Gawker Book Club: Speak of the Devil, by Aaron Gell

Peter Braunstein was a former writer for The Village Voice, WWD and other New York publications who became a tabloid sensation in 2005 after he went crazy, raped a woman [Correction: Braunstein was convicted of kidnapping, sexual abuse, robbery and burglary. He was never charged with rape], and went on the run. Aaron Gell (now an editor at the New York Observer), a former colleague of Braunstein's, has revisited the man and tried to make sense of his crimes in his new Kindle Single, Speak of the Devil: How Peter Braunstein went from Fashion Casualty to Tabloid Monster.

Aaron Gell is here, in the Gawker comments, answering questions from you, the readers, right now! An excerpt of his book ran in the NYO last week; a new excerpt is below:

Back in New York, the city remained on edge. Normally cocksure law-enforcement officials seemed markedly irritated by their two-and-a-half-week hunt for the fireman perv. The next morning, they caught what seemed like a break. The owner of a cafe in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, called the NYPD, swearing Peter had stopped in for coffee; cops arrived within minutes, dusted the counter for prints, and brought in bloodhounds. The dogs, who'd been given Peter's scent from clothes the police confiscated from his mom's house, led them to a vacant brownstone nearby while department helicopters thumped overhead. With a bomb squad standing ready, eight Emergency Services Unit officers armed with machine guns stormed the house.

At the time, Peter was nearly 900 miles away, on a bus to Nashville. Once there, he checked into a modest lodging, albeit a step up from some of his previous domiciles. He flicked on the TV, and there he was on CNN Headline News. The story said the authorities had offered an award for his capture: $12,000.

That seemed a little low to him, he wrote in his "Fugitive Diary," especially considering the "hysterical" reaction to his crime. Seeing the TV spot reminded him of everything he'd come to hate about New York in the first place-most notably, "the colossal sense of entitlement that only New Yorkers have." The whole city was full of spoiled brats, he thought, who can't stand not to get what they want. It wasn't just the crime that had made everyone so crazy, it was the fact that Peter was now refusing to be apprehended.

"How dare I? How dare I defy the timetable for my speedy capture?" he wrote.

He was in good spirits, surprised to be feeling healthier than ever before. "My body, the same body that imbibed little more than booze and cigarettes from June '04 to June '05, is becoming a machine," he reported. "It's typical me that, ever on the verge of death, I'm in the best physical shape of my adult life."

He was also getting a tan. "Another perk of this lifestyle-don't have to worry about melanoma. Not gonna be around long enough for that to matter.

It was nearly three months since Hurricane Katrina had made landfall in Louisiana, and as Peter made his way south, he began increasingly to identify with victims of the catastrophe. After all, he too had lost everything and been displaced. On November 22, just before Thanksgiving, he tried on a new identity-Mark Joffrey, "a name I love!"-for whom he'd created an elaborate backstory. Mark had been a caretaker for a well-to-do New Orleans couple, the Ellisons, who lived in a fine old mansion on Pitt Street in the Carrollton spur. He'd left two days before the storm hit, after failing to persuade the 73-year-old Mrs. Ellison to evacuate. He was on his way back to Louisiana, he told people, to view the wreckage.

As Peter told the story at a Catholic mission, he found himself in tears. "Must have something to do with the part about having no friends or family," he theorized, "and a future that is, to put it generously, unbelievably precarious."

He soon found out just how precarious it was, when he stopped by a public library in Memphis to Google himself and saw he'd been featured on America's Most Wanted. "Pac would be so proud," he wrote of Tupac Shakur. "I can't wait to join him in heaven w/ Biggie (I think he'll be there) and Aaron Spelling. … "

One striking element of the Fugitive Diary is Peter's attempt to ally himself with poor and middle-class people he met while on the run-another sign of compassion, perhaps, but also an effort to reframe himself as victim rather than perpetrator. One rainy morning, as he waited for a bus from the homeless shelter to the University of Memphis, a black woman offered him "a huge double-handful" of her Skittles. Noting that "this seems to be a national black eating habit-they'll consume sweets, whenever, wherever," he marveled at "people with very little sharing whatever they have with you." It made for a sharp contrast, he wrote, with "the selfish indifference of those overcompensated fashionista assholes in NYC … who wouldn't give me the time of day when I was hurting and reaching out for some help. I didn't even want anything material from them, just the proverbial shoulder to cry on. Just someone to invite me over for a spaghetti dinner and some conversation. But evidently that was too much to ask. … "

When I read this, I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if he and I had been closer. We were just acquaintances, and he'd never reached out to me. But hell, I would have made spaghetti for the guy. Wouldn't I?

He went on, declaring that those "hubris-drenched sociopaths"-a nice turn of phrase that a psychologist might call an example of projection-were "crying out for retribution." The thought of their "callous indifference," he insisted, "strengthens my resolve to see this thing through until I'm a bleeding corpse splayed out on the sidewalk filled with police-issue lead. Soon … "
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Put your questions for Aaron in the comment section below. You can buy Speak of the Devil here.