The Prosecutor: He Walks It Like He Talks It
By Alex Kershaw
Originally published in the Weekend Guardian, May 2-3, 1992
To the trained investigator, there are many clues to Andrew Vachss' character in his shabby office 18 floors above Broadway. Three anatomical dolls lie in a heap in a corner below framed posters of his seven bestselling novels. Pictures of vicious dogs cover the walls. A firing range "human" target is stuck to one, its temple and heart perfectly holed.
For 27 years, Andrew Vachss has been fighting what he considers the most pernicious evil: the sexual abuse of children for pleasure and profit. Kiddie pornographers, paedophiles, incestuous fathers and other child abusers are all the same in his black and white world. They're maggots, the enemy. He is the only private practice lawyer in America specialising exclusively in protecting [children and youth].
Since 1985 when his first novel, Flood, was published, 45-year-old Vachss has taken his crusade against child abuse into the bookshops. This month, Sacrifice, the latest featuring the hardboiled private investigator, Burke, reaches Britain. Like the others—Hard Candy, Strega and Blue Belle—it's written in a brutal, compelling style, intricately plotted and driven by sharp, uncompromising street prose that roars with authenticity. Like the others, it is based on real cases of child abuse.
Unlike America's most celebrated crime writers—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard—Vachss' "fiction" is not cathartic in the sense that it is fueled by alcoholism or loneliness. More than any contemporary in America, he has lived what he writes.
His $250,000 advance for Sacrifice has, along with around $2 million from his other books, been spent subsidising his specialised practice in an area otherwise starved of attorneys and where the going rate is $25 an hour.
There are numerous similarities between Burke and Vachss. Both have no children (Vachss had a vasectomy in his twenties); both are fans of blues music and racehorses (Vachss owns a trotter named Gypsy Flame); both smoke cigarettes but won't touch booze; both have spent time in Biafra—Vachss was there in 1969 tracking down child relief funds during the civil war and barely escaped with his life. Still classed as a war criminal in Nigeria, he admits the experience was perhaps a surrogate for Vietnam. It cost him dear: he contracted jaundice and malaria and has a weight problem.
"Burke and I have the same taste in women, horses, dogs and music," says Vachss. "But there's a crucial difference between us. Burke is a prototypical abused child. I'm not. Burke is intended to be your eyes and ears. He's there to take you through a world."
Vachss and his third wife, Alice, also a sex crimes prosecutor, live like Burke in a rooftop apartment protected by sophisticated security devices. Alice Vachss is, according to a framed Parade magazine cover in her husband's office, one of America's "four toughest prosecutors." Vachss admits that Wolfe, the icy prosecutor in his novels, is based on Alice, "right down to the grey streaks in her hair."
The Vachss home is also guarded by a pack of potentially lethal dogs. These include a 110-lb. Rottweiler, Bruiser; until recently a "seeing-eye" German shepherd mastiff cross, Sheba (to whom Sacrifice is dedicated); and a Neapolitan Mastiff, Gussie—Pansy in the Burke books—which has been poison-proofed (it will only take food from him) and has been trained to respond to a series of reverse commands by which if the dog is told to sit someone will be torn apart. A year ago, Gussie ripped a chunk out of the thigh of a burglar who picked Vachss' flat. The police found the raw meat lying on the floor.
After spending several days with Vachss in New York, I had to conclude that Vachss walks it like he talks it. He looks like you might imagine Burke to look—and the author of Burke novels. He wears an eye-patch, the result of being hit in the eye with a chain in a playground project when he was seven. He grew up on the lower West Side of Manhattan in a "friendly working class area," the same neighborhood that spawned Scorsese's Mean Streets.
After skirmishes with the law as a teenager, and college, Vachss became a federal investigator tracking venereal disease. In 1965, in Chicago, one trail led him to an horrific case of child abuse which changed the focus of his life.
"I wasn't raised in a prep school," says Vachss. "I thought I had seen what life was. I had certainly seen kids abused. But it never occurred to me that people had sex with babies. I saw a baby's rectum dripping with gonorrhea, prolapsed, ripped out. After that, I tried to find ways of fighting child abuse. Remember, when I started out, people would even raise their eyebrows at incest. I became a probation officer, a social worker. I ran a maximum security prison for youths. But it wasn't until I realised that I was essentially powerless that I decided to go to law school."
In 1975, Vachss graduated, top of his class, from New England School of Law. So began a law career almost entirely devoted to prosecuting child abusers. So badly paid is his field of legal work, it was not until Vachss created Burke that he stopped moonlighting as a cab driver, a sideline that provided "perfect cover for some investigators." His first office was a booth in a Chinese restaurant where one of the waiters, doubling as his secretary, would answer the payphone—a familiar place to anyone who has read his thrillers. He has come a long way since those dime-pinching days.
Read any recent book on child abuse in America and Vachss' name features heavily. Take David Hechler's excellent The Battle and The Backlash. It devotes a chapter to a seminal case in 1986, in which Vachss and fellow attorney Melvin Borowka, representing Angela "Doe," an incest victim, made legal history by successfully suing her father for $350,000. Vachss is now a child-abuse celebrity.
Such has been the success of the Burke novels. Paramount Pictures recently paid Vachss $500,000 for the film rights to Blue Belle. Vachss has seen several scripted treatments, all disappointing. "Blue Belle is now about a karate match. It's not about child abuse. It's been turned into a chop-socky movie."
Apart from being labelled a fascist, sexist and racist—all bizarre claims when one reads his work carefully—Vachss has often been accused of inventing and exaggerating the cases of child abuse in his books.
"I do the opposite," he insists, pointing to his filing-cabinets. "If I just took my case-files and turned them into a novel, it would be rejected on the grounds of fantasy. I have cases where a girl was molested by her father, had a baby as a result and turned the baby back to the father to be abused."
His "day-job" (he writes early in the morning) has had its costs. Vachss has had his arms, ribs and hands broken. He admits his emotional nerve-ends have slowly been deadened over the years. "Sure I get depressed," he says. "But then I get angry and I'm back in the game." He receives death threats almost weekly.
As a result of the high-profile repercussions of his writing, Vachss has stopped the investigative side of his practice, working the streets from which all Burke's compadres—Max, the deaf-mute karate man, the Mole, the minuscule electronics wizard and Michelle, a transsexual—are drawn. "I'd be recognised in seconds with my eye patch," he says.
The day before I meet Vachss, Robert Harris, a murderer and product of child abuse, became the first man in 25 years to be executed in California. The previous evening's main news story in New York was the move by politicians to ban the sale of children's "swap cards" glamorising serial killers such as Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. In 1982, Vachss sat in for a DJ friend working for New York's "left wing" BAI radio station and proceeded to hold a phone-in debate on the death penalty. His friend was duly fired. Does Vachss still believe in the death penalty?
"We've learned all we have to learn about what happens to toxic waste dumps," he says. "They look real nice for a while. But you can't recycle human toxicity. What I want is incapacitation for life. Those who can't be rehabilitated, for whom the mould has set, they need to be buried in a tomb. Let them live out whatever their miserable life is without access to victims."
Vachss' sixth novel Sacrifice, featuring Burke, is again based on a real case. Luke, a 12-year-old, suffers from multiple personality disorder, a condition resulting from severe and protracted physical and mental abuse. Luke's personalities—one of which, the "Baby," kills babies—stem from his effort to seal off and "deny" the pain of prolonged sexual torture and satanic abuse.
"Let's say this table was covered in an electrified grid and you placed a rat on it," says Vachss, sweeping papers off his desk, attempting to show how multiple personality disorder arises in some cases. "What happens if I electrify the entire grid? The rat goes completely numb and then jumps right off, regardless of how high he has to jump. But kids who have a great intellect—and to have a multiple personality disorder requires a great intellect—they run away into their heads."
What I want is incapacitation for life. Those who can't be rehabilitated, for whom the mould has set, they need to be buried in a tomb.
To show his writing is drawn from real life, Vachss has arranged for me to sit in on a court case involving "Karen," a 36-year-old black woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder, whose real name cannot be revealed.
"She had tortured her children," explains Vachss. "She had taken one of her kids by the legs and split them apart like a wishbone. When confronted, she gave this bizarre story that she could smell the devil on the kid and she believed the kids were sexually active and that discipline was necessary." The Child Protection Services took Karen's children away from her. Vachss was hired to represent them. On examining Karen's case records, Vachss discovered signs that Karen might be suffering from multiple personality disorder. But it was almost impossible to stand up in court. Vachss got an expert on the disorder to hypnotise Karen. He asked her: "You have other people in there, don't you?" To which Karen said, smiling: "Do you want to meet the monster?"
"All of a sudden," recalls Vachss, "it was like a cartoon movie. Her veins came out on her neck, muscles popped on her forearm. She started to bust the place up. When she had switched to this personality before, she'd stabbed a guy in the heart. She once took an iron and branded a woman. She's thrown people downstairs. She hung one of her kids out the window.
"You can't get such a personality without having been chronically, severely abused as a child. So I have always operated out of two things—my need to protect the children and the great amount of sympathy I felt for her. The ironic part is that she hates me. She believes that I'm the devil and I'm one who's caused all her problems. She has no idea that I tried to get her treatment. I sued the county to get the money, $400,000 a year, to send her to the only in-patient programme in the United States for violent multiples. She lasted about two weeks before busting out of the programme."
At a previous hearing, Karen switched personalities when Vachss cross-examined her. "Stress is the most common stimulus to the switch of personalities," he says. "She had to be held down by four guards. They used so much mace on her, she was dripping with the stuff. The physical power she can come up with when she's in that altered state—it's terrifying."
Vachss' objective is to permanently sever Karen's parental rights thereby freeing her children for adoption. She has not seen them for several years without an armed guard being present. There is a possibility that she could be reunited with them if she can voluntarily treat herself. "But to do so," says Vachss, "she has to believe that she needs treatment. By busting out of the only clinic that could help her, she has shown that she will never be able to voluntarily undergo treatment that will fuse her personalities and possibly lead to her being cured."
The next day, I meet Vachss at his Broadway office before driving to New Rochelle where Karen's case is about to be heard. As soon as I get in his car, Vachss asks me to lock the door. "Not that it makes much difference if some crack addict puts a gun to the window."
We cut through a deserted meat market at the edge of the West Village. Then we pull onto the "strip," a stretch of tarmac skirting the Hudson River. It's a drive-in sex market, a hustler's stroll, explains Vachss. "You drive through and pick up whatever you fancy."
In the early-morning drizzle, the streets appear empty of prostitutes. "We'll find some. I've never seen a whoreless New York," says Vachss. "You'd need to burn down City Hall for that." A few blocks from Port Authority station, a blonde girl, about 16, in hotpants and spangled boob tube, steps out of the shadows and wiggles her hips. She looks doped and has bruising on one thigh. "Poor little bitch," says Vachss. "She's more than likely been sent out to work by some low-class pimp who plays with coathangers."
A few hundred yards later, as we sweep down to the river, a girl dressed in black leather—"15 if she's a day"—totters over in heels in the now driving rain, wagging her tongue maniacally. "She probably just gives blow-jobs," says Vachss. "Maybe won't even get undressed. Some start out like that, thinking they can keep some dignity."
As we head uptown, Vachss tells me his next book will be about a multiple personality serial killer. Has he read Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, about a Manhattan yuppie serial killer? "I was asked to review it," says Vachss. "I bought a cheap slasher novel in Times Square and sent it back with Ellis's book to the publisher with a note saying 'What's the difference?' Ellis? He's just a psycho-social aberration, pandering to America's latest fad—serial killer chic. If he'd ever met one, looked at evil straight in the eye, he wouldn't write such crap."
We cut past Central Park and turn onto the Triboro Bridge, linking Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. A potholed slip road takes us on to Ward's Island and a stretch of wasteland which actually separates a hospital for the criminally insane and a toxic waste dump. "I tried a woman who went there," says a hushed Vachss. "One night, out of the blue, she tried to chop her son's head off with a hatchet. God knows how the kid lived."
Next stop, Hunt's Point—a huge meat market protected by a sheet-metal fence and razor wire. At one end of the deserted road that skirts it, we come across a junk-yard where three black men in their forties, "mothered vultures," scavenge listlessly for scraps. They are, Vachss says, "the human carrion of a society in which Darwinian principles have been compressed to their logical extreme." I feel like we're driving through the set of a Mad Max film. Vachss: "This is ground zero. Life don't get much worse than this."
We drive off with a picture of crushing poverty fading in the rear-view mirror. Vachss rubs his jaw in pain: "I need it reset. It's been broken twice, once by a two-by-four and another time by a tire-wrench." On our way to New Rochelle's family court, we pass the notorious Spofford Juvenile Detention Centre, a concrete maze of barbed wire and high walls, which holds children from eight to 16. In America, life-sentences start early.
At court in New Rochelle, Vachss checks with a security guard that the case has been "red-flagged," that precautions have been taken should Karen "go off." We move on to a bare attorney's office down the corridor from the courtroom. A young assistant DA introduces himself. Vachss lights a Barclay cigarette, ignoring the no-smoking sign. He's stubbed out a second on a window ledge by the time Karen's lawyer arrives. The lawyer's built like one of Vachss' dogs.
"Andy, we gotta talk," he says as he bustles in. "Last week, I saw a different Karen. She started banging on the door and then she accused me of selling her out ... She gotta keep some dignity. I've gotta call my witnesses—the pastor and others who'll testify that she's safe with children—make her feel she's got a chance."
"Sure. But we've spent years trying to give her a chance. Time's up," says Vachss, recommending that examination of Karen's past is kept to a minimum in case she "goes off." An hour later, the judge calls Vachss, Karen's lawyer and the assistant DA for a "conference" in her office. An agreement is thrashed out whereby Karen's lawyer gets to call her character witness in exchange for not contesting several of Vachss' key prosecution points.
Minutes later, we're ushered into court. Beneath the hum of air conditioning, her lawyer whispers assurances to Karen. When not passing him quickly scribbled notes, she glances around the court through dark sunglasses, avoiding Vachss' eye. Dressed in a turquoise dress that covers her overweight body like a tent, she sits slumped, her feet twitching below the table.
The first witness, a psychotherapist who has spent three years counseling Karen, is called. The psychotherapist is in a difficult position. She has grown close to Karen, who trusts her, views her as a friend. But her answers to Vachss' questions will undoubtedly make Karen feel she has been betrayed. Asked by the nervous assistant DA what percentage probability there is of Karen making a successful recovery, she suggest 10 percent: "There's a chance. I've seen miracles happen."
Minutes later, Vachss cross examines her. He cites psychiatric theory fluently, without notes, his carefully-posed questions cutting away at the psychotheraptist's ambiguity. Vachss intends to prove that Karen has no chance of regaining parental rights to her children. Finally, he chips away at her testimony until she concedes that her original guesstimate was unrealistic. There is virtually no chance, she agrees—less than one percent—that Karen can be cured if she is not willing to treat herself, which she is not.
No further witnesses are called. The judge sets a date for the final hearing of the case. As Karen leaves court, she tells her lawyer she will kill the psychotherapist. Back in the attorney's office, Karen's lawyer looks emotionally drained. "It's a terrible, tragic case," he sighs. "But at least her kids have got a chance of life."
Those who know Vachss professionally cannot recall a case he has lost. "I save more people a year than a surgeon," says Vachss. "At any one time, I'm handling 50 or 60 cases. For the kids' sake, I can't afford to lose one."
We drive back from the court in the early evening sunshine, through the South Bronx to Manhattan. I point out a mural covering the wall of a burnt-out building fronting streets more reminiscent of Beirut than the Big Apple. It's a celebration of black icons: Malcolm X, Spike Lee and Martin Luther King. Vachss smiles at the juxtaposition of urban desolation with a picture of activists whose fight seems to have been lost. "You know, liberals always have words for things. To them, graffiti vandals are ghetto expressionists. Probably think mugging is performance art."
Vachss drops me off in the Upper East Side. A neon sign flashes the time and temperature. Another violent day is drawing to a close: seven more homicides in New York, another baby killed by its parents in a city where radio news bulletins sound like dispatches from Vietnam: the body count just gets higher and higher.
"This city has lost. It's a give up. Anybody with any sense is making plans to leave," says Vachss before we shake hands and he returns to his fortified apartment. I notice a small heart tattooed above his knuckles.