Reading: False Allegations
Originally published in San Diego Reader, November 21, 1996.
Author: Andrew Vachss (rhymes with "tax"), born in 1942, raised on Manhattan's Lower West Side. Mr. Vachss received his B.A. from Case-Western Reserve University in 1965; he graduated in 1975 from the New England School of Law. He has worked as a federal investigator, tracking chains of sexually transmitted disease, a social caseworker, community organizer, and director of various agencies including a reentry center for ex-convicts and a maximum-security institution for violent youth. His experience also includes varied forms of manual labor, taxi driving, and a stint in Africa during the war in Biafra. For the past two decades Mr. Vachss has worked as a lawyer, with a practice limited to representation of children and youth. He is author of the National Child Protection Act of 1993. The act establishes a national database of convicted child abusers and sex offenders. It allows businesses or organizations who employ childcare workers to ask state agencies to check this database for job applicants' names, He is also a founder of Don't Buy Thai, a boycott of Thai products. Don't Buy Thai's intent is to influence the Thai government to end its kiddy sex tourism industry. [Note: The boycott ended 12/20/00. For the complete story, click here.]
In addition to eleven novels, Mr. Vachss has written a textbook, several plays, short stories, comics, poetry, and articles for legal journals.
False Allegations; A.A. Knopf, 1996; 231 pages; $23
Place: New York City and Houston
False Allegations is the ninth Vachss novel narrated by Burke, the now-middle-aged loner reared in reformatories and prisons. Burke shifts in and out of a Manhattan netherworld of ex-cons, transsexuals, prostitutes, violent cops. While his life may seem aimless, it's not. Burke's self-assigned task is defense of the un- and under-defended.
False Allegations finds Burke in the middle of controversy. A young woman claims that as a child she was sexually abused by her minister. Burke's assignment: was she or wasn't she? As Burke sets about his task, the reader is led through Vachss' fictional settings to the real-life Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and developmental neurobiologist. Perry heads the Civitas Program at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. CIVITAS, Latin for "community," was established by Vachss three years ago as a place where research into child abuse, training of health services personnel, and clinical treatment for children would exist under one roof. CIVITAS's board members include Oprah Winfrey. In False Allegations Vachss manages to combine a noir-thriller chase plot with a seminar in neurobiology and to make the neurobiology as exciting as the chase.
False Allegations explores the passionately argued topic of true and false child abuse allegations. When Mr. Vachss and I talked recently, l asked if he expected False Allegations to be controversial. After noting that he didn't think much of the word "controversial," Mr. Vachss went on to say, about the ongoing child abuse arguments, "There is essentially a pair of lunatic fringes, with the rest of the world on the line. So you have, 'Believe the children, children never lie about child sexual abuse, there's an international satanic conspiracy to sexually abuse kids.' And then you have the 'It's all witch-hunts, it's all false allegations, it's all hysterical women and corrupt therapists' people.
"My thesis is that this is not an issue like abortion or gun control or capital punishment. You don't believe it or not believe it.
"The failure to look at this [child abuse allegations] on an individual case-by-case basis, the failure to develop protocols, the knee-jerk doctrinaire reactions have totally disenfranchised children. Because just as the truthful child who is not believed because everybody thinks it is a witch-hunt is traumatized, so also the child who is made to carry the banner of a false allegation and is believed is also traumatized."
Mr. Vachss explained that in his own real-life work as a defender of children and through his fictional Burke, he takes neither of the extreme positions. He could, he said, "easily get comfort from either side" of the child abuse argument. But, he added, "Since I am going to walk down the middle of the road, I expect a crossfire."
When we talked, Publishers Weekly, a publication that serves the book industry, recently had issued its review of False Allegations. "Vachss' consideration of the validity of recovered memory syndrome is informed and balanced, but his glare at child sexual abuse here is nearly relentless and, eventually, wearisome. Vachss' prey is certainly worth hunting, and he's a skillful hunter, able through his stiletto prose and his white-hot rage to persuade readers that Burke's vigilantism equals justice. Still, there's more to life and more to art than avenging the innocent ..." I asked Mr. Vachss what he made of this.
His answer: "They are saying, this guy can really write but why does he write about this child abuse all the time! What's the big deal?" Mr. Vachss, who writes in part to support his defense of children legal practice, then made clear that as far as he was concerned, there is nothing more important than "avenging the innocent."
About False Allegations, he went on to admit, "This is not a slam-bang, shoot-'em-up kind of book; it's a complicated book, it's a psychologically violent book. I think that my core audience, which is beyond loyal, which is what has kept me in business, some will feel betrayed, because I give the false allegations people a full voice in this book. It's not diatribe, it's not biased. A lot of people are going to feel betrayed. I am aiming it at the unaligned, at the thriller reader. My hope is that when they sit on the next jury, it will be percolating in their head.
"Two things I want out of this book. I want people to say, 'The next time I hear about a case of child sexual abuse, let me look at that case and not at the various belief systems.' And, I want them to learn more about and to support Bruce Perry's work, because there's the cultural change that we need, there's the Rosetta Stone, there's what I believe in, there's where I'm standing my ground."