If We Will Not Protect Children, We Can Not Protect Our Human Race!
An Interview with Andrew Vachss
Originally published in CHANCES, August 2003
Chances: What made you decide to study law? Did you enjoy your studies?
Vachss: I had no intellectual desire to study law. What I wanted was a hunting license. After working as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a caseworker for the infamous New York City Department of Welfare, an assignment inside the war zone during the Biafra rebellion (the country is now called Nigeria), brief stints (in various parts of the country) as a juvenile probation officer, running an "outreach" center for displaced persons, directing a community advocacy organization, a "re-entry" center for recently-released prisoners, and, finally, running a maximum-security prison for "aggressive-violent" youth, I was left with two conclusions: (1) Every evil on this planet has its genesis in the maltreatment of children; and (2) If I wanted to effect real, lasting change, I would have to directly intervene at the earliest possible point. I did not want to be an employee of an agency—I had already tried that, in many areas—because I wanted the outcome of my cases to depend on my skill and dedication, not on some bureaucratic "policy." I also wanted to change the law itself, and you need to study what you intend to fight. Thus, I found my studies both very boring and a vital necessity.
Chances: Before studying law, did you have a different perception of constitutional legality and justice than you have today? In which way have you gained experiences or have become more disillusioned?
Vachss: My "studies" consisted of learning sufficient material to pass examinations. My perceptions of justice and legality—those are not synonyms—were not effected by school, because my life experiences prior to studying, from childhood forward, had taught me the truth. And nothing I have learned or experienced since has altered my view.
Chances: Would you mind telling our readers what a typical day in the life of Andrew Vachss looks like (if there is such a thing)?
Vachss: I have no typical day. My life is triage. The phone rings, the fax machine shudders, my computer screen blinks, the mail is delivered, the office doorbell rings ... and everything may change at that moment. One day I am in court, trying a case; another, conducting an investigation, or doing a consultation, delivering a speech, or writing a book or an article. Often, these things occur within the same day. There is no set pattern, and never has been. I cannot even tell you were I will be next week, much less what I will be doing.
Chances: Do you get pleasure from your work as an attorney - and if yes, from what especially and what makes you doubt your job sometimes?
Vachss: My work is combat. The pleasure of winning any one case fades quickly, because I know there will be another fight almost immediately, and there is no permanent, final victory possible. The enemy changes its face, its name, its address ... but never its motivation. I don't doubt my job, because my job is me, and I do not doubt—although I constantly question—myself. I believe if the earth is no different from you having walked on it, there was no point to your life.
Chances: You represent solely abused children. How did that come about?
Vachss: I represent solely children, not necessarily abused children. I also represent children who have been accused of crimes, children who are the subject of custody or visitation disputes between separated spouses, children to be adopted, etc. This did not "come about." It was no accident, or fortuitous circumstance. I went to law school specifically for this purpose, and this is all I ever intended to do once I was admitted to practice. Because such work pays so poorly, I did other legal services—mostly, criminal defense—for years. But since the publication of my first book, the income from that source has allowed me to confine my legal practice to children, and I have done so for the past fifteen or so years.
Chances: Please tell us how you see your work: How much of your time do you invest in the representation of abused children and how much in the prohibition of violent acts?
Vachss: I cannot apportion my time as you suggest. And, in truth, the successful representation of an abused child is the prohibition of (future) violent acts. That is the foundation stone to all I have tried to build. If by prohibition of violent acts you mean interdicting crime, that too is a constant, and is inextricably intertwined with all else I do, since the crimes I fight are crimes against children.
Chances: You are also a successful writer and you attempt through your novels to sensitise society to the subject of child abuse. To what extent can you say that you are successful in doing so?
Vachss: It is never a question if I am successful. I am one of many. A soldier, not a general. There have been cosmic changes in child protective work since I first began—changes in law, changes in policy, changes in public perception—but they came about as a result of collective effort. Any attempt to extract my personal, individual contribution would be an exercise in narcissism. While I treasure every letter which tells me my work has made a difference in someone's life, I always understand that my work—legal and literary—exists in a context of a united effort. For example, The Zero receives many thousands of visitors a day, from all over the world, and is an invaluable tool for expanding our mission. But that massive website could not exist with the work of many dedicated individuals, all of whom are volunteers. The Zero, Germany is another remarkable, all-volunteer effort, by those who believe as we do: Behavior is the truth. There are those who volunteer to do research on cases, to do investigations, to work with our clients, to write new legislation ... the list if endless, and the achievements enormous. Is all this "my" work? No. It is our work.
Chances: For those of our readers who are not familiar with your work as an author: Please tell us about the background of your literary figure Burke.
Vachss: Burke is the prototypical abused child: distrustful, hyper-vigilant, by turns frightened and violently angry, and intensely bonded to his "family of choice." [In Burke's world, DNA does not make a man a brother or a woman a sister—you are what you do.] He is not a Chandler-esque "White Knight." Burke, (no first name: his birth certificate says "Baby Boy Burke," as he was abandoned by his prostitute mother, and his father is unknown), was raised in brutality: orphanages, foster homes, and juvenile prisons. He is an unlicensed investigator who lives "under the radar," a career criminal, who has done two terms in prison. He is a mercenary, who would describe his trade as "violence for money." His two redeeming features are his unconditional, total love for his "family of choice," and his unremitting hatred for those who hurt children ... as he himself was hurt.
Chances: Who is responsible when children are abused: each individual as part of society, politicians, or exclusively the offenders?
Vachss: All of the above. We are the only species that tolerates predators of our own kind. Politicians are not "public servants" unless we make them serve. Unless and until the protection of children becomes our first priority, we will all continue to suffer the consequences. No person is "born bad". There is no bio-genetic code for serial killer, or rapist, or predatory pedophile. We make our own monsters, and we build our own beasts. If we are serious about crime prevention, we must first invest in child protection.
Chances: There are different types of abuse of children and it is, as you say, much more widespread than assumed. Why do you think this paradox exists, that child abuse is outlawed in our society like hardly anything else, but in reality so little is being done to protect children?
Vachss: Despite pious political rhetoric, children are still perceived as the property of their "owners" (much as wives were, in earlier years). The illustrative paradigm is child sexual abuse. If a stranger sexually assaults a child, the consensus is that he is an evil beast, who must be isolated from society. But if a parent does the exact same acts, this is called "family dysfunction," and the offender is considered to be "sick" and in need of "treatment." We have a society where an offender is more likely to go to prison for shoplifting than he is for incest. And a world where a pocketful of drugs will bring more serious criminal consequences than a truckload of child pornography. All over the world, children are chattel. They are bought, sold, rented, forced to labor in mines, serve as soldiers. Even their organs are "harvested." The issue goes beyond morals and ethics to long-term survival. If we will not protect children, we cannot protect our human race.
Chances: Apart from brutal violence and sexual abuse, children are often abused emotionally. It is known that the majority of abuse happens inside of the family. Is there any advice you can give a young person who has had to endure and carry such abuse with them inside?
Vachss: I wrote a seminal, endlessly-quoted essay on that very subject, speaking directly to victims of emotional abuse. It is too lengthy to reproduce here, but it is available here.
Chances: How should we behave if our best friend confesses something like this but makes us promise not to tell anyone?
Vachss: Which is your greater obligation: to the (adult) perpetrator or to the victimized child? If you prefer, you could treat your friend's disclosure as a "cry for help," and get him the best therapy and legal counsel you can afford ... or help him locate those on his own. But you must act to protect the child. Whatever your friend is doing must stop, and if you allow some ridiculous notion of "friendship" to enable the abuse of a child, you are equally guilty.
Chances: Finally, a personal question: Is it possible to be happy at all when confronted with so much agony in life and every day?
Vachss: I don't know if it is possible to be "happy" confronting the evil of child abuse. But to not confront it guarantees a lifetime of unhappiness. Because how can there be happiness without self-respect?
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