Who hasn’t fantasized about running into your childhood nemesis again, when you have grown into your own, and he hasn’t? In Allen Kurzweil’s Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, he goes further than fantasy—he is determined to find his childhood oppressor and see exactly how his life turned out.
A few years after his father’s death, a young Kurzweil arrived in Switzerland to attend a pseudo-military boarding school. As the smallest and youngest student in the school, he was a clear target at Aiglon, a place with impossible rules and a high affinity for rankings. Still shaky from his father’s death, and lonely for his mother (letters reprinted from that period read “Dear Mom, I have only received one letter from you!” “Dear Mom, I am a little homesick…I haven’t heard from you lately”), Allen is vulnerable and isolated, and this is when he meets Cesar Augustus.
Cesar was twelve to Allen’s ten, larger in both physicality and personality. He bullied Allen inventively, force-feeding him hot sauce-soaked bread and flogging him in synchronized tune to Jesus Christ Superstar. Though it’s possible Allen could have moved past these creative traumas, when Cesar played a hazy part in the loss of Allen’s late father’s watch, he became scorched into Allen’s head forever. “The loss left me bereft—more than bereft. I felt annihilated,” Kurzweil writes. “I would have done anything—gulped down an entire bottle of Cesar’s hot sauce or submitted to “The Thirty-nine Lashes” thirty nine times—if I’d thought it would return the watch to my wrist. (I still would.)” Those last three words, which are early in the book, underline everything: still, Kurzweil would do anything to retrieve his father’s watch. He can’t get past it, and so he can’t get past Cesar.
Cesar left Aiglon mysteriously and Kurzweil ended up moving to the US. Though he falls in love, gets married, has a child, and creates a successful career as a writer, he can’t shake memories of Cesar. And as he starts to dig into Cesar’s past, using some well-placed connections and the new-at-the-time search Google, he finds out what any tortured kid would love to hear about their childhood bully—Cesar is a convicted criminal.
It’s not a straightforward crime, and it’s not even immediately clear how involved he was or if he was actually involved. So Kurzweil delves into a full investigation of an elaborate con that involved presidential suites at the Waldorf, alleged royals, and trails from Zurich to Manila. Aided by federal files and conversations with those who were conned, he tries to push his childhood prejudice toward the side and convince himself he’s only interested in it for the story. Instead of focusing on his feelings toward Cesar, the twelve-year-old bully, he directs his energy toward Cesar, the adult conman behind Badische Trust Corporation. Sure, they’re technically the same person—but are they? In the present day, Cesar doesn’t even remember most of the memories Kurzweil has ruminated over, writing: “Is it really possible that a boy I will never forget has all but forgotten me?…I feel foolish for so grossly exaggerating his capacity for evil. Cesar is not the All-Knowing Menace I anticipated.”
As the investigation moves from web searches and paper documents to in-person meetings with masked intentions, what started as an uneasy but mostly harmless fixation turns into a queasy question of morality. As a grown man, Kurzweil is able to see the similarities he never would have thought he and Cesar had. “The detail that really kneecaps me, the thing that hits way too close to home, is that all of Cesar’s problems are tied to the absence of his father. Join the club, buddy.” We start to wonder: hasn’t karma served Cesar revenge enough? How far will Kurzweil go to avenge another man who used to be an unhappy, fatherless boy?
Whipping Boy is an examination of obsession, a testament to how a childhood grudge can take on a life of its own, and a study in forgiveness. Kurzweil is an engaging narrator that elevates what could turn into a true crime story into a study on humanity. The actual investigation drags on a little long in the book—I wanted to hear less about paper trails and more about people—but maybe because it dragged on too long in real life, as well. Kurzweil gets carried away by the rush of resentment and potential revenge, but it seems human, and perhaps what is most admirable is how he manages to confront his childhood demons head-on, never pretending he’s moved past them—because really, so many of us haven’t. Everyone has a childhood bully, everyone has a fantasy of avenging their childhood traumas, and Kurzweil had the courage and resources to act his out. However, in the process he discovers what we as children never want to hear about our bully—they are people too, with their own problems, and if we dig hard enough, we just might end up understanding them.