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Interview with Allen Kurzweil

Interview with Allen Kurzweil

the author recounts the 40-year search for his childhood bully

Bio: Allen Kurzweil is an acclaimed novelist, journalist, teacher, and inventor. His latest work, Whipping Boy: The Forty Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, was published in January 2015. Half memoir, half investigative thriller, Whipping Boy centers on Kurzweil’s attempt to track down his childhood tormentor, Cesar Augustus, years after their time together at a Swiss boarding school. Kurzweil discovered that Cesar—who once whipped him to a song from Jesus Christ Superstar—grew up to become an international con artist. With the Badische Trust Consortium, a fake firm active in the late 1990s, Cesar swindled millions from unknowing investors. They adopted faux royal regalia as part of their persona. Kurzweil currently lives in Providence. He has been, at various points, a fellow at the John Carter Brown Library and in the Brown Public Humanities department.

What’s your connection to Brown? Was the university useful for writing Whipping Boy?

I used to be a fellow in the Center for Public Humanities at Brown. And then I was a fellow at the John Carter Brown Library for a few years. But, if you’re trying to make a connection between Whipping Boy and Brown, it’s not really straightforward. The university’s libraries were extremely useful at a certain moment of my inquiries. I’ve been looking into the whereabouts of my childhood bully for so long that my connections to various institutions coincide with the search. Often, I relied on the databases I accessed as a fellow at Brown. When you’ve searched as long as I have, you’re beholden to all sorts of interests.

When I first read about the Badische Trust Consortium, I immediately thought of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme conviction in 2008. But what struck me as different here is that Madoff didn’t wear a cape or gown to commit fraud. How do we understand the place of Whipping Boy in an era of widespread white-collar crime?

You can take that conversation in so many places. Firstly, the scam took place between 1998 and 2000, right when the Internet was really coming into its own. The Badische Trust was able to exploit a technology most people didn’t use very much. And whenever you have those ruptures in technological innovation, scam artists will prey on the disconnect. That’s a novelty that’s part of a long tradition of scammers prominent since the early twentieth century. Have you seen the movie The Sting (1973)? It’s about two con men who exploit lag time in telegraph cables.

On the connection to Madoff, I agree with you on the implications of your question. Cesar and his cronies displayed the same predatory impulse in Madoff or, likewise, the Nigerian Prince email scheme. He actually inhabits a space equidistant to those two. Clearly, my swindler, my bully, didn’t profit as dramatically as Madoff. But, a trait these two personalities have in common is the insistence that they’re victims. Actually, Cesar is an even more egregious case. Bernie eventually declared himself guilty. Even after Cesar was convicted by a jury, he stood in front of the judge and said, “I have suffered as much as the people who testified against me. I’m an innocent. I’ve never hurt anybody.”

The piece that resembles the Nigerian Prince email scams is that their presentations were so ridiculously absurd. They rented out suites at the Waldorf Astoria. One of the guys wore a monocle, another wore spats. But they were successful. The person who really ran the whole thing, Colonel Sherry, was a high school dropout with a GED degree. He didn’t have the credentials of a Brown student. He had a Dale Carnegie self-improvement course. A few classes at Hunter College, maybe, and that’s it.

Was the Badische Trust a parody of what prosperity is supposed to look like?

It’s certainly pandering. They had channeled the zeitgeist of expectation. They must’ve watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). And, at least in one case, they came from a long line of professional swindlers. It was a family business. Colonial Sherry is the product of a con man. In the way lawyers spawn lawyers, or doctors create doctors in their offspring, swindlers tend to beget swindlers. It requires immense skill and dedication to dupe a lot of people. The Badische Trust scammed Clifford Chance, the world’s largest law firm at the time, for a year and a half. It was what would today be called a “meme,” though that word wouldn’t have existed or used in that way back then. They were, depending on what semiotics course you happen to be taking, a trope.

I’m curious about the post-life of Whipping Boy. Have you met with Cesar after the book’s publication? How has he taken it?

The journalists at Daily Mail are pretty tenacious. They found out where Cesar lives. They hunted him down. Apparently, he screamed from his window that he never knew me, we never lived together, and that he’s going to sue me for defamation of character. His response, in effect, is a variant on his declarations to the judge. That he’s an innocent and he never harmed anybody. So, specifically, in answering your question, has Cesar responded? He makes all sorts of outrageous claims, and I’m not surprised.

The New Yorker has a tremendous, very impressive, tradition of fact-checking. Before my article was published, and this is true of all their non-fiction, the fact-checker spent three weeks vetting the accuracy of everything I’d written. They even talked to the subject of my piece, Cesar, for several hours. Nothing of consequence was changed in the publishing process. In fact, nothing at all has been challenged or corrected in its final form. Draw your own conclusions about which source you’d like to believe.

When fans email you, do you advise them to follow the same trajectory, to track down and confront their childhood bully?

I would never advise anyone to do what I do in any aspect of my life. First, I’m not built for therapeutic guidance. I work through these conundrums by writing. That’s very useful and therapeutic, regardless of whether you’re a professional writer or not. And I tell people that. That’s one therapeutic resource everyone has available. I’m supportive when they tell me they’re thinking of writing a memoir.

Most people, I think, at some point wonder what happened to that child who did a number on you. And, perhaps ingeniously, you hope your bully is not the CEO of a multinational corporation or the head of a philanthropic organization or whatever else. That component tends to touch a nerve in people. But, at the same time, you never know what aspect of a story is going to hit, positively or negatively.

Was it a challenge to blend these two genres, memoir and journalistic investigation?

The form Whipping Boy took was a natural and necessary outgrowth of my desire to write through my experiences and tell the story in the most effective way possible. When you’re confronted by an extraordinary narrative of imposture and misrepresentation, I was compelled to wear the hat of an investigative reporter rather than novelist. The details of the real life search are too farfetched to be believed if placed in a work of fiction. So the cliché goes, “You can’t make this stuff up.” The discovery that this fellow who tied me up and whipped me when I was ten went on to humiliate and fleece people as an adult struck me as requiring an exacting reportorial lens.

Your last novel, The Great Complication (2001), was about watchmakers. I found the theme of time to be the conducting thread of Whipping Boy.

Yes, and it has been for much of my writing. I’m the son of a mechanical engineer. I grew up around wristwatches. I continue to be fascinated by time-keeping, both as a metaphor and in practical terms. Those metaphors appear in almost all of my writing in one way or another.

I tend to make a lot of stuff. Then deadlines approach and I retreat. I pull myself out of my workshop and get back to writing. I’m kind of looking forward to going back to the basement workshop.

It’s a necessary component. I’ve spent many long hours, during many long summers, building stone walls. In fact, I wish I had a stone wall that needed repairs somewhere within striking distance of Providence. It’s fatal for writers to do nothing but write. For me, anyway.

What really struck me in Whipping Boy was its fluidity. Did you create that seamlessness by having two separate word documents open at once?

Well, no. I lived through it. There was a certain built-in coherency. I followed the guidance of a friend of mine who said, “Never forget that chronology is your best friend.”  I didn’t have to rely on meta-fictional tactics to write Whipping Boy. Chronology was extremely useful as an anchor to keep these different moving parts in place, and in giving them a place in the story.

But, at the same time, I felt Whipping Boy undermined time as a straightforward progression of events.

I’m not suggesting that the clock moves at a very specific and measured pace. Listen, this whole book is rooted in five or six experiences that, in chronological time, couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of days. But time compresses and expands and we, as writers, are given the tools to manipulate time in whatever fashion we want. There are certain tricks available to us. I had an Excel spreadsheet that’s 46 pages long. I grabbed that battered list out and double-checked things. When you find those unexpected associations, there’s a good chance you want to use it in the plot. When I say chronology is your friend, you can’t be slavishly devoted to it. And, yet, you need a north star or focal point. Wherever you deviate, you know where you’re going before you start the storytelling process.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.