A 'Literary' Lawyer and the Nightmare He Writes—and Lives
"To have sexual feelings toward a small child is sick.
To act on them is evil." —Andrew Vachss
By Jerry Morgan
Originally published in Newsday, October 16, 1987
Andrew Vachss sits behind the desk opposite the open door to his one-room office on lower Broadway. There is an office, a secretary, a whole law firm uptown on 42nd Street, but this is where he gets his work done.
The door is open so he can see who is coming without having to open a door. Vachss (pronounced Vax), is 44, a tough lawyer who represents only children, often in sexual abuse cases. He is very cautious; he gets threatened a lot.
"I am not prepared to guess whether the threats are serious," he said. He has been shot at, but lawyer that he is, he is precise and sardonic about fixing blame. "There are bullet holes in my cars, but I never did get to interview the person who did it, so I can't tell if it is in relation to my work," he said.
"By the time I was ready to be a lawyer, I never intended to do anything but represent children," he says. He is a law guardian in Westchester County Family Courts. But he has represented children in other cases.
In his first job, as field investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service in the Midwest, he found little children infected with venereal diseases. "I was shocked at 22, but you stop being shocked when you see it all the time. I don't think you can fantasize any way kids can be abused that I haven't seen."
Vachss tilts his head slightly to look at a visitor with his good left eye. His right eye is covered with a patch, the result of an injury suffered as a child on the streets of the south Village, not far from his office. He is vague about the injury.
He has quite a history: He was a caseworker and supervisor for the New York City Social Services Department. He went to Africa during the Biafran Civil War in 1969 for the Community Development Foundation to distribute money to help children. He contracted malaria in Africa, and it still affects him. He has worked in a succession of community organization projects in the Midwest, and once he even ran a prison for violent teenage boys in Massachusetts.
He became a lawyer in 1975, having held more than 10 jobs in the previous 10 years. Some jobs were so short-lived they never made his resume. He says candidly, "I am a lousy employee."
"You name something that can be done to children and I have handled such cases. I have bad kids in padded rooms who were never touched, runaways, neglected kids, kids who were the victims of bizarre religious practices, kids who were the victims of bizarre nutritional practices."
"It is a thesis of my work that today's abused child is tomorrow's predator. So I have represented kids who have committed some pretty heinous crimes, and in my mind—and my presentation—I am still representing an abused child."
Vachss is also the author of two very tough, violent mysteries—Flood (Donald I. Fine, 1985) and Strega (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987)—about the seamy side of the city, a nightmare of crooks, rapists, pimps, pedophiles, abused children, whores, con men, killers and some good guys who are good guys, and bad guys who are sometimes good guys.
He wrote the books, especially Strega, he said, because he feels he can reach an audience that would never hear of his courtroom work. The $175,000 Vachss received from Knopf for Strega was a far cry from the $5,000 he received for Flood two years earlier.
Robert Gottlieb, Knopf's former editor-in-chief, says Vachss is in the tradition of the same publisher's Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Ross MacDonald—"hard-boiled strong writing." Gottlieb, now editor of The New Yorker and a man whose praise is not lightly given, adds, "We were looking for strong individual voices and think we found one in Vachss."
Mort Janklow, his prestigious agent, says his exclusive practice of representing children "is what he cares about and in the guise of a commercial novel, he has been telling his story in a very powerful way."
The open door to his office at 299 Broadway is just one of his protective measures. Vachss has no listed home address. He and his wife Alice, the assistant district attorney in charge of the Queens D.A.'s Special Victims Bureau, live in Queens in a house fortified "internally; it has no bars." Its defenses include, but are not limited to, a 140-pound Neapolitan mastiff and a 115-pound Rottweiler. Simba, a 95-pound junkyard German shepherd that Vachss saved from being drowned by a gang of kids, a dog that Alice Vachss described as "unqualified ferocity," was recently given to a friend who patrols JFK Airport. Reason: the dog was unhappy being at home and not working, Vachss said.
They are all trained attack dogs. "They are not really pets. For me, they are tools," he said.
If Vachss doesn't worry about himself; he worries about his wife, who prosecutes child abusers and rapists. "I certainly know the threats against my wife are serious because the people who make them have done very serious, ugly things to women. I would be derelict in my duty if I didn't take those threats seriously." Those protective measures seem to carry over into his books.
Burke, the protagonist of both novels, is a violent ex-con, raised by the state as an orphan, who has the usual code of honor and a soft spot for abused children. He tries to be invisible. Survival is his goal. He taps the phone of the people downstairs to make a phone call. He has a phony junkyard job to provide cover income. When American Express notifies him that he is in arrears on a bill, he does what he says anyone would do: creates a phony identity to get a new card.
That Burke has a 140-pound Neapolitan mastiff; that Eva Wolfe, the special victims bureau district attorney who seems to resemble Alice Vachss, has a Rottweiler; that the references to her are loving; that Simba appears as a junkyard dog, are all coincidences, said Vachss. He refers questioners to the usual "Any resemblance ..." disclaimer in the book.
Vachss keeps his relationship with his wife as private as possible. They will not pose together for a picture. They do not want a story written about both of them because, they say, their work is very different, and they don't want to confuse anyone. She is a prosecutor. He is a lawyer in private practice. He does not refer criminal matters to her, but "to local police or the FBI," if necessary.
And he bridled at a recent magazine story that he thought implied their relationship began when she worked for him at a Massachusetts prison for violent teenagers that he ran. They began their relationship a few years later, when he was in law school and she was writing a history of the prison project.
Flood and Strega, the novels, deal with child abuse; Flood as a plot device, Strega as the main theme. Strega is much more graphic. There are descriptions of child sexual abuse and rehabilitation, and a chilling scene in which a pedophile explains how little boys will do sexual things "when they are in love."
Vachss hates pedophiles. He speaks of them as "maggots" and unredeemable. "To have sexual feelings toward a small child is sick," he says. "To act on them is evil. I have sat and listened to people tell things that I guarantee would make you throw up before you had a chance to leave the room, [but I sat there] because I needed to know to do my work."
To write with the authenticity he does, Vachss said he has fired every gun, walked every street. It shows when you know the city as Vachss does. In his books, you can smell the streets, taste the hot-and-sour soup, feel the threats on the subway.
Vachss plans two more books in the Burke series. Janklow said the books have been sold either for a feature-length movie or a TV film or series.
Vachss wrote them because representing children isn't the most lucrative practice he could have. But ask Vachss to evaluate his work and he refers you to lawyers he has met in court or has worked with; the words these other lawyers most often use when speaking of him are: tough, angry, passionate, thorough, focused.
Vachss, for example, sued the venerable, privately run Fresh Air Fund on three separate occasions for placing children in homes where they were abused. He won money twice, but what was important to him was that, on the third occasion, the Fund changed its procedures for selecting host homes for the children, and agreed to prosecute hosts who abuse children. Vachss said he was not merely satisfied with the result, "I was gratified."
Stephen Heard, a lawyer and a director of the Fresh Air Fund, said, "He can be a hysterical guy on this subject and there was some real animosity when we started ... But he was more right than we were; he helped us.
"Andrew sues you for big dollars," Heard said. "He gets your attention that way, but that is not what he is after. He wants the bad guys put away."
Roger Milch, a Westchester attorney and former Bronx assistant DA, has faced Vachss in court and praises his ability and dedication. But he wonders about his motivation; "There is anger, but that is probably too simple ... I don't know whether he was abused as a child, but he is fueled by a certain passion that anyone who abuses a child is the lowest of the low."
Vachss said he was not abused as a child. His father, a former professional football player, was very conscious of his strength, Vachss said, and the physical attention he received was loving.
It is anger that keeps him going. "My anger plateau is everybody else's peak ... It is fuel. Here is the way the anger works, as near as I can analyze it: This is very depressing work. Depression knocks you down. You get down far enough and those little springs that are anger get accessed—and bang, you can fight again."
Being effective is all that matters to him. He defines effective as saving a life, removing a child from an abusive situation. But how long can he continue to live with the pain of his job?
"I am not a good enough speaker or writer to express the high you have winning one of these cases and saving a person's life," he said. "That re-energizes you in a way that all the depression in the world can't take away."
Hitting Child Molestors in the Bank Book
Suing a father for the injury of incest—not the crime—was the ploy Andrew Vachss and Mineola attorney Melvin Borowka used to win a 1986 case on behalf of a woman who had been raped by her father when she was a child.
The theory was simple. The father had admitted in family court that he raped his daughter, so they sought a summary judgement in State Supreme Court in Westchester, seeking damages for the woman, who was now an adult and in need of money.
They lost in State Supreme Court, but the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling, and they went to trial just to determine what damages, if any, should be awarded; not to prove the incest case. That meant; Borowka said, that the victim did not have to testify again. They won more than $300,000. It was the first time in New York, Vachss said, that the tactic had been used to help a victim of child molestion get redress. [see: ISSA ACCESS NO. 3026; Doe v. Esposito]
Now, Vachss said, "I've heard that there are prosecutors around the country who are mad at me because they are having trouble getting guilty pleas from people who are afraid they will be sued in civil court for damages."
Borowka and Vachss have two civil suits pending on Long Island seeking damages for abused children, one of them using the tort of incest tactic. In that case, Borowka said, a contractor who molested a child in a house, and pleaded guilty, is being sued by the family for damages.
In the other current case, Borowka said, they suing a Nassau youth outreach program and a counselor in that program because a troubled youth who had sought help from the agency was, they claim, molested over a long period of time by the counselor.
"The agency was supposed to be matching youth with appropriate counselors," Borowka said, "and there is supposed to be followup to see how things are working."
These are civil cases in which monetary damages are sought. Vachss, whose law practice is concerned solely with the well being of children, not always a lucrative pursuit, often collaborates with Borowka.
"These cases are not only for the dollars," Borowka said, "but finally for the victim to participate in the system, to use it therapeutically to finally feel vindicated. These are not simply negligence cases." Borowka said, "Andrew would not take any case that wasn't theraputic regardless of what the money is."
Vachss said that hitting child molesters in the bankbook is the only punishment most will get. "In cases of nonstranger and nonrape molestation, this is the only remedy because most don't go to jail at all," Vachss said. —Morgan