“Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully” by Allen Kurzweil
c.2015, New York University Press
$27.95 / higher in Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
You’ve bloodied your share of noses in your lifetime.
Whether they were yours or someone else’s, well, you can bet they weren’t ignored. Someone saw the first punch, the ripped shirt, the pulled hair. Somebody heard the shouting, crying, and thuds. And, as you’ll see in the new book “Whipping Boy” by Allen Kurzweil, if you were the one who did the bloodying, someone will remember your name forever.
While most kids would never ask to be sent to boarding school, young Allen Kurzweil had been overjoyed at the idea. The school, Aiglon, was nestled in the Alps in an area where he’d once lived with his mother and his late father. Kurzweil had nothing but good memories of Switzerland, especially Villars, a nearby village, and his mother’s offer of spending sixth grade there was “better than Disney World.”
At just ten years old, Kurzweil was the youngest boy at the school, the smallest, and one of only a handful of Jews. “Strike” one, two, and three, he says: almost immediately after being assigned to a tower-room and four roommates, Kurzweil was a victim of bullying from a boy named Cesar who claimed he was from Manila.
For the rest of that school year, Cesar manipulated and controlled others, and tormented Kurzweil. The abuse, says Kurzweil, began with threats and anti-Semitic name-calling and escalated to physical beatings, burns, psychological cruelty, and theft of a cherished heirloom.
Once he left Aiglon, Kurzweil downplayed everything… but he never forgot.
Through the years, after he was married, after he’d become a father, Kurzweil still let his bully live in his head. He half-heartedly looked for Cesar occasionally, acknowledging that “the boy I can’t get a hold of still has a hold on me.” He researched, found names, dead-ended, put his quest aside, then searched some more. His wife, then his son, encouraged him to find the person whose abuse left a scar, but Cesar proved to be elusive – until a tiny clue was revealed.
Cesar, Kurzweil discovered, was still alive, still bullying, but his methods were more sophisticated, and that tormented Kurzweil further. He knew what he needed to do to heal: “By failing to confront Cesar,” he says, “I had failed to confront myself.”
And so, he boarded a plane…
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that every North American adult alive has dealt with a bully at some time or another. That universal experience and the accompanying pain are what make “Whipping Boy” such a good book.
And yet, this isn’t exactly the most comfortable thing you’ll ever read – in fact, it prickles with obsession. Author Allen Kurzweil doggedly pursued his tormentor for decades, and while that makes a great memoir with thrilling, spy-story undertones, it also becomes breathlessly distressing.
Then again, who hasn’t dreamed of re-facing a childhood nemesis? Yep, and those confrontational scenarios make it impossible to look away from this tale, exactly because of its everyman aspect. Just know that once you start this book, you’ll squirm because “Whipping Boy” then can’t be ignored.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.