Word is Out on the Children of the Secret
by Melinda Miller
Originally published in The Buffalo News, November 13, 1995
While suspense author Andrew Vachss was speaking after a librarians' luncheon in Rochester a few weeks ago, loud laughter and applause could be heard coming from the adjacent dining room. Obviously, the other crowd was having a pretty good time. The speaker must have come loaded with amusing anecdotes and witty observations, just what this kind of well-educated, civic-minded audience would expect to hear.
Meanwhile, Vachss describes his first experiences tracking down adults who sexually molest children. He didn't have a lot of amusing anecdotes. He told of fathers who defended their right to do whatever they wanted to their own kids, even if it killed them. He explains that he wants, with his vivid and graphic novels that dive into this netherworld, to make his readers aware enough, and mad enough, that they want to protect those he calls Children of the Secret.
His observations are intelligent and horrible.
Lucky for his audience, they had already had their lunch. And lucky for the children, there is an Andrew Vachss.
"If I wrote about the topics I write about and people weren't disturbed," Vachss says in a separate conversation, "obviously I'd be the most incompetent of writers. I want readers to be disturbed and angry and feeling like they should do something."
As authors go, Vachss (pronounced like it goes with "populi") is a heck of a lawyer. He lives in New York City and works exclusively representing children in cases of abuse of all kinds. Often he is appointed by the courts—the position is called "law guardian;" sometimes parents hire him when the abuser is someone else; rarely, he is hired by the victim, if he or she is a teen-ager.
Meanwhile, he has pumped out a shelf full of tremendously successfully suspense novels (he now commands six-figure advances and New Line Cinema is adapting his first book, "Flood"), featuring a unlicensed private detective named Burke. He hunts down the vermin who deal in child prostitution, snuff films, and black-market selling of children's organs.
Those books are how Vachss pays the bills—abused kids aren't known for their fat checkbooks—and that's how he sends out his call for help.
"I'm only about protecting the victims," Vachss says in a deep voice that rumbles with the force of his conviction. "I'm not about rehabilitation of perpetrators. What I want to do is incapacitate them."
That, more often than not, is what Burke does, too.
"I make no bones about it, he's not Raymond Chandler," Vachss says. Burke lives barely off the streets, his only steady companion is a 140-pound mastiff named Pansy. He was abandoned by his family, raised by the state, stuck in every kind of detention center and jail, and now works as an unlicensed, and unlicenseable, private detective.
"Burke is the prototypical abused child," Vachss says. "He's hypervigilant, he's distrustful, he's secretive, he's capable of enormous rage. Maybe to white bread America he's some sort of alien, but he's no alien. Take a look at our prison systems or our orphanages, and you'll see him."
Through two decades of legal work and another 10 years before that as a social worker, prison manager and federal investigator, Vachss has been up close and personal with what he talks about. He draws his strength from seeing the defenseless; he marshals that strength against the monsters.
"When I decided to go to law school it was out of a sense that I needed to be empowered in some way. Basically all the jobs I was doing, which were combat jobs, I saw what was happening to children and I saw that we could intervene in that. In the maximum security prison, kids who had killed somebody had been abused a decade before, but nobody had been there at all. And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be at ground zero."
Ground zero—that's the point of detonation. It's lonely there, and dangerous, even when, like Vachss, you live with three trained guard dogs—a mastiff, like Burke's Pansy, that probably outweighs the slightly built writer; a Rottweiler and a pit bull.
"I really do get threatened a lot," Vachss concedes, not blinking at all with the one eye you can see. His right eye is covered by a small satin patch, a concession to a childhood accident. His home, he says, wouldn't be safe to enter uninvited. And his animals make formidable companions when he meets unknown sources on unfamiliar territory.
Vachss never uses words like "seems," "probably," "might" or "maybe." He uses words like "creep," "freak," "animal," "moron" and "subhuman." He hears from them all.
"There's a relentlessness about them (pedophiles) that no other criminal has. They don't burn out, they don't rehabilitate, they don't change. I have letters from them that I promise you couldn't read. They display an almost satanic loyalty to the joys of molesting children. It's terrifying because you know nothing will impact them. So they're my mortal enemies. You can't run around and say you're a warrior and not expect people to try and hurt you."
And yes, he says, they do scare him.
"They just don't scare me enough. I was in court one day with a truly scary man who had hurt a lot of human beings, and he hurt this little child I was representing. He caught my eye and went phhfft like this," Vachss says, drawing his finger across his throat. "I had a rush of fear. What came to my rescue was I looked over at this little baby, who was living with him before the case started. I could be that brave.
"And your anger comes to your rescue, too. The evilness of these people makes you very, very angry."
And then he repeats the one small dream he allows himself.
"If I had a wish that could come true, let my books be fiction. That's it."
© 1995 The Buffalo News. All rights reserved.