April 24, 2013
How did you originally come to write this book?
Well, as I describe in the opening chapters of The Looking Glass Brother, my stepbrother, Little Peter, whom I hadn’t seen in a dozen years, suddenly resurfaced in lower Manhattan, where I had moved with my wife in order to jumpstart both our careers and a family. Little Peter as we call him, to distinguish him from “Big” Peter – myself – had been considered a child prodigy as a boy, both musically and academically – – he played violin and piano brilliantly, tested off the charts and had a photographic memory. In the intervening years, though, he’d developed schizophrenia, dropped out of college and become homeless after a terrible accident that nearly severed both his hands at the wrist. (They were re-attached but he achieved only partial use). When I met him in 1995 he had been living on the streets for several years. He looked homeless, smelled homeless.
What was your first reaction upon seeing Little Peter like this?
Well, I was both amazed and repelled. Amazed because here was a kid I’d known most of my life whom I’d always considered normal, if a bit fierce, suddenly falling through into another world. You could say through the looking glass. That world, in New York City, is especially entrenched and ever-present. You see the homeless here the way you see squirrels and pigeons. They are part of the wildlife. But you never think of communing with a homeless man, much less knowing him intimately. I was frankly blown away to get to know my stepbrother again, right from the start.
Can you describe your stepbrother as he was then?
Yes. Mentally Little Peter was a funny combination of purest naivete and crusty wisdom. There was something about his state–schizophrenia is what we’ve been calling it, but I’m still not sure–that had inhibited neural growth. So my stepbrother still had the age characteristics of a young teenager, which is when the disease hit. This could be hilarious at times. I tell a story early in the book about a car chase in which Little Peter had engaged the entire police force of Indianapolis in the middle of the night, thinking that they were car thieves out to steal his new car (this is when he still had money). He’d ended up blasting by the governor’s mansion at 100 mph and cracking head-on into a police roadblock set up at the center of town. He destroyed his car, but with the luck of the truly indifferent walked away from the scene unharmed. That kind of thing was always happening to Little Peter. At the same time, his view of the world was circumscribed by paranoia and despair. He had a great number of unresolved feelings that kept surfacing. For example, he felt rejected by his family, felt that he had literally thrown away like a piece of trash. He often slept on a piece of cardboard on a grate on Riverside Drive, just fifty or so yards from the front door of the building in which he had grown up. I should note that my stepbrother had been raised in an extremely upper middle class setting, in a building in which Harry Belafonte also lived with only two enormous apartments per floor, and that he had attended the top tier of private elite schools – Dalton, St. Ann’s and Choate. He tended to rage on about the government, specifically Clinton, who he felt had inserted a chip in his brain and was monitoring his thoughts. He hated and feared the cops. That was truly a dark time.
Did you feel that he was in any way dangerous?
Little Peter was and is dangerous. He’d been arrested numerous times for assault, often against women. Still I wanted him to know and be part of my family. I felt it was good for them and for him. But one of the saddest and hardest things I ever did with Little Peter was that after I first met him, I handed him a subway token in the middle of a freezing winter night and told him good bye. He simply could not stay in my apartment. It was two dangerous to my wife, who was pregnant then. Later, Little Peter was often around as we raised our three kids. We would meet outside or in a restaurant. Just not in the house. I always tried to make sure my kids knew Little Peter and that he knew them.
What was it about Little Peter that so fascinated you? Most people in your position would have been repelled by him and would have tried to distance themselves from him.
Most people in my family are repelled by him and have tried their best to stay away from him! Little Peter to me represents a fascinating study of what it means in this society to be human and how little it takes to be made an outsider. I have to say that my generation has always been more sympathetic to people who are simply different, mentally different, than the generation before, and probably more accepting of them. A scientist I very much respect and admire, Svante Paabo, the Swedish paleo-geneticist who was the first to type the Neanderthal genome has wondered what our world would be like now if we had to live with another group of humans, such as the Neanderthals, that were truly different than us. I’m not ay all implying that Little Peter is like a Neanderthal, but his thinking is truly different. Perhaps the way to understand him is to accept him, including his need to stay outdoors. That’s the path I have taken. My stepbrother was very hampered by the high expectations put on him by his upbringing and education, that he should become extremely successful in life. At some point, though, this mysterious accident of birth, whether it was a virus, or genetics, or whatever, had reshaped his mentality, and he had simply to dropped out of our society and gone to live on his own, without money.
I think I know the moment when it happened. One day in his first semester of college, Little Peter was supposed to come home for Thanksgiving break. Instead he missed his plane and spent five days in Logan Airport just hanging around. He had a little money and he slept on seats and benches. This was a kind of revelation for him. He was in a fog, but had found freedom from ambition, from the drive to succeed that most of his schoolmates had. He enjoyed his time in the airport immensely, and asked me once, “Do you think I could live like that forever?” I wasn’t sure how to answer at first, but I thought maybe, yes… In any case, I have been the most accepting of my family. I was maybe the only one who thought it was okay for him to live as he does. As I told my father once, although I was actually speaking about my uncle Ulrich, in this world there are ants and grasshoppers, and the world would be a much more boring place if there were only ants in it.
Your father Franz makes a powerful and sometimes poignant impression in the book. Can you describe him further?
My father was a businessman who’d gone to Yale who stayed at the same Wall Street job for 35 years. On the other hand, he was a painfully insecure adventurer who hopped from woman to woman no matter whom he was married to. He was charming and unreliable. He was a small man and had been even smaller as a kid and had some of that small man’s chutzpah. On the surface he was an upright citizen. Nothing could be as far from the truth! He was incredibly insecure and to the end of his life talked about “personal survival” as if he was about to be thrown out on the street. This was probably because his parents had sent him away to quite harsh German boarding schools when he was only six or seven and he’d had to learn to sink or swim. At any rate, he hated having any male rival around and he treated both Little Peter and me with scorn and anger and some physical violence.
Very early in the book, you talk about the Long Island estate where you grew up as a kid, at least in summers – Peacock Point. Why did you think it was important to bring in this episode of your life into the narrative?
Well, the story of Little Peter is the story of extreme highs and lows – of wealth gained and lost, of the sadness of being expelled from home, and the terror of being thrown out into the world. For me Peacock Point was about all of these things. Growing up there shaped me. It distorted my life and made me fearful. It made me feel as though I lived in a bubble, safe from the world though suffocating. These things affected me and made me much more sympathetic to Little Peter when he came along.
Can you tell me a little more about Peacock Point?
Yes, sure. Peacock Point was the estate in which my mother had grown up spending her summer, and in which most of her relatives, including her mother and father lived. It had been bought in the early teens by my great grandfather, Henry P. Davison, who had been a lieutenant of the banker J.P. Morgan. In the 1920s, it had been a pleasure dome, a Gatsby style palace. By the time I came along, in the 1960s it had developed a bit of the air of Miss Havisham’s party. It was grandiose and surreal, and a bit scary. Everything was preserved just as it was, but it was all a bit tattered. My great grandmother Goggie used to drive around the estate in this ancient black electric car well into her nineties. In addition, all through my youth people kept dying – not only through cancer and alcoholism, but by their own hands. As a child growing up there, I learned to feel comfortable, but not safe. The children of my generation had a terrible prognosis. The death rate was rather high for boys. Incidentally, my mother rebelled against that world and except for summers, my sisters and I grew up in a more normal suburban setting. Of course we had to deal with our father.
Tell me a little about the book itself, its structure, its inspirations, its writing.
Sure. When Little Peter first entered my world, I began taking notes. I had trained as a journalist and taking notes seemed a natural thing to do for me, although I had no end point or purpose in mind. Certainly not writing a book! I’d also gone to art school at a time when documentation itself was deemed very important – artworks themselves could be very ephemeral therefore it was important to gather up their traces and document them. Often photographs and notes would be the only thing you had left from a piece of performance or conceptual art. Anyway, Little Peter would come and go in my life, and I’d throw everything having to do with him into a box – notes, hotel receipts, snapshots, etc. At a certain point, I decided to gather all of this ephemera up and stick it into a loose-leaf, 3-ring binder. What resulted reminded me of a book. Or perhaps a police file. Later it actually became a book! At some point my old friend the photographer James Syme started to come up from his home in Philadelphia to take pictures of Little Peter and me. We began to make a documentary on video that had very high ambitions to become something like the first nouvelle vague cinema verite ethnographic film! All of that came to nought, but a few years later I sat down and started writing this book.
You write very beautifully about the death of your father in the last chapters.
Well, I think it was my father’s death that spurred the book, or at least allowed it to get written. In fact it was very soon afterwards that I began seriously to think about writing the memoir.
In the last few pages you imply that perhaps the book and almost everything you’d done with your stepbrother were an errand, like so many others, that your father had sent you on.
I can’t really take that much further, but there was something about my father and my relationship that was very unfinished and I think both of us were always searching for ways to close the gap. One of my father’s ways was to send me on errands.
What do you think can be “done” with Little Peter now?
Oh, lord, I don’t know! I took four hundred pages and four years of my life writing this book to figure out that I have no idea. A lot could be done in this country to develop the infrastructure to hold and treat the homeless mentally ill. We can’t really be satisfied with this as a solution, to just turn them out on the street! Also filling our jails with the mentally ill is just wrong. In the next few years I hope new and better drugs will be coming out, such as those that affect the glutamate levels in the brain, that may help schizophrenics to think and perceive less differently than non-schizophrenics. But I think the main thing will have to be acceptance. We see gays rightly being accepted into the mainstream where once they were treated as badly as the mentally ill. In fact homosexuals were once suspected to be mentally ill and mistakenly given lobotomies! We see greater understanding and acceptance of various mental conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, autism and Asperger’s these days. People with those conditions are now speaking up and demanding respect and equal rights. Perhaps schizophrenia is the next frontier of social acceptance, the latest minority group to take control of its fate. I hope so. I think the attempts by the gun crazies of the NRA to place the blame for tragedies like Newtown solely on the mentally ill rather than on the huge proliferation of lethal weapons in our society a step in the wrong direction. They are really trying to stigmatize the mentally ill, and I think it is wrong.