Life & Love

Memoir About Gary Wilensky Tennis Coach Who Stalked Children


In the spring of 1993, Gary Wilensky, a Manhattan tennis coach, concocted a bizarre plan to kidnap one of his teenage students. He stalked her for weeks, amassing a cache of disguises and weapons, and outfitted a remote cabin in the woods with restraints and security devices in preparation for her abduction.

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At the time, I was one of ‘Gary’s Girls’—an unofficial club of young tennis player whom the 56-year-old coached. Over the years, Gary had built a reputation, particularly among privileged prep school students and their parents, as an innovative if eccentric instructor: he wore tutus and roller skates on the courts, doled out Valentines and t-shirts with stamped with his own caricature, and offered free weekend lessons to a few players he believed in. Gary, I was told, believed in me. And I, in turn, believed in him.

Years later, after his long history of stalking children came to light, he still held a grip on me—and I wanted to understand why. My memoir, You All Grow Up and Leave Me, began as an investigation into Gary Wilensky, but expanded into a personal exploration of my own adolescent mind, and the blinding need for his approval.

The book combines aspects of reporting and memoir, and in the storytelling, employs alternating points of view. The following excerpt begins with my 14-year-old perspective of Gary, during one of many post-lesson dinners we shared together, after which he’d drive me home in his car. The second part of the excerpt delves into Gary’s own story in early 1993, and the turning point that catalyzed his harrowing plans in the following months.

New York City, 1993

Wild-haired barbies hang from the ceiling fan, a sign on the wall reads ‘life’s a bitch.’ There are side-by-side signed head shots of celebrities. Billy Crystal. Joe Piscopo. Chips and salsa before we’ve even ordered. This is my kind of restaurant. Gary is leaning against the wall with one foot on the seat beside him. He looks cool, like he’s a regular here.

“Get whatever you want,” he says. He’ll just have some chips. He’s watching his figure. Wink.

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The author as a teenager.

Courtesy Piper Weiss

There is that wink. So intimate and fleeting, it almost feels imagined. It deserves to be accompanied by the ping of a triangle, or some other sitcom device that suggests magic is happening.

I used to believe in magic. I thought I possessed it. You’re special, my parents had told me, which was further confirmation.

It seemed likely, considering how many fictional characters possessed supernatural powers in one form or another, always changing up time by snapping their fingers or rubbing an amulet, sticking a quarter in a fortune-telling machine, wishing on a shooting star and believing hard enough. I took wishes seriously, using birthday candles, loosened eyelashes, and fountain pennies to wish for the same thing—that nobody I love dies. When they hadn’t, I believed it was because of me.

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That faith in magic dwindled over time, as competition heightened, parental compliments lost their value, and teachers introduced new scales of measurement, assessing my abilities as decidedly average, devoid of that special quality. I guess this is their job, to help kids grow up and stop believing in magic, anchoring them instead within the business of hard work. Still, there are those rare teachers who do just the opposite.

They are the ones who don’t judge you by a set of numbers, but by an emotional quality they see in you but not in others—a quality they recognize in themselves. They have a secret they want to tell you so badly, but they’re not allowed. Magic is real.

They have it, and so do you. It’s just a wink, an aside. A nudging reminder that someone who isn’t your parents still believes you are special. Not just special, but the most special.

After dinner, Gary drops Emma off at her building first and then pulls up to my awning. When he puts the car in park, it rocks back and forth. I don’t want to get out yet. “Gary,” I say, and then “Never mind.” Am I your favorite?


Gary Wilensky has his favorites. They know who they are. Sometimes he calls them on the phone just to talk. He’ll speak with their mothers, too, offering progress updates or confirming what they want to hear: Their daughter is promising. When he talks to his students, he is careful to listen, to purse his lips around his teeth and keep quiet, storing the information they provide so he can ask them about it later.

Courtesy Piper Weiss

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He wants them to feel heard, to know they can confide in him, can trust him with their secrets. He hopes they see him as more than just another teacher—as a friend, a surrogate family member, the only adult in this world who takes them as seriously as they take themselves. He tells them as much, in his way.

You’re growing up to be quite an attractive young woman.

The girl is in the passenger seat of his car headed home after a lesson. She was ten or eleven when he began coaching her. Now she is thirteen. Her hair is frizzy at the roots and pulled back in a bun. When she smiles, her pink gums show.

Another night, another student. No lesson today, just dinner. Mom approved. When the little girl gets inside his car, he reaches over to pull her seat belt across her chest and snap it tight in the corner of the seat. He drives slowly and parks in front of his own building. Fuddruckers’s yellow and blue pole says come inside, come inside. At a table for two, he shows the girl a trick he once learned with two forks and a quarter. She likes it. Magic, he might say if she wants an explanation.

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A valentine from Gary

Courtesy Piper Weiss

The young lady will have, and For you, sir, and Be careful, it’s hot, and Are you going to eat all that? And all that. Then he gets serious, sad even.

Gary Wilensky is heartbroken and he wants to talk about it. He loves someone, he tells her, and it’s not working out. He wishes she’d love him back. When he finishes with his story, he waits for her response. The girl forks her bowl of bow-tie pasta. She is ten years old, delicate and small-wristed with thick black hair. She is mature enough to grasp their unusual shift in dynamics, but still too young to know how to respond. It’s okay, Gary, or Are you okay, Gary? Perhaps, something along those lines.

Sometimes he doesn’t talk to them at all. Instead he follows from a distance and then captures them with his long-lens camera, freezing them in time, collecting their images like playing cards. In his apartment, pictures pile up of all his favorites. He has many favorites, but there is one he favors the most.

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He started teaching the Daughter about a year ago. The Mother was looking for a private coach. Gary Wilensky came recommended. It was a coup to land a private coaching gig for such a talented young player, who was quickly ascending the regional tournament ranks. She’d recently placed in the top twenty in her age bracket, in the eastern district. This was an opportunity to do his preferred work, providing one-on-one guidance to a gifted young athlete. Professionally speaking, it gave him more credibility as a coach. He was an athletic trainer. A mentor. A private coach of tournament juniors including eastern and nationally ranked players. Those were the words that went on his résumé, which went on the back of the receipts he sent out to all the parents of his students.

It’s been sixteen months since he began coaching the Daughter, and now she is seventeen, in her senior year of high school and on track to attend an Ivy League university. She is sporty and smart, well liked in her class. Sometimes she wears her brown hair in a ponytail and pulled through the half-moon hole of a baseball cap. The Mother is close with the Daughter. She is also compassionate, a good listener. He calls the Mother on the phone and asks to speak with the Daughter. He calls the Daughter and asks to speak with the Mother.

Perhaps, if he was asked about his plans for the holidays, and if he said he had no plans, he’d be invited to join them for Thanksgiving. Uncle, grandpa, good old Gary—never says no to a home-cooked meal. Poor Gary, always so alone.

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He buys the Daughter gifts, little tokens of affection. He makes mixtapes. On a label, above a list of song titles, he writes “Favorites,” but there is only one.

The Daughter tells her mother she is no longer comfortable around Gary. The attention, the phone calls, the gifts. The Mother is a mental health professional. She wrote a book on why some men can’t commit. When she lets Gary go, she suggests he seek treatment.

He is cut off. Fired. Though this is not the first time. He was fired from the girls’ camp; from the resort in the Catskills; from the very first tennis club that hired him. In the past two decades he’s been let go plenty of times. His temper. Hard to manage. Playing favorites. He’s always found other work. He has good references from other places, and it’s rare that anyone would dig deep enough to find the bad ones.

If they do, he might be able to rationalize his departure. He didn’t want to work for anyone else; he wanted to go out on his own; they didn’t understand his progressive coaching methods; they were threatened by his success; and so forth. Still, this time is different. This is not about an argument he has had with a boss or a difference of opinion. This is his undoing: He went too far, he felt too much. He lost control of Gary Wilensky—the teacher, the surrogate, the man.

The author playing tennis as a teenager.

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“She didn’t give me a fair chance,” an unnamed man will explain in a case study on stalkers. “The male ego perceives some obligation from the woman to allow him [a] ‘fair chance,’” author J. Reid Meloy will write in The Psychology of Stalking. “The need for revenge or to ‘teach that person a lesson’ becomes a preoccupation.”

Meloy will also link depression and low self-esteem to fixations on fractured relationships, when a rift is mistaken as the source of one’s suffering, and rectifying it is the only cure. “Such depressed individuals may be involved in cases of stalking, especially those entailing workplace violence,” he will write, in the first book-length survey of stalking behavior. But that won’t be published for another six years.

For now, Gary Wilensky has his own books: Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying; November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide. He might read, study, or make a plan, or he might lie in his bed and stare at shadows. This world is better off without him, and all that.

From YOU ALL GROW UP AND LEAVE ME by Piper Weiss. Copyright © 2018 by Piper Weiss. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Listen to the full audio excerpt of this chapter here. You All Grow Up and Leave Me is out now.


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