From Menace To Muse To Mitzvah


Allen Kurzweil was 5 when his father died. He doesn’t remember much about him. But that hasn’t stopped him from missing him for all of his life, perhaps his clearest memory being a hospital scene a few months before his father’s death. Robert Kurzweil, 54, was lying down and he squeezed his young son’s hand. Allen can’t recall his words or voice, but he remembers the sensation. Almost 50 years later, he remembers the face of the watch on his father’s wrist more vividly than the face of its owner.

In an interview in a Manhattan café, Kurzweil, now 54 himself, brings up “Citizen Kane” and likens the watch to the seemingly mundane but cherished sled of the film, Rosebud. In Kurzweil’s literary memoir, “Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully” (Harper), the watch conjures up longing. The book is also a detective story, the chase inspired by actual events at a boarding school in Switzerland when he was 10.

How does a Jewish kid from New York end up in at school in a panoramic Alpine village, founded by a “mystically-inclined Christian Englishman,” with the sons and daughters of royalty, army officers and heirs to fortunes as his classmates? At the time, his mother was living in Europe, and favorable foreign exchange rates made the school affordable for a middle-class kid. This was the school Allen wanted to attend: He had traveled to this area of Switzerland with his Viennese-born father, an industrial designer who loved the mountains; the place brought back a sense of being a happy family and being protected.

Aiglon College was highly regimented; days began with 10 minutes of physical exercise followed by cold showers. The acting headmaster was a fighter pilot with a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder. Few staff were kind; an exception was the 82-year-old elocution teacher with cats-eye glasses, hiking boots and a ready supply of quotes from the Psalms and Sufi poetry.

Kurzweil was one of a handful of Jews in 1971, and he was also the smallest kid, and both of these traits made him the target of humiliation by the older boys. But none were as cruel as one of his bunkmates, Cesar Augustus Viana from the Philippines. Soon after Kurzweil arrived, Cesar, a veteran of the school, said that he might have to throw him out of the window onto the trees below in case of fire. That’s when Kurzweil’s nightmares began, and he’d stare at the luminescent dial of the stainless steel Omega Seamaster watch that had been his father’s. On the pages of the book, his anxiety and sadness are palpable.

Other actions were less cerebral. Cesar called him “Nosey” and would wake him up to insist that he eat pellets of bread doused in hot sauce. Inspired by the rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which was very popular at the time, Cesar played Pilate and tied Kurzweil to a bunk as Jesus Christ, inflicting 39 lashes. The boys were discouraged by the school from telling on each other, so Kurzweil would escape to the mice-filled basement and cry. But the worst offense of all was when another boy, upon Cesar’s orders, tossed the watch out of the tower window and it was never seen again.

At the end of the school year, Kurzweil returned to Manhattan, where his mother had already resettled, and attended Dalton. He graduated from Yale, had a successful career as a journalist and author, married and had a son, and still he was haunted by memories of Cesar. An image of Christ, a vintage Omega watch, a mention of Ferdinand Marcos, the taste of hot sauce, would bring him back to the terror of Aiglon. Over the years, he would cover the pain by talking about the outdoor ski adventures and antics.

With the encouragement of his wife, who understood how much of a presence Cesar was, Kurzweil set out — with scant clues other than his name — to track him down. The memoir’s narrative line is more of a curvy slalom than a race down the mountain, as he tries to zigzag and balance between his personal history and the details of his international search.

He finds several people with the same name and then is able to identify the man his childhood nemesis had become. After spotting a headline in the New York Post, he learned that that Cesar was involved with a group of con men posing as European royalty and ascot-wearing aristocrats, with fake knighthoods and imaginary kingdoms, that was swindling unsuspecting investors. Cesar was the shill, luring victims with promises of huge returns.

“The story does take me down this rabbit hole of international fraud. It was so extraordinary I couldn’t resist it,” Kurzweil says.

The book began as a commissioned piece for The New Yorker, and the author soon realized that he had more than an article on his hands. A version of the book unveiling the outline of the story appeared in The New Yorker last November. Since then Kurzweil has heard from others who have been bullied, from fellow students at Aiglon (including other Jews who shared unpleasant memories), and even from fellow classmates who were also bullied by Cesar — each had assumed he was the only one. Some readers offered to exact their own justice on Kurzweil’s behalf, and a 72-year-old grandmother wrote about her childhood enemy. Several men sent photos of their Omega Seamasters, which they had inherited from their fathers. One Indian man had a spare Seamaster watch and wanted to send it, but Kurzweil declined.

Kurzweil is the author of two previous novels and two children’s books. Both novels have to do, in different ways, with time and clocks. In his first novel, “A Case of Curiosities,” a fatherless boy is apprenticed to a Swiss watchmaker, and his second novel, “The Grand Complication” is also related to a timepiece stolen from a museum in Israel; in fact, the book’s cover is the face of a clock.

His chapter book, “Leon and the Spitting Image,” details Leon’s efforts surviving fourth grade and the antics of his archenemy. “Leon and the Champion Chip” is a sequel. These books were inspired by his efforts to help his son when he had his own series of run-ins with a bully.

In researching Cesar’s life, Kurzweil learns that Cesar also lost his father as a young boy. As he reports in “Whipping Boy,” he flies out to California to meet Cesar, who says that he doesn’t remember Kurzweil. They talk about school, and about the fraud case for which he served prison time (in addition to serving time on an earlier drug-related charge), but Cesar has no idea how much research Kurzweil has done about the case. Kurzweil tells him that he is writing this book.

“The hardest thing for me to do — putting aside the challenge of writing about a painful moment in my life — was at my last meeting with Cesar, to look him in the eye and tell him he had hurt me. (I only managed to do that because I had typed a prompt into my phone, ‘Defend the 10-year-old,’ instead of listening to him go on about new sales ventures and films.”)

“The prompt came up. I did just that: I told him what he had done.”

Is the book revenge? “I’m not built for revenge,” Kurzweil replies. “I’m built for reflection. I was hoping he would cop to the things he had done.” When friends mention, perhaps jokingly, to go beat him up, he’s uncomfortable. “Some say this book is more effective than a punch in the nose.

“He was my menace, then my muse and now he’s my mitzvah,” he says, noting that he gets emails from people in pain, who find solace in knowing that someone shares their childhood injuries.

“I find myself having written a book that has had a much bigger impact than I expected.

“I do feel pity for him, but more pity for his victims. It’s hard to feel pity for someone who never apologized to the people whose money he helped steal, never apologized to kids he bullied. Having said that, it would be dishonorable for me to be pleased that he has had the life he has. But I’m not surprised he has it.”

Last month, when a reporter for the London Daily Mail appeared outside Cesar’s San Francisco apartment, he yelled that he was going to sue for defamation of character, that none of this happened. Kurzweil says that Cesar always blames the victim and makes himself out to be the biggest victim of all.

A resident of Providence, R.I., Kurzweil says that he began embracing his Judaism several years ago, when he was living in Storrs, Conn. (where his wife teaches) and he began studying with an itinerant rabbi named Allan Ullman. He believes that “Whipping Boy” can lead to important discussions about restorative justice and revenge, and about the moral issues regarding confronting childhood anguish.

The author is also an inventor and — no surprise — he does minor watch repairs. On his wrist these days is a red-faced Omega, a gift from his wife and son when he was finally able to put Cesar behind him.