Rage of an Angel
By Paul Mann
Originally published in Elle, May 1991
Junkies, pushers, winos, prostitutes, bag ladies and cripples on skateboards. Peep shows where a quarter buys two minutes of hardcore. Kiddie porn out the back for the children hawks. Regulars only. Times Square, New York looks like the kind of place that could give you herpes if you walk too slowly.
I get out of the cab in the Village, in front of an office building that looks like a 20-storey tombstone. I take the elevator to the eighteenth floor and walk down a dirt-brown corridor from an ex-con's nightmare. Every door wears a big police badge and every office is occupied by cops and prison officers from the city Corrections Department.
Every office but one. The door is open so he can see me coming. A guy in a black eyepatch.
He has three days worth of stubble on his chin and his office looks like he's slept in it. He points me to a couch that might have been scavenged from a junkyard. Then he leans back in his chair, fixes me with his good eye ... and waits. Letting his silence do the talking. I have come to him. It's up to me.
"Your books are full of ugliness,'' I comment.
He looks bored.
"I'm not looking for a date."
When you meet Andrew Vachss (it rhymes with patch), in person or through the alter ego of Burke, the protagonist in all his novels, he has a way of dragging you into his world. By the throat. By the nose. By the hair. By whatever it takes.
Andrew Vachss is the kind of person you wouldn't invite to dinner because he would upset your guests.
It's deliberate. And he hasn't got much time. He wants you to see the world the way he sees it. A hard, ugly place full of pimps, hookers, junkies, freaks, deviants, child molesters, kiddie porn hustlers, crooked cops, phoney politicians, bent judges and money-grabbing lawyers. If it sickens or disgusts you, that's too bad. He won't apologise. But he would prefer that it enrage you. And then maybe you'll do something about it. Like him.
For the past 27 years Vachss has been fighting what he considers to be the most pernicious evil ever to blight humanity: the sexual abuse of children for pleasure and profit.
It's the all-consuming cause that drives everything he does. Being a best-selling author is a sideline. In his real job he's an attorney specialising in child protection cases.
It started with his first job as a investigator for the United State Public Health Service when he was a 22-years-old and had to track down people who spread venereal disease. Vachss had grown up hard in New York. His family was working class. He lost the sight of his right eye when, as a kid, he was hit in the face with a chain during a gang fight. He thought he was tough. He thought he was street smart. He thought he knew a lot.
"But until I took that job, I never knew that people sodomised babies for fun," he says. "When it hit me, it hit me hard. I mean, I saw stars in front of my eyes. I don't want to make it sound like it was some kind of religious conversion or something but it had that kind of intensity. I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. Everything else has followed on from there."
Everything else is so extraordinary that if it were condensed into a novel, it would be unbelievable.
Vachss has organised care programs for abused children in the ghettos of America's toughest cities. He once ran a maximum security prison for juvenile offenders. In 1972, he decided that he could help more kids and put more child molesters in jail if he were a lawyer. So, at the age of 29, he went to law school, got a degree and became a lawyer.
He has been married three times and his present wife, Alice, is an assistant prosecutor in the New York District Attorney's office, who also specialises in the prosecution of sexual abuse cases.
And that's only part of it. Perhaps one story, above all others, will help explain what sort of man Andrew Vachss is.
Vachss is easy to cast as a street hero. But in his leather and eyepatch, he's more a Dark Knight than he is Batman.
When civil war erupted between Nigeria and its province Biafra in 1969, the world's television sets were filled with graphic images of starving Biafran children. Vachss flew to Biafra with the intention of helping as many as he could. He was too late to help and, instead, witnessed the extermination of an entire people. When he returned to New York, he made the mistake of going to a party to relax.
"This guy came up to me and asked me how I could stand to look at all those starving children," Vachss says, undiluted disgust in his voice. "I told him that I didn't know how anybody could stand to look at them and not want to help."
That is Andrew Vachss. To him the world is broadly divided into two kinds of people. Those who do things and those who make excuses for not doing things.
"Andrew is the most honest, the most honourable human being I have ever met," says longtime friend and fellow author, Eugene Izzy. "He is the only man who makes me feel totally inadequate when I am with him. He eats only for fuel. He sleeps only when he passes out. His health is terrible. But there are no excuses for Andrew, and he won't take excuses from anybody else."
Vachss has written five novels so far: Flood, Strega, Blue Belle (all Pan), and Hard Candy, just released as a Pan paperback ($10.99), as well as his latest, Blossom, just published in Australia by Pan (hardcover, $32.95). He sells several hundred thousand books a year around the world, in 16 languages, and he commands six-figure advances. The books are raw, tough, uncompromising excursions into the mean streets Vachss has walked all his life. His protagonist is an anti-hero called Burke, an ex-con you probably wouldn't invite to a dinner party because he'd only upset your guests by talking about the kind of things nobody likes to hear while they're sipping their watercress soup.
Just like Vachss.
Vachss had published a long list of academic, non-fiction works about child sexual abuse before he entered into popular fiction. He was rejected, first time around, because publishers thought the public wouldn't be able to stomach his work. He has often been asked how he can invent the horror that appears in his books—like the chop shops that butcher babies for spare parts to sell on the organ donor market. The irony is that it is all drawn from real life, and Vachss has toned it down for his novels—because people refuse to accept that such awfulness really does exist in the world.
He recalls the time he rescued a 14-year-old girl from a pimp in Times Square. I told her I thought runaways left home to get a better life. She said this was a better life.
"But," he adds, "times have changed. Now, people believe it. They're talking about this kind of thing openly today. I go on national television all the time. I feel as if I'm getting somewhere because 15 years ago this couldn't have happened. I have the rejection slips to prove it."
"My novels," he says "are just another means of communication They are a very small part of what I do. I don't own a radio station, so the only way I can reach a big audience is through the books."
Yet, he's smart enough not to proselytise in his novels. Each one is a separate piece of entertainment. Tough, maybe, but compelling, well-plotted, vivid, funny and written in an extremely sharp street prose that reeks of authenticity.
It would be easy to romanticise Vachss. To portray him as a real-life street hero. The tough, dedicated New York attorney who leads a double life as a best-selling author. A real-life Bruce Wayne. With his black eyepatch and his leather jackets, he probably deserves the Dark Knight label more. Hell, Batman is a phoney. Vachss is the real thing.
"He is a hero," says Leslie Haines, a child protection worker who has known Vachss for 10 years. "There aren't many of them around today. But he's the real thing. He has such focus and such clarity about what he does. He is the only person I have ever seen who will not sell out a kid to seek favour with an adult.
And believe me, when you're a victim, it does you a power of good to see the person who did it to you behind bars."
But to only romanticise him would be, to use one of his terms, disrespectful. He's too cynical to want to be anybody's hero. What he wants is to anger people, to shame them, coerce them, maybe even blackmail them into doing something to help stop what is an epidemic of child abuse.
To do this he does not bother to appeal to anyone's better side. He has gone way beyond that. Andrew Vachss has honed his philosophy down to the point where he can prove, socially and economically, that it is in society's better interests to stop child abuse early. To face up to the hard fact that child molesters are everywhere, that they are cunning and rapacious, that they are doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, businessmen, scout leaders, parents. And that they have to be stopped. Early, before they do too much damage.
"You put them in jail," he says. "No-one molests a child in jail. Forget the cost. People who complain about the cost of putting child molesters in jail are idiots, because the fall-out from their activity is a thousand times more expensive than the cost of their incarceration."
"A typical child molester will molest hundreds of kids in his life. Hundreds. If every one of them carries that poison, if every one of them costs us something, whether it is to incarcerate them, whether it is suicide, promiscuity, drug abuse, or alcoholism—the cost of locking up that one molester is dirt cheap."
Much of Vachss' work is directed toward saving abused children before it is too late. If caught early enough, he has proven, some victims can be saved and go on to lead productive lives. Others do not. They go on to become predatory.
"When you've been made a victim and you've turned to the legal system for help and all that system does is do you more harm and set your abuser free, then you're left with nothing. And all the rules go out the window."
But on one point he is adamant.
"Just because you were once a victim does not give you a license to hunt. It's an explanation, not a justification ... My attitude about that is pretty clear. I say I'm sorry for what happened to you when you were a child but now it is your time to die."
"No-one molests a child in jail ... people who complain about the cost of putting child molesters in jail are idiots."
Nor does he buy the proposition that all child molesters are mentally ill. "The bane of my existence is people who say child molesters are sick," he says. "That's a get-out-of-jail free card. I acknowledge that to have sexual feelings toward a small child is sick. But to act upon them is evil. And I have plenty of evidence to show that these people glory in their feelings. They are sociopaths who feel nothing but their own needs and they don't care how many people they hurt to get what they want."
He also has plenty of evidence to show that rehabilitation doesn't work with child molesters.
"Because you can't rehabilitate something that was never right in the first place. People who prey on children have never been habilitated so how do you rehabilitate them?"
Considering the success that Vachss has had in his crusade, it isn't surprising that he attracts a lot of hate mail ... and death threats.
"I get letters from paedophile organisations all the time. I get threatening phone calls," he says. "I've been sent pictures of me with a sniper's cross hairs on them."
He takes it all seriously. He has been shot at. At least once that he knows of. He found the bullet holes in his car when he got home one night. He keeps his home address a secret and protects himself and his wife by keeping three attack dogs around all the time.
"I feel safe with them around," Vachss says. "They don't rust. They don't take sick days. They don't go on strike."
Vachss is 49 now. He chain smokes. He can move his right hand in jerky spasms so it looks like a robot's hand. He broke it once, punching the wall in the courtroom to show how a baby's pelvis was broken. He has a heart tattooed on his right hand.
"Some people wear their heart on their sleeve. My fist seemed the right place for me."
He was not molested as a child, he says. His rage springs from the shock he first felt when he saw babies despoiled by human predators before they even had a chance in the world. He has no illusions that he is going to transform society. But he thinks he can make a difference. If he can help change the legal system so it no longer protects abusers and accelerates the damage to victims, he'll die a happy man.
"I know I'm painted as an eccentric," he says. "I know people like to find contradictions in what I do. But to me, to sit in front of the television set and see these terrible things and to tut-tut and change the channel so you don't have to do anything—that's eccentric. Other people have to find contradictions in me because it's the only way they can excuse themselves for not doing something. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try."