Anyone with a childhood bully in his or her past might instantly relate to the premise behind Allen Kurzweil’s memoir: A victim of bullying confronts the schoolboy sadist who tormented him a lifetime ago.
It’s said that living well is the best revenge, but that won’t do for Kurzweil; he is determined to screw his oppressor to the rack. You, the reader, are invited to savor this revenge fantasy and admire its daring execution.
When formulating his scheme, Kurzweil resembles another avenger, Montresor from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the madman who requites a perceived insult by entombing his foe alive in a subterranean vault.
“Vengeance may be the Lord’s,” Kurzweil writes in a gothic flourish, “but in His infinite wisdom, He sometimes outsources order fulfillment to mere mortals.”
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Kurzweil’s account is a well-told tale, rich with human drama, a genuine detective story. And you’ve got to admire him for sheer gumption.
The book’s flagellatory title describes the defining moment in this bully-victim dynamic, played out in 1971 at Aiglon College, an English boarding school in the Swiss Alps. As a 10-year-old, Kurzweil was tied to a dormitory bunk bed while his 12-year-old nemesis, Cesar, flogged him with a belt in a re-enactment of the “Thirty-Nine Lashes” scene from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“Fake-outs were as much a part of the performance as those moments when the belt made contact,” Kurzweil recalls. “Introducing randomness into the rhythm of abuse appeared to delight Cesar as much as the abuse itself.”
Kurzweil’s sleuthing shines when he pieces together Cesar’s adult life as a professional con man, sentenced to 37 months in a federal prison for his role in an elaborate financial fraud. The bully-turned-felon was a recruiter of dupes for an outlandish cast of make-believe noblemen, counterfeit diplomats and pseudo-financiers who swindled clients to the tune of $4 million.
If there’s any catharsis for Kurzweil, it has to be weighed against the emotional price the author pays for his extensive efforts to match his Ivy League wits against the wiles of this master manipulator.
Over time, the whipping boy’s mission disintegrates from a high-minded research project to an unhealthy obsession. As he watches himself turning into a literary stalker, Kurzweil grows disgusted with his duplicity.
All the while, Kurzweil grossly underestimates his rival. At one point, Kurzweil confides in a conspiratorial stage whisper: “I need to reel him in slowly.”
When he finally goes mano-a-mano with Cesar, Kurzweil is unable to pin down his slimy adversary. The convicted felon claims not even to remember that Kurzweil was his roommate at the Swiss boarding school. As for his legal troubles, Cesar blames everyone but himself: former clients, prosecutors and jurors.
In their final encounter, a flummoxed Kurzweil squabbles with Cesar over a wristwatch stolen at Aiglon some four decades earlier. By this point, Cesar is back in his familiar role, inflicting emotional abuse.
“You made my life hell,” Kurzweil seethes.
“So, basically I’m being blamed for your memories?” Cesar calmly asks.
“Well, it doesn’t sound like you’re writing about me,” Cesar responds. “This is really only your interpretation based on your recollection of events.”
As a parting gesture, Cesar apologizes – by voice mail. Yet another shrewd move that gets him off the hook without admitting wrongdoing.
Kurzweil is grateful for this scrap of remorse, “releasing me from a prison of vengeance that I’ve inhabited since the Nixon administration.”
To the very last, Kurzweil fails to realize that his moral lexicon lacks the one word that had always held the key to his freedom: forgiveness.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully
Harper, 304 pages