The Last Angry Man
By Eric Pooley
"The street hasn't turned over yet," says Andrew Vachss at dusk, moving through a clutch of men outside a West 42nd Street porn house. "It's split now between people who work and people who prey. Wait an hour—that'll change."
Vachss looks like one of the predators. His face is handsome but battered—hard angles held together by muscles taut as piano wire. His right eye is hidden behind a black patch. He passes a store with painted-over windows that offers books, magazines, marital aids, pirate video booths. "Go in and ask if they have any chicken," he says, "and they'll know what you mean. But they won't sell unless you convince them you're not a cop."
Vachss' voice is flat, matter-of-fact. His left eye look angry. He isn't thrill-seeking here, and he leaves the store behind; he knows what's inside. Pick up one of his acclaimed novels—Flood from 1985, or Strega, his latest—and his private-eye hero, Burke, throws it right in your face:
I went into the first door I came to, checked the fat guy sitting at a register by the opening, and saw row after row of sterile-looking aisles ... I made two circuits before I found the back section marked Adults Only. Maybe the boss had a sense of irony—it had nothing but pictures of kids, books about kids, and magazines with kids. Nice stuff—everything from naked kids romping in the sun to a little boy with his hands and legs hog-tied behind him being double sodomized.
If it shocks, it's meant to. In Vachss' fiction, the hard-boiled private eye enters the ugly, real world of child abuse. Because Vachss, 44, isn't a novelist who visits Times Square to soak up atmosphere for his books. He's a "law guardian," paid by the state to represent abused children, and he's the only New York lawyer who devotes his entire practice to this cause. It's an advocacy and an obsession, a bitter, endless war against the "maggots," as he says, who feast on children. It might bring him to a Times Square fast-food joint where a twelve-year-old boy is turning tricks, or to Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet an arriving runaway before the pimps do.
Child abuse, of course, isn't confined to Times Square, and most of Vachss' battles are fought in the closed hearing rooms of family court, where many of the city's slimiest stories are told. Vachss gets up at five every morning and goes to work in a one-room office with an elaborate computer system. His day doesn't so much end as get put on hold for a few hours late at night. He has no children (only a 110-pound Rottweiler), and lives in a heavily fortified house somewhere in Queens with his wife, Alice, chief of the Queens district attorney's Special Victims Bureau, which prosecutes tough-to-prove cases of rape and abuse.
Vachss chain-smokes and does not drink. Aside from racetracks and blues music, his only release from the frustrations of court—prosecutors who won't go after tough cases, social workers reluctant to nail an abusive father and break up the "family unit"—are the books he's been writing about a man who treats abusers to a swifter, surer justice than courtrooms can provide.
He began the first one in 1983, largely because abused kids can't pay their protectors. (His only big scores come in occasional civil suits, such as a case he won against the Fresh Air Fund, the group that sends underprivileged children to spend the summer with rural families—and unwittingly sent one to a den of abuse.) Money was tight, so he decided to supplement his income—and educate the public—with a novel. For two years, he jotted bits of plot, character, and dialogue onto three-by-five cards and dropped them into a box. When the box was full, he wrote Flood.
Burke, the hero, is a state-raised ex-con of implacable honor and extreme paranoia, a lover of blues and attack dogs who has made himself almost invisible, thanks to a phony junkyard job that satisfies the IRS, and a smoke screen of false addresses, electronically diverted telephones, and fake identities that keeps the world at bay. Which leaves him free to create major problems for child molesters.
Burke helps a small blonde marital artist named Flood find the baby-rapist who killed her best friend's child (and went free because he's an informer). With a band of fiercely loyal friends—a transsexual hooker, a deaf-mute Mongol warlord—he stalks his prey through an underworld populated by pimps (Burke stuffs one into a garbage bag), gunrunners, and a snuff-film baron who tortures Burke for fun.
One editor wanted Vachss to turn Burke into a yuppie; an agent felt the book was incomplete without a global CIA conspiracy. Finally, Donald I. Fine, the former head of Arbor House, bought it for his own company for just $5,000. When Flood came out, the praise was strong—"a white-knuckle read, a red-eye flight to hell"—and the book sold 35,000 hardcover copies. The paperback rights went for $165,000, and 283,000 paperback copies have since been sold. Agent Mort Janklow took Vachss on. Robert Gottlieb, then editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, heard about Vachss, and asked Janklow about a second book. He gave Vachss a $175,000 advance for Strega, and edited it himself. Some were surprised that Gottlieb was interested in a mere crime novel.
"Remember, Knopf published James M. Cain, Chandler, and Hammett in their primes," says Gottlieb, now editor of The New Yorker. "In my twenty years at Knopf, I didn't want to clutter the list with second-level genre novels. I brought in Le Carre and Deighton; Andrew's was the next strong, individual voice. It will take a few books, and then I think he will find a very large audience. Of course, there will always be people appalled by the violence."
In the new book, a mafia princess named Strega (Italian for "witch") asks Burke to defuse the freak who's threatening her daughter, and by page 17 a thighbone has been snapped, an arm ruined, and a hand very nearly chopped off. But as the book settles into its main plot—Burke's search for a Polaroid piece of kiddie porn—Vachss presents not only the seamy stuff (a boy prostitute, a rich pedophile proud of his role as "mentor" to young boys) but also the ways social workers try to heal the damaged children. In a moving "validation" interview, for example, an abused little girl uses anatomically correct dolls to show what happened to her, and then rips the daddy doll to pieces.
Again, the reviews have been wildly enthusiastic. But something bothers Vachss. The Washington Post's rave, for example, was by the man who wrote two novels about a character called Rambo.
"People think I'm the Rambo of child abuse," says Vachss. "If they read my stuff as just a vigilante trip, they're missing the point. I want them to be mad at the maggots, but I also want them to learn—to see how a validation works, how a pedophile packages himself."
But when a lawyer writes about a form of justice that isn't faintly legal, isn't there a measure of wish fulfillment at work? "I never considered that," says Vachss. "I've tried to keep my books tight within the realm of what actually can happen." He describes a few child abusers who weren't convicted but later met cruel ends, proving that "there is retribution in the world, sometimes. For me, it comes if you work hard enough and stay on the case, and a guy who's raped his kids and walked out of court smiling finally takes a fall."
Long before Vachss ever thought up the character of Burke, he had created one that's even more driven and memorable—Andrew Vachss. He's a truck driver's son who grew up on the lower West Side twenty years before there was a SoHo, survived some scrapes with the law, and lost the use of an eye when he was hit in the face with a chain under circumstances he says he can't recall. He's a man who dropped into and out of Western Reserve University in the early sixties, married, finished school, divorced, and then became a public-health investigator who tracked the spread of syphilis (and found babies dying of it). He went to the Biafran war zone in 1969 to find out what was happening to relief money. He caught malaria, dropped to 90 pounds, and was half dead when "two little nuns threw me onto a plane like a sack of garbage, then went back into the jungle."
Though Vachss took part in many of the progressive causes of the early seventies—Saul Alinsky's community-organizing outfit in Chicago, an advocacy group in the Indiana steel towns, a community-service program for immigrants in north Chicago—he managed to hang onto a tough, almost right-wing image. In his thirties, he went to Boston and became the director of an experimental maximum-security facility for "aggressive-violent" juvenile offenders (and took a two-by-four across the face in a prison uprising). The facility—Andros II—was stern and successful in its dealings with juvenile offenders. One of the people drawn to it was a law student who worked for Vachss there and eventually became his wife.
"I was attracted to Andrew because he was effective," says Alice Vachss. "In those days, there was a lot of talk about doing things. He was the only one I saw who was actually getting something done."
Finally, Vachss attended the New England School of Law, in Boston. He became a lawyer who defended street kids but hated "the stereotype people have of some longhaired jerk running around smoking dope and saying there's no such thing as a bad boy."
"He doesn't trust part-time liberals, people who don't have a scar tissue," say his friend Jim Procter, a midwestern labor reporter. "He likes people who stand up—for their friends, for what they think is right."
In 1976, the year Vachss started his juvenile- defense law practice, only 6,000 child-sexual-abuse cases were confirmed nationwide. But he worked with juvenile offenders, and knew that many had been abused as children. "Torture a kid," he says, "and you stop him from feeling anyone's pain but his own. Eventually, he'll hit back, at someone else, and when he's locked up, it's like a breeder reactor—prison turns him into nuclear waste, and it's too late."
So he shifted his attention "from the poison flower to its root," from young criminals to abused youngsters. He spent more and more of his time as a law guardian. Though the job demands great expertise, many law guardians are inexperienced types scrambling for work—some treat abuse cases like real-estate closings. In a 1984 State Bar Association study, 4 percent were deemed effective. Vachss, by all account, is an exception—a crusader and an expert, not in it for the money, who writes articles and delivers speeches around the country to help increase awareness (confirmed abuse cases rose to 113,000 in 1985). He does it all in a blunt, confrontational style that some lawyers—especially defeated opponents—see as grandstanding.
"I've heard him called a wild Indian," says one opposition lawyer. "He's a loose cannon," says another. "He's a fierce advocate," says family-court judge Adrienne Hofmann Scancarelli, "and I'm not concerned with his style. He's a high-quality attorney, and he makes me a better judge. He could easily walk away in frustration and desperation from a flawed system—it's nice to see someone with integrity and ability staying with it."
Vachss demolishes witnesses in cross-examination, and at least one judge has admonished him for being too threatening in questioning. Demonstrating a beating in court, he dislocated his hand. Another time, he goaded a kung-fu-master child abuser on the witness stand.
"Would you attack me?" Vachss asked.
"No, you are a man," said the witness, meaning that Vachss carried himself well.
"Oh, that's right," said Vachss. "You only attack little kids." The guy lunged out of the witness-box at Vachss.
"The first time I interviewed one little girl," says Vachss, "I didn't know what I was doing. I asked her to sit on my lap, and she said sure. Then she grabbed my genitals. I pulled her away and she said, 'All daddies like that.' She got upset—here she was being nice to me. I saw red dots in front of my eyes. I can't descirbe my feelings. But there's nothing anyone could say now that could make me even blink."
Vachss is sitting behind the desk in his downtown hideout. He has his name on the door of a midtown firm, Gamliel & Gendelman, and sometimes meets clients there, but this is where he gets work done—no secretary, a single room outfitted with a powerful computer on which he follows every abuse case he hears about. He checks new names and descriptions against the file, looking for repeat offenders and patterns of abuse. He keeps track of the psychiatrists, judges, and social workers, rating their performances in court.
Get Vachss talking—it isn't hard—and he pours out a stream of sad, astonishing stories, each weird tale topping the last. He speaks quickly, in a tough New York voice, and he doesn't seem aware of how bizarre the stories are. He's been at this so long that he seems lost inside it.
"Kids can adapt to anything," he says. "That's scary. The scariest case I've ever seen was in Biafra. I was in a bomb shelter—bombs exploding, a terrible way to die. I ran outside, sat down, and this little boy sat next to me, maybe 9 years old, with the eyes of a 90- year-old. He tugged at my sleeve, said, 'Mister, the bombs can't see you.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'You run, the bomb hits you. You sit here, the bomb hits you. Do you have a cigarette for me?' This was one burned-out kid. I've seen the same eys on kids in South Bronx street gangs. The same eyes on abused kids.
"I've seen two-and-a-half year-old, sexually trained human beings. It would gag a maggot. That tiny child who already knows that the way to avoid pain is to provide sex has almost no chance of growing up and being a human being. You do psychiatric autopsies on some of these kids. A sixteen-year-old who sets fires because the flames make him sexually excited—no chance. Because the idea of rehabilitation is bullshit. It means a return to a former state, and with these kids there's nothing to return to. To have a chance, you have to get them in time.
"A fifteen-year-old stabbed a man in the chest just for the experience. He had three father figures—father, stepfather, and mom's boyfriend—and all had been in prison. If this kid went to prison, in ten years he'd be a highly skilled sociopath. The judge took a chance on a youth facility—secure, but not a prison. The kid's out and hasn't been arrested. He's not a computer programmer, but he's nonviolent.
"The most frightening human being I've ever met was also my first encounter with multiple-personality syndrome—the most bizzare response to child abuse," Vachss says. "A woman had been tortured as a child, and she had four personalities. In one, she tortured her kids, snapped a cop's arm like a matchstick, put her fist through a computer screen. In another, she was a cowering, semi-retarded person. Until I figured out what it was and got an expert to interview her, we didn't know that another of her personalities also wrote poetry."
Vachss was representing the woman's children, but he saw that she was a victim, too—which might surprise those who take him for the "Rambo of child abuse." The judge accepted Vachss' argument, sent the woman to the country's only secure treatment program for multiple-personality syndrome (a place Vachss found), and, in her decision, wrote that without Vachss' "imaginative and conscientious handling...the future of [the woman] and her children might have been entirely without hope."
"People read my books and say, 'How can you make up such stuff?'" says Vachss, "But my problem is toning down the reality so people will believe it."
The phone rings. It's a judge who once admonished Vachss for threatening a witness, returning his call. "Hey, judge, remember your pal?" says Vachss, mentioning a man whose children were taken away because he repeatedly abused them. "He just got popped for molesting two kids." Vachss hangs up.
"I like to let 'em know I'm never sleeping," he says. "I'm always awake and working."
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