Lauren O’Connor: Surviving Years of #MeToo Turmoil and Healing Through Horses

Photo: Catie Kovelman

BY Catie Kovelman

On a bright Sunday morning, Lauren O’Connor grins as she approaches her first jump of the day. She and her horse, Vega, meet a small cavaletti on an odd angle. Good-humored by nature, Vega happily jumps the fence without an ounce of hesitation. O’Connor pulls Vega to a stop, laughing and asking her trainer what she did wrong. She nails the jump on her next attempt. It’s a positive scene filled with joy and purpose—one that O’Connor wasn’t sure she’d ever find again.

Several years prior, a single memo blew up her entire life.

A young entertainment executive, O’Connor sent a carefully written internal memo to her Human Resources department in 2015. She had hoped to enact positive change within her company, but she never could have predicted how her words would be shared publicly. That email would catapult her life into turmoil, also 
toppling long-held systems of abuse within Hollywood and change the world for working women forever.

O’Connor was a literary scout at the now-tarnished Weinstein Company back when Harvey Weinstein was still a powerful force to be both adored and feared in Hollywood. The memo she sent to HR chronicled two years of abuse she had endured and witnessed as a young executive working closely alongside Weinstein.

This was the memo that was leaked by The New York Times in 2017. It became a key piece of evidence as part of their investigation that first exposed Weinstein’s decades of abuse, and it ultimately became a catalyst for the #MeToo movement. But in freeing millions of women to save themselves from abuse, O’Connor derailed her own life for years—not finding herself again until five years later when she rediscovered horseback riding.

Photo: Catie Kovelman

A Dream Job Turned Nightmare

When a 26-year-old O’Connor started her dream job as a literary scout at the highly prestigious Weinstein company in early 2014, O’Connor thought this would be her big break in Hollywood. Knowing that Weinstein had the power to make or break her career, O’Connor was determined to prove herself and learn everything she possibly could. “Before #MeToo, Harvey was thanked more than God at the Oscars. Working for Weinstein was like a badge of honor that could really set your career up for success,” she says.

Over the course of her two-year stint with the company, O’Connor worked closely with Weinstein, collaborating on projects and sourcing books to transform into movies and TV shows. “I worked really, really closely with Harvey. I traveled with him a lot, worked on projects with him a lot, so I just had a lot of access,” says O’Connor.

But working with Weinstein wasn’t easy. Weinstein bashed O’Connor, along with his other employees, with his fiery temper and verbal abuse. When his rage passed, he would lift them up with compliments.

“He was very explosive. Looking back, it was a classic abuse pattern of really vile verbal degradation and then later apologizing and complimenting,” she says. “He had this really profound ability to recognize both weak spots and talent, and he had this ability to both cultivate talent while also putting the employee in such a place of fear that you didn’t know which way was up.”

While her time with Weinstein wasn’t always smooth sailing, it was common knowledge (and largely still is) that Hollywood-hopefuls needed a thick skin if they wanted to succeed. In fact, O’Connor had heard of Weinstein’s abusive tendencies prior to working for him, but didn’t think too much of it. She was young, hungry, and ready to take on the challenge and further her career.

“Everyone knew [Weinstein] was abusive, but working there was still this badge of honor. When abuse inadvertently gets sanctioned, it becomes normalized and it’s hard to see it for what it is, which is wrong,” she says. “There’s also this concept of a hard work environment and that someone should be unflappable and manage a variety of personalities. All of that type of language in society feeds into the acceptance and normalization of abusive workplaces. And I don’t think people knew how extreme the abuse was.”

But even for employees who wanted to break free from the abuse, fear of how Weinstein might retaliate if they stood up to him or resigned from the company kept them complacent.

“If you left, it was really likely [Wein-stein] would destroy your career. It was a very real thing that happened. People had kids and mortgages, so your livelihood is at risk if you leave; like your ability to pay rent and feed yourself,” adds O’Connor.

The Breaking Point

Photo: Catie Kovelman

It wasn’t until near the end of her tenure at The Weinstein Company that O’Connor started to feel that something was wrong in her gut, particularly in the way that Weinstein interacted with other women.

“There would be these moments that would stand out as just not feeling right, whether it was a woman coming out of a meeting looking more upset than when she went in, or getting someone’s phone number who just turned 20. Your Spidey sense kind of goes off, but those were 30 seconds to minutes of a 17-hour day,” she says. Besides, the more normal assumption among O’Connor’s colleagues was that any relationships Weinstein was engaging in were consensual. Specifically, “the assumption that was widely held was that he was having affairs. It’s not a natural conclusion to think your boss is sexually assaulting people behind closed doors,” says O’Connor.

Even so, she struggled with suspicions that something was very wrong at The Weinstein Company. She just didn’t have any proof to take her concerns to HR. “How do you report that something feels off? For a long time, those moments really weighed on me but I didn’t quite know how to place what I suspected could be happening on a gut instinct level,” says O’Connor.

It wasn’t until 2015 when O’Connor’s suspicions were confirmed. She was on a business trip in Los Angeles with Weinstein when a woman who worked for Weinstein at the time came to O’Connor’s hotel room in the middle of the night. The woman was in tears after being sexually assaulted by Weinstein. “She was crying and could barely get a word out. I knew at that moment that this was the confirmation of everything that had been raising flags for me,” says O’Connor.

The young executive knew she couldn’t stay silent anymore. Now, it wasn’t a question of if she would say something, but how. In an effort to protect this woman, who still has not been identified to this day (something O’Connor is very proud of), she needed to wait for the right moment to act. “It wasn’t my goal to put a target on this woman’s back and it’s not my prerogative to tell someone else’s story. But something needed to be done,” says O’Connor.

She spent the next few weeks determining how to make her move. Eventually, Weinstein told O’Connor that she would “look like a babe without my glasses on” during a meeting, finally giving O’Connor tangible evidence she could use to report him to HR. She initially sent a report only about the one comment, but noted that it wasn’t the first time something like this had occurred. Of course, HR followed up to ask what else had happened. “So, I sat down to write. Before I knew it, I had ten pages of really specific examples, times, dates, of all those things that didn’t feel right,” says O’Connor.

Her hope was that even if she lost her job, (she did), putting something in writing would force the company to do something about Weinstein’s behavior.

“My hope, however naively, was that by putting something on the page, the person reading it would not be able to unsee it in the same way I couldn’t unsee all the things I had heard about and witnessed,” says O’Connor. She also hoped she would be creating a written record to support the woman from the hotel room if she ever chose to come forward with her story.

The Aftermath: Forced Into the Spotlight

As expected, O’Connor was booted from the company and forced to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement. Within hours of sending her memo, O’Connor’s attorney was on the phone with legal representation from the Weinstein Company, negotiating her exit in a way that would salvage her reputation and career. “I negotiated to keep my company email until the end of the year so I could at least manage business relations, because the assumption if I abruptly left and couldn’t talk about it would be that I was fired—and it would be impossible to find another job,” she says.

O’Connor then set out to start her life over in Los Angeles, trying to lay low to avoid any potential retaliation from Weinstein. She found a new dream job at Amazon Studios, where she still works today as the Head of IP Acquisitions. All the while, she had a voice in the back of her mind that one day her memo would follow her—and she couldn’t even speak to a therapist because of the NDA she had signed.

“I lived with this profound paranoia that at some point this was going to follow me. It was really hard to have experienced all this and not even legally be able to talk to a therapist about it.”

But while O’Connor wasn’t surprised to lose her job over this memo, she never expected it to be shared with the masses.

“I knew there was always a risk putting something in writing. I just didn’t think the company would ever let it out because it was a risk to them too,” says O’Connor.

Flash forward to 2017, and O’Connor’s memo had finally caught up to her. She received a call from The New York Times that they would be publishing her memo as part of their first piece exposing Harvey Weinstein’s abuse. The paper refused to withhold her identity because she was classified as “neither a source nor a victim.” There was nothing she or her lawyer could do to to protect her identity. Says O’Connor: “Whoever I was before that day died.”

Less than a week after she heard about the article, it was published on the front page of The New York Times. As the #MeToo movement gained traction, spurred on by her own words, O’Connor’s world fell apart. While women throughout the country gained the courage to speak up about the injustices that had happened to them, O’Connor was silenced, “handcuffed by the NDA,” as she says.

“There is a trauma and irony in a movement and a moment that is about having ownership of voice, to then have a paper take your words, take your name, and rob you of your voice all over again. 
I was silenced first by the NDA and then I had my words and privacy stripped from me in print,” she says.

Thrust into the spotlight against her will and made a public figure overnight, O’Connor was hounded by reporters. Their calls kept her phone ringing at work and at home, with new email inquiries popping into her inbox all the time. Both out of fear and because of the strict NDA, O’Connor ignored their persistent requests. But her lack of response didn’t stop the reporters from continuously hounding her with daily telephone calls and emails. The media simply looked for other avenues to try to reach O’Connor, such as by calling her parents several times a day.

Eventually, O’Connor’s email was hacked. In an effort to protect what remained of her privacy, she had to delete all of her social media accounts. Later, she resorted to using burner phones to keep in touch with her friends and loved ones. “The assault on privacy doesn’t get discussed much, but it is one of the most painful things I have ever experienced,” says O’Connor.

At the same time, the young executive was also thrust into legal battles and government investigations against Weinstein, with the legal bills quickly landing her in debt. At one point, she had nine different attorneys on her team. Although she tried to find lawyers who could help her pro-bono (she eventually did), she still estimates she spent over $250,000 in legal fees and therapy bills.

With those growing legal and therapy expenses, O’Connor was forced to move out of her home to somewhere less expensive. She also had a suspicion that she was being followed, which contributed to the need for a new address. News outlets confirmed she was being spied upon by Weinstein.

The stress took its own toll on O’Connor, who felt like she lost herself in the chaos. Even the cost of the therapy that was supposed to help her cope caused angst. Already naturally thin, O’Connor lost 30 pounds in the course of the first year or two as constant stress and insomnia became the norm. A friend once told her that she would scream in her sleep. She also developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The PTSD became so severe that she did not feel safe to drive, as her PTSD was exacerbated by unavoidable loud noises on the road.

As recently as mid-2023, O’Connor received death threats online from a former Weinstein Company colleague. “It’s one of those things that’s never over, but as an individual you can figure out how to move on and move forward from it and it takes up a different amount of space and type of space in your life,” she says.

Healing with Horses

Photo: Catie Kovelman

In the wake of all this trauma, O’Connor began dreaming about horses—a long lost passion of hers from childhood. “I’d go to sleep and feel like a kid again, both day-dreaming and night dreaming about horses,” she says. For the first time in a long time, she started to feel excited about something. With encouragement from her partner, Brett, she decided to listen to her dreams.

As a kid, O’Connor was obsessed with horses. Some of her happiest memories from childhood took place at the barn. At 7, her parents signed her up for a week of horseback riding camp and she was hooked. By the end of the week, O’Connor was signed up for ongoing lessons. She competed in the hunter/jumper divisions throughout her childhood before eventually playing polo in college. But as O’Connor entered the professional world, her horseback riding days seemed to be behind her. Her career simply took precedence.

O’Connor first returned to the equestrian world through volunteering, spending most of her time hand walking horses and assisting with the feeding and barn chores. Slowly, the barn became her sanctuary, where she could feel like herself again. The physical stress that she had been holding in her body from years of trauma began to dissipate.

“When I’m around horses, the whole world falls away. Whether it’s a fender bender or a stressful work week, when you are in the presence of a horse, it becomes just you and them. They are such present creatures that they demand you live in the moment, too,” says O’Connor.

Eventually, volunteering wasn’t quite enough to scratch the equine itch for O’Connor. She wanted to ride again. In 2022, she got back in the saddle at a small barn in Los Angeles. This is where she met her horse, Vega (Vinnie at the time). Her bond with Vega gave O’Connor a new sense of purpose and partnership. She eventually changed his name from Vinnie to Vega, because Vega is the name for the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra and Vega became O’Connor’s “star and guiding light.”

While O’Connor’s lessons brought her joy, it was what she learned on the ground that made the most impact. Her favorite time spent at the barn was when she could do groundwork with the horses, such as by lunging or practicing liberty work. She felt her tension release more and more with every session in the round pen.

After years of feeling defeated and trying to make herself as small as possible, horses gave O’Connor back her confidence, and eventually, her voice. “I spent the last several years being knocked around, whether it was by the press, the emotional impact, or the financial and legal obligations. But when I was standing, just me and a horse in the round pen, I learned how to let my body take up space in the world and to own my own movements. That was really one of the most impactful periods,” says O’Connor.

It wasn’t long after that O’Connor found herself buying a new saddle with her lease horse in mind. In less time than it took her to drive home, O’Connor realized she didn’t want any other horse under that saddle besides Vega. She requested to buy him. The purchase marked an important milestone in her healing journey.

“He brought me back to that 7-year-old girl before any of this crazy stuff happened so that joy could take root again,” says O’Connor.

In early 2023, she moved to Cellar Door Farm to train under Kelly Jennings, who she says has been a godsend in providing a safe environment to nurture O’Connor’s healing. As her bond with Vega strengthened, O’Connor began to see good in the world again.

“Having the responsibility of caring for and loving this sweet, forgiving animal reminded me there is goodness in the world. Horses are so patient. It’s just the generosity of a horse, the kindness of a horse, and their humor that really brought a sense of joy, trust, and partnership into my life.”

—Lauren O’Connor

The goals and structure help, too. With the upheaval caused by the leaked memo, O’Connor found herself without a solid routine or structure to help her get through the day. O’Connor’s ADHD was also exasperated by the stress and trauma she had endured. But making time for riding every week—something that was just for her—helped her find the structure she had been missing.

O’Connor now organizes her week around trips to the barn. She jokes that it even makes her coordinate doing her laundry with her barn visits so she can have clean riding clothes. “It’s given me better boundaries in my daily life, such as prioritizing the time I need for myself,” says O’Connor. “I have moved from a place where it was impossible to organize my life…to a place where my riding made it a joy to organize.”

She now sees a world of opportunity for herself in the horse world. She wants to keep growing as a rider to graduate beyond jumping cross rails. She might even return to the show ring when she feels ready. But ultimately, everything comes back to building her connection with Vega. “My goal now is to keep learning,” she says. “I want to get stronger. I want to become a more clear communicator for my horse.”

Thanks to horses, O’Connor says she is no longer just surviving, but thriving. “Riding is something I do for myself and my horse and nobody else. It’s one of my biggest priorities. My life has become about nurturing me rather than surviving trauma.”