Andrew Vachss prosecutes child abusers and other predators—then blasts them in his gritty, brilliant novels.
By Will Blythe
Originally published in Mirabella, July 1990
In his sweatshirt and boots, with his black eye patch and a tiny black heart tattooed on his hand, Andrew Vachss, novelist and attorney, seems to have sauntered into his office from a racetrack or a bookie's shop. He slouches in his chair, a little out of place amid the staid, leather volumes of the law. He looks, in fact, like a guy who needs a lawyer, someone you might have just seen sizing up passers-by from a doorway in Times Square. Even today, after publishing Blossom (Alfred A. Knopf), the fifth in a line of increasingly accomplished crime novels, the forty-seven-year-old Vachss remains steely and street sharp, a legal hipster who is utterly implacable in his life's mission to resuce children from the clutches of those he terms "predators"—abusive relatives, pedophiles, kiddie pornographers, even other children.
He's been obsessed with child abuse since 1965. He was twenty-two, out of school and working as a field investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio, tracing the spread of syphilis. "I really just wanted adventure," he says, leaning across the desk toward his visitor. "But the first kid I encountered was what we call an 'arm' baby. So young it had to pull itself around on its arms. That child had a prolapsed rectum from rape. After I saw that, rage replaced every emotion."
In 1975, he earned a law degree and went on to represent children in New York City, where he himself had been raised, the son of a lower West Side factory worker. Since child clients can rarely afford legal fees, Vachss drove a cab part-time to pay for his practice and set up shop in a Chinese restaurant, not unlike Burke, the private eye hero of his novels. "When the pay phone would ring, the lady there would answer, 'Mr. Vachss' office.' In exchange, I defended everyone associated with the restaurant, which, believe me, could have been a career."
He laughs, shakes his head at the memory. Photographs of Vachss invariably freeze him in a brooding, hard-bitten pose. True enough, but they don't get at the expressive range of his ire, the coolness, the steadiness and, especially, the odd glints of humor. He's like a soldier who's so appaled at the bullets whizzing overhead that all he can do is lie back in the foxhole and laugh. He offers a field trip into the ugly, one freakish story after another.
"Listen," Vachss says calmly. "If the anger goes, I'm out of business."
"You know the one subclass in the city that always uses condoms?" he asks, his voice rising in hilarious disbelief. "You know who? Rapists. To prevent the DNA fingerprint. Not only that! Criminals use the system's technology against it. It's ju-jitsu, man. I've heard of bank robbers who put someone else's blood in a plastic bag and burst it while they're running out of the bank. There's stuff I haven't been able to write because it'll seem unbelievable."
Vachss keeps tabs on his fury the way other people check their pulse or monitor their cholesterol. "Listen," he says, calmly, evenly. "If the anger goes, I'm out of business. I couldn't last. But every day they come up with new stuff for me. All I have to do is open a case file and I feel the rage so intensely I want to hurt somebody. The plots of my books come right out of those files."
But his eerie understanding of the psychopaths, the pedophiles, all the various predators who face him in the courtroom and haunt his novels—that comes from somewhere else, from the inside. "I don't have empathy for them, but I can identify with them somehow. I know what they're thinking of and I don't know how to account for that. Dr. Walter Stewart, who trained me in psychiatry, said I was as good a diagnostician as he had ever seen because I was so absent and cold. And I am, I'm a cold person. But if I'm cold, these pedophiles and predatory psychopaths, they're chillier than chilly."
Vachss doesn't put much stock in the notion that sexual offenders can be rehabilitated, a view that made him "politcally anathema" in the seventies. "Eldridge Cleaver talked about raping white women in Soul on Ice, and some people applauded. Those people didn't know any rapists," he exclaims. "I did."
He walks over to the visitor's side of the desk and spreads out his hand. It's slender, like a guitarist's, say, surprisingly delicate for all the battering it's been through. "I broke this hand a lot," Vachss says. "Now it's fixed. That's rehabilitation. When a sexual offender goes past certain levels of sexual activity, when he gets a jolt from what he does, he just can't get back. He won't burn out."
In court, Vachss once broke that hand smashing it into a wall to demonstrate how a baby's pelvis might be broken by a blow. He retrieves the trial manuscript from a folder and points to the moment. "I'd have been okay if I just hit the plaster board," he says. "But I hit the stud."
He chuckles, wry and almost pained. Then it's time to renew the crusade. "Let me show you the New York incest statute," he says, flipping open the volume, already highlighted in yellow. "This has got to be changed." In person, and in his Burke novels, Vachss is an unabashed polemicist. He wants his readers to feel, if only for an instant, the anger against child abuse that he endures and cultivates every waking moment. "Anger is the fuel that drives America," he says. "Until we get angry, we just switch channels."