Andrew Vachss - In The Trenches
By Art Taylor
Early in my phone interview with Andrew Vachss, when I prefaced a hard-edged question by saying "Let me play devil's advocate for a moment," he stopped me politely but firmly with the comment, "The devil doesn't need any advocates."
Vachss should know.
In addition to being a highly respected, best-selling author focusing on child abuse and sexual offense, Vachss has worked in the trenches in the war against such criminals. He's been a social caseworker, a labor organizer and the director of a maximum security prison for youthful offenders. As a federal investigator into sexually transmitted diseases, he had the chilling experience of tracing a "syphilis chain" to an infant girl. Now a New York attorney specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse, he remains a provocative and controversial activist. Take, for example, his representation of the fetus in the precedent-setting "Baby B" case from the late '80s: The mother-to-be had established a history of abusing her children (six of her seven kids had already been taken from her); accepting Vachss' argument that her next child would also be in danger, the court ordered her to surrender the baby at birth. On an international scale, he more recently co-founded "Don't! Buy! Thai!" in order to protest child prostitution in Bangkok; representatives of the Thai government have protested the boycott. [Note: The boycott ended 12/20/00. For the complete story, click here.]
Working at ground zero has given Vachss a first-hand view of crimes against children, and his gritty, ugly and ultimately compelling novels have proven not only as provocative as his legal work but, unfortunately, as correct in their assessment of the criminal landscape. "When I wrote about predatory pedophiles trading kiddie porn over modems [in Strega] in 1987, book reviewers were unanimous in telling me what a sick, fevered, crazy imagination I had. I knew it because we saw it; I wasn't forecasting anything ... I wrote about trafficking in human organs [in 1988's Blue Belle], and I got the same thing from book reviewers. My very first book [1985's Flood, recently back in print from Vintage Books] was about pedophiles deliberately getting jobs in day-care centers to molest kids." He protests those critics who've dismissed his novels with the admonition, "What I'm writing about just defies the imagination," by saying, "Well, maybe their imagination, but that imagination is the camouflage the predators use."
With his latest novel, Safe House (Knopf, $24), Vachss is "trying to warn you of the consequences of treating stalking as anything other than terrorism ... And people will listen or they won't."
Reaching people about such issues seems to be Vachss' raison d'étre—and certainly the reason for his novels: Though Vachss' 1979 textbook about juveniles got "wonderful reviews," he explained that "I never touched the public with it ... My novels are in two dozen languages. I could never be talking to people in Japan or Germany or France or Sweden with a textbook."
The success of the novels, in turn, has helped made Vachss a highly sought-after spokesperson on child abuse topics and given him an even wider audience. He has a website—www.vachss.com—which offers information, contacts and resources to people interested in these issues; he has appeared on Oprah; he is also a contributing editor for Parade magazine, and, as he says, "Nobody's ever written a book that's sold as many copies as one week's Parade."
His most recent cover essay for Parade—March 29's "Our Endangered Species"—proposed that society's inability to protect and preserve its own "poses a greater threat than war, poverty, hunger, crime, racism and tribalism—even of the genocidal variety—combined." He wrote with regard to non-human mammals that "predators within a species are not tolerated. They are banished, avoided or killed. These are not moral judgments; they are biologically driven and, among all species but our own, compelling," and later concluded his essay stressing that with regard to pedophiles and predators among us, "we must replicate the conduct of our animal ancestors and respond as they did—or fail to do so and vanish as some of them did. Forever."
In our phone interview, Vachss explained that the response to that article had been extraordinary. "The web site in the 30 hours following midnight of that day got over 50,000 hits. The feedback has ranged, literally, from 'This is the most important article anyone ever wrote' to 'This is the foulest, most disgusting piece of trash and it's worse than pornography.' I get black-and-white and I'm kind of used to that."
But though he has faith in the rehabilitative prospects of some child abusers, he is firm in his opinion of the worst offenders: "For the chronic, recidivistic, predatory pedophile, I absolutely consider them to be radioactive waste and the best we can do is bury it."
In this regard, Vachss had some strong comments about North Carolina's new Internet registry, publishing the names, addresses and photos of registered sex offenders and child abductors: "What those notification laws really mean is the government saying to its citizens 'We're now going to release somebody we never should have released but instead of protecting you, instead of keeping him in prison, we're going to let you know he's in your community.' The real question is not whether there should be community notification, the real question is why should there be the necessity for it. I don't understand why the people who are on that website are free."
His words here and elsewhere are blunt, clear and striking. At one point during our conversation, Vachss called himself a soldier, and his comments have the feel of one who believes in and is loyal to a cause above and beyond himself.
In the same vein, references to "the battle" and "the war" punctuate his imagery, and almost by extension, the world he presents seems a war zone. One wonders how the good soldier continues fighting, facing the horrors he sees as a regular part of his work, handling the trauma which such an experience may induce. His response to the query was pointed and poignant:
"The sense of satisfaction, of literal joy you get from saving a child's life cannot be duplicated by driving your BMW to the country club to play golf. Everyone says, 'How can you look at this horrible stuff?' My only response is 'How can you not look at it? How the hell can you just push the button on your remote and say a child's not being violated?' Maybe my nerve endings are cauterized, maybe I am shock-proof at this point, but there's no greater joy than protecting our young and making the people who prey on them pay. I'm more than compensated."
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