Alexander Laurence Interviews: Andrew Vachss
Originally posted at The Bone Palace, Spring 2001
Andrew Vachss is an internationally renowned author who has been translated into many languages. He has written several novels, most of them published by Random House and Vintage, including Blue Belle, Down In The Zero, and most recently, Footsteps of The Hawk. Most of which feature the strange character, Burke. Vachss has also recently published a book with DC Comics, Batman: The Ultimate Evil.
He lives in New York City where he practices law, specializing in child abuse cases.
Alexander Laurence: You must get a lot of letters from your readers? What have those been like?
Andrew Vachss: I get thousands of letters. These range from "You've saved my life" to "I'd like to take yours." I've gotten letters from serial killers, and bizarre crazed stalkers who decide that we are going to be together in this life or the next. Most of the letters I get aren't weird at all.
They're from people in the victim/predator food chain.
AL: In the new book Footsteps of The Hawk, there is quite a lot about corruption in boxing. Is this your critique of the problems with today's boxing rules?
AV: It's intended to be. You can see that the book was absolutely prescient. The book talks about building up absolute stiffs with strong looking records so that their skin color can get them a fight and being easily defeated without any risks to the so-called champion.
AL: How do you think we can regulate boxing properly? Do you think that boxing was any better controlled in the 1940s and 1950s?
AV: I don't think things will change because as long as the public continues to get sucker punched and as long as they continue to pay fifty bucks to watch a person like Mike Tyson beat up a tomato can, why would it change? The only thing that will change it is dollars. The boycott is the traditional civil rights weapon and it's no less applicable to boxing. I wouldn't pay fifteen cents to see these fights. In the 1940s there was regulation by the mob. Some people would actually argue that it was better. I'm not going to take a position that organized crime is the salvation for any of our problems. The proliferation of cable TV has created a demand for product. So you can see a title fight any night of the week. The other thing that has changed is that there is no boxing commission. There's one for every sport except boxing. There's no centralized control. You can be knocked out cold in 25 straight fights and some states will still license you.
AL: There a sense in your books that everyone is having a moral crisis. How do you think that we are going to remedy this in practical terms?
AV: I'm not that sort of pontificator. Every one of these problems has the same remedy, which there is an enemy and you fight it. A lot of the young people I speak to all over the world—I don't care if it's Oslo or Melbourne, or Brooklyn, it's the same thing—they actually want to be in a war. I don't mean that they want to get guns and kill people. I mean that they want to fight for something. It's really unclear to them what there is to fight about, so you get a certain amount of energy expended in nonsense. There are legitimate enemies. I think that it's human nature to seek balance, safety, and peace, and to be willing to go to war to find it.
What we have is the lack of balance but we don't have the war.
AL: You have dealt with many serial killers, child molesters, and criminals. What do you think of the idea that the prisons create career criminals?
AV: It's a good place to learn crime without question. But it's simplistic to say that the prisons are responsible. The prisons still have to get their product from some place, and they do get it essentially from the maltreatment of children. There's no bio-genetic code for a serial killer. If you bred Ted Bundy and Squeaky Fromme you wouldn't get a mass murderer. You'd get whatever was raised. That's what we seem to have forgotten completely. The maternal instinct that people used to talk about we have almost devolved past.
If you look at the most awesome animal of the jungle, the elephant, nothing can bother it. But a baby elephant without its mother is food. So animals have figured out a long time ago, that if they don't protect their own, they won't survive as a species. Let me give you another example. Why did the dinosaurs vanish from the earth?
AL: There are several theories about that ...
AV: Right. There's only one truth though. That is because they are lizards and they don't protect their young. And eventually we, people, evolved and we figured out that we can kill them in the egg. And we did it! We killed them and they didn't adapt and survive. Other animals which protected their young survived. Sharks survived because we couldn't get to them.
We are not going to survive forever if we keep maltreating our children.
AL: Child abuse has been there from the start?
AV: Since there has been children which is forever. That's the point. We are just looking at it now and saying "Oh my God, look at all this child abuse that has just started ..." There's no evidence to support that view, and all the evidence supports the contrary, which is that children have been perceived as the property of their parents to do as they wish.
AL: How did you get involved with representing children in sexual abuse cases?
AV: I was an investigator for the federal government in sexually transmitted diseases. My job was what you're doing now except I'd ask different questions. My questions to you would be: "Well, you got syphilis, pal, and I need to know all the people that you have been with sexually within the hot zone." And then find those people, and ask them the same questions. Right?
To try to break the chain at some point. At the time, I thought that I was a pretty tough kid. I was happy working in whore houses, juke joints, and gambling dens, and having myself a fine old time. I never realized that people had sex with babies. And when I realized that, and I realized that by—I was going to say a "man" but not a man—a male sitting as close to me as you are now, sort of giggling about how he ripped his child's rectum out to have fun, I thought that I saw the devil. But it wasn't the devil at all. As a matter of fact, it was not an atypical attitude, although the method was extreme. Since then that is what I have done whether it was the war in Biafra or running a maximum security prison. When I went to law school it was to exclusively to represent children and that's what I've done ever since.
AL: Do you consider yourself a participant in what you write?
AV: This isn't Raymond Chandler. This is what I do. The books are an organic extension of what I do, and I wish only that the books were fiction.
AL: What is your interest in prostitutes?
AV: Where do you get a prostitute from? Do you think that it's a career choice? If you go out on a stroll tonight and talk to some working girls, how many do you think will have not come from abusive childhoods? Do you think that they were reading counseling catalogues?
AL: Maybe 20%.
AV: I doubt that. You might if you go way up the ladder. If you go up to Heidi Fliess type stuff you may find women who for their own reasons made that as their career choice, but if you find these little girls who are walking around the corner, giving their money to a pimp, if you think that was a career choice, you must be crazy. They're simply continuing a cycle and playing out a script that was written for them when they were children. And that's my interest as you put it, I'm sure. The self-concept of such people is profoundly damaged by their prior lives, and they're exploited at every step in their lives, and it's not anything resembling a glamorous profession.
AL: No. Some of them delude themselves into thinking so.
AV: Of course. And some kids who are having sex with their fathers delude themselves into thinking it's an affair, too. The capacity to self-delude is part of the capacity to survive.
AL: Do you believe in the absolute innocence of children?
AV: I don't think that children are absolutely innocent as some type of religious concept. I do think that they are entitled fundamentally not to be abused and the fact that they're powerless to protect themselves is why intervention is required. So there's the absolute. You don't have any right to have sex with a baby, that you don't have any right to beat a baby, torture or hurt a baby for your own amusement.
There are the absolutes, whether they are absolutely innocent or not. What I see is the abuse of children and its consequences, and that's what I write about.
AL: What sort of influence do you want to have on your readers?
AV: I want them to be angry. If they are not angry then the book has failed. It's not more complicated than that.
An avid fan of Vachss' has constructed a well-done archive of information, further interviews, and reviews which can be found here [see: History of The Zero]. His books are highly recommended, as are those of his wife, attorney Alice Vachss.
Together, they are a remarkable duo, and inspire many.