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Andrew Vachss
Safe House Chat Transcript

Online chat at barnesandnoble.com, March 31, 1998.


On Tuesday, March 31st, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Andrew Vachss to discuss SAFE HOUSE.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us this evening, Mr. Vachss! We're pleased to have you. How are you tonight?

Andrew H Vachss: Fine.


Mary Kay Haupt from mhaupt@fullfeed.lse: No question, just a comment regarding the recent article in Parade magazine ... the insert about children being entitled to unconditional love and adults not being able to receive it, only give it. The revelation of that hit me like a bolt of lightning. After working with dysfunctional children and adults, I believe that Mr. Vachss is right and it all comes down to that. How many counselors does a child need? Maybe just one unconditional one ...

AV: Amen.

Reagan from Hampton, VA: Mr. Vachss, I know that in addition to writing novels, you are a lawyer fighting to protect our children. When do you find the time to write your novels? Secondly, do you think of yourself as a lawyer first and then an author? Which career is your calling?

AV: Writing is merely an organic extension of the work to which I devoted my life. It is a way of addressing a bigger jury than I ever find in a courthouse.


Greg Burns from Tampa, FL: I am very interested in your DBT (Don't Buy Thai) campaign. When did you start this organization and why? Why do you target Thailand specifically—isn't child prostition rampant in many Third World countries? Why do you believe Thailand has become the "safe harbor for predatory pedophiles from all over the world"?

AV: One: I didn't start DBT. Two: The answer to all of your questions can be found on the DBT web site. I suggest you visit my web site (www.vachss.com) and find the answers.


Katherine from New Orleans, LA: Do you ever see doing a final Burke novel? Killing him off, perhaps?

AV: Good question. The only truthful answer is I don't know, but maybe I will.


Ed Ciampa from Woburn, MA: Would you grant permission for the Middlesex County Deputy Sheriff's Association to reprint, for our quarterly newsletter, the article that appeared in the March 29 Parade magazine, "Our Endangered Species"? It is, in our opinion, the most concise and accurate assessment of today's most important problem. We have also been requested to ask permission for the National Association of Italian American Police Officers to reprint the same article. Thank you very much. If you have time, please email me at crestmotor@aol.com.

AV: I am honored by your request. You have my permission, provided that Parade also gives consent. Email: Larry_Smith@Parade.com


Jennifer from Dallas, TX: Will you be doing a book tour? If so, will you be coming to Dallas? I was at one of your readings in St. Paul several years ago and still feel very moved...and disturbed. I am a rookie web user and am so enraged by what I can find regarding child pornography. What can an individual do to help stop this abuse? Thank you so much for protecting the unprotected.

AV: One: yes, I am doing a monthlong book tour. Two: I am not stopping in Dallas, to my great reget. Three: The answer to this question is too complex for this forum. Please drop a question to the web site, and you will get a more complete response.


G. Novitsky from Tempe, AZ: I was touched by the piece in your web site about Vachss, the therapy dog you donated to the Mississippi Children's Advocacy Center, who has accompanied some of the children who had to go to court. Where do you find a trained therapy dog? Did Vachss have to have special training for the court appearance? Did the court have to give special permission for him to accompany the children? Are therapy dogs beginning to protect kids in court appearances anywhere else?

AV: All dogs that accompany children to court do have to have special training. The judge does have to grant permission. The defense objected strenuously, but we prevailed, and it is our understanding that the use of therapy dogs in court is growing. I am one of the few men who is honored to have a dog named after me.


Maria from mlau@nacorp.net: Do you believe that some children may just be "hardwired" from the beginning to be evil?

AV: NO! I am glad you use the word "believe," because logic dictates exactly the opposite conclusion. There is no biogenetic code for "serial killer." John Wayne Gacey didn't have bad DNA. We make our own monsters, and we build our own beasts, and ignorance costs more than crime.


Karin from Charlottesville, VA: Why did you choose to write about stalkers in your new book, SAFE HOUSE? Did you draw from your experience as a lawyer?

AV: I drew from my experience as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, as a caseworker in New York City, as the director of a maximum-security prisonfor young offenders, and many other experiences. I only wish these books were "fiction."


Jeanne Marie Raley from Anaheim, CA: Hello, Mr. Vachss. My name is Jeanne. I am a 17-year-old rape victim. You are one of my idols. I want to be like you, a lawyer, for the kids. I live in Fullerton, California.

AV: The greatest heroes on this planet are those who have been abused and not only refuse to immitate their oppressors but become warriors on behalf of their victims. You have my highest respect, and I look forward to seeing you on the front lines with us.


Burkeskid from CT: Hi, Andrew. As a survivor of childhood abuse I sometimes feel "kicked in the gut" by the realism of Burke's reactions, thoughts, etc. Is he based on someone you've known through your work, or is he totally fictional?

AV: There is nothing fictional about Burke except those parts of his persona necessary to sustain narrative force. In fact, I believe you already know that.


Roger from Detroit, MI: Any plans to turn over your characters to other authors, possibly as an anthology? Joe Lansdale seems like an obvious candidate.

AV: Joe Lansdale is my brother. His work is unique to him, and you must be prescient, becuase he and I have been talking about writing a book together.


David Hechler from Larchmont, NY: At the end of SAFE HOUSE, there is no mention of Burke's payment. He is owed $100,000, one of the larger scores of his career. His expenses have also been considerable. He isn't one to forget to collect—nor are you one to forget to tell us. Is Burke going pro bono or what?

AV: You are probably the only reader in America that will catch that, but it was deliberate. There was a special reason for Burke doing what he did, and I believe that you, having read the book, already know it.


John Seryak from Wadsworth, OH: Andrew, two comments please. You are familiar with my book, DEAR TEACHER, IF YOU ONLY KNEW!: ADULTS RECOVERING FROM CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE SPEAK TO EDUCATORS. I believe teachers could be a valuable resource for any community's organizations helping children: children's services, police, and family courts. Can you comment on the possible role of teachers with these organizations? And I was not surprised to hear that one of boys who did the shooting in Arkansas had sexually molested a younger sibling. I believe he must have some prior abuse experience to act out in such a rageful manner—any thoughts? Enjoying your book, SAFE HOUSE.

AV: Teachers are on the front line of the only "holy war" worthy of the name. Every other culture except ours reveres teachers. Other nations call them gurus; we call them underpaid. As was obvious from the response in your own book, teachers can be the conduit to turn the child's pain from potential ruin to self-healing, and when they use their position to molest children they are toxic waste.


Lori from Orange County, CA: I am a teacher for "high-risk" kids of high school age, and social service does not help at all. What can I do to get these kids into safe environments? I am not a typical teacher. I work with morals and values, then, when they are "healthy," I begin the academics. Fifteen years of this, and I still love working with these kids. Thank you for being out there...I need to not feel alone in this battle.

AV: I salute you as another soldier in the only war worth fighting, and I would not disrespect your quesion with a sound-bite answer. Please drop a quesion to my web site so the topic can be discussed more fully.


David Hechler from Larchmont, NY: In SAFE HOUSE, you write about the series of arsons that destroyed black churches across the South. Burke speculates that several early fires were set by Nazis/skinheads/white supremacists, and that many that followed were copycat crimes. Is this what you believe? If so, why? And why do you believe so few of the perpetrators have been apprehended?

AV: I don't operate off beliefs. I have sources of information that range from convicts to cops, and if you examine the history of my books you will see the proof. When I wrote about predatory pedophiles trafficking in kiddie-porn over modems in 1987, book reviewers said I had a sick imagination. Is anyone sill saying that about kiddie-porn over the Internet?


Carol Rea from Escondido, CA: Mr. Vachss, I'm a new fan and have only read BLOSSOM and some of your articles so far. You alluded to the homicidal triad in BLOSSOM; is it your belief that abuse is a more significant indicator for a serial killer than bedwetting, fire play, and cruelty to animals? (In my job with a fire department, I provide intervention for kids who play with fire and am seeing abuse to be a significant factor for many of them. I strongly believe that fire departments can provide the early intervention that many of these kids need, and I look forward to anything you can share or may have written in this regard.)

AV: What I have written to this regard is written in the books you haven't read yet. But the "triad" and prior abuse of the child who engages in such conduct tend not to be separate. I agree with you, I believe the fire department has a significant role to play in early intervention with potential monsters.


Annie from Illinois: Dear Mr. Vachss: My sisters, brother, and I are writing a book about our childhood. The question of libel has come up. Should we use real names or fictional names? How have you addressed this in your writing? There has been abandonment in addition to sexual and physical abuse in our past. I would like to use first names only. What do you think?

AV: I think that you should consult an attorney that specializes in this area, and if you don't you are taking a very foolish risk. Best of luck with you book.


Barlia Ben-Shalom from Phoenix, AZ: Since the law requires education and/or training for most professions, purportedly for the safety of the public, why does the law not require prerequisites for parenting? A manicurist, doctor, and lawyer have to be licensed, and yet our society insists that parenting is a right. What about the responsibility prior to conception? This is a failure of the law to our children and to our society. Clearly, there are humans not qualified to be parents. The ramifications of this position are volatile, controversial, and would require lengthy research and debate. Thank you for your dedication to children. May your numbers increase in protecting our children.

AV: The prediction of behavior is not a science. I do not believe parenthood should require a license, but I do believe a license should be revoked when the conduct so merits.


Jeanette from Phoenix, AZ: Mr. Vachss, I was so touched by your article in Parade yesterday. As a survivor of sexual abuse (4-12 years old) and as a clean and sober adult, I wept for myself and all of the children who are being hurt each and every moment. (Can you tell me how to get angry when the perpetrator is your father, you know, the love/hate thing? I also read your interview with Oprah.) I don't know how to really get angry at him. I am angry at what he did, confronted him as an adult, and figure it's done...I don't and never have known how to get angry except at myself through what you called "celebration of the theft," by spending my life trying to self-destruct with drugs.

AV: I can't give you a generic answer about how to get angry. Those kind of answers belong on trash talk shows. You need to speak to someone who will see you as an individual and give you the tools which you personaly need. I wish you the best of fortune with it.


Jeanne Raley from Anaheim, CA: My question was: How do I become as great a person as you? I want to help kids who are like me. I also want rapists to stay in prison longer than they do. My father will get eight years maximum for what he did to me. It is just the same as killing, only it is killing the innocence of a nine-year-old girl. That is my story, anyway. I am still going to court for this, and this is the second time through the process. It would be over if one of the jurors hadn't gotten jealous. Her jealousy made it not possible to get the "hard part" over with. She wanted to be foreman and someone else got to be, so she decided to punish the other jurors for it by voting the opposite of what they voted. She also punished me by that decision. If 11 "guilty" to 1 "not guilty" can free someone from this crime, then should the opposite jail him for the crime? The justice system is not fair. I don't know how it is in any other state, because I have never been out of California. I hope it is fair everywhere else, because it is a crime to let someone like that back out onto the streets. Can you help change the laws out here? It would mean so much to me if someone could do that, because no one listens to me since I am not 18 years old yet. For taking your time to read this I thank you very much. Sincerely, Jeanne Marie Raley. Age:17 Birthday: 3-7-81. P.S. Please respond, it would mean so much to me.

AV: You already are like me, full of justifiable rage and a great desire to protect children form predators. What you need to do now is to learn the skills to make the rage work.


Kelly from New York: There is a movement to try and ban all corporal punishment of children in the United States, as has been done in other countries such as Denmark and Norway and, I think, Italy. Do you think this will happen? Will it be a good thing?

AV: I do not think it will happen. Too many Americans love corporal punishment. In one of my books I describe the tapes that have children being punished for the sexual gratification of the viewer.


Bracken from Connecticut: Given the recent attention surrounding the new cinematic adaptation of Nabokov's LOLITA and the controversy surrounding the proposed return of Roman Polanski to America, how do you think Hollywood is going to respond (or has responded) to a faithful adaptation of FLOOD for the screen?

AV: There is no such thing as Hollywood. Disney allowed a convicted pedophile to direct the movie "Powder," and if Roman Polanski returns, he will return to prison. I don't know how loyal he will be but, I have personal trust in the producer Lloyd Segan.


Maria from Syracuse, NY: Hi, Mr. Vachss. I first learned about you and your work in this past Sunday's Parade article, "Our Endangered Species." It was riveting, powerful, and moving. My question is simple to the point of being embarassing. What advice do you give to the average citizen for volunteering in their community to help children who have been abused? My goal this year is to simplify my life and devote my time and energies to the cause of children. Your article has lit the fire underneath me, and I thank you.

AV: Thank you, but I do not have a generic answer. It depends on what services your community offers and how hospitable they are to volunteers. Why not visit our web site and post something on our message board so others with similar experience can give you some advice?


Jon Cecka from Richmond, VA: What do you do for fun?

AV: Just about what you think, and nothing I care to describe in detail in public.


Leora LaGraffe from West Point, NY: Mr. Vachss, do abusers ever realize what they've done is wrong, or the amount of pain they have caused? Do they ever feel any guilt?

AV: "Abuser" is too broad a term. If you mean people who beat their kids, the answer is, sometimes they certainly do. If you mean predatory pedophiles, they have no more guilt than a vulture eating carrion, and less value.


Jenn from Manchester, NH: I hate to admit to my ignorance, but I had never heard of you prior to reading your recent article in Parade. I was quite relieved to find out that I am not alone in my fear for the future of our children. I found your web site and its many links, but my question to you is this: How do we turn organizations, noble ideas, and the desperate need for change into real change? This may be too broad a question for this forum, but I couldn't resist. Thank you, and thank you for doing the work that you do.

AV: Thank you, and the reason I write books is so I can attempt to do just whht I suggested. It is the only way I can speak to so many people in so many languages at the same time. Other people have their own methods, and the contest will be decided in my opinion in the next three generations.


Brady from Falls Church, VA: Mr. Vachss, I have really enjoyed reading your books and am looking forward to starting SAFE HOUSE. Each time I read your work, I feel like I have taken a trip into the underbelly of the crime world. I am most curious—how do you write your dialogue (it seems to so accurately convey the voice and thoughts of criminals)? Does your experience as a lawyer help you constuct the sights and sounds of the street?

AV: My experience as a federal investigator of sexually tranmitted diseases, running a maxium-security prison for violent youths, working as a labor organizer, making a living gambling, driving a cab, and more than I can fit on this page. As a lawyer, most of what I learned is how sleazy other lawyers are. The truth is, lawyers don't learn anything.


Gato from Moorhead, MN: This may seem a shallow question, but you said recently in a radio interview that you were close to a decision on bringing Burke to the big screen. Any news on that front?

AV: Sure. Hollywood keeps buying what I write but they never make them I have never not had a book under contract, but I have yet to see a move. Allegedly, this is the year!


Michele Jones from Norman, Ok: I have a niece who has been to hell and back in her life—most of it caused by her immediate family, a bit of it brought on by herself in acting/lashing out (and some by the fact that she has always been smarter than her parents). She's 17 now, a mother of a six-month-old boy, saying she's old enough to be on her own. We've been quite close in the past, but now she's pushing me away. That's her choice, and I wouldn't take that away from her. Considering her background, though, there is still much healing to be done before she's "whole" and mentally healthy. What approaches have you seen be effective to help someone who is no longer a child but did indeed lose their childhood due to abuse?

AV: The most effective approach is to send a clear, consistent message that you will help if asked.


Pam from Wilmington: Do you have a favorite among your books?

AV: yes. My beloved orphan, SHELLA.


Elise from San Antonio, TX: Who are your literary influences? Whom are you currently reading?

AV: I won't stigmatize any writer by calling him my writer. For my favorites, go to the web site (www.vachss.com); enter The Zero 4.6, click on Works of Art, and then click on Righteous Reading.


Graham from Boston, MA: SAFE HOUSE is your 11th novel...I have read all of your others...keep writing!! Have you started working on your next book? If so, is Burke involved, and what is the basic plot?

AV: I have not started working on a new book. I have to wait until the anger and a specific theme coalesce, as they did in SAFE HOUSE.


Antoinette from California: SHELLA is one of my favorite love stories. Will you ever do another book with Ghost as a main character?

AV: I have really thought about that, and by the way, I really appreciate your recongnizing it as a love story, becuase that is what it was. I am not sure whether Ghost's journey isn't over.


Donne from Brockton, MA: SAFE HOUSE was excellent, by the way. Since you focused a great deal on spousal/partner abuse in this book, what's your opinion on why some abuse victims are reluctant or even unwilling to at least get their children out of a violent household? It's something I see in my work, and unfortunately, it's not always due to a lack of resources.

AV: If you understand "domestic violence" as a euphemism for terrrorism, the answer become more clear. Not all people have what it takes to attempt an escape, they have to be rescued.


Moderator: Thank you once again for spending your evening online with us, Mr. Andrew Vachss. And thank you to all who asked such pertinent questions. Mr. Vachss, any final remarks before we go?

AV: I apologize to the several hundred people who did not get their questions answered tonight. I wish we had more time, but the response was so unprecedented that I can not answer them all. I hope you will direct your questions to my web site (www.vachss.com), and I promise all of them will be given the attention that they deserve. Thank you for your patience, and stay strong.



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