering comforting words and places where they might receive help. But as a businesswoman who receives a percentage of each book’s advance and royalties, she is very selective about her projects.
The bar is surprisingly high. The details of the organizations and the women’s paths away from them must be significantly different each time and preferably in recent headline news. Ms. Hill’s book, for example, sold only after the Katie Holmes-Tom Cruise split last summer put Scientology back into the news.
Ms. Pulitzer did not set out to make a specialty of such defections, of course. Her first subject was murder.
Fresh out of college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she worked as a contract reporter on Long Island, collecting and writing material for publications including The Times. It was a golden era of perverse suburban crime, and she spent a lot of time at the Nassau County courthouse.
After following Joel David Rifkin, a serial killer convicted of murdering nine women, she was a co-writer of a quick book about his trials titled “Crossing the Line” (1994). She left daily journalism in 1998 when she became pregnant, and began turning out books about sensational killers, including “A Woman Scorned: The Shocking Real-Life Case of Billionairess Killer Susan Cummings” (1999) and “Fatal Romance” (2001), about Jeremy Akers, a lawyer who committed suicide after killing his wife, a romance writer.
Then Ms. Pulitzer received a call from HarperCollins, asking if she would audition to write the book with Elissa Wall. Lisa Sharkey, a senior vice president at the publishing house, said: “Our team is really about getting books out on the zeitgeist. Lisa is one of our go-to people because she can get the job done, and done sensitively.”
On her own dime, Ms. Pulitzer flew to Salt Lake City, taking along toys for Ms. Wall’s children. Her age and her nurturing personality have been crucial to her success. When she works with the women, she usually spends two weeks with them to get their stories before heading home to write. She said she can tell when the discussions are becoming too painful, and she will back off and introduce humor.
To get subjects to open up, she often describes her own troubled upbringing. “I tell them it is not only cults,” she said, “and they can see by example that stories are sad, but also funny.”
Ms. Pulitzer grew up on the south shore of Long Island. Her father, Bert Pulitzer — of the family that established the journalism prize — was a men’s clothing designer frequently on the best-dressed list.
But when she was 10, her father left. She remembers hanging on to his leg in the driveway, begging him to stay. Her father remarried, and her family struggled financially, Ms. Pulitzer said. “The butcher down the block felt so sorry for us that he would give us free meat — it was that kind of life,” she remembered.
Her mother, Elaine, would sob in her room at night and occasionally even disappear, Ms. Pulitzer recalls, leaving her three children to fend for themselves.
When Ms. Pulitzer was 14, her mother married a man who was kind and successful. Although her mother would leave him less than a decade later for another man, Ms. Pulitzer bonded with the stepfather, and they remain close.
These experiences, she said, gave her insight into families with complex structure. “These girls are from polygamist families, and these are very difficult relationships,” Ms. Pulitzer said. “Elissa called three women mother. But I come from a blended family, so I understand complicated relations and loyalties.”
Still, working with escapees is not always easy. Some have been raped or abused in other ways. They are loaded with guilt about exposing family secrets, and they change their minds from day to day about what they are willing to share. Many also face personal crises — affairs, divorces, failed jobs — as they negotiate a world with wider boundaries.
At one point while working on “Beyond Belief,” Ms. Hill stopped taking Ms. Pulitzer’s calls because the questions about her mother became too much. Now, with that project behind her, Ms. Hill said the process worked for her.
“She was able to pull out feelings and prevent me from going in different tangents,” she said of her co-author.
Ms. Pulitzer said she could be patient with unpredictable behavior because she understood that the women had endured terrible things. And she knows that telling their stories is a balm for others.
“I get hundreds of letters from people wanting to get in touch and say thank you for their stories and for helping them leave their own situation,” she said.
Fonte: N.Y. New York Times