Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, NPR.org and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
By Allen Kurzweil
Harper. 291 pp.$27.99
What becomes of bullies when they grow up? Do they evolve into decent, kind human beings, or does their capacity for malice grow along with their bodies? Allen Kurzweil explores this issue — and much more — in “Whipping Boy,” a compulsive account of his search for the childhood tormentor who made his life miserable during the year he spent at an English-style boarding school in Switzerland while his widowed mother “was test-driving her third husband.”
“There has never been anything neutral about my Switzerland,” Kurzweil writes in this odyssey of retribution and release. As a child, he had happy associations with the alpine country, where he had spent idyllic early Christmases with his Austrian-born father, who died of cancer when Allen was 5. His view of Switzerland changed after he arrived at the boarding school, Aiglon College, at age 10, in 1971. As the smallest and youngest boy and one of few Jews, he was the lowest of the low at a school predicated on rank and rules.
Housed in a tower room with four roommates, young Kurzweil quickly fell prey to a husky, smirking 12-year-old Filipino named Cesar Augusto Viana. Cesar forced him to eat bread pellets soaked in hot sauce and performed on him a nasty, degrading reenactment of “Thirty-Nine Lashes” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” As terrified as Allen was by threats of being thrown out of the tower window, worse still was the defenestration of his most prized possession, his father’s Omega Seamaster watch. Its disappearance was a transgression he could not forgive.
Four decades is a long time to bear a grudge, and readers may wonder why Kurzweil never sought therapy to defuse his childhood demons. For years, he writes, “I ended up dealing with the lingering rage by transforming my memories into a series of amusing narratives. . . . I downplayed my humiliation and laughed off my pain.” This coping mechanism saw him through Yale, multiple prestigious fellowships (including a Fulbright), the publication of two novels ( “A Case of Curiosities” in 1992 and “The Grand Complication” in 2001), marriage to a French anthropologist and fatherhood.
By the time Kurzweil’s son became a victim of bullying, the grin-and-bear-it culture of no snitching had shifted. Father and son’s ensuing conversations led to “Leon and the Spitting Image,” Kurzweil’s first children’s book, about a bully named Hank the Tank, inspired in part by memories of Cesar. The book’s 2003 publication led to classroom appearances around the country, where students aired their own tales of painful humiliation. With the help of the Internet, Kurzweil embarked on the quest that has resulted in this book — much of which is only tangentially related to Cesar.
Kurzweil admits that to have found his former nemesis leading a well-adjusted, successful life would have been even more disappointing than not finding him at all. No worry on either score. With considerable digging — including the examination of 14 cartons of legal documents — he verifies, “beyond all reasonable doubt, that ‘my’ Cesar was a convicted felon,” sentenced to prison for 37 months for his role in an elaborate advance-fee scheme run by a bizarre group of costumed con men posing as titled (and entitled) European aristocrats.
But Kurzweil doesn’t stop there. With the zeal of a journalist and self-proclaimed obsessive, he interviews victims, lawyers, investigators, perpetrators — anyone with any involvement in or knowledge of the Badische Trust Consortium’s fraudulent operation. Many people agree to talk with him in part because of their own experiences with childhood bullies, though information about Cesar is scant. (The New Yorker deftly condensed this material last year in its excerpt from Kurzweil’s book, resulting in a much more powerful story.)
Kurzweil learns that Cesar’s role, posing as an employee of Barclay Global Investments (as opposed to the legitimate Barclays Global Investors), was to ensnare susceptible marks, entrepreneurs in search of multimillion-dollar loans denied by conventional lenders — and then step aside. One victim, television executive Barbara Laurence, describes a cast ludicrously costumed in monocles and medals evocative of Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Her saga of acceding to increasingly dubious payments, stipulations and humiliations is a cautionary tale about how dupes can perpetrate their own snow jobs, burying their reasonable doubts.
Laurence finally cut her losses at around half a million dollars. The U.S. attorney general agreed to prosecute despite the relatively small sums involved because of the swindlers’ “monumental chutzpah,” “audacity” and “window dressing.” Laurence comments about her lamentable gullibility: “The best I can come up with is that I was ripped off by a bunch of low-class bullies who figured out how to prey on ambition and dreams.”
As Kurzweil finally moves in on Cesar, he acknowledges that “all writers are stalkers.” After the long buildup, including numerous personal pep talks, their mild meetings are somewhat anti-climactic. Cesar, a twice-convicted felon, considers himself a victim — even before the publication of this book. Uncomfortable parallels between the two men emerge, such as the early, painful loss of their fathers. Kurzweil tries to pin Cesar down about his misdeeds, but “try as I might, it’s next to impossible to grab a [bulls----er] by the horns.”
He writes, “The more he opens up, the more it becomes clear: Cesar has been on a hamster wheel of self-pity and delusion all his life.” But so too, in a way, has Kurzweil. “I feel foolish for so grossly exaggerating his capacity for evil,” he admits.
“The Whipping Boy” is hardly the last word on bullying, but it’s a fascinating, multi-pronged morality tale about victimhood, skewed perception and the liberation of facing your demons.