At Home With ... Andrew Vachss
By Annia Ciezadlo
Originally published in Shout magazine, January, 2000
He is not known for pleasantries. You won't get any small talk out of him, and "I feel your pain" just might not be in his vocabulary. The man with the smoker's voice and the eyepatch writes the kind of prose the critics call "hardboiled." He writes novels that get child abuse, sexual slavery of children and stalking on the national agenda as it has never been before.
Vachss threw the considerable weight of his celebrity behind the National Child Protection Act of 1993, and now he is campaigning to get Congress to pass another law that would protect children. He has published 13 novels, many of which are best-sellers, two books of short stories and one book of essays. He gets letters from all over the world and his books have been translated into dozens of languages. Three of his novels were optioned by New Line Cinema, and this fall he launched a publishing company, Red 71. Yet, as a lawyer who represents the legal interests of children in court, Vachss operates in a world where Hollywood options, royalties and handshakes with the President mean nothing. For the work that Vachss does and for the work he's dedicated his life to, all that matters is what you do and whether or not it works.
"The points of his compass are not determined by his feelings about things, but by his logic about things," says his longtime friend James Colbert, a writer and professor who collaborated with Vachss on Cross: Genesis, an as-yet-unpublished novel. "I think it's a bargain he's struck with himself. I don't know that you could do what he does and have a huge emotional investment. He once told me, 'If I go into court on behalf of a particular child and lose, I'm condemning that child to be a P.0.W. I can't lose. It's not even part of my equation.' "'
Vachss puts it in terms of results. "Look," he says, and then sighs impatiently. "Behavior is the truth. It's the only truth. Conduct is all that counts. America's like a big talk show. Everybody gets up, shrieks and screams, has their moment. Goes away. I would feel humiliated if I said X is the most important thing in the world to me, and then I was done."
He is scathing on the topic of people who do not share his singular focus, even if they say they share his goals. "The bottom line is, people run for elected office," explains Vachss. "And here's the problem: the people who care about kids tend to be the people who also care about trees and whales and the evils of cigarette smoking and organic fiber. You name me one person who actually says they care about kids who doesn't have a whole laundry list of other concerns."
If only they had focus, says Vachss, they could do for the rights of children what the NRA has done for gun owners. "The people who care about kids are not focused. They are not a single-issue constituency—unlike the people who care about, say, guns. Or the people who care about, say, not allowing abortion. Those people are hyper-focused. Those people represent a deliverable bloc of votes with which any politician can be threatened. No politician is threatened by the child protective constituency, because it does not exist."
This lack of focus, says Vachss, is the reason why child-welfare caseworkers are still "the garbage can of social services," and why being a foster parent pays less than working in McDonald's. It's why people who sexually molest their own children—or "grow their own victims," as he puts it—are still rewarded with lighter sentences than those who molest someone else's, a fact he is currently lobbying hard to change.
"Look, you might as well face the facts, okay? The people who know which states go easy on those who molest their own kids are the people who do it. That information is trafficked regularly in the pedophile underground. But the people who say 'Oh, kids are the most important thing in the world, oh I love kids, kids are the future, kids are our most precious natural resource,' have their little moment of rhetoric and that's all they're ever going to do."
To the people who know him, Vachss' caring is evident through his actions. "Love is behavior, love is not just some warm, fuzzy feeling," says Colbert. "Love is what you do to show that you hold some person in a particular esteem." Bob Riedel, a writer who volunteered to do legal proofreading for Vachss' legal practice, remembers him as "surly" but qualifies it with "he's a really nice guy," explaining how Vachss sent him a signed copy of his book Sacrifice and one of the last copies of Hard Looks, a comic book Vachss wrote. Enclosed was a note saying "I didn't want you not to have this."
Writer Zak Mucha remembers Vachss as the man who would send him "these wonderfully worded letters" that sustained him through countless rejection letters. "He was always very encouraging," says Mucha. "There was no reason for him to bother with this 18-year-old kid, but he always did." Vachss' publishing company, Red 71, put out Mucha's novel The Beggar's Shore last fall.
"The most emotional thing someone could do would be to invest themselves in something, to take a stand," says Mucha. "It's just a different bracket to put emotions in than most."
Annia Ciezadlo is an urban afairs reporter in New York City.
She covers labor, criminal justice and neighborhood news for City Limits magazine.
© 2000 Shout Magazine.