Best-Selling Novelist Also a Lawyer Who Fights Child Abuse
by Michael Heaton, Plain Dealer Reporter
Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 6, 2003
Hate, not love, drives Andrew Vachss. The best-selling novelist is insistent on this.
"I always tell people I don't love kids," says Vachss, who is childless. "I hate their predators. It's a burning hatred I feel to this day."
On tour now promoting his latest novel, "The Getaway Man," Vachss is unique in the literary world. He uses the profits from his series, starring the renegade investigator known as Burke, to help float legal work for abused children. Vachss is a lawyer who takes child-abuse cases exclusively.
The new book is still a crime novel, but it departs in several ways.
"It's a departure in that its outside my Burke series," he said. "It's a departure in that it's a paperback original and that it costs 10 bucks. These are economically sensitive times for a lot of people. I didn't want to put out a book that costs $30. But aside from that, the book's themes are consistent with my other work. It's about disaffected people trying to find some common bond."
Vachss (sounds like Vax) will sign books at Joseph-Beth Booksellers tonight, but the visit will be more than a promotional stop for the novelist, who was born and raised in New York.
Vachss is a 1965 graduate of Case Western Reserve University. He gives extraordinary credit to the school for making him the person he is today.
"My high school years were like a big blob of gray Jell-O. Even when I was there, I wasn't there. Then I met a counselor from what was then called Western Reserve University, and he sold me on myself. He set me on fire with the possibilities of my own potential," said Vachss.
This is not to say that Vachss was transformed instantly into a model student. He spent more time in card games and pool halls, and on the carpet in the dean's office for vandalism and fighting, than he did on the honor roll. His grades ran the gamut from A's to F's. People from the college repeatedly came to his aid so he could continue his studies.
"It wasn't just that these people didn't want me to fail academically. More importantly, they didn't want me to fail as a person," he said. "The kept finding new opportunities for me, they made exceptions for me. They let me take graduate courses as a sophomore. When I quit school and got married, they found money for me to come back and finish."
While at college, Vachss found another life-changing opportunity through the university's placement department. He got a job as a federal investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service, tracking the spread of venereal disease. He traveled from Akron to Canton to Cuyahoga Falls to East Liverpool to Steubenville, encountering firsthand, and for the first time, what he calls "the beast"—adults who prey on children.
"I was doing epidemiology, and I saw babies with gonorrhea. I have been infused with a hatred of child molesters ever since. I knew I would fight child abuse from then on," he said.
Vachss has no system for dividing his time between legal work and writing. He simply alternates the work as it presents itself. He finds both occupations rewarding. On the legal side, he emphasizes saving children rather than putting predators behind bars.
"These are the only legal cases where if you lose, the victim goes home with the perpetrator. The idea of pedophilia is a defense attorney's dream. I don't call it a sickness. I call it evil. Once you call it evil, you are obligated to fight it. People think they have to understand something if it's a sickness. Sociopaths laugh at our attempts to 'understand' them," he said.
The good news, he said, is that the public is finally aware of the problem. Thirty years ago, no newspaper in the country would tackle the subject.
"Journalism is the most powerful force of social change in this country," he said. "You can't change a problem unless you know it exists. The bad news is that most politicians have only a rhetorical commitment to fighting child abuse."
Vachss said he's looking forward to visiting Cleveland after a long time away.
"It's a great city. I always loved it," he said. "As a working-class person, I have a certain appreciation for it."
© 2003 The Plain Dealer.