By Nancy Shulins
NEW YORK (AP) — Fictional warriors rarely get hurt. Not so in life. The human body is fragile. Flesh tears. Bones break.
In the 30 years since he declared war on the evils that prey upon children, Andrew Vachss has had his jaw broken twice. The malaria he brought back from Biafra still flares up on occasion. The wrist he smashed in courtroom combat still aches.
In courtrooms and classrooms, on the Internet and the streets, in prisons and in print, Vachss battles child abuse both as a lawyer who represents children exclusively and as a writer whose apocalyptic fiction brings his case before a bigger jury.
Not only his work but his life is defined by the battle. His family. His friends. Even his pets, the guard dogs that protect him and his wife, Alice, from enemies amassed over the years.
Hundreds of children are safe because of Andrew Vachss. A national registry of sex offenders is being developed based on legislation he drafted. He established the meaning of corroboration in child sex abuse cases. He's at the forefront of efforts to bring more science and less art to the handling of these cases.
In Vachss' war, there are no cease-fires. He takes no vacations. He doesn't do lunch. At 53, he has no time for social niceties. Not even for the leader of the free world.
When President Clinton, attempting to engage Vachss in small talk, noted his slim build and asked if he were a runner, he got the standard response, delivered in Vachss' trademark growl.
Here it is, in its entirety: "No."
In the photograph marking the signing of the national registry of sex offenders, Vachss is easy to spot. He's the one with the eyepatch, the legacy of a childhood injury. He's also the one not smiling for the camera.
When he started his battle, understanding of the link between child abuse and criminal behavior was virtually nonexistent. People who sexually abused children were barely discussed. Today, "they openly lobby for funds. They're on the Internet," he says.
But if the evil Vachss calls "The Beast" is still going strong, so is he. His latest novel, "False Allegations," is due out in November. Like most of his tales, of stalkers, serial killers and freaks, it features Burke, an anti-hero and career criminal inured to all evil except that which preys upon children.
They have more than a little in common, the criminal and his creator. Both have seen life at its ugliest. Both have dangerous enemies and live behind shrouds of secrecy. Both consider child abuse in all its guises the ultimate evil on Earth.
But unlike Burke, a victim reared by the state, Vachss was reared by loving parents. He was not abused, although people close to him were, instilling a hatred of bullies and an absolute morality that seems almost biblical at times.
In "False Allegations," Burke stands in the cross fire of the child sexual abuse war, between those who insist children never lie in sex abuse cases and those who compare them to witch hunts.
"There is a truth," says the author, "and if you read the book, you will be equipped to find it."
More than that, he's hoping the gold standard it portrays, based on the pioneering work of Dr. Bruce Perry at ChildTrauma Academy Programs in Houston, will become routine procedure in investigating sex abuse cases.
Like all his fiction, "False Allegations" is raw and rich, a hellish landscape populated by deviant, damaged souls. It's also thinly disguised propaganda, another chance to say in 20 languages what Vachss has been saying in plain English for much of his life:
That today's victim may be tomorrow's predator.
That there's no such thing as evil DNA.
That society's monsters aren't born. They're made.
Just like its warriors.
To anyone who's ever glanced at Vachss' book jacket photo, it's an instantly recognizable face: angry and angular, with a five o'clock shadow, a cleft chin, and a one-eyed, world-weary, seen-it-all squint. In black and white, the same way he sees the world.
He wears a similar expression at his office in lower Manhattan, where he greets a reporter with an utter and absolute lack of warmth. He won't discuss his family, his clients, his life. His home is off-limits. He won't give out his number. If his home phone were to ring with any regularity, he says, "I would move."
But if he fails to discourage you with his perfunctory answers, his laser-beam glare and his indifference, his natural instinct starts to surface: The instinct to protect.
He waits with you by the elevator; he escorts you down the hall to the bathroom. He explains that his building's not safe.
And when you come back to find him framed by the doorway, ready to run to your rescue, you start to see how the man who turned anarchy into order at a prison for violent juveniles could be the same man the most fragile, damaged children entrust with their secrets, an authority on human depravity who spends his life trying to mend human souls.
For the first few years of his life, it was just him and his mother. His father was in Europe fighting the ultimate bullies, the Nazis. A gentle but powerful man, his father played semipro football before the war, then came home to Manhattan and a blue-collar life, his knees ruined by tank duty.
Years later, the family moved to Long Island, to a tiny tract house with a mean little yard. For young Andrew, the move meant new turf to explore and new bullies to battle. For his mother, it meant a rare indulgence: She finally got to plant rose bushes.
That summer, Japanese beetles invaded her beloved roses, a plague from hell to her son. A budding scientist and a voracious reader, he took himself to the library to study Japanese beetles and their natural enemy, the Praying Mantis. Then he went hunting.
He found hundreds of egg sacs, which he placed in glass jars to hatch. Then he saturated the bushes with hatchlings. The result was a Praying Mantis Woodstock. Overwhelmed neighbors complained.
His mother kissed him and told him he'd done a wonderful thing. But he must be careful in life not to take things too far, advice he has not heeded since.
Other childhood memories aren't so benign: A kid dousing a cat with gasoline and setting it on fire; a man trying to snatch him on the street when he was 10; an older kid showing him violent pornography, images so disturbing they haunt him to this day.
By high school, Andrew Vachss knew a great deal about cruelty. Grownups hurt kids. Kids hurt animals. Men hurt women. He'd seen too much already. And he no longer cared about being a scientist.
At 22, he discovered The Beast.
After graduating from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he'd shot pool, chased girls and occasionally gone to class, he got a job with the U.S. Public Health Service.
Tracking sex partners of people with syphilis was "not at all easy, but it was exciting and risky and worthwhile." A pregnant woman with syphilis gives birth to an infected baby, the worst fate he could imagine.
Then he encountered an infant who'd been raped.
"I thought I'd seen it all. I knew people did horrible things. But I never really understood that people had sex with babies."
Later, as a welfare caseworker in New York City, a job that left him "frustrated from Day One," he met different types of abusers. Some were inadequate. Some were ignorant. Some were ill.
Some even hurt their kids out of love, like the mother of a 12-year-old who'd lost all her hair. "A tragedy," he says. "Her mother had not a penny, she was on welfare and didn't have enough to eat. ... So she gave her kid whiskey to drink, got her drunk. And sewed a doll's wig on her head."
People who hurt children for profit or pleasure were different. They were evil. "Social workers say no, evil people don't exist. They come up with reasons to explain their behavior.
"In the case of predatory pedophiles, they say that person was molested as a child. But I know thousands who were molested as children who didn't imitate their oppressors." Why they didn't is one of the great mysteries of life, he says.
How he lasted 3 years in that job is another.
In 1969, a tribal war was under way in Biafra—"for an update, see Rwanda or Bosnia"—with starvation as the primary weapon. This despite massive influxes of cash. Vachss agreed to enter the war zone and find out where the money was going. En route, a soldier with a machine gun opened Vachss' bags and dumped out his malaria pills.
In Biafra, Vachss bore witness to a generation of children disappearing from the Earth. He barely escaped with his life, wasting away from 160 pounds to 89 from malaria and malnutrition.
Back home, he worked as a juvenile probation officer. He ran a re-entry program for ex-cons. Then, in 1972, he took over ANDROS II, a maximum security facility for Massachusetts' most dangerous juvenile offenders, a jungle plagued by assaults and escapes.
To Dr. Yitzhak Bakal, who hired him, Vachss was "sent from heaven. He had both the toughness, the street smarts and the knowledge about how to be tough yet compassionate with kids."
"With some of the most difficult and distrustful kids, he would zero in on their innocence and vulnerability, and within half an hour, he was their hero. He became their mother. He was able to stabilize the facility. And his approach became the cornerstone of treatment of the violent juvenile offender."
Much of it is contained in his first book, "The Life-Style Violent Juvenile."
Word of his revolutionary model program spread quickly. Among those it reached was a young law student who'd counseled inmates at Riker's Island. "He said, 'I can't hire you.' He had no slots," Alice Vachss recalls. "My friends said, 'Just show up.'"
"I worked double shifts the first couple of weeks. Finally, he agreed to take me on if I agreed to write a history of the program," thereby bringing in grant money. It was, she says now, "a perfect experiment."
Her first impression of her future husband was that "he was very sick. He had a middle ear infection and malaria, too. He was doing this purely on strength of will." Even so, "he was the first truly effective person I'd ever met." They didn't become involved until years later, long after they'd worked together. On their first date, he taught her to shoot.
ANDROS II was where Vachss finally determined that no one is born bad, that "no biogenetic code exists that says 'go be a rapist, a serial killer, an arsonist.'" At the time, the "bad seed" theory still prevailed. A competing theory held that delinquency resulted from poverty, alcoholism and the dark side of the culture—rock music, comic books, gangs.
Vachss began asking kids if they'd been abused. Kids whose bodies were mapped with evidence answered no. He remembers one in particular, who'd had half his teeth knocked out, whose back bore scars from the heated coat hangers he'd been beaten with. No.
However, he allowed as how his brother had been abused. "He thought he'd been the favored child," Vachss says. "At that point, I realized the 'data' wasn't all that accurate."
By 1973, Vachss knew he needed to intervene earlier, before kids wound up in prison. He left ANDROS II for the New England School of Law. Without him, the perfect experiment fell apart.
He had money for just one year of law school. But he finished at the top of his class, and continued on scholarships.
He opened his practice in 1976. Children were his primary clients, but he also took criminal cases to help pay the bills.
In the early '80s, he represented the plaintiffs in three suits against the Fresh Air Fund for sending New York City kids on vacations in the country where they were abused, two at private homes and one at a camp. Vachss charged the Fund, one of New York's most venerable charities, with negligent screening and supervision.
The Fund not only settled all three cases, but publicly admitted to inadequate procedures, crediting Vachss with having opened their eyes. In the last case, Fund lawyers joined him in pressuring New Hampshire authorities to bring charges, resulting in another conviction.
Such was his advocacy on behalf of his clients that when one guilty party turned up dead at the bottom of a Vermont marble quarry, Vachss was among the first questioned.
Would he care to make a statement?
Yeah. "I hope his eyes were open on the way down."
Vachss' zealousness hasn't diminished with time, says Yonkers Family Court reporter Bruce Winkelman, who remembers the day in 1984 when Vachss punched the wall, dislocating his right wrist and chipping the bone while demonstrating how a single blow could have broken a baby's pelvis in two places.
"I saw him a few days later with his hand all bandaged up. But at the time," Winkelman says, "he never flinched."
The broken wrist embodies the lengths Vachss will go to for the children he represents. Friends characterize him as a force of nature—"a Nor'easter," says David Hechler.
His effect is as easily measured as gale force wind.
Alice Vachss ran the Special Victims Bureau of the Queens District Attorney's office, distinguishing herself as one of America's toughest prosecutors before getting fired in what officials termed a restructuring. It took place in November 1991, three days after an election in which she'd refused to campaign for her boss. She's now a lecturer and consultant specializing in violence on college campuses. Had she never met Andrew Vachss, "I would have done the same things," she says, "only smaller."
Lisa Rana was a welfare caseworker when she met Vachss 10 years ago. She's now a fellow law guardian referred to by his inner circle as "the heir apparent."
James Colbert says he never would have written "God Bless The Child," his nonfiction book about child abuse, had it not been for his close friendship with Vachss. They're now collaborating on a screenplay for New Line Cinema based on the Vachss character Cross.
Then there's Hechler, a graduate student researching an article on juvenile delinquency when he met Vachss. He went on to write "The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War."
It was Hechler who helped launch Vachss' fiction career, after reading a manuscript for a novel rejected a dozen times. "As a journalist, I suppose I had no business getting involved. But I remember thinking this was a book that ought to be out there."
He showed it to a well-connected friend who agreed. "Flood" was published by Donald I. Fine Inc. in 1985, establishing Vachss as a powerful new voice and Burke as a singular character.
Seven Burke novels followed: "Strega," "Blue Belle," "Hard Candy," "Blossom," "Sacrifice," "Down in the Zero," and "Footsteps of the Hawk." Vachss' non-Burke books include "Shella," "Batman: The Ultimate Evil," and "Born Bad," a short-story collection.
Despite critical acclaim, six-figure advances and paperback sales in the hundreds of thousands, Vachss refuses to call himself a writer. Like everything else he does, his books are a means to an end, he says. "How else do you talk to people in China?"
Since the mid-'80s, the books also have let him limit his practice to children, something he found impossible in, say, 1980, when he handled 28 cases for an average of $218 per case.
But successful authors make visible targets. Deranged phone calls, threatening letters and stalkers have necessitated elaborate security measures, resulting in a lifestyle similar to Burke's.
"I'd like to see him off the front lines; he's been there longer than anyone in the history of warfare," Colbert says.
To that end, Vachss is "passing out dozens of torches—one to me, one to Jim, one to Lisa, one to Bruce," Hechler says. "It's like the octogenarian's birthday party, where everyone gets a candle. We all become safeguarders of the flame."
One day, Vachss says, he may "retire" from his law practice to track child abusers on the Internet. But not yet.
The war isn't over; not by a longshot. The Beast is still out there. Children still die.
To a warrior, the future looks much like the past.
"You punch the wall. You punch the wall. You punch the wall."
And if you break your wrist in the process, what then?
"Then you kick it."
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