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- American novelist, journalist, editor, and lecturer
Allen Kurzweil has made a career as an author, but his latest work is much more than a book. It’s the ultimate therapy session, a confrontation of childhood demons 40 years in the making.
In “Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully,” which comes out in hardcover next week, Kurzweil details his lifelong search for Cesar, a boarding school roommate whose bullying left deep, irreparable scars. Driven by an unshakeable fixation with Cesar, Kurzweil winds up learning as much about the man who bullied him as he does about himself.
But Cesar’s influence on Kurzweil hardly ends there. Back in November, Kurzweil published an essay in the New Yorker about the search for Cesar. Essentially, it was a prelude to his forthcoming memoir that was a powerful story in its own right — so powerful, in fact, that it elicited a response Kurzweil never predicted.
In the New Yorker, Kurzweil details a number of failed attempts to track down Cesar before stumbling down a rabbit hole in 2005 that revealed the object of his obsession had been convicted a few years earlier for his involvement in an elaborate international bank fraud and sentenced to prison. Clearly shifting into reporter mode, Kurzweil describes combing through court documents and trial evidence, learning everything he could about the scam: the backgrounds of the individual players, their methodologies, and their victims. And while the details of the racket are no doubt as fascinating as they are bizarre, Kurzweil’s deep reporting cannot be divorced from his deep-seated resentment toward Cesar — a fact he notes in the article.
“It was around this time that I began to acknowledge the obvious: Cesar had taken over my life,” Kurzweil writes. “I tried to convince myself that my interest — my déformation professionnelle, as my wife called it — was journalistic. It was a great story, and one I knew that I would write. But I also had an emotional connection to the victims of the fraud. Their desperate narratives sparked memories of my own childhood abasement.”
But Kurzweil was hardly prepared for the kinds of emotional connections his passion project would yield. In the wake of the New Yorker piece — with two months to go before his book’s release — Kurzweil says his inbox was flooded with emails. Men and women, many of them middle-aged, thanked Kurzweil for sharing his story, saying that they were also bullied as children. Kurzweil says he has heard from hundreds of people from all over the world, but three men in particular stood out from the rest. For these men, all in their 50s, Kurzweil’s story didn’t just hit close to home, it was their own. They, too, had roomed or gone to school with Cesar and carried the scars of his harassment well into their adult lives.
“That was the most unexpected aspect of the story,” Kurzweil told Yahoo News. “It’s classic. When you get abused, you blame yourself. I thought I was the only one. Now all of these middle-aged guys were able to process the hurt that they felt. One of them said he’d never talked about it before.”
Two decades after his year at boarding school, it was his son’s encounter with a bully that reignited Kurzweil’s latent curiosity about Cesar. (He even published a children’s book about bullying called “Leon and the Spitting Image,” basing the fictional bully on his own.) Contrary to the media’s increased focus on bullying in recent years, Kurzweil dismisses the notion that bullying is a “new, previously nonexisting epidemic.” The hundreds of emails he has received from middle-aged bullying victims reinforce that belief.
“There is no question that the Internet has exacerbated the means through which people can stalk, bully, harass,” he said. “However, the good news in all of that is, the same medium that makes it easier to bully also brings people together to work through those shared traumas. If the Internet didn’t exist, I would never have known that there were three other guys who were bullied by Cesar. The problem also contains the solution.”
Yahoo News attempted to get in touch with Cesar for his side of the story, but he could not be reached. Kurzweil’s telling, however, confirms everything we are taught to believe about bullies. He found himself feeling sorry for Cesar when they finally meet as adults. Though Kurzweil had spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with the way Cesar treated him in boarding school, he writes that Cesar’s recollection of that same time doesn't even include Kurzweil. It does, however, include memories of unfair treatment by classmates and teachers — a recurring theme that has continued throughout his adult life. It was not until after Kurweil confronted Cesar about the pain he had caused — an accusation Cesar initially bristled at but later apologized for — that Kurzweil realized the reason his own pain had lasted so long.
Kurzweil’s mother sent him to boarding school after his dad died, and the only thing that comforted the frightened 10-year-old was his father’s Omega Seamaster watch — until it was stolen and thrown out of the dormitory window, not by Cesar but by another boy whom Kurzweil regarded as Cesar’s lackey.
“Cesar found himself in my crosshairs because of a watch,” Kurzweil wrote in the New Yorker. “My father’s Omega turned out to be more than a talisman. It was a time machine that had transported me back to a moment when my family was intact and I was happy.”
With “Whipping Boy” hitting bookshelves next week, Kurzweil is hardly free of Cesar, but the dynamic of the relationship has changed.
“Writing the book turned menace into muse, and muse into wisdom,” Kurzweil said. “Memories of childhood injustice never disappear entirely, but the marks fade and the insights grow. Cesar taught me that the lies we tell others start with the lies we tell ourselves, and that the hard truths we confront can, once we pierce those lies, provide insight and comfort to others.”
“I’ve moved beyond Cesar's Alpine abuses," he said. "But I get the sense that the trip hasn’t ended.”