I'm here today with native New Yorker Piper Weiss, who’s the author of the newly released and super popular book called You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession. A former editor at Yahoo!, Hello Giggles, and the “New York Daily News,” Piper is now writing full time. She also wrote a book about how women discover their moms are not just moms called My Mom, Style Icon. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Welcome, Piper.
Piper Weiss: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I'm excited to be here.
Zibby: To get started, can you give listeners a little synopsis of what this book is about?
Piper: The book is about a coming ago of memoir about growing up in nineties Manhattan on the Upper East Side, and also a researched and reported narrative about a tennis coach that I had at the time who turned out to be a child stalker.
Zibby: The child stalker’s name was Gary Wilensky.
Piper: That's right.
Zibby: At the beginning of the book you have a scene with your poet ex-boyfriend, who you described in such a great way, when you're attempting to write about a statue together. Then you decide that’s a total waste of time and instead you want to write a book about your experience with Gary Wilensky. Can you tell me more about how you came up with the idea in that moment? What happened to take that decision and have it become this book?
Piper: At the time, my poet boyfriend, who’s amazing and by the way has read many drafts of this book and has been incredibly supportive, I really looked up to him. He was older than me. He the best writer in college. He remains one of the finest writers I know. If he wanted to write a project with me, I would do whatever he wanted. We concocted this idea that involved researching a crime that had happened on our campus. Talking about this campus crime triggered the memory of Gary Wilensky. Is that something that I dreamed? Did that really happen? Did I know this guy? I started to unravel all of these memories that were in a knot in the back of my brain. It was an important moment on a personal level because I realized that I wanted to pursue a story on my own without him, and that maybe I could. Maybe I had something to say on my own that didn’t revolve around someone else, a male in particular who I looked up to.
Zibby: I'm so glad you decided to do it. You're truly an amazing writer. The analogies you use are brilliant. You help the reader think about things in a whole new way. An example of your writing that I loved is when you were describing the scene with Gary in the car. He had started by saying, “Don't going just yet. Stay here with me for a minute.” He tells you, “I'm depressed.” I want to read how you discuss your depression. You say, “‘Me too,’ I say. Sometimes I imagine my skull is an eggshell with hairlines fractures. A premature and pulpy creature taps its beak from inside. This is what it feels like to be breaking from within, waiting for the transparent coil of bones, sickly alive and mewing to slip out, the kind of thing you'd step on to put it out of its misery. I want to explain this feeling to Gary and tell him about dangling my feet outside my bedroom window seven floors up, how have I already written a note, but I don’t dare disrupt this moment that belongs to him.” That is amazing. It’s like you're in every moment. I only took a tiny thing.
How did you learn to write like this? Did you take classes? Were you always a gifted writer?
Piper: First of all, that sounded so much better coming from you. Please, from now on, read to me. I liked it better than when I put my eyeballs on it. I did always take classes. I always wanted to be a poet. I took a workshop at the 92nd Street Y when I was in high school that was life altering. That's one of these beautiful benefits of growing up in New York City where you have access to these brilliant writers and poets that teach workshops. That really opened up my brain. I went to college for writing.
I was never the great writer. I did well in school but nobody was like, “Come here. Let's send you to this graduate school. I applied to writing graduate schools for poetry, did not get in anywhere. For years after graduating college I was thinking that I would give up on writing and just pursue working and editing and helping other writers write and trying to take the idea of me being a writer out of my identity. It kept creeping back in. Now, I'm almost forty. This is really the first piece of writing that's from my heart that I've ever put down on the page for the public. I'm a little bit of a late bloomer and just finding my voice right now and finding my confidence in it.
Zibby: How do you feel having exposed yourself in this way now that it’s out there?
Piper: Terrified. Horrified. I have been having delusions of grandeur and then profound shame. My boyfriend keeps joking, whenever we pass people on the street he's like, “They just said your name. They know who you are.” I go, “Really?” He's like, “No. You're not famous.” I'm like, “You're right.” I'm the most embarrassing, humiliating person in the world. Where do I fit in in this world? That’s also a product of putting your personal story out into the world where you actually think, “Everyone can see me. Now, I'm so exposed. They either are going to really like me, or they're going to really hate me and want me dead.” It turns out it’s somewhere in between. People are really nice. Mostly my friends and family members have read the book, and some young women. A lot of young women have been reaching out to me that are writers, and writers in college, and asking for advice. That's the best part of this whole process is to be like, “Yes! I totally was where you are. Don’t freak out. It’s going to take some time,” or “It’s not going to take some time. Be confident. Don’t let anyone make you feel inadequate.” I feel like we need to redo this entire answer. [laughs]
Zibby: No, stop it. You're great. That was great. By the way, it can't just be your friends and family who’ve read this book. Every Instagram account is posting pictures of people reading your book. I feel as though it’s all over the place.
Going back to Gary for a second, I also grew up in New York at the exact same time as you, as were just discussing. I knew so many people who played with Gary, or Gary’s Girls. I've talked to a number of these Gary’s Girls. None of them knew that this book was coming out. Even now that it’s out, they didn’t know it was about Gary. I was wondering why you didn’t put his name in the title or if there was a reason behind that? Also, none of them were contacted about the book. They were totally shocked that there was a book.
Piper: Wow. I fanned out as wide as I could to former students of Gary Wilensky. It’s interesting because had his crime happened ten years later, there would at least be some kind of Facebook group of Gary’s Girls, people who experienced it sharing their stories. I reached out to every single person that was a student at the time who was quoted in any article about him. I posted open requests on Facebook, and Twitter, and through channels of people who knew people. I knew a lot of [indiscernible] women. I reached out to them. A lot of people didn’t want to talk to me. I respect and am fine with that. It’s a delicate subject. Everyone has their own experience.
I also didn’t want to hyper-broadcast it as if it was some kind of story that I was owning, to speak to why it didn’t have his name in the title. He was the framework for another story, for the memoir of my experience as a teenager that I wanted to tell. I wrapped it around the story of him. What struck me in researching, in going back, in uncovering these memories I had was the fact that I had these fond memories of him as opposed to this horror, and how much I needed his approval. That was what I wanted to explore. I would've loved to have talked with everyone and anyone. Now, more and more people are coming forward and saying, “I played with him.”
The other thing was that the daughter in the story obviously was the first person I reached out to years before I was even planning to write a book. I was obsessed with this topic. I wanted to talk to her. She was uncomfortable with it, rightly so. I kept reaching out until she went a little quiet. I realized that it’s not my place to push. It’s not my place to expect her to want to be involved in something that was so much more, I imagine, traumatic, and also a really radically different experience than the one I had. It’s up to her whether or not she wants to tell her story and in what way. I can't take ownership of that. That immediately made the story change. This isn't going to be a reported story about a crime that happened. If I can't be the vessel to tell a victim’s story and she’s not interested in sharing that, then I need to be as respectful of her privacy and also find what the story is for me. There's probably a million more really interesting stories from women who are Gary’s Girls. I encourage them all to share their stories if they want to.
Zibby: I recently had breakfast with a friend, one of Gary’s Girls, who said that she had been in one of the cars a week before this happened, felt it almost could have happened to her but didn’t. She said she passed the daughter on the street. Even though they knew each other really, really well, a year later they couldn't even look at each other. They couldn't acknowledge and bring all that back up again.
If you ran into the daughter now would you leave it be? Are you giving her the book?
Piper: I would love to thank her. In the acknowledgments part of the book, I thank the mother and the daughter and recognize that they really are the heroes of this larger story, their connection, the fact that they listened to each other. They saved each other’s lives from this predator and ultimately saved the lives, potentially, of so many other victims. I connected with the mother. She's a great writer and has published many books. I reached out to her. She asked for a galley copy. I was very nervous to send it to her. She wrote me a beautiful response that she really enjoyed the book. That meant the world to me. I've reached out to her since and also wanted to let her know if she ever wants to speak on anything, on any subject, I would love to share a platform with her because she can speak to this in a way that I can't. She's a very brilliant woman. We’ll see.
Zibby: Maybe I should set the stage a little more of what happened before I keep going with this line of questioning. Gary was a super popular Manhattan tennis coach who had lots of girls who he became very close with them and their families. Then it was a huge shock when out of the blue, seemingly, he attempted to abduct -- can I say this? It’s okay? It was all on the news -- attempted to abduct one the girls and how the daughter and the mother -- that's who we’re talking about -- how they responded. He called this girl his favorite. In the end he had a bunch of favorites all throughout his life. This one girl called the daughter was his favorite.
My question, long-winded, is to say was there ever any part of you that was disappointed, given your close relationship with him and your prior history of these obsessions, were you ever disappointed in some subconscious way not to have been chosen as the favorite?
Piper: Absolutely. That was what compelled me to actually dig into this story. If I was going to write about this in a really honest way from my perspective, then I’d have to throw myself under the bus a little bit and examine what that reaction at fourteen was about. My initial reaction was to defend him. I can set the stage a little more. He attempted to abduct one of his students who had actually fired him in the months prior because he was making her uncomfortable and was paying too much attention to her in ways that were inappropriate. He, months later, followed her and her mother up to a tournament and tried to abduct her. He had outfitted this cabin in the woods with restraints and seeming plans to keep her there. This all came out in the news in tabloid headlines from the “New York Post,” the “Daily News,” “People” magazine, “Geraldo,” “Maury Povich,” “A Current Affair.” For about a month it was the big story. Certainly if you were one of his students or went to the school where he taught, there were reporters everywhere asking questions of students. The vibe was not to talk to reporters, in part to protect the community and in part because you never know how your words are going to be used.
At the time, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There was no platform for a teenage girl to be like, “This is how I feel in this moment. Let's talk about it.” It was more of sensationalism and then silence. I knew he had done a really bad thing and that he was all over the press. I felt protective of him because I felt close to him. I was in this car with him a few weeks before. He was opening up to me. Why didn’t he drive off then? To some degree, why not me? I did not understand and still to this day don't understand what it means to be a survivor of that kind of trauma. That is a privilege that I have. I did not understand what it would mean to be abducted.
He had this power over me and some other students as someone who could deem you worthy or not worthy. It was actually a manipulative tool and a grooming tool that he employed for years, I discovered. He would like to pit girls against each other and then pick his favorite. Then he would decide he had a different favorite. His opinion mattered so much and became so important, especially in all-girls camps where he taught or among the small, all-girls groups where he taught. He used that authority that he had to control us to some extent, whether he was conscious of it or not.
Side note, to this day I did get some comments from a few people that I had either reached out to or people had heard I was writing this book and contacted me and were suspicious of how many years I played with him. They were like, “How long did you know him? How often did you play with him?” I said, “Not long. A year, twice a week.” In retrospect, the whole point was that I wasn’t his favorite. This was how he was working these young women. There still seems to be in this Gary’s Girls thing where some people feel like, “I knew him better. I played with him longer.” Perhaps there's a subtext of something happened. Perhaps there is still this hold that he has on us where we’re competing for his affection in a subconscious way.
Zibby: To say that you don't feel something that happened to someone, to measure it only in the timespan, is not the way it works with emotion. When you think about people you’ve lost, maybe you didn’t spend that much time but they affect you really deeply. It’s the same thing. Who’s someone else to come in and judge your relationship based on hours? Forget them.
Piper: Absolutely. I want to hear their stories. The thing that we learn from the Me Too movement is solidarity. We all have different stories. We need to listen to each other's stories, and elevate each other's stories, and support each other as opposed to judging or being threatened be each other's stories.
Zibby: You spent a lot of time in the book talking about your own relationship with your mom, which I loved. It so perfectly captured so many elements of that mother-daughter relationship. The turtleneck Banana Republic sweater scene was so perfect. Oh, my gosh. I could have been in that fitting room with my mother at times. Your mom did, like many moms at the time, willingly let you go off with Gary. Gary would drive you to lessons, take you out to dinner, spend all this time, give you lessons for free. Another Gary’s Girl I was talking to was like, “I would never let my teenager daughter now go off to dinner with some fifty-year-old man.”
Do you think the times were different then? Do you think we were all more trusting? Was it these moms in particular, your mom? Do you ever blame your mom?
Piper: I first wanted to blame my mom. That was so easy. She’s very used to me getting mad at her for no reason. My mom is the best. She helped me with this book enormously and is the most fascinating person I have ever met in my life. Part of the aspect of this book that's interesting in the fact that it is this incredibly privileged and protected community, if it can happen in these places where these mothers are so involved in these children’s lives and that everyone is so vetted -- we were the luckiest girls in the freakin’ world in that way. If it can happen there, it’s happening all over the place. We had all the privilege, the education, the protection you could possibly get. I don't think the finger can be pointed in that way. I do think there's much more opportunity for open dialogue now because of the internet.
What we learn in the book and in the research that I did is that Gary had a history of stalking children and had actually been arrested five years before he was my instructor and also a coach at your school and a celebrated, award-winning teen girl coach. He was arrested for stalking three kids on the street as they walked to school every day, following them with a camera dressed in a black, leather mask. There really weren’t stringent stalking laws at the time. It wasn’t a felony to stalk a child. He got off. He had to see a therapist for six months. His case was dismissed. There was nothing on his record.
Reportedly, one of the mothers of the stalked children contacted parents of his students and schools, the private schools, when Gary started to be a figure on the scene. She claimed to the “New York Daily News” at the time that her concerns were ignored. I don't know what the real situation was. I find it very hard to believe that the school or any of the parents would have dismissed those concerns. I think that there just wasn’t as strong of a network. There weren’t background checks the way that we have them now. It wasn’t as mandated.
The conversations that we’re having now, even with respect to Larry Nassar and Sandusky, were not conversations we were having at the time. Stalking wasn’t really a thing. Certainly there were coaches and educators that were nefarious in crossing many lines. We know that even from what's happing with Horace Mann and Choate. Those revelations hadn’t come out yet. It was, in part, the time. That world is really, really protective of itself. These were people that were used to being written about in the press and were very powerful and wanted to control what was written about them, not necessarily mothers or parents individually but that scope of that world.
Zibby: I love how you explain how they were called private schools for a reason. We’re supposed to keep everything private. You had all these mixed emotions about even sharing what had happened. I was thinking this as I was posting something on Facebook yesterday. Am I really being private? I don't know. [laughs] I might have missed this whole thing.
By the way, the thing you were saying about him stalking those boys, one of the technical things you did so brilliantly in the book is that in the beginning you set up that whole stage of him stalking the boys, but you never say his name. I read almost all the book out loud to my husband. When we got to the point at the end, it was when he realized that the stalker in the beginning was actually Gary. You don't spell that out. It’s implied. It could be anybody. It could've been the beginning of any --
Piper: -- I'm glad that worked.
Zibby: It was a good little thing. Another technical question is how do you remember so much? You have captured every little bit of our shared time and place childhood from the radio, to the tote bags, to the invitations, to the parties, to the places. Did you research it? Do you have an insane memory?
Piper: I think memory is a muscle. My muscle got really strong when I was writing this book. It started with a couple of memories. Then researching what are the songs in ’92 to ’93? What are the clothing -- looking at pictures, reading articles. There was an article in ’96 in “The New Yorker” about these boots that prep school girls used to wear. That was a moment that triggered me. By the time I got to the middle of the book, I was so in the zone that it was like I popped a blood vessel. The memories of how it smelled in the kitchen in my apartment growing up, and what my mother’s finger nails looked like, every little thing, I tapped into that. It took a while to really tap into those memories. The more I did, the clearer the writing became. That was the fun part.
Zibby: I was kind of annoyed at your friend Sara in the book when she says that you misremembered when you went to the Crane Club, ninth or tenth grade. Oh, my gosh. Come on. You remember so much other stuff. Give her a break.
Piper: I loved that she said that. I kept that in there because I also wanted it to be like, “I'm an unreliable narrator.” This is my memory. Her’s might be different. Who’s to say that anyone's right or wrong? Part of this book is facts that I collected. The core of it, the truer parts, are the parts that have more of a larger understanding of how something like this could happen, hopefully are the ones that are based on my impressions and memories and the visceral feelings as opposed to the straight facts. That was my hope.
Zibby: A friend of mine also talking about Gary was saying how at the time she had to believe that he went off the rails, that he was a nice, normal guy, mostly, and had some sort of break. Had she not been able to convince herself of this, she would never have been able to trust another man forever. She would never have gotten married. Everything would have crumbled. That's the story she immediately told herself. She is afraid to read the book to see if that myth topples.
Piper: Oh, my god. I wish I had talked to her. I'm so curious. That's actually a really profound thing to feel. He was this formative adult male in so many of our lives. That coaching relationship, which is that fine line between being an authority figure and a friend -- he could have so much influence, even in death, on her romantic life and choices. I really respect her for being so honest about it.
Zibby: From the way you wrote it, it sounded like the very end, the last couple weeks, there was a huge marked change in him. Do you feel like he went off the rails? Do you feel like there's this whole thing, given all the evidence over time, was percolating?
Piper: I'm fairly certain that he was a child stalker for years and years. I question what else he did. I found no evidence. Police at the time found no evidence that he assaulted or molested anyone beyond the attack and attempted abduction. These were different times where people weren’t encouraged or given a safe platform to share this kind of information or even understand and process what it might mean to be abused by an authority figure. My impression, certainly, is that he had a long history of this. According to one of his high school friends, he had a history of violence against women in high school. The idea that he snapped, I don't think is the case. I do think that the being fired was this breaking point for him that made him step completely over. He was straddling these two worlds for a while. When he was fired in the last several months leading up to his attack, he decided to step into the dark side completely.
Zibby: There's one line you wrote that I want to read. You had talked about a boy you had met, how your mother was listening to your call with him. It turns out he thought you were someone else, which was so crushing the way you told it. I can't even bear to read it out loud, what exactly he said. I will say that his comment about your height is now offensive to me. Honestly, when you walked in I thought you were going be so -- you talk so much about how short your are. We’re the same height. This is terrible. Should I feel this bad about myself now? Your self-image is so horrible. You're this beautiful, normal-size person. In the book you make yourself out to be a monster. Perhaps that's how you felt at the time.
Piper: It’s how I felt. I look at pictures of myself then. I'm like, “You poor fucking dear.” Sorry. [laughs] “You poor dear. You didn’t realize that you were fine.” I'm sure girls still experience this today. Part of it’s just patriarchy, sexism, internalized sexism. The physical labels that you're given, especially when you're in this in-between phase, become your identity. You have to have ownership over them. They're the inadequacies you have to constantly be fielding and trying to improve. For me at the time, it was I was too short. I had curly hair and a big nose. These were things that had to be fixed. It was told to me in the context of, “to have a better life.” [laughs] I would never impart that to a teenage girl. We know better. At the time, that was really the message. “You could be beautiful. It’s important to be beautiful. We just have to fix these few things about you.”
Zibby: [laughs] You write here when you realize he was asking about your friend and not you, you said, “Worse than knowing you’re unlovable is believing momentarily that you are not.” That was so poignant and also spoke to whole thing with Gary. For a minute, you feel really special with him. Then you don’t all of a sudden.
Now that all this time has gone by and the book has come out and you've had more time to think about him, do you find yourself missing Gary?
Piper: Less so. I missed him while I was writing it at the beginning and researching it at the beginning. Later in the book -- this is going to sound ridiculous -- I started having really bad dreams about him and even did some physical research where I went to his hometown. I went upstate. I got a little spooked by him. I couldn't tell if I was intentionally spooking myself out. I think about him in the context of if anyone would like to have some kind of coverage or be resurrected in some public manner, it’s him. It makes me a little angry at him. I'm a little bit like, “No. You don't get this. This is not about you,” even though it is about him. I have a complicated relationship in my head with Gary.
Part of what drove me to this story was that I for many years, as an adult even, felt this parallel to him, this empathy for what I imagined was this profound loneliness that does not excuse his actions and does not make any of it okay. He seemed like partially a product of his environment, and his self-esteem, and these gender-fixed ideas and expectations that he didn’t live up to. That was the inroad in terms of imagining what might have been going through his mind, his need for these emotional connections, and the conflation of fatherhood, romance, captor, and protector.
Zibby: This is amazing. What is next for you? Are you going to write another book, I hope? What are you thinking?
Piper: I really want to. Fiction. I am so dead set on writing fiction because this was hard nonfiction, less so exposing myself, but my parents who I adore. I was so nervous and still am nervous that they would be received in not a positive light because they weren’t perfect. They weren’t, and yet they're the best parents I could have ever asked for. Exposing them, my sister, people that were friends in high school that I don't speak to anymore that might come across this and might feel weird about being in a book, it’s big responsibility. You want to tell the truth and yet you want to tell your truth, which might be different from their truth. It was really difficult to navigate. I'm glad I did it. I really want to take true events and let them inspire things that I can then take more ownership of in terms of manipulating the narrative.
Zibby: You mentioned that now you fell in love again, which is a great ending to anybody who’s read the book and is rooting for you, not that that's the be-all, end-all. It’s a nice thing to have at the end of the story.
Piper: I feel really conflicted about it, actually. I really was in this state after I finished the book where I was like, “I own this.” I own being this weird, single -- not that it’s weird to be single -- alone, loving person who has obsessions and is also very similar to the person I was at fourteen. I own it now. I love it. Why did I expect to be a completely different person when I grew up? What if I just loved who I have always been and embraced it? Part of embracing that was being someone who’s happily alone, and has wonderful friends, and has awesome romantic experiences but doesn't have this conventional romantic setup. Then I met this guy on Tinder, [laughs] which is whatever. I just love him. He’s an artist. He’s a gifted artist, Tim Maxwell. I love him. We got engaged.
Piper: Thanks. I haven't told a lot of people.
Zibby: Now you have.
Piper: Now I have. There it is. He’s great. I love him. I don't want the engagement to be like, “And that's a happy ending,” because the happy ending was me alone figuring stuff out. I just happened to meet this person that I like hanging out with now for a while. Hopefully the core of me as an independent person will always be there. No man, as wonderful as they can be, will validate my success. That's my soapbox. [laughs]
Zibby: Sounds good. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this and chatting about your book.
Piper: Thank you. I'm honored.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Thanks, Piper.