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How My Bully Went to Prison

In the beginning it sounded like Disney World.

Allen Kurzweil was 10 years old when his mother suggested that he spend one year at a boarding school in Villars, Switzerland. Kurzweil was exhilarated: He had fond memories of winter holidays in the Swiss Alps with his father, who had passed away five years before.

But his dreams were shattered soon after his arrival at the school, Aiglon College, from New York in 1971. Kurzweil met his roommate, a 12-year-old overweight boy named Cesar Augustus who bullied him relentlessly; whipped him, forced him to eat hot sauce and stole Kurzweil’s beloved watch, which he had inherited from his father.

The painful memories never left Kurzweil — and neither did his curiosity for what had become of his bully. After several false starts, he discovered that his childhood bully had been part of an international financial fraud operation by luring people into applying for loans at a nonexistent royal German bank. Kurzweil embarked on an investigation into the depths of the American criminal justice system, leading him to unexpected discoveries about Augustus and himself. In November 2014, a widely read magazine article titled “Whipping Boy” chronicled his hunt in The New Yorker. Kurzweil’s memoir, “Whipping Boy. The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully,” followed suit this past January from HarperCollins.

Allen Kurzweil Image by Ferrante Ferranti

Kurzweil, a journalist and novelist living in Providence, Rhode Island, talked to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about the bittersweet journey into his past.

Anna Goldenberg: When you began your search online, you found a number of people named Cesar Augustus, including a philanthropist and a university professor. How do you think you would have reacted if Cesar Augustus had turned out to be one of his namesakes?

Allen Kurzweil: I’d like to think that I would have found a story of redemption instead of a story of remorselessness. I was prepared to reconcile myself with the fact that he had reformed. But my gut told me that wasn’t possible. Not all boys are created equal, and I sensed in Cesar a capacity for mendacity and maliciousness that was outside the normal realm of childhood misbehavior. That instinct proved true. When I did finally meet him, I wasn’t sure if he was going to apologize. I didn’t expect him to forget me entirely — nor did I expect that I was but one in a longer string of childhood victims. And that only came out after the New Yorker piece was published.

How did you find out about the other victims?

I received three emails from men in their 50s that were filled with gratitude but also exacting descriptions of the humiliations they had endured [by Augustus] when they were children. And I thought I was alone. But I think victims often feel that way. The abusers often say, “Don’t tell anybody,” and when you’re vulnerable and a child, you take that to heart.

When you confronted Augustus, he told you that he had been bullied himself at Aiglon. Did you buy that?

The system had a built-in opportunity for older kids to take advantage of younger kids up to a point: That element of boys controlling other boys [and] the rank system certainly contributed…. However, out of the thousands of boys and girls who have graduated from that school, I don’t think too many became drug smugglers and international felons. I think the die was cast early on. From the psychological perspective, [Augustus] was raised in an environment that allowed him to be completely remorseless about any of his misdeeds. So that’s why to this day he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. His claim in front of the sentencing judge after he was convicted focuses on the fact that he was innocent, that he was guilty of trusting people, not that he did anything criminal.

You didn’t grow up religious, but it seems like the boys at the school knew that you were Jewish. You mention in the book that Augustus called you “Nose-y.”

That year I spent in Switzerland, that’s when I discovered anti-Semitism. I had grown up in New York, and I thought everyone was Jewish. It was the first time I heard the words “kike” and “Nose-y.” There were only four or five Jewish kids in the school, and there were 280 students. There was meditation every morning and church every Sunday, and we didn’t attend. And I’m not proud when I say this, but as a 10-year-old I felt very uneasy being identified with this minority, to be put in this holding pen of otherness. Particularly since I didn’t have a religious identity. I think it was well intentioned on part of the headmaster, but no one in a boarding school, when you’re 10 years old, wants to be identified as different. It’s fine if you’re the person who skis the fastest or runs the fastest, but not if you’re the kid who’s Jewish.

Has this experience of being singled out for being Jewish changed how you see your Jewish identity?

Absolutely. My sense of Jewish identity emerges most forcefully when in the presence of anti-Semitic or critical behavior. I think when you live in the world of language and words, for better or worse you are able to insulate yourself from the more brutal, physical expressions of hatred. It’s not a muscle that I exercise regularly, but it does get exercise in moments of extremism and in moments of intellectual enquiry.

What’s an example of your Jewish identity flaring up in response to something that’s being said?

When I went back to the school in 1991 looking for Cesar [without success], I was walking up to the school. In front of a candy store there were three boys, roughly the age I would have been, debating whether they had enough money to buy some candy. One of them did have a few francs but didn’t want to spend it, and the response of the other boys was, “Don’t be such a bloody Jew.” You don’t hear those simplistic declarations all that often. They tend to be channeled in more nuanced ways as people grow up. So I did react to that in real time and also recorded it faithfully in the book, to suggest that there is a low-grade anti-Semitism that’s presumed but often not made manifest.

In your opinion, what’s the best way to respond to bullying?

The message that I gave myself when I finally confronted Cesar is the message — I think — that is direct and broad enough to offer some solace or direction to parents. And that is, defend the 10-year-old, meaning find a way that you as a parent and your child as the victim can defend himself or herself in some fashion. Now, that is much easier said than done. It really depends on the context. Often, it’s not necessarily the parents of victims that are always aware of what’s going on, but it’s the parents of the bystanders. Socially, we have a responsibility to be aware of bullying that doesn’t directly implicate our children, either as the attacker or the victim. There are a lot of people my age walking around still carrying the scars of the playground.

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