Warrior of the Trojan Horse
A life in writing: child-abuse campaigner Andrew Vachss tells Nick Hasted of fiction's power
By Nick Hasted
Originally published in The Guardian (London), April 22, 2000.
When Andrew Vachss was seven, a teenage stranger in his New York neighbourhood attacked him with a chain, damaging an eye so badly that he has ever since had to wear a patch. He felt so loved growing up in his tough little world that he told himself it was an aberration.
Then, when he was 21 and working as a Federal Investigator in sexual diseases, he met a baby-rapist; when he found out there were more, his focus tightened on what he saw as a curable plague. With ferocious purpose, he directed himself to removing predatory paedophiles from society. He also became involved with the campaign to save children in Biafra and ran a prison for murderous juveniles. Finally, he settled as a lawyer, who would take only child cases, and as a writer.
Vachss' crime novels are set in a New York recast as hell, a literal underworld of icy wasteground etched in red flame, where his hero, abuse victim Burke, lives an outcast existence with his chosen 'family'—a mute giant, a dwarf genius, a transsexual—preying on predators, on the human capacity for cruel pleasure that Vachss calls 'the Beast'. Shella (1993), his only non-Burke novel, saw a sociopath search for his soul, finding it in love for a woman skeletal from AIDS, caught by sucking the blood of murdered paedophiles. The prose was not so much lurid as desolate.
Vachss has written comics and non-fiction, too. His appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show was instrumental in Bill Clinton signing the National Child Protection Act. But the Burke books, spare and angry, intended to document their hero's numb decline, remain his convictions' major outlet (in the new Safe House, stalkers and Nazis are fought).
The greatest threat to his campaign loomed the day it began—when Vachss met that baby-rapist and nearly lost it. "My first reaction was literally seeing myself snapping this person's neck like you'd kill a chicken," he remembers, "I had never felt such rage. And I realised in the same moment that if I were not completely calm, I would lose every opportunity to ever do anything about this. That desperate calm, and the subsequent experiences with which I was bombarded, cauterised my nerve endings. So not much affects me. I don't get extremely happy or extremely sad. That was the price I paid."
In Safe House, Burke reaches for 'the ice inside me'—much as his creator does in his law work. "If you think about what a child's been through, about how someone can torture something they gave birth to, you'll be lost," says Vachss. "Getting control of my temperament as a teenager was the key to everything I've been able to do. I was already engaged in a process of self-control. I'd seen too many people in my neighbourhood end badly. But my only purpose back then was to shoot pool, chase girls. After I met that baby-rapist, everything took the same path."
Did he feel he had a choice ? "No. The way religious people talk about getting a call—that's what it felt like to me. It was a message I couldn't ignore. I couldn't have lived with myself." Vachss' first response was to enter Biafra's tribal inferno. Stung by seeing "waves of children starving on TV, at an age where the grandiose idea I could save them overwhelmed me," he took vast risks to set up supply lines. The chaos of the Nigerian civil war doomed his efforts, but as he struggled, defining images seared him: of a child asking why he was running during an air-raid, when the bombs couldn't see him, and he'd die anyway. And of a hungry, hunted woman snatching up an abandoned baby hours from inevitable, starved death, and holding it to her breast, so it would die loved. "I've seen the best of people as well as the worst," Vachss says.
The Burke books have been criticised for their zero-tolerance of sexual predators. But when Vachss talks of his own chance to administer rough justice, taking over a maximum-security prison for juveniles, his desire to save as many as possible, rather than simply punish them, is clear. The textbook he wrote on his methods is still used. The fiction followed, influenced by pulp writers like David Goodis and Paul Cain, as well as by Iceberg Slim and blues records.
He has always seen his novels not so much as art as like 'Trojan Horses'—a way of smuggling his views into the popular consciousness. The brutal beauty of a book like Hard Candy (1989) is, he claims, 'fortuitous'. Writing causes him pain not pleasure, unearthing bad memories. His work as a whole has left him physically and emotionally injured, under permanent threat from the enemies he has made along the way. The way he tells it, it sounds a sacrificial life.
"It gives me too much credit to call it sacrifice," he says. "I don't do what I do because I love children, I do it because I hate those who prey on them. So the sacrifice is to my hatred, not my love. It hasn't affected my life that much. I have good security on numerous levels." He also has what he calls his "brothers and sisters—warriors who are my family of choice." It makes him sound like Burke, living in his safe house. Does that mean that, at 57, he's subject to his character's exhaustion?
No, he says. "I don't ever feel exhausted by the struggle, because the victories have been higher than I fantasised. I've seen a kid who by every measure was fated to be a serial killer rescued, and become a loving parent. Public attitudes have changed. Any cost I've paid seems fair. I have a cardiogram on my website, to show my heart still beating. But my life is my work, and I expect that to go on, long after I'm dead."