One Man's War on Child Abuse
By Nina McCain
It is hard to take Andrew Vachss seriously until you meet him.
First there is the dust jacket photo on his latest book—an angry man wearing a black eye patch, standing on a gritty roof with the sepia-tinted New York City skyline in the background.
Then there are the publicity releases and reprinted stories about an attorney who specializes in juvenile justice and child abuse cases, writes novels and lives somewhere in Queens in a house guarded by a Neapolitan mastiff and other dogs of varying degrees of ferocity.
Finally, there are the books. The latest, "Blue Belle," like the first two, "Flood" and "Strega," are about a character named Burke, an ex-con who lives in a shadowy world of pimps, hookers and drug dealers, pursues people who abuse children and is guarded by a Neapolitan mastiff. That mastiff gets around.
Burke says things like, "I was scamming along the tightrope between prison and the emergency ward while this guy was still [angling] to get into law school."
When Vachss, who is at the end of an eight-city book tour, opens the door to his Harbor Hotel suite, he is wearing a black leather jacket, black boots, black pants and the black eye patch. Surely the mastiff is lurking somewhere.
Then he begins to talk about abused children, the people who hurt them and what can be done about it. The man on the dust jacket becomes believable.
Vachss is angry because he deals every day with cases so sickening that most people cannot bear to hear the details.
He wears a patch to keep light out of an eye that was injured when he was a child. He has the mastiff and other dogs because there have been threats against him and his wife, who heads the Queens District Attorney's special victims bureau, which handles cases of rape, child abuse and crimes against the elderly.
He wrote the books to reach an audience that doesn't read his articles in professional journals or catch his appearances on public television.
His message is simple: "Today's victim is tomorrow's predator," he says. "Sociopaths are created, not born."
If a child is repeatedly brutalized, Vachss says, he will become insensitive to any pain but his own and eventually will strike out, terrorizing a neighborhood, becoming a serial killer or rapist.
"I want to interfere with the production line," he says.
Vachss, who is 45, tried a number of other ways of "interfering with the production line" before settling on his current combination of representing children in court and writing thrillers.
He grew up on the lower West Side of Manhattan, failed to get into the Marines because of the eye, went to college in Cleveland and then tried a series of jobs that took him from investigating the spread of syphilis cases in Steubenville, Ohio, to going to Biafra in 1969 to check on the effectiveness of relief aid.
In the early 1970s, he came to Boston and spent a year running a maximum-security facility for "a hard-core group of kids" who couldn't be released when the juvenile centers were closed.
In 1972 when he was 29, Vachss decided to go to the New England School of Law and specialize in representing children.
"Trying to rehabilitate kids was nowhere near as effective as heading them off at the pass," he explains.
His practice now combines private cases and cases where he is appointed by a judge and paid by the state at a rate of $25 an hour with the fee capped at $800.
Vachss says he didn't start writing books to make money and takes pains to point out, "I don't want anybody to believe if they buy the books, they're funding the fight against child abuse."
But he has made money. The first book went for $5,000, the second for $175,000 and the third for another "six figure" advance plus paperback rights. The last two books have been published by Alfred A. Knopf and the second was edited by Robert Gottlieb, then head of Knopf and now editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb calls Vachss "a strong, individual voice."
Vachss says his agreement with Knopf includes keeping the price at a relatively modest $15.95 and no sales in South Africa. He has had "a couple of dozen" offers for movie rights but he and his lawyer ("a graduate of Harvard Law School," he says with a smile) have not been able to work out an agreement giving him sufficient control over the finished product.
Vachss bristles at suggestions that his main character, Burke, is a vigilante or the "Rambo of child abuse." Burke, he says, is a "card carrying criminal" who acts either out of self-interest or loyalty to friends that include a deaf-mute martial arts expert, a transsexual and an electronics genius.
Burke is no hero, Vachss says, but all his books feature "real heroes"—social workers and psychologists who work with abused children, foster parents who take in the most damaged children and help to heal them.
If Vachss had his way, government and private foundations would pour money into child abuse prevention and rehabilitation programs for abused children. There would be much tougher sentences for trafficking in "kiddy porn" and for any kind of attack on children.
The "predatory pedophiles," or "maggots" as Vachss frequently calls them, would be "put in a place they can't leave" and, when and if they do get out, would have to register with police.
To those personally untouched by child abuse, who wonder if it is really as pervasive and devastating as Vachss asserts, he responds by pointing to the recent rash of abuse cases in day-care centers, the reports of abused children killing parents, the persistent stories of youth leaders, coaches, ministers and priests who have sex with children.
"This is not just a ghetto problem," Vachss says. "People said the same thing about narcotics in the '50s. The media has raised public consciousness about child abuse but no one is sufficiently angry. My dream is that one day there will be a coalition, like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
"I want to get anger going. If people get angry enough, they can force change."
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