When you read the back cover of You All Grow Up and Leave Me, chances are you’ll assume it’s fiction. The story certainly sounds that way: Beloved tennis coach gains the trust of parents and earns the friendship of young girls. Beloved tennis coach kills himself after a failed attempt to kidnap one of his students. Beloved tennis coach is discovered to have a torture chamber in the Adirondack Mountains. But upon second glance, you’ll realize that this is an entirely true story. The full title reads: You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession.
When Piper Weiss was a teenager, she was one of “Gary’s Girls.” Her tennis coach, Gary Wilensky, was her mentor and took a special interest in her. She looked up to him, trusted him, and desperately sought his approval. When it came to light that Wilensky was a child predator and stalker, she shoved her memories of him aside. 20 years later, in You All Grow Up and Leave Me, Weiss examines his life and death from both her teenage perspective and as a reporter. But in addition to rediscovering the details about what happened, she also examines her own life with a raw, enviable honesty, asking almost unanswerable questions in hopes of better understanding herself.
We’ve been singing the praises of You All Grow Up and Leave Me since 2017. We named it one of the 19 books we can’t wait to read in 2018. And now, it’s finally here. We spoke with Weiss about You All Grow Up and Leave Me, obsessions, and giving victims a platform in the #MeToo era.
HelloGiggles: What a story. In the book, you mention that you buried your memories of Gary for years. How did you rediscover him?
Piper Weiss: The events took place in ’93. It was generally pretty taboo to discuss it back then. My parents are wonderful and supportive, but didn’t know how to talk to me about it. My school did not encourage discussion of it. I talked to a reporter at the time, briefly off the record, and that was as much as was discussed. And then I buried it. So when I remembered it, I was about 30. And it was like a blood vessel popped in my brain. I was just like, ‘Wait.’ And I couldn’t tell if I’d dreamt it or not. It was that kind of memory.
HG: Even at 30, did you understand what had happened back in ’93?
PW: I didn’t really understand it. I mentioned it to my mother — the name of this child predator that I had these kind of fond feelings for still. And my mom produced this massive folder that she’d been keeping in her bottom drawer of not only coverage of the events that took place, but also receipts and valentines and T-shirts. When I started to read the coverage, that was the first time I was like, ‘Wait. This guy was bad. And he was doing really dangerous things for a long time before I was his student.’
HG: You had to be really honest with yourself while writing the book. Like, impressively honest. Was that difficult?
PW: It was easy to be honest with myself. It was hard to be honest about my family and my friends. I’m lucky, because my parents are cool people. They’ve grown as I’ve grown. My mom was really helpful. I would be on the phone all the time with her while I was writing the book. There was stuff we had talked about, but she didn’t remember. And when she read it, she goes, ‘Oh, I remember that, but I remember it differently.’ It was really awesome to be like, ‘I get it.’ And she was like, ‘I get you. I didn’t realize you were feeling that way.’ I was most nervous to give her the manuscript. I was like, ‘Take it, and whatever you’re not comfortable with, I’ll take it out. I love you more than a book. You matter more. I don’t want to ruin our relationship.’ And she came back to me with three edits that had to do with, ‘There were three tennis courts, not four, on Fire Island.’ It was more like, accuracy.
HG: Classic mom. What about your dad?
PW: My dad said the same thing to me. I remember being nervous, like, ‘But I’m talking about our family!’ And he goes, ‘You write what you need to write. We got your back.’ It was the most beautiful thing. It gave me strength. In some ways, seeing them being like, ‘We tried to be good parents. We own it. We’re not apologizing, but we’re not denying you your experience.’ That in some ways makes them much better parents and makes me understand how there were blind spots in moments.
HG: Throughout the book, you openly struggle with the fact that in the process of telling your own story, you’re also touching on someone else’s.
PW: This story is — it’s not my story. And that’s something I grapple with. I’m not a direct victim of a child predator. This is not my survival story. And that was the difficult process. Figuring out, ‘Why does this impact me? And how?’ And I want to be honest. ‘Is this just something that I think is interesting? And if that’s the case, am I exploiting something and not being sensitive toward the real implications of what it is?’ That was the challenge that I constantly put toward myself, and lived under, and continue to live under in putting this book out. How can I be respectful of survivors, and how can I not take away from what they’ve experienced or appropriate it?
HG: The word “obsession” comes to mind a lot, and not just because it’s in the book’s title. It felt like the more you realized you had your own obsessions, in a way, you weren’t that different from Gary.
PW: That’s right. I was obsessed with him for years after the rediscovery. When I sat down to write, I was like, ‘Why am I obsessed?’ In some ways, I wanted there to be a clear parallel. Where it was just like, ‘I’m him!’ But if I’m honest, I’m not. But there are similarities. There was something interesting that a detective on the case said to me. I told him, ‘I want to understand what was going through his mind.’ And he said, ‘If you understand someone like that, you’re one of them.’ It quieted me. And in some ways, it put to rest this desire to fully understand Gary Wilensky.
At the same time, it reminded me that there are these taboos in our culture that prevent us from actually stopping instances of child predator activity, because we can’t talk about what motivates someone to do this. We want to put it in terms of good and evil. ‘People are born monsters.’ I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that at all. I believe that there are aspects of our biology, certainly. But a lot of it has to do with our early childhood influences and the choices we make as a result of that. It doesn’t remove the accountability of the person who does this act. But I think in order to prevent it, we need to understand some of the messaging we’re sending. If not to the predator, then to his potential victims. That’s the driving force — breaking the taboo.
HG: I don’t think obsessions are necessarily a bad thing. Do you?
PW: There’s that fine line between embracing obsessions and obsessions that are actually ultimately dangerous, and not examining why those obsessions are resonating with you. Which is something he did not do. He obviously had a lot of issues with his role as a man. I think he didn’t know whether he wanted to be a father, a lover, a sadist, a captor. And I think he was grappling with a lot of those ideas and expectations. And they became twisted in his mind. That’s my armchair psychology. There are also experts that have classified him as psychotic or a hebephile or a stalker, which has to do with attachment theory.
HG: I think, whether you intended to or not, you opened up an important discussion about mental illness and addiction.
PW: I think they’re really intertwined, addiction and obsession. Both of them are feeding something in your identity and you’re feeling better about yourself — if temporarily. They’re hits. I was hooked on internet searches, even before I was writing the book, about Gary Wilensky. And I needed hits of finding a new thing. Why? I don’t know. That’s the thing with addiction. You don’t know why you’re doing the thing you’re doing, but you know that you need that thing to feel better. It’s dopamine drips. It’s constant dopamine drips. We’re living hit to hit. Part of the project of this book was to explore the hit. What if I just stayed in the hit and tried to understand, ‘Why am I doing this? What is this fulfilling? Let’s be real and honest about it and process it so that it’ll go away.’ Because in some ways, it was really dark and scary, and made me question who I was and who I was in the past.
HG: Another big part of the book is privilege and the many forms it takes.
PW: We were these privileged girls. That’s what made it a story. And that’s what at least gave the story itself a platform to breathe. The privilege of not being abducted or not being a victim of abuse — that’s a weird form a privilege. The privilege of being in this privilege money-ed world that my parents were not raised in. My parents were poor. They were children of Jewish stowaways on boats. They were the next generation, and they broke into a world that they thought had it better. And they were like, ‘Here. You got it.’ And I was like, ‘This isn’t good either.’ That was a thing I grappled with. I wanted to write from a really honest perspective about being 14 at that time. And a very large part of being 14 was being hyper-aware, in New York City, of how unfair it was that across the street from me there was a guy who sang on the street and shook a cup of coins. And yet at the same time, I was still so privileged that I was living in New York City and had no idea about what was really going on in the city, or the kind of struggles that other children faced. So my struggles also seemed huge.
HG: You’re so honest about how you felt at age 14.
PW: I wanted to die. I was a very suicidal child. Life or death hinged on the grades that I got, and whether or not a boy liked me or shamed me. And these really seemed as important as the dangers that were surrounding other people across the city, and also in a weird way surrounding me, that I was unaware of. Privilege is a weird thing. And then there’s the privilege of writing a book about this. I reached out to a victim. She was so polite and kind enough to respond and expressed that she wasn’t interested in sharing her story again. And I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t a fun thing to talk about and delve into for some people. This is trauma. And I don’t know what that is.’ This weird culture of envy of trauma, and how we try to appropriate it, is interesting to me. And something that I think I walk a line of and try to be careful not to embrace, but to acknowledge.
HG: It’s an interesting time to revisit and tell the story about Gary, given the prominence of #TimesUp and #MeToo.
PW: I’ve been obsessively following the #MeToo movement, but in particular the survivors of Larry Nassar. Hearing them talk about what they went through, but also the confusion of what had happened and how they were trusting of someone in part because the community trusted him. And also the confusion of their parents, these good people that didn’t also want to believe that this man was who he was. There are some people that are culpable, but they’re not as obvious as we think. And the very obvious people, the predators themselves, are people that we label as evil. And in their actions, they are evil. But there’s a complicated history to the patriarchal culture that they’ve been raised in as well. It fosters this kind of behavior. I kind of didn’t realize what the book was about until after it was done. I tried to understand, ‘Who am I mad at? Who’s to blame?’ I think it’s a larger question that I could only answer after writing the book and listening to young people finally have a platform to speak, which is not a thing that we had back in the day.
HG: Given that media coverage is now radically different, how do you think this story would unfold today?
PW: This was like, right on the precipice of the internet. What was happening in the media, it was almost like we could smell it. Obviously, the internet, in some form, existed. But this is ’93. We’re not even at chat rooms yet. There was this bubbling up of tabloid and talk show culture. It was pre-reality television and it was two years before O.J. Waco was happening. Buttafuoco. I’m weirdly obsessed with this time period. We were watching things live on television. We weren’t in full-on 24-hour news cycle court TV stuff, but we were just about getting there. There were all of these stories that were fueling entertainment as much as they were news, and the blurring of the lines was happening. But everything was still curated by a Maury Povich or a Phil Donahue. Under this, ‘Isn’t this weird?’ And ‘We asked these weird people weird things.’ And now, there are a lot of problems with social media. But there’s also a democratizing of voices to some degree.
HG: Do you think our country is in a better place to hear and listen to victims today?
PW: ’93 was not a period of time when victims of such molestation would be treated with respect and dignity. Not that I think that they receive that all the time now. But there was no public platform and there was no precedent. That’s why the Nassar victims are actually precedent-setting. They’re changing the game by being like, ‘I’m not apologizing for being a victim or a survivor of this person. No, I didn’t come forward right away, because it isn’t clear when this happens.’ That’s a huge aspect of it.
HG: Did writing You All Grow Up and Leave Me help you find closure?
PW: Yes and no. One of the challenges for me was when I got to the end of the book. I was like, ‘Oh, shit. It’s a memoir. I gotta end and have learned something.’ There’s usually like a, ‘And now I have children.’ I was almost just like, ‘Let me just have a bunch of kids real fast, and raise them, and have an ending.’ But I realized that I’m still obsessed with dead men the way that I was at 13 with Jim Morrison. I’m still a little reckless. In some ways I’ve grown up, in some ways I haven’t. 99% I have not at all.
HG: Do you still feel any certain way about your past?
PW: I’m living a lot in the past. The thing I learned is that I did not change. And the thing that follows you when you’re younger, and you think you’ll get out of and escape from, you don’t always escape from. The imprints that are made on you back then, of who you are, but also the forces that help to define you for better or worse, stay with you. In a weird way, this book was a way of taking back ownership. ‘Oh, you’re going to stay with me? Fine, I’m going to repackage you. I’m going to write the story if you’re going to haunt me. You’re not going to write the story.’ Which is a strange approach, but it’s what I got.
Piper Weiss’ memoir You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession is now available!