This fall marks one year since the story of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sordid conduct broke. Weinstein’s downfall, after years of apparent impunity, freed many people who’d been sexually victimized—but had been too ashamed, frightened or confused to talk about it—to come forward and tell what had happened to them.
In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and its revelations, allegations of abuse and mistreatment of women by men holding power over them came thick and fast: a famous chef, a comedian, a career-maker in the art world. And then the 150 female gymnasts, including Olympic star Aly Raisman, gave “impact statements” at the trial of former Olympic team physician Larry Nassar, sentenced in January 2018 to up to 175 years in prison.
Alongside these big stories lighting up mainstream media, thousands of less-noticed allegations were also emerging via Twitter and Facebook. Through social media, women who said they had been abused and had kept silent were finding others like themselves. The silence was broken, using the hashtag now recognized as a movement’s call-out cry: #MeToo.
Karen Levine, 57, is one of the women who became fired up by #MeToo. For years, she says, she had pushed away disturbing memories about her pediatrician. But this year she decided she needed to tell her story, too. From the time she was 12 until she went to college, Levine says she was molested repeatedly by her pediatrician, Dr. Stuart Copperman, who practiced from 1965 to 2000 in Merrick, Long Island. After telling Levine that her vagina was “dirty, and needs a cleaning,” Copperman, alone with Levine on more than one occasion, instructed her to lie down on the examining table, she says. Copperman would then massage her genitals with his ungloved finger. “He created feelings in me that I didn’t understand,” Levine says.
She never spoke to her mother about what she said Copperman did to her. Years later—in 2000, the year Levine turned 40—her former pediatrician’s name leaped out at her from the pages of Long Island Newsday. New York State, she read, had just revoked Copperman’s medical license after a two-year investigation found that, between 1978 and 1989, Copperman had molested six other girls. Levine called her mother and told her about the Newsday story.
“That happened to me,” Levine told her mother, who, Levine says, responded by calling her daughter a liar.
Six is the number of women who testified to the state for the public record (available here). The details of their accounts are practically identical—to each other’s and to Levine’s. Of the six, three told the state that Dr. Copperman’s “cleaning” caused them to have an orgasm.
When reached by Lilith over e-mail in August 2018, Dr. Copperman offered this statement:
“I cared for the children of almost every doctor in my area. Many praised me for my diagnostic skills and thorough exams. Part of a complete annual physical by competent physicians involves examination of “private parts”. By being thorough, I found a breast cancer in a 17-year-old, saving her life and her breast. I diagnosed testicular cancer before it had metastasized, and malignant melanoma in an area not visible without seeing that location.
“If, by my being thorough, my examinations done decades ago created painful memories, this was certainly not my intent. I am 83 years old and recovering from cancer surgery. To any former patients I have hurt in any way, I beg forgiveness,” he wrote.
When the story hit the media back in 2000, with coverage in newspapers, television, and in an extensive report in Ladies Home Journal, women all over the country who had grown up in the Merrick area and whose mothers had brought them to Copperman began calling each other. They were also calling news outlets and the hotline that the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) had set up for the pediatrician’s former victims. Camille La Pollo, one of the women who says she called the hotline, says she remembers the intake officer telling her that the line was being flooded with calls. Another source, who asked not to be named, confirmed that there had been a large volume of calls.
(Disclosure: I have two adult sons, and Dr. Copperman was once their pediatrician. My sons say he never touched them inappropriately. But one day he put his hand on my rear end while he was writing a prescription for my three-year old, and I changed doctors immediately.)
In the Long Island community where Copperman lived and worked, there were two high schools and three junior highs— and his practice spanned 35 years. Many parents took their children to this handsome and charismatic pediatrician. Karen Levine recalled his flirtatious behavior towards her mother; some mothers worshipped him as if he were a movie star, and his office was hung with photos from Hollywood films.
Copperman was also active in his synagogue, Temple Beth Am of Merrick. The rabbi’s children were among his many patients, and when the news of the original allegations surfaced, Rabbi Ronald Brown wrote a letter to the local newspaper defending Copperman. A number of congregants objected, as this reporter documented in a story for the New York Times on September 23, 2001. Still, many gave the rabbi a pass, among them Karen Levine’s then-husband. Their children were in Hebrew school at Beth Am at the time, and Levine said she felt very uncomfortable having this rabbi preside over their son’s bar mitzvah. The rabbi continued in his position until he retired in 2017.
The truth was that, for many of his patients, Dr. Copperman administered great care. A woman who asked not to be identified recalls his gift for diagnosis. “He saved so many lives,” she told me. One former patient told then-Newsday reporter Roni Caryn Rabin in 2000 that when her sister had been hit by a car and was in a coma, Copperman sat by the girl’s bedside day and night. When Copperman’s license was revoked, the OPMC received hundreds of letters singing his praises, according to a source who asked not to be identified—a counterpoint to all those phone calls on the ad-hoc victims’ hotline.
How to reconcile the two sides of Dr. Copperman? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as described by this haiku signed by someone using Copperman’s name in a 2011 online competition:
Hero, villain, hard to tell
One from the other
—Stuart Copperman, MD, Melville, New York
When Karen Levine was Copperman’s patient in the 1970s, he’d made her feel “so dirty,” she says, and so alone. Back then, she had no way of knowing that other girls had shared her experience. Now, social media and the internet offered a chance to find out; Levine googled Copperman. In addition to all the news coverage about him after the state rescinded his license in 2000—including my piece in the New York Times, followed by another report by me in the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Lilith—Levine found that Copperman, now in his 80s, lives in retirement. He was never charged with a crime, because of New York State’s statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse, one of the most restrictive in the country. His three children occasionally post pictures of Copperman and his wife on Facebook, both tastefully attired, presiding over family celebrations and attending a “women’s health day” at a hospital.
For the six women we spoke with who say they were abused, seeing these public postings rankles. They so distressed Karen Levine that in January 2018 she started a closed group, “Victims of Dr. Stuart Copperman,” on Facebook. (In March 2018, I received an email from group member Dana Marcus asking me if I was interested in revisiting the story.) It turned out that Levine wasn’t the only former patient of his who was Googling around. Other former patients similarly came upon the group simply because they too had typed “Dr. Stuart Copperman” into their search engines.
Within a few days, the Facebook group had 10 members; it now has 28. (Levine, who has since handed over administrative duties for the group to Dana Marcus and Dina Ribaudo, allowed me into the group with the understanding that I not quote members without their explicit permission.) For most of the women posting, this is the first time they’ve told their story. “We know that children and adolescents who have been victimized may not report in a timely manner. We know that this is part of the dynamics of victimization,” Nassau County Assistant D.A. Silvia Pastor Finkelstein told Lilith. Nassau County is where Copperman practiced. From 2007 to 2013, Finkelstein served as chief of the county’s Child Abuse Unit, prosecuting sex crimes against children.
“Children often don’t understand the implications of what is happening, and are o en groomed by their abusers into keeping the conduct a secret, just between them,” explained Finkelstein. “As for adolescents, they feel or are made to feel shame and guilt about the conduct. So they keep silent, until maturity, support or insight gained by time provide the strength they need to speak up.”
The group’s postings on the Facebook page are often emotional. “We need each other,” wrote one woman. Another reported that she was 10 years old the first time the pediatrician molested her, at her yearly checkup. Another posted: “He was a person I trusted from toddlerhood to young adulthood, HIM, who was DOING these things to me. That’s how good he was at manipulation.” Another: “I’d sit in the waiting room and look at the other girls and think, you too?” A handful of members agreed to speak directly with me; of those, five were willing to speak on the record. “It’s traumatic to talk about,” Levine tells me emphatically. “Even as I’m talking to you now, I feel anxious.”
“But you have to talk about it!” So said Dina Ribaudo, 42, another member of the group. “Because it’s the secrecy that allows it to continue.” Ribaudo says her abuse began in 1984, when she was eight—the same year her father died, when she was particularly vulnerable. When she was 19, she told her mother that she’d been abused for 10 years; she says her mother responded, “No. That’s crazy.” In 2000, when the story was reported, she says her mother apologized.
More than one woman who spoke to Lilith on the record talked about how the various traumas the abuse engendered had reverberated within their families. Karen Levine became estranged from her parents even until her father’s recent death, she told Lilith, because he hadn’t believed her testimony. Robin Sosin, 56, told Lilith that she never goes to male doctors; but once, when a male gynecologist was about to examine her in an emergency room, she had a panic attack. Levine told Lilith that her sexual life had been affected. And Dina Ribaudo said she thought she had put her experience behind her, until her own daughter was born seven years ago.
“Since then, I cry over Copperman every day,” Ribaudo told Lilith. “I worry, how can I protect her?” So Ribaudo, who moved to Arizona when she was 18, has become politically active. “I want to help. I want to help prevent abuse.” She and two other women in the group—Dana Marcus and Robin Sosin—are driving forward the activism that Karen Levine sparked on that Facebook page.
The group has expanded its social media presence in order to locate other survivors, they say. They have created two pages on Facebook, one public and one private. Several of the women posted on their high school alumni association Facebook page a link to “The Childhood Victims of Dr. Copperman” group. The page administrators promptly removed their posts and blocked the posters. When Dana Marcus, an attorney, objected on legal grounds, the posts were reinstated with a disclaimer: “The Alumni Assn does not support or endorse this delicate situation and remains neutral in its position.” The high school is located in the area where the doctor had practiced.
Facebook group members say they have been contacting public figures, including the current Nassau County District Attorney and the Special Victims’ Unit, and journalists. They want their story about Dr. Copperman to be known. But most women in the group insist on anonymity, knowing that when a woman claims that she has been sexually molested, the revelation can boomerang in all kinds of ways.
Wrote one Facebook group member: “I have to stay anonymous because I haven’t told my daughter yet and would hate for a potential new landlord to look me up on the internet and read such things.” Another explained to me: “It winds up defining you when people look at you.” Indeed, one of the million lessons of the #MeToo era is that women don’t want to be defined by their trauma, with many preferring the term “survivor” over “victim.”
On the Facebook site, some self-identified survivors talk about whether the former doctor will face further judgment. (“On earth, rather than in death,” Ribaudo posted.) So far, the New York State Senate has blocked change. Sosin told me that when she told a female lawyer friend about Copperman, the friend told her: “Forget about it, Robin. Just move on.” Sosin says she was horrified at the response.
She, Ribaudo, Marcus, and a few additional members of the group say they are determined to drive New York State to change its approach to childhood sexual abuse. The unsuccessful battle to change the statute of limitations has been going on for 12 years in the Albany legislature.
Women had first spoken to the authorities about Dr. Copperman as far back as the 1980s. But a state panel in 1988— consisting of two doctors and a priest—did not believe the two women who had then come forward, and the panel cleared him. More complaints about Copperman followed. Meanwhile, in an article published in 1997 in JAMA, the respected Journal of the American Medical Association, Copperman described how, for many years, he had been using the annual physical exam of his teenage patients to discuss critical health issues, such as drugs and sex. “There is a mystique to the ‘laying on of hands’ that creates an opportunity for dialogue,” Copperman wrote. He described how he would prepare his patients’ mothers for this scenario one year in advance. “At the end of an annual physical exam of an early teenage patient, I indicate that at every subsequent annual examination, we will discuss important health issues, but the parent will be asked to leave during the discussion. I stress to the parent and patient that any discussion will be private and confidential. And while I will encourage at-home discussion of sensitive issues, I will not violate the child’s confidence. The parent always agrees.”
(Recently, Dina Ribaudo got in touch with JAMA, asking that Copperman’s article be taken down. JAMA tweeted back: “Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. We will share your request with the appropriate internal teams.”)
By the time the state revoked Copperman’s license in 2000— the proceedings against him took two years—he had had access to countless girls and teenagers.
At the state hearings, Dr. Copperman denied that he’d done anything wrong. For this reason, the case report afterwards stated, revocation of his license was the only way to ensure protection to the public. After the ruling, the doctor immediately led an appeal to get his license back and the state quickly turned him down. By then the Copperman story was being widely reported in the media. Women were calling the hotline at the OPMC in Albany and contacting media outlets, reporting that they, too, had been molested by the doctor when they were young, as Newsday reported on December 18, 2000.
When asked by reporter Roni Caryn Rabin about all the women coming forward after the state licensing hearings were made public, Copperman accused them of copycatting those six state witnesses. In an ironic example of unintended prescience, Copperman gave those supposed liars a moniker; he called them “Me-toos.”
Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s most recent book is Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery. She is a contributing editor at Lilith.