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Novelist Vachss Uses Fiction to Fight Child Abuse

By Aleksandrs Rozens
Originally published in Reuters, January 6, 2003

NEW YORK (Reuters) — For crime-fiction author Andrew Vachss, writing is not a priority, but something the lawyer who represents abused children and crusader against child violence does when he finds time.

"I do it when I can. I don't have a schedule built around writing," said Vachss, in New York City recently to promote his latest book, "Only Child."

The author of 15 novels and two short story collections avoids a daily routine. If he is not representing children who have been victimized, Vachss, a former federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases and director of a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders, is busy advising agencies that help children.

Writing serves as a source of money to finance his crusade, but, for him, it is more importantly a way to make people aware of the horrors of child abuse and the many forms it takes.

"There is no border between my writing and what I do. My goal is that of a journalist. I am simply trying to get a bigger audience than I could get in a courtroom and that has worked," said Vachss, whose books have been published in 20 languages and are routinely optioned by Hollywood producers, although none has made it to the big screen yet.

His books talked about pedophile priests and Internet porn long before they were commonly written about by the broader media and, in his latest novel, he offers a noir thriller that also explores how movies have changed American society.


"Only Child" brings Vachss' hero Burke back to New York, which he fled in a previous novel. He investigates the death of an organized crime lieutenant's illegitimate daughter in a suburban town on New York's Long Island.

What Vachss' underground crime fighter discovers is a would-be film director with a penchant for cruelty. In assembling film vignettes he enjoys the power of directing "a scene" in his film while the actors are unaware of the roles they play. One of these vignettes ends up in a vicious murder.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, warned Vachss, pointing out that the proliferation of filmmaking technology has made it easier for anyone to be a film director.

"The bottom line is people are making tapes of pit bull fights, street racing, gang initiations and shoplifting," said Vachss. "The next phase is when they want to direct it and not just tape it.

"All these crimes I write about are crimes of power. There are those who see being a director as the ultimate power. Not directing a script, but directing life," said Vachss.

In "Only Child," Burke discovers the would-be director hopes to profit on his films, illustrating a persistent theme of Vachss' work: "There is a tremendous market for cruelty. Crime is chasing dollars rather than the other way around."

If he gets ten consecutive days, Vachss said he writes, but then there can be a month where he doesn't put pen to paper.

And while Vachss may not devote time daily to his writing, he is no slouch. His non-fiction work in magazines aims to raise public awareness of crimes against youth and there is another novel being readied, entitled "The Getaway Man."

Vachss, who divides his time between New York and the Pacific Northwest, even helped draw up plans for what he calls the ideal maximum security institution. That building, which was being considered in Oregon, may not get built soon because of the slowing U.S. economy.

It is all part of one man's campaign to raise the public's awareness about the different forms of child abuse.

"All I am doing is, as always, saying: 'Watch Out!'"

© 2003 Reuters, Ltd.


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