Revisiting Peter Braunstein: A Look at a Tabloid Monster

An Outsider Who Lived Painfully at the Intersection of Media and Fashion

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I confess to almost forgetting about Peter Braunstein, the one-time media reporter who in 2007 got 18 years to life after impersonating a firefighter, knocking out a woman with chloroform, and groping her over the course of 13 hours on Halloween. Now as a reminder, there's a longish look at Mr. Braunstein's rise and fall to go along with the occasional jailhouse interviews he's done, not to mention the episode of "CSI" based on his case.

"Speak of the Devil" is a Kindle Single released last month by Aaron Gell, a former colleague of Mr. Braunstein and now executive editor at the New York Observer. Almost five years after Mr. Braunstein's conviction, Mr. Gell, after a lengthy jailhouse interview and follow-up communications, depicts the man he once enlisted to do freelance writing as intelligent, crazy and, perhaps most startlingly, free of remorse. Mr. Gell puts a finer point on the intelligence we were frequently reminded of during the long trial, ensuring we're not left to think of him as a criminally mad genius but rather a smart but dangerously unhinged grad-student type.

It's a haunting portrait, no doubt, but why revisit the episode?

After all, unlike Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, previous media flameouts that were instructive on the weaknesses of our most august media institutions, Mr. Braunstein didn't violate the rules of journalism. He violated actual laws that are broken every day all over this country. But he wasn't a garden-variety creep either. What sets Mr. Braunstein's tale apart is his status. He was an outsider who, for a short time, lived at the very luxe intersection of the media and fashion worlds. It was unthinkable, and an unthinkably sexy story, that an accomplished writer for Women's Wear Daily who could get top fashion editors to pick up the phone would end up on America's Most Wanted. My faint memory of him was as a whack job who just happened to be a media reporter. I finished Mr. Gell's "Speak of the Devil" with the sense that the crimes it addresses were tied to the perp's role as someone who spent a good chunk of time ogling powerful people who were, in turn, so fickle in their regard for him.

Mr. Gell shows Mr. Braunstein to be a monster built for our fameball times. "Invisibility was a big issue for Peter," Mr. Gell writes. "A case could be made that it was his greatest fear, and that rage at feeling ignored had fueled his Halloween plot." Anna Wintour deserved to die, in Mr. Braunstein's view, because she didn't return his phone calls.

Mr. Braunstein is also the extreme of a type we all know, a creepy exaggeration of the hyper-intellectual detached from his own actions. His reading of his own downfall -- and it is an interpretation -- is all very textual, self-conscious and postmodern. Right before the crimes occurred, for instance, Mr. Braunstein wrote a manifesto that Mr. Gell sees as "one part Hannibal Lecter, one part Lenny Bruce." A passage that imagines a world where anger is disallowed is described by Mr. Gell as "a pretty incisive social critique, even if it is coming from the mind of a man plotting a horrible crime."

During the police's six-week hunt for him, Mr. Braunstein kept a diary, part of which criticized the media coverage of his crimes -- a "good read," in Mr. Gell's view. Using Mr. Gell as a sounding board, there's also a bit of psychoanalysis: Mr. Braunstein interprets his parents as narcissists, with Alberto Braunstein an "absent father." He references "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Dark Knight ," calling an "accomplice" helping him to stir up trouble outside prison "Salander" and going as far as quoting the Joker: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Rather than feel sorry for his criminal actions, there is a tortured relationship with the very idea of remorse. At first, he dismisses it out of hand, then, after Mr. Gell pushes, allows some room for regret. "There are real feelings there," he says. But he eventually ends up back where he started, telling Mr. Gell, "I don't wish I didn't do the things I did."

Mr. Braunstein is right in a way to cast doubt on the value of post-conviction remorse -- and that 's annoying to no end. Ultimately, words are just words and they don't add up to much in the context of the crimes he committed. Mr. Braunstein knows this and he's not playing along. But you don't want to find yourself agreeing with someone like this. On anything. Ever. And that 's the power of Mr. Gell's work, allowing you close enough to see his intellect without further mythologizing it.

So what do you do with subject who's smart but also horrible, and also someone you've worked with? Mr. Gell is usually successful as he toes the line between empathy and revulsion. At times, I wished for a more-judgmental authorial voice, but too much condemnation -- no matter how deserved -- and too much calling out would dilute the new contributions here. Mr. Gell lays Mr. Braunstein out there, and it is not a pretty sight. Peter Braunstein is a devil, we know. What's interesting here are the details.

You can buy the Single here; an excerpt is here.

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