“In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever. I was ten and he was twelve, when for a few indelible months, we roomed together in a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva.”
So begins a personal history, “Whipping Boy,” in the Nov. 17, 2014, issue of The New Yorker. The author, Allen Kurzweil, a novelist and lecturer, is publishing this very month a full-length memoir, “Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully.” Kurzweil tells us that he was “a middle-class Jewish kid from New York,” whose father died of cancer when he was only 5.
Kurzweil knew his roommate as Cesar Augusto. Decades later Kurzweil finally discovered that Cesar, born on April 24, 1954, in Manila, Philippines, was given the full name of Cesar Augusto Viana III. From the very beginning the relationship of Cesar to Allen was that of bully to victim.
Of the many sadistic incidents of Cesar’s bullying that have continued to haunt Kurzweil over the years, two stand out: The first of these acts was inspired by the song “Thirty-Nine Lashes,” the core of a powerful scene in the then popular Broadway musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” During an afternoon recess, “Cesar cast himself as whipmaster, gave his sidekick the role of centurion, and decreed that I play Jesus Christ. Once my wrists were secured to the metal posts of my bunk, he ordered another roommate ... to cue up the music (on a cassette player). In the Broadway musical, Jesus is flogged with clockwork precision. But Cesar sometimes lifted his makeshift flail (a belt, if memory serves) only to stop midway through the downstroke. Each time I flinched, Cesar’s face contorted into a grimace of ecstasy. The whip barely made contact, but the point was to humiliate and degrade me.”
In many ways the theft of his watch left a deeper scar than the whipping. While the young Kurzweil was taking a shower, Cesar convinced another roommate to steal his wristwatch and toss it out the window into the deep snow, never to be recovered. The watch, an Omega Seamaster, was an inheritance from his father, a tangible and precious link to his deceased parent. As Kurzweil puts it, “The loss left me more than bereft. I felt annihilated.”
Forty years later, Kurzweil finally confronts Cesar face to face about the whipping and the watch. And Cesar’s response? “So basically, I’m being blamed for your memories? ...This is really only your interpretation based on your recollection of events.”
Later that same afternoon, Cesar leaves a reluctant and perfunctory voice mail on Kurzweil’s cellphone, the core of which was “I apologize to you for whatever pain I may have caused...” Kurzweil asks himself whether this was “only the remorse of a bully.”
There are, of course, many explanations for the adult Kurzweil’s inability to let go of his schoolboy tormentor: shame, loss of a sense of honor and dignity, the feeling of being impotent and ineffectual, the search for true justice, the desire to restore the balance between right and wrong – and that primitive urge that almost all of us feel at one time or another, the overpowering need to get even.
In “The Book of Words” (Jewish Lights, 1993), Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes that “[i]n bearing a grudge, we have transformed the hurt from something we once received into something we now carry or guard. Almost as if, in our inability to repay the pain we felt, we tenaciously carry this little vial of grudge-toxin.” That is to say, as long as we hold onto a grudge, we are nourishing and nurturing a potent poison – allowing it to flow continuously through body and soul.
Kushner concludes his thought by pointing out that “the grudge anchors us to something long gone, it denies a part of us from being here in the present. It burrows deep into our personality, sapping our joy and our happiness.”
It seems to me that Kushner pinpoints what has happened to Kurzweil, who finally admits that “Cesar had taken over my life.” Kurzweil’s grudge – his decades-long psychic entanglement with Cesar – is a poison burrowed deep within his personality.
Clearly, Kurzweil’s 40-year quest to find and confront Cesar did have its negative consequences: his grudge, his obsession, diverted his emotional energy from his family and robbed him of incalculable hours that could have been spent in more positive pursuits. Nevertheless, Kurzweil’s search for Cesar was by no means entirely negative. In large part, he was attempting to right a grievous wrong, to affirm that, in the long run, justice can prevail. The whipping and the watch must not go unanswered, must not be swallowed up in the fog of forgetfulness.
Cesar was a bully – an anti-Semitic one at that. And it appears that Cesar remains a rasha, a “no-goodnik,” throughout his life, doing jail time both in Oslo, Norway, and southern California. So far as I can tell, Cesar can offer no compelling alternative narrative that might mitigate the viciousness of his behavior toward his chosen victim, a helpless and defenseless 10-year-old. Thus, there is no need – indeed, no real possibility – for Kurzweil to forgive Cesar; for Cesar sees no reason to be forgiven.
While Cesar is clearly the villain of this story, it would be a stretch to call Kurzweil the hero. True, in the end he tells his wife and son that he has been able to banish Cesar from the lives of all three of them. Nevertheless, Cesar’s “apology” is so half-hearted that it is difficult to conclude that the decades-old wrongs have been righted, to affirm that justice has been truly served.
To echo the words of the poet T.S. Eliot, Allen Kurzweil’s 40-year quest ends not with a bang but a whimper.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.