In 'You All Grow Up And Leave Me,' Charm Masks A Predator

Apr 14, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 7:29 am

You All Grow Up and Leave Me is a memoir, and a true crime story, about a teenage girl and the middle-aged tennis coach who guided and encouraged young women players on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But Gary Wilensky also turned out to be a stalker, a child predator who killed himself in 1993; he'd tried to kidnap one of his students, she fought him off — and then he shot himself, not far from a cabin he had filled with instruments of fetish and bondage.

Piper Weiss was one of Gary Wilensky's students — Gary's Girls, as they were called. She was 14 at the time of his death, and now, a generation later, she's looking into his life and crimes, and her own life. "I kind of buried the memory of him for years," she says, "and it was only when I was about 30 years old that I recalled how integral he was in my life at 14, and I had fond memories of him. And when I went to my mom and finally kind of asked her about what had happened, she produced this really sizable folder of everything from newspaper articles to receipts and T-shirts and Valentines he had given me. And I realized there was so much more to Gary's story, and how it played into my own story as a teenager, that I needed to explore it further."


Interview Highlights

On who Wilensky was

Gary was, as I remember him, kind of a beloved clown character. He was a prestigious tennis instructor for teenage girls, who had received multiple awards. He was also really known for being the quote-unquote Pied Piper of teen tennis, because he was full of gifts and candy of prizes, he sometimes played in tutus and roller skates. The kind of person who could turn any teen girl's tennis game into a sport that she loved, just by his own charisma.

On "hebephiles"

[That] is an adult who fetishizes and is attracted to teenagers ... I think that really was what captivated me with this story was, he seemed to me at the time like one of the few adults in the world that listened to me, that understood me. Of course, I know now these were part of his grooming tactics. But in my child's mind, they were so alluring.

On where the parents were

Interestingly enough, we did live in this incredibly protective bubble, where the parents were guardians that were constantly going to to PTA meetings and providing drivers to pick their kids up from school, because they were so terrified that their children would be harmed walking the city streets. So the parents were there, they just weren't looking inside the community. They were only looking outside of it for signs of danger, and I think that's a theme that we see again and again.

On why her mother kept the folder

My mom said, she was like, "well it was just a thing that happened in our lives." And I will never fully believe her, because I find it very strange that she kept this giant folder of memorabilia from him. Part of me wonders if maybe she did feel guilt that she didn't see the signs beforehand, but part of me wonders if she just knew that some day I would ask her about it and want to know more, and I just wasn't ready to know about it at the time.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"You All Grow Up And Leave Me" is a memoir, and a true crime story, about a teenage girl and the middle-aged tennis coach who guided and encouraged young women players on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But Gary Wilensky also turned out to be a stalker, a child predator who killed himself in 1993 after he tried to kidnap one of his students who fought him off. Then he shot himself not far from a cabin that he had filled with instruments of fetish and bondage. Piper Weiss was one of Gary Wilensky's students - Gary's Girls, they were called. She was 14 at the time of his death, and a generation later, she's looked into his life and crimes and her own life. Piper Weiss, who's been features editor at Yahoo, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PIPER WEISS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Why did you want to write about this man and what he did rather than just forget about him forever?

WEISS: Well, I think what interested me at first was that I kind of buried the memory of him for years. And it was only when I was about 30 years old that I recalled how integral he was in my life at 14. And I had fond memories of him. And when I went to my mom and finally kind of asked her about what had happened, she produced this really sizable folder of everything from newspaper articles to receipts and T-shirts and valentines he had given me. And I realized that there was so much more to Gary's story and how it played into my own story as a teenager that I needed to explore it further.

SIMON: Help us understand who and what Gary Wilensky was in the rarefied confines of the Upper East Side in the early 1990s.

WEISS: Sure. Gary was, as I remember him, kind of a beloved clown character. You know, he was a prestigious tennis instructor for teenage girls who had received multiple awards. He was also really known for being the, quote, unquote, "Pied Piper" of teen tennis because he was full of gifts and candy and prizes. He sometimes played in tutus and roller skates - the kind of person that could turn any teen girl's tennis game into a sport that she loved just by his own charisma.

SIMON: You talk to a criminal psychologist who hangs a word on Gary Wilensky that I don't think I'd heard - hebephile.

WEISS: That's right, yes.

SIMON: Which is what?

WEISS: Which is an adult who fetishizes and is attracted to teenagers.

SIMON: And although routinely those kinds of people might be referred to as monsters, one of the things you develop is they're often quite charming.

WEISS: I think that really was what captivated me with this story was how he seemed to me at the time like one of the few adults in the world that listened to me, that understood me. Of course, I know now these were part of his grooming tactics. But, you know, in my child's mind, they were so alluring.

SIMON: After his failed kidnapping, attempt in suicide, the police went through Gary Wilensky's life, and they found photos, they found videos, they found binoculars. As you went through all of that trying to reconstruct his life, you must have wondered if you ever wound up in any of that material.

WEISS: I did. I did. I really - I really wanted to know if I was ever his direct target. That became a preoccupation for me in this research. And I was unable to find any of these photographs that he had allegedly taken of his students while they walk down the street. And, you know, in some ways, not knowing created this kind of broader concept of, you know, we were all victims.

SIMON: I think a lot of people listening to this conversation are going to ask, where the hell were the parents?

WEISS: (Laughter) You know, interestingly enough, we did live in this, like, incredibly protected bubble where, I mean, the parents were guardians that were constantly going to PTA meetings and providing drivers to pick their kids up from school because they were so terrified that their children would be harmed walking the city streets. So the parents were there. They just weren't - they weren't looking inside the community. They were only looking outside of it for signs of danger, you know, and I think that that's a theme that we see again and again. And we saw it during the testimony against Larry Nassar. The parents, in some cases, were right there while these children were being harmed by this doctor, but because he was such a trusted member of the community, it wasn't initially clear that he was, you know, a violent predator.

SIMON: You asked your mother once, why did you keep this scrapbook about that guy?

WEISS: Yeah, yeah, you know, and my mom said - she's like, well, it was just a thing that happened in our lives. And I will never fully believe her because I find it very strange that she kept this giant folder of kind of memorabilia from him. And, you know, part of me wonders if maybe she did feel guilt that she didn't see the signs beforehand. But part of me wonders if she just knew that someday I would ask her about it and want to know more and I just wasn't ready to know at that time.

SIMON: Piper Weiss - her book, "You All Grow Up And Leave Me." Thanks so much for being with us.

WEISS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.