The Looking Glass Brotherby Peter von Ziegesar
Peter von Ziegesar had just moved to New York and was awaiting the birth of his first child when a dark shape stepped from the looking glass of his past on to a Greenwich Village street. The Looking Glass Brother is Peter von Ziegesar's remarkable memoir of a life that began in the exquisite enclaves of Long Island's gilded age families and is now lived, in/i>… See more details below
Peter von Ziegesar had just moved to New York and was awaiting the birth of his first child when a dark shape stepped from the looking glass of his past on to a Greenwich Village street. The Looking Glass Brother is Peter von Ziegesar's remarkable memoir of a life that began in the exquisite enclaves of Long Island's gilded age families and is now lived, in part, as the keeper of his homeless and schizophrenic stepbrother, Little Peter. The Looking Glass Brother is a feast of memories from one of the last, great estates on Long Island's Peacock Point. Summers were filled with the glistening water of the Long Island Sound, pristine beaches, croquet games, butlers in formal wear serving dinners and an endless stream of cocktails. When, after a string of affairs Peter's father left his mother and remarried, the idyll was broken and several stepchildren, including Little Peter, entered von Ziegesar's life from the looking glass of his father's new family. Little Peter was an angelic and brilliant young boy who spiraled down during adolescence to become one more homeless man living on the street. In this big-hearted memoir, Peter von Ziegesar mixes memories of life on Peacock Point with the turbulent joys of fatherhood and the responsibility he feels for his brother, a man with the same name as his, but a man who lives a desperate and very different life.
“Von Ziegesar's cinematic eye and exceptional fluency in diverse perspectives make him an adventurously empathic biographer and audaciously candid memoirist in this piercing, thought-provoking portrait of a many-branched American family and a "looking glass" brother who reflects so many of life's most plangent mysteries.” Booklist
“Brotherly love is evident here, while drugs, lavish estates, suicide, divorce, philandering, and the back drop of NYC round out a touching inside view of comfort and homelessness.” Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“In a memorable memoir reflecting identity, von Ziegesar tells of his stepbrother's wounds, both psychic and grievously physical, occasionally with fraternal irascibility and more frequently with candid understanding…The talented writer snares readers throughout.” Kirkus Reviews
“This provocative looking-glass tale of two nonconformist brothers, one thriving within a nurturing family circle, the other a perpetual outsider because of mental illness, shines with emotional veracity, sensory precision, cosmic absurdity, all kinds of pain and steadfast love.” Kansas City Star
“Elegantly constructed and written with both stringency and heart, The Looking Glass Brother fluently braids memories of an ultraprivileged childhood and the bleak realities of mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness today. Von Ziegesar has the gift for creating rounded characters, and the brother of the title comes alive as a figure of compelling, if heartbreaking, paradox, while the portrait of the clueless father is the most vivid of its kind I've read since This Boy's Life.” Eli Gottlieb, author of The Boy Who Went Away and The Face Thief
“The Looking Glass Brother is an engaging story of loyalty, love and a search for reconciliation between two brothers and an indifferent and often-callous father. Packed with the intimacies of an old-monied family, the story moves between the family's wealthy preserve on Long Island Sound and the grubby drug streets of New York City in the 1990s. It is a candid and personal story that seeks to show and understand the forces that both tear apart and draw together a father and his two sons, even as all three wrestle with their personal demons.” Lou Ureneck, author of Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly Fishing and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska (National Outdoor Book Award Winner) and Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream and Five Acres in Maine
“There's so much to admire about von Ziegesar's writing. Perhaps most resonant is his unique lyrical voice, both brave and loving as he retells a dark, very personal story.” Stephanie LaCava, author of An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris
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The Looking Glass Brother
The Preposterous, Moving, Hilarious, and Frequently Terrifying Story of My Gilded Age Long Island Family, My Philandering Father, and the Homeless Stepbrother Who Shares My Name
By Peter von Ziegesar
PicadorCopyright © 2013 Peter von Ziegesar
All rights reserved.
March 12, 1995 New York City
The phone at my desk rang and a crusty, vaguely familiar, tobacco-hoarse voice crackled in my ear.
"Peter, it's Peter. Your stepbrother," said the voice. "Your stepbrother, Peter, who you haven't seen in many years. Little Peter, meet Big Peter. Isn't that funny? Anyway, it's me."
I looked out my window. It was a gray winter's afternoon in Greenwich Village. I felt like I was listening to a lost recording of the Beat poets.
"Peter?" I said, helplessly. "Peter?" If this really was my stepbrother, it was the first time I'd heard his voice since the early eighties. Obviously terrible things had happened to him in the meantime. Things that had turned him from the alert, blue-eyed violin prodigy, the apple of his mother's eye, who attended one elite school after another — Dalton; Saint Ann's, in New York City; and then my father's alma mater, the Choate school, in Wallingford, Connecticut — into a drooling specimen of New York City's homeless. Something out of Bob Dylan: "Bent out of shape from society's pliers ..."
* * *
There was nothing on the line now but the distant honking of cars.
And then the crackly voice started again. "My mother gave me your number, because she said you were a good person. How my mother would know anything about that I don't understand. She never liked you and always said you were spoiled rotten and no damn good, especially when you had long hair. But she's changed her tune now, if you want to see me, and I hope you do. If you care about me at all."
"Peter, where are you?" I asked, fearing the line would cut off.
"It doesn't matter where I am," he said. "And it's probably better if you don't know."
"Can you get to the corner of Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street in half an hour?"
"Do you have a watch?" I asked.
"I don't need a watch. Give me forty-five minutes. I'll see you there."
"Who was that?" asked Hali, coming into my office, drying her hair in a towel.
"That was Peter."
"Your stepbrother Peter?" she asked, with disbelief.
"I'm going out to meet him right now."
"Oh. Be careful," she said, placing a pair of black cat's-eye glasses embedded with tiny diamonds on her nose. The glasses made her look like the excuses secretary at a suburban high school. She wore flowered long johns and a loose, ripped Princeton T-shirt. "Be sure to call me if it gets too late."
* * *
It was almost dark by the time I reached Fourteenth Street, and the broad strip of cheap clothing outlets and check-cashing stores looked grim and windswept. Still, I wasn't far from my apartment. If Peter clubbed me over the head unexpectedly with a piece of scrap wood, I could probably make my way back by crawling.
Various rumors had come to me over the years of Little Peter's fantastical exploits — we called him "Little" Peter, since I was "Big" Peter — how he'd run screaming down East Ninety-sixth Street in a bathrobe after escaping from the Mount Sinai Hospital psychiatric ward, only to be knocked down by a careening taxi and dragged back to the hospital by two cops. How he'd spent six months in a lockup in Blaine County, Idaho, after trying to break open his mother's head with a piece of firewood. How one night in Indianapolis he was clocked in a new car going 110 miles an hour past the governor's mansion. Convinced that pursuing cops were in league with a ring of automobile thieves, he crashed into a massive police roadblock at the town center, totaling his car — but walking away unharmed. How he'd fallen asleep drunk one afternoon in a Montana wheat field, and had woken to the gentle, but mysterious, susurration of the blades of a harvest combine, which a moment later came thundering down over his head. How he'd lifted his hands instinctively to protect himself, only to see them severed at the wrists. How he'd scrambled to a lake by the field and lain down in ice-cold water, seeking only peace and death, while his hands flapped back and forth on bits of skin from their bloody stumps. How a helicopter had flown him to Salt Lake City, where a team of surgeons had meticulously reattached his hands. And how one of his first uses of his hands had been to push a nurse down a flight of stairs. He'd only recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, though there was still some dispute as to whether he'd ever been diagnosed at all.
Schizophrenics live in a world of external violence commensurate with their internal chaos. They assault, are assaulted, and commit suicide with greater frequency than the rest of the population. Little Peter's increasingly troubled street career hadn't contradicted this.
I peered ahead down the gray sidewalk, thinking I saw a figure coming toward me. Its shaggy shape reminded me of the terrifying gremlin on the wing of a jet plane in a particular episode of The Twilight Zone. The gremlin could only be seen by one man, a broken-down loser played by William Shatner. Each time that man, who'd apparently had a recent mental breakdown, called the other passengers over to look, the gremlin leaped in the night air and was blown backward off the wing. The figure I saw seemed to appear and disappear as it came closer. A shabby white plastic bag bobbled from each of its hands, which curled under like claws.
His walk was one that stray cats and homeless men develop unconsciously, an ambulatory cringe that says to the world, "Don't beat me, I'm moving on. I'm just taking this piece of sandwich, this container of moo shu pork, this spit-soaked cigarette butt. You don't want it. Now I've got it. I'll stop defiling your view in a minute."
The way I knew it was Little Peter, finally, was his eyes, his astonishing eyes, still as blue and clear as Paul Newman's. His nose had flattened and grown red and pulpy, and there was a crude long scar over his right eye that gave him a permanently worried look. His torn jeans and stained corduroy jacket had become too small for his thick and doughy body. The sleeves of his flannel shirt stuck out beyond his jacket sleeves, and over the flannel shirt was a long, untucked T-shirt. He was growing a beard, and his hair, once blond, was now orange, mixed with toffee brown, and was molded over his head like a bowl.
Before he reached me, he picked a white paper bag from a trash can, pried it open, and rattled the interior. The sound and motion were automatic and mechanical; they reminded me of the movements of a caged fox, returning again and again to its pan to check whether any specks of food remained.
"Peter?" I called out, through the darkness and the blowing snow.
He swung his two white plastic bags uncertainly this way and that, as if about to turn and run. With a furtive expression, he walked up to me.
"Yes, it's me," I said. Carefully, I put my arms around my stepbrother's shoulders and gave him a hug. The hair on his face had bleached in tufts, over the rough, red skin of his cheeks. He's gone feral, I thought.
"It didn't look like you at all," he said, blinking. "I saw you standing there, and I thought you must have changed."
"Bullshit. I haven't changed a bit," I said. I turned and started to walk down Eighth Avenue. Little Peter began to scurry at my side, crablike, eagerly looking into my face.
"The last time I saw you, I was driving you to Choate. You must have been about seventeen."
"No," he said, "you're wrong — the last time you saw me was when I forgot to deliver the negatives of Tommy Tune."
How could I forget that? That was long after Little Peter left Choate in disgrace, in the mid-eighties. By then he'd also dropped out of the University of New Hampshire. Nothing was working for him then, and someone had thought to find him a job as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan. This turned out to be an extraordinarily fortunate choice — Little Peter loved to spin through the stone alleys of Wall Street with a bag slung over his shoulder, to wait breathlessly in a lobby for an important envelope to be brought down to him. He'd ride up the West Side Highway, smoking a cigarette, delirious with the hot sun beating down on the back of his neck and the fluffy clouds changing shape across the river in New Jersey. He always carried a bottle of Kahlua in his messenger bag and he'd reach for it now and then. Sometimes he forgot to deliver the envelope.
My father never formally adopted Little Peter, but at some point my stepbrother had taken our last name. That made two of us with the same name in the same family, both eldest sons. And since there are only twenty or so von Ziegesars left on the planet, it sometimes happened that our wires got crossed. It was always a case of mistaken identity. The postman delivered Little Peter's jury summonses and alumni notices to my door. This time it was an irate call. An enraged art director had rung me up, thinking I was my stepbrother, having somehow obtained my number.
"I'd like to wrap my hands around his throat, I swear I would," the guy from the ad agency said when I explained who I wasn't.
I could almost smell his cigar smoke coming in over the wire.
"Please don't kill my stepbrother," I said. "He's got a little thinking to do, maybe. But he'll figure things out." I asked the guy to give me his address and phone number and promised I'd call him right back.
Then I called Norwalk and got Erik on the phone, told him to get Little Peter up off the sofa and on the next train to New York City. "Stay with him," I said. "Call me from Grand Central when you get there. Bring the negatives. Got that? Don't let him out of your sight."
But that was years ago. Little Peter and I were still playing out our lives in opposition to each other. It always seemed that when he was on top, I was down, and the other way around. We were both a long way from where we started. Given the world of privilege in which Little Peter had been raised — the private schools, the music lessons, the European vacations — a lot of us who knew him had considered his fall from grace to have been caused by little less than a spectacular case of bad attitude. This is the boy whose Dalton music teacher once called "the next Paganini," the same angel-faced five-year-old I'd carried on my back on the green hills of Connecticut. Even just a few years ago in Idaho, a psychiatrist assigned by the state to assess his chances for involuntary commitment concluded that my stepbrother was just a "spoiled kid" who needed a swift kick in the pants.
"Peter, are you hungry?" I asked. "Come on, let's go home."CHAPTER 2
Little Peter's sudden reappearance in my life threw a monkey wrench into what had been for me a prolonged and unaccustomed state of equilibrium. I'd gotten married, for one thing, which had surprised the hell out of my father, who'd always been skeptical about my ability to integrate vertically. My wife, Hali, was in her second year of social work school, and was pregnant, which was fine except that to keep from throwing up she had to constantly eat saltines and sniff the rinds of lemons.
She and I had met five years before in Kansas City, where I was working as a stringer for The Kansas City Star. It had happened that one afternoon, when deep in my usual fog, I walked into the local office of the ACLU, where I'd been invited to serve on the board on the strength of a flattering profile I'd written about a local constitutional lawyer. There, at the front desk, I was confronted by a bird of strange plumage. She looked about fourteen, with her old running shoes up on the desk and her jeans splattered with paint. Her jet-black hair, thick as a horse's mane, was clipped in a chaotic spray over her head. As she chatted away about the pro-choice march she was organizing in Kansas and Missouri, she gazed cheerfully at me through a pair of black cat's-eye glasses. So cheerful was she that I'd had the impression at first that she must belong to some kind of Christian sect that preached the power of positive thinking. She told me later that I, too, had appeared inexpressibly weird to her, in my jeans, Ray-Bans, and a French striped fisherman's shirt that I'd borrowed from my girlfriend. But who thinks of these things ahead of time?
To be frank, I didn't get it, the whole picture. When she left the room I took a surreptitious peek into the Rolodex on the desk. Her name, a string of disconnected alliterative syllables, meant nothing to me. Nevertheless, small metal objects were beginning to click and fall into place inside my head like relays in an old-fashioned telephone exchange.
By our first date — to see an exhibition of mechanized dinosaurs in the lobby of the Westin Crown Center Hotel — I'd cautiously decided I wanted to see more of her. The dates we devised were deliberately improvised and random. A trip to Lawrence where I was supposed to give a lecture on writing, a late-night performance given by Kansas City artists that ended up with the usual en masse display of tantrum dancing by men in skirts. This girl — Hali was her name — was funny, post-minimalist, and thought I was completely full of shit. That in itself seemed like a good start.
One evening just at dusk we'd parked up on a hill in the center of town where the city fathers had erected a phallic sandstone monument to the war dead that glowed with a cherry-red light at its tip. For decades the dark roads that wound around this memorial had been a traditional meeting place for gay men in cars. Since Hali and I were meeting secretly, I didn't think anyone would look for us there. I chose the moment when the red sun dropped into the river bottoms to the west to tell Hali that I wanted her to have my children. She was surprised, but not terrified. She supposed I'd been around long enough to know what I wanted.
Eventually we climbed over the seats into the back of the Jeep. Perhaps we thought we would commence on that project of which we'd spoken earlier. Just then there came a loud cracking noise and powerful beams of light shining through the windows. We looked out to see a pair of white-faced Kansas City cops tapping on the glass with their flashlights, shouting for us to open the door. No doubt they were expecting to roust a couple of scared, skinny boys from their pimply — but fully protected under the Constitution — deeds. Instead when a proud, pretty, completely unafraid round-faced Korean woman in pigtails and a bang cut popped her head up over the backseat, the flatfoots couldn't have looked more surprised if an Eskimo fully decked out in a sealskin coat and a harpoon had suddenly walked into their basement den. The two backed away mumbling, jumped in their vehicle, and drove off.
Now that we were, at least to ourselves, "official," there came the terrifying process of disentangling ourselves from our respective mates. I would have sooner cut off an arm than do anything to hurt my girlfriend then. The next few weeks were not ones I was particularly proud of, nor did I execute the required tasks particularly well, but eventually they were over.
That Hali's almost infinitely extended Korean-American family of doctors and physicists were willing to accept me was in itself some miracle. The plan was for me to meet everyone in Boulder, Colorado, over Christmas. A few weeks before, I received a call from her mother's youngest brother, Uncle Chin. Hali had explained to me that his name had been Chul, but her ninety-year-old grandmother, the matriarch of the family, had learned recently that his name was unpropitious, and had changed it to Chin.
Excerpted from The Looking Glass Brother by Peter von Ziegesar. Copyright © 2013 Peter von Ziegesar. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
PETER VON ZIEGESAR a New York-based filmmaker and screenwriter. He has written articles, essays and reviews on film and art for many national publications, including DoubleTake, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Art in America. His short fiction won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize. His work as a film and multimedia artist has received national attention, including a solo exhibition at the Hirschhorn Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. He lives in New York City.
PETER VON ZIEGESAR a New York-based filmmaker and screenwriter. He is the author of the book The Looking Glass Brother: The Preposterous, Moving, Hilarious, and Frequently Terrifying Story of My Gilded Age Long Island Family, My Philandering Father, and the Homeless Stepbrother Who Shares My Name. He has written articles, essays and reviews on film and art for many national publications, including DoubleTake, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Art in America. His short fiction won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize. His work as a film and multimedia artist has received national attention, including a solo exhibition at the Hirschhorn Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. He lives in New York City.
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