As a graduate student, Braunstein was lauded for introducing the now-established term “possessive memory” to describe the psychology of aging sixties activists and academics. This memory, he wrote, “leaves the person and his memories in a lover’s embrace: The person is in possession of his memories, and no one else can touch them; at the same time, his memories are in possession of him.” Now on the receiving end of unrequited love, the theoretical construct meant more to him than he expected. He began a campaign against the Woman in Beauty—hundreds of harassing phone calls, some a running loop of a woman orgasming; threatening e-mails to her father; posting her nude photos on the Web. He started a blog on his play’s Website: “Before I could write a play about Edie Sedgwick, I had to become Edie Sedgwick, and that channeling was ignited by my two-year hellride with someone who, for the sake of both propriety and nomenclature, I’ll simply call ‘BioHazard’: because she’s the most toxic woman I ever attempted to love.”
Braunstein embarked on a series of 4 a.m. calls to the actresses in the play, as well. “I don’t understand why you don’t want to get real with me,” he would say. “You know, babe, I’ve seen it all. Let’s get down—tell me your secrets, your tragedies, your dark past.” When they resisted, he’d say, “Man, are you a boring person or what?” One actress became so frightened she played his rambling voice-mail messages for a lady cop at a police precinct; the policewoman said that she could hold Braunstein for 24 hours, and he’d be able to learn who had filed the complaint; she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
At the play’s close, Braunstein said he was moving to Europe to work on a new project: Valley of the Dolls, the musical. In truth, he hung around Queens searching for a job in journalism, heading out to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for an interview at Life & Style magazine—“He wanted to write about David Bowie,” says the interviewer. “I was like, ‘You know this is a job about Cameron Diaz’s belts, right?’ ” He took to writing his own letters to the editor, chastising Jane Pratt for running an article by Jayson Blair, threatening Atoosa Rubenstein for putting Paris Hilton on the cover of CosmoGIRL! magazine. A piece on stalking Kate Moss was one of the only ones he published in these years, in Black Book magazine. He wrote, “There will never be a ‘next Kate’ for one simple reason: Kate is always the ‘next Kate.’ She is her own successor . . . That makes her every woman, real or fake, I’ve ever fallen hopelessly in love with.”
With such obsessions, Braunstein was increasingly inhabiting his own Guy Bourdin porn world. Girls in magazines, real girls, long-dead “It” girls like Edie flashed like a slide show in his mind. Some he worshipped, some he reviled, but all were objects, emptied of whatever they possessed, given his own meanings. His hatred for some—the Woman in Beauty, especially—was building dangerously.
Forensic psychologists call a case like Braunstein’s an obsessional disorder with a disturbance in interpersonal attachments. Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College, says there are three key factors in escalating this kind of obsession: crossing the line from being a fan to obsession, unrealistic obsessions of being a part of a celebrity’s life, and observing the victim doing something that the assailant finds morally offensive.
In September, the Woman in Beauty, so humiliated by Braunstein’s acts that she kept the extent of his harassment from friends, took him to court. She got a permanent order of protection barring Braunstein from contacting her, and Braunstein was sentenced to three years’ probation and five days’ community service. The offense was great, and the frustration greater.
A common feature of violent sexual obsession is its fluidity—the object can shift, even as the impulse is constant. On Braunstein’s computer the police found notes he’d made for an assault—to dress up as a firefighter, break into a woman’s apartment, and tie her up. He had someone in mind—the plan was meant for the beauty editor.
He allegedly took his revenge on the other woman, the Woman in Market, who never gave him the time of day, who was cold and impeccable, armored with the best clothes and best shoes any woman could have, and she didn’t deserve them. A woman who was always just out of reach. A woman who offended him by her taking of the shoes. A woman who was just as bad and as shameful as he was, a Dark Princess for a Dark Prince. The attack was about fetishized humiliation—with shoes, the symbol of her glamour and power—more than sexual release. There was no DNA evidence left at the scene.